With phones in hand, a herd of humans pummeled the damp grass of Chicago’s Grant Park. Despite the inviting green scenery and thump of peppy music, their eyes remained glued to their screens, which dictated their every movement. “Unown!” someone yelled, and heads snapped up. “Where?” yelled one kid as he broke into a sprint. A few others eagerly pursued.
In the early hours of Pokémon Go Fest, which took place this past Saturday, this joyful rush repeated itself a half-dozen times. Pokémon fans came from across the US and beyond to celebrate the anniversary of Niantic’s smashing success of a game, a global smartphone phenomenon that has drawn people of all ages, races, and genders together to bond over a common goal: collecting pokémon. There have been hundreds of these unofficial gatherings in the form of bar crawls, meetups, and parties since the game’s release, but Pokémon Go Fest was Niantic’s biggest gamble — a sold-out, day-long official event for up to 20,000 people. Fans came expecting the chance to capture rare pokémon and participate in activities, culminating in a challenge that would unleash some of the series’s legendary pokémon into the virtual wilds. But as connectivity problems and in-game crashes made Pokémon Go unplayable for attendees, the day spiraled into a large-scale echo of the game’s earliest problems.
Pokémon Go Fest kicked off at 10AM, but fans began to arrive in the early hours of the morning. Lines like two twin snakes wrapped around either side of the park’s entrance and trailed down the block. When the gates opened, the crowd stretched, yawned, and slowly trickled into the cordoned-off venue.
Inside the park, the festival was all-encompassing. Scattered across the lawn, still muddy from downpour the night before, were physical towers designed to look like pokéstops, in-game locations where players stock up on items. A collection of large monitors invited players to hook up their phones and broadcast their gym battles, while others displayed current stats on battles or top players. On the north end of the park stood three tents — one red, one blue, and one yellow — denoting the game’s teams: Valor, Instinct, and Mystic. Inside each tent were concessions, beanbags to flop down on, and, most importantly, dozens of tables outfitted with charging stations for mobile phones. From these three tents, guests had a view of the main stage, where the day’s announcements took place. The stage’s humongous speakers pumped the “uhn tiss uhn tiss” of generic techno into the growing crowds.
Jack Chasteen was one of the festival’s guests. An 18-year-old from the south suburbs of Chicago, he won his tickets through a raffle hosted at a local Sprint store. He’d made a pact with the girl in line next to him: because winners would receive two tickets, they vowed to share if either of them won. Her ticket was the lucky number. “We were both astonished and shaken,” he said. “I was shaking like I won.” He came alone the first day, but spent his morning meeting new players. Despite experiencing some minor technical problems with the app, he was cheerful. “The game's a bit wobbly. You get logged off. But I love the game anyways.”
Chasteen nostalgically compared the connection issues at Pokémon Go Fest to the early days of the game’s release, when the servers regularly crashed under the massive load of new players. “It's kind of like a friendly reminder of how it used to be,” he joked, “even though those weren't the best days.”
Kevin Diangkinay, too, traveled to the festival alone. His friends couldn’t get time off work, but he wasn’t concerned about flying solo. “With Pokémon Go, I feel a little more connected,” he said. “Everyone's here for the same goal.” Diangkinay said he snagged his ticket online when they first went on sale for $20, but he knows others who paid as much as $400 through scalpers. “I didn't want to say anything, but that's crazy. That's double my flight here.”
Why would anybody pay a 2,000 percent markup? “The FOMO is real,” said Diangkinay.
Three adult players sat inside the Team Instinct tent. Ranging from ages 38 to 61, the group traveled from Canada to attend the festival. They’ve all been playing since the game’s launch and were eager to get their hands on one of the legendary birds, mythical pokémon in the series. “Zapdos would be cool,” said Vicki Ghabban, as she gestured to the pokémon’s insignia emblazoned on the Team Instinct table. But technical issues were becoming more common, and the odds that they’d catch their pokémon seemed to diminish by the moment.
Nearby, a player yelled “Heracross here!” and a small group of runners quickly gelled into a mob, rolling toward a single goal. There was a rhythm to their movements as they flocked past, backpacks bouncing. But when they reached the spot, they all made the same disappointed frown, as if cued by an invisible maestro.
“Fix the game!”
“It's gone,” said one woman in disappointment moments later.
“We missed it?” asked a guy wistfully.
Another shook his head. “Damn, man.”
A second chance came soon, as a Heracross spawned on the north end of the park. But as a group of players tried to catch it, their accounts began to crash, easily losing more than two dozens catches. By the time the first challenge was about to start, just before 11AM, more players began having problems. As a perky onstage host talked about the events to come, a woman standing in the crowd with a stroller belted out “Fix the servers!” The chant was contagious, and more people joined in. As a promotional Pokémon Go video began to roll, parts of the crowd chanted in unison: “Fix the game.”
When Niantic CEO John Hanke took the stage shortly after, his welcome was a wave of boos. Hanke started his welcome speech, but stopped after just a few words, briefly hesitating before he continued on to talk about the weather picking up predictions of rain. “I know some of you guys have had trouble getting logged on this morning,” he said as the crowd continued to roar in anger. “I want to let you know we’re working with the cell companies, AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, trying to get that worked out. We’re working on the game server to get that worked out.
“So I want to ask you guys, please know we’ve got the whole Niantic team working against this, so please be patient with us, okay?” Hanke did his best to rally the crowd, calling out the families he’d seen at the event. But the atmosphere remained tense. A man’s voice boomed out above the rest: “Fix the game!”
“We’re working on that,” Hanke replied. The CEO again tried to pivot, acknowledging those who traveled. He encouraged all attendees to pace themselves for the long day. “This is a marathon, not a sprint,” he said.
Reactions to Hanke’s reception were mixed. After he left the stage, a group of players huddled together. “I do feel bad everyone started yelling at him,” said one player. “I don’t,” countered another, who pointed to the months of preparation Niantic had leading up to the event. “I can't even log in,” he concluded as he trekked away to the Valor tent.
Unfortunately for both players and Niantic, the problems were only just starting. Like so many others, by 11AM I was unable to get my game to work. The loading screen — a Tyranitar facing off against a group of pokémon — became a familiar sight on my phone. Even when I managed to log in, my game crashed the second I successfully captured a pokémon. When I circled around the park, players lurched hopelessly, as they struggled to log in or get their games to work properly. One woman shouted, “A grass thing! There’s another grass thing!” to her companion, and a girl nearby shook her phone. “Oh my god, work!” she said with irritation. The challenge plodded to an end, and players gathered around the main stage once more for the results.
There was a dissonance between Niantic’s cheerful onstage host and the crowd itself. As she eagerly asked, “How was that challenge?” she was met with a thunder of boos. It was painfully awkward to watch — Niantic employees tried to keep the situation under control, while players became ever more agitated. The crowd eventually dispersed from the stage, and one exasperated woman walked away shaking her head. “What a waste of our time,” she said.
The onstage presentations continued throughout the day, but they were drowned out by boos and chants of “We can’t play.” The main stage and the adjoining field became something of a comical town hall, a place where strangers gathered to air their grievances, inviting the frustrated applause of the crowd. “This is a failure!” yelled one guest. “This is a ripoff!” chimed in another.
Just past 12:30 in the afternoon, John Hanke sat onstage smiling and signing autographs. “Screw you, John!” yelled one man standing near the fences on the stage’s left. His name is TJ Kosek, and he’s a 22-year-old who traveled with his two sisters and father from Ohio.
"Five and a half hours to get here,” he said of their journey. The family arrived just after 7AM and waited more than three hours to get through the entrance. Inside the park, Kosek said he wasn’t able to play at all. “We were not given any kind of reason on what was happening,” he said. “It's been a shitty time.” Kosek didn’t know if he and his family would stick around much longer. “We'll see if [the game] starts loading by the next event [at 3PM]. If it doesn't, I don't know what we'll do. We might head out. It feels like a big ripoff. Tolls here, gas here, hotels, parking, none of that shit was cheap. Nor was paying for the tickets here, that wasn't cheap either.”
“We're all sharing the pain.”
Kosek’s story is a common one. Many players, especially families, traveled to be part of the festivities, and they were a mix of irritated, discouraged, and angry. Many suspected there will be refunds at some point (which was another popular chant during onstage presentations: “Refunds!”), but a $20 ticket hardly makes up for the cost of travel or hotels. Other players appeared to take the event’s failures in stride. Two men from Ohio, when asked about their experience, simply laughed. “We’ve been disappointed,” said Will Allen. But they found that the experience forged a strange sort of camaraderie. “We're all sharing the pain,” he said of the people he’d met so far. “We're not alone.”
Some players chose to stick out the day — they were already there, after all — but other people left in droves. As a line formed to exit the park, another line still existed outside to get in. Festivalgoers continued to filter in well into the afternoon. Many didn’t know about the disaster they were waiting to enter, while others heard rumblings about the festival’s problems. "I have been getting a bunch of tweets about people complaining about the connectivity,” said Will, an 11-year-old player who flew in from Atlanta.
He waited in line with his mom for more than an hour and a half in hopes of catching a legendary pokémon. Despite the widespread problems, he was hopeful that he would be able to play. “But I know that in here, they're trying to resolve the issue.”
Julian Florence, a 29-year-old Chicago native, didn’t hear a peep about the problems after an hour of waiting in line. "I was kind of expecting it, because there's so many people out here playing the game,” he said. “Of course there's gonna be some kind of server issues. I just hope the game works for me. Looking forward to getting in.”
Back inside the park, Niantic finally had some answers. The company’s CMO, Mike Quigley, told the crowd that they identified the problems as three-fold: one was on the cellphone network provider side, and two fell on the shoulders of Niantic. iPhone users were experiencing a crash bug, while players on all devices had authentication problems. Quigley repeated the news he delivered earlier to those who may have missed it: refunds would be provided, and players who successfully checked into the event with their assigned QR codes would be credited $100 in in-game pokécoins, the virtual currency that allows users to purchase pokéballs, revives, and more. "We know this is not the day we had all envisioned,” he said. The radius for capturing special pokémon was extended to two miles outside the park, and it would last through the weekend.
Niantic’s mea culpa calmed the crowd, at least a little. Instead of booing as Quigley exited the stage, one man yelled, “Thank you for trying!” As the crowd dispersed once more, an awkwardly on-the-nose song filtered out from the speakers. “Together we can make it ‘til the end,” the chorus repeated.
The hottest hours of the day passed, and news of refunds successfully spread throughout the crowds. The mood gradually found its equilibrium. Finley Horner, a 22-year-old from Minnesota, said the day’s problems were not entirely on Niantic. “I think between those [cellular network problems and the refunds], they're kind of doing all they can,” she said. “It's not like they can pay for everyone's travel expenses that they paid to come here. They can only do so much.” Horner described her day as better than anticipated. “I expected it to be a dumpster fire right off the bat,” she said. “I would describe this as a hot mess.”
Just before 5PM, Niantic was ready to call it. It was two hours earlier than expected, which was perhaps the biggest indicator that the event was officially a disaster. All press interviews with Hanke were first pushed, then canceled for the day. In a statement to our sister site Polygon, a spokesperson described the team as “horrified” by the day’s events and eager to learn from their mistakes. The big mystery challenge teased for the event, a chance to challenge Lugia in a raid battle, felt as though it played out much differently than intended. There wasn’t a big final event. Instead, everyone who had checked into the festival would get a Lugia in their account. Because Team Mystic collectively captured the most, Articuno was the first legendary bird to grace the game. The announcement was met with cheers, but players — despite being invited to remain in the park until 7PM — flooded through the gates and into the Chicago streets.
Niantic didn’t respond to additional questions about the festival for this article, but it promised more information on its site soon.
In the hours that followed, the area around Grant Park remained a hub for Pokémon Go players. Walking on the sidewalks, you were still likely to get stuck Red Rover-style in a group of players with their faces tilted toward their screens.
The game’s problems, albeit improved, persisted long into the night. Just before 10PM, a group of at least 30 players gathered on the sidewalk to wage a raid against Lugia. Again and again, they tried to compete. And again and again, the players sighed and scowled in disappointment as their screens froze.
Pokémon Go Fest ended they way Pokémon Go began: it was a mess, but in the heat of a summer evening, the biggest fans couldn’t quite bring themselves to quit. Dozens of players, their faces illuminated by loading screens, continued to tap dutifully on their phones.