Niantic held the first official community day in Chicago’s Grant Park last year, dubbed Pokémon GO Fest. Anyone who attended or read about the festival that day knows how disastrous the event turned out to be. Now Niantic is settling a lawsuit for over $1.5 million to reimburse Pokémon trainers for things like travel expenses and lodging.
Tickets were already refunded last year, and attendees were given $100 of in-game currency to make up for the many problems they faced, which mostly came down to both Niantic and various cell service providers’ connection issues and overloaded servers. But was the festival really so bad? I was there, and while I’m not surprised by the settlement and negative press, I still had a good time.
Problems aside, I’d like to take a moment to highlight how exciting and magical it really was to walk into Pokémon GO Fest. Pokémon paraphernalia and merchandise were everywhere. There were cosplayers walking all over the park. Three large tents with lounging areas were set up and themed for the three different teams (Instinct, Valor, and Mystic). The smell of street food was in the air, and my mouth watered at a passing funnel cake. Seasoned Pokémon GO players knew to carry an extra battery or two with them, but one young man I passed had six large batteries shaped like Poké Balls attached to his belt. He had come prepared. On the stage was a giant monitor with goals to track which types of Pokémon attendees had caught and what we had unlocked so far. As a lifelong Pokémaniac, if the connection issues hadn’t happened, that day would probably be one of the top five days of my life.
Pokémon GO Fest was marketed as a huge community day where rare Pokémon would spawn and attendees would receive exclusive in-game perks (including a trainer medal as well as a t-shirt for the player’s avatar, which my character may or may not still be wearing). In Chicago, tall gates were put up around Grant Park, and passing pedestrians looked on in awe as trainers waited in line for hours to be admitted. One ticket-less young boy sat on a bench outside the gates looking at the in-game exclusive PokéStops and hearing excited shouts of “An Unown spawned over here!” from the other side of the walls. Unown up until that point hadn’t ever been seen in-game, and unless you had a wristband and accompanying QR code, you couldn’t access any in-game festival-exclusive content. At $200 each for scalped wristbands, the boy would likely remain outside the gates for the rest of the day, or at least until scalpers were willing to take $20.
I walked into the festival bright-eyed and excited. A day of dreams and adventure awaited, after all. Niantic had set up some global catch goals, and I was determined to pull my weight. It became obvious pretty quickly, however, that my cell phone data did not share in my enthusiasm. Trainers were tasked with catching a certain number of Pokémon to unlock things for the entire world, yet attendees couldn’t even log into the game. That pretty much summarized the day: try to log in, fail, try again, fail, share a story with your neighbor about the good old days when you could log in.
I didn’t have to travel far to attend the event, but I met a young couple from Japan who had flown to Chicago just for this. I sympathized with their frustrations and I could understand how they might demand reparations for their time. We shared stories of when
Pokémon GO released and all the fun we had. The $100 of in-game currency players were awarded after the festival may have been enough to sate people like me who didn’t travel far, but $100 pales in comparison to, say, a flight from Japan plus hotel.
Niantic is still working hard to earn back the trust of its players almost a year later. Other Niantic-sponsored events around the world have since been successful in countries like Denmark, Germany, Spain, and France. They learned to spread out the event, buffer servers, and take other precautions to learn from Chicago’s mishaps. While I can understand the bad press and player frustrations, I would actually like to see a make-up event in Chicago now that Niantic has proven they can do it right.
Part of Pokémon GO Fest that wasn’t covered as thoroughly were the several days afterward. Niantic basically turned all of Chicago’s downtown into a Pokémon GO Fest Area with rare spawns and 2km eggs which spawned unusual Pokémon. Those two days were a blast, and I recall seeing other disgruntled attendees the next day having fun and walking around Chicago catching Heracross and Unown. We shared stories of our festival woes as we took down Lugia after Lugia. At one point, I watched an entire street get blocked off by trainers trying to get into an Articuno raid.
I still see people walking around catching the new Hoenn Pokémon on their phones in Chicago. Just today a crowd of 20 people stood outside my building catching Latios around lunch time. I think the trainers here, like myself, were more sad about Pokémon GO Fest than angry. Now that Niantic has had several successful events, maybe it’s time to return to Grant Park. Chicago is passionate about GO, and Niantic could redeem themselves and regain the trust of Chicago trainers with a new local event showing they’ve learned from their mistakes.