Pokémon League Summer Training Tour 1999

   Pokémon has become a certifiable phenomenon. Four out of July's top five selling games were Pokémon titles (Snap, Pinball, Red, and Blue, respectively). The television show is the highest rated children's program, Wizard of the Coast's collectable card game dwarfs even their own Magic: the Gathering by comparison, and the translated manga is the number one comic. Any doubts that Nintendo could replicate the Pokémon phenomenon on these shores have been proved completely groundless: the franchise's popularity speaks for itself. But just how big is Pokémon? Hoping to get a better grasp of the scope and popularity of all things Pokémon, GIA Agent Andrew Vestal (that is, myself) stopped by the Dallas leg of the summer Pokémon tour to see the sights firsthand.

The Line
This line was the size of the mall

   The first thing I noticed upon arrival was the line. It was one of the longest lines I've ever seen for anything, and definitely the longest I've ever seen for a mall event. We (myself and some friends) were told by officials that there were four to five thousand people ahead of us - and we got in line at 11:00 AM, when the event ostensibly began! It wrapped around the entire first floor of the mall twice. And what was everyone waiting for? To register for one of the three tournaments and pick up a pile of Pokémon items. The tournaments were divided into three levels: the Pika Cup (Pokémon levels 15 to 20), the Poke Cup (Pokémon levels 50 to 55), and the Prime Cup (Pokémon level 100). Somewhat surprisingly, the Prime Cup filled up first; guess there's a lot of kids out there maxing out their Pokémon! All tournament registrants got a Pokémon sticker sheet, mini-poster, window decal, and tournament brochure.

 Gotta drive 'em all!
The Pokébeetle

   Pokémon paraphenelia was in full display. One of the infamous Pikabeetles (Pika 10) was on display, and a video in the back talked about the Pokémon games and phenomenon. Stations were set up where gamers could play Pokémon Snap, while staff at Nintendo's "Cable Club" were demonstrating Pokémon Pinball and Pokémon Yellow: Pikachu Edition. Team members played call and response with the crowd, one unsurprisingly well versed in all things Pokémon. I doubt that your random man on the street could pick Diglett's Cave out of a lineup of Game Boy shots. A large area was set aside for fans of the card game to collect, trade, and play against each other. Even the parts of the mall outside of the tournament had joined in the fun; the Warner Bros store had moved their Pokémon merchandise to the front lines, while Sam Goody was looping episodes of the TV show for the poor folks waiting in line. I pity the fool who decided to go window shopping this weekend; if you weren't there for Pokémon, you were likely in a special sort of hell.

Jeremy Hepworth, Team Nintendo

   We went up to the booth and met with head Team Nintendo member Jeremy Hepworth. We had a few questions for Jeremy about Pokémon and his experiences on the tour. First, we asked him how he got involved with the tour. Jeremy said he started off as a Gameplay Counselor ("yep, at the Nintendo Power Line"), and that he was recruited to work with Team Nintendo on the summer mall tours. The most important criteria? Working well with children, of course. After a crash course in media relations, he was ready to go. He worked on the Pokémon Trading Card Game tour before moving over to the Tournament tour; but if his eyeballs were about to pop out from sheer Pokémon exposure, they didn't show it. The size of the tour has been daunting (44,000 people showed up at the first Mall of America event, and over 10,000 were expected that day at the Parks), but the crew has taken it in stride. "We're bigger than Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, or N'Sync," he smiled. "In fact, you could put any two of those together, and we're still bigger than them."

 Pokémon Yellow

   Jeremy talked a little bit about the forthcoming Pokémon titles, but didn't really reveal anything we didn't already know. The forthcoming Pokémon Yellow for Game Boy Color was pushed heavily at the show. As is already known, the hero will have Pikachu from the very first of the game, and Pikachu will be present on the field map to respond to events. The game also has extended Game Boy Printer support. Each of the Pokémon in the Pokedex can be printed out; plus, special photo ops with Pikachu are scattered throughout the game. There will also be special Colosseums specifically designed for Yellow vs. Yellow battles. The N64 Pokémon Stadium is currently due in March 2000 and will come packaged with the GB transfer pak. Pokémon Silver and Gold sometime after that.

Kids trading

   What does Jeremy think has made Pokémon -- in all its forms -- so popular? "Trading, collectability, that all 150 are unique, the battling aspect." As if to illustrate the point, a gaggle of kids clutching Game Boys came screeching by. About this time, Jeremy had to run back to work, so we ended with the most important question of all: what's your favorite Pokémon? "Charizard," said Jeremy. "He's just so big and powerful. Although lately I'm becoming partial to Oddish -- he's like a beet with feet."

 James is really not this pale
Miles and James

   But what does the man -- or boy -- on the street think of Pokémon? To get the answer to this question, we stopped and chatted with a random Tournament attendee: Miles. Miles, a sixth grader, was at the Tournament with his best friend, James, and his mother. How did Miles find out about Pokémon? "From James," comes the answer. And how did James find out about it? James' dad worked overseas in Japan and brought back pictures and pamphlets about Pokémon. Both kids were well prepared for the U.S. launch and serve as something of Pokémon evangelists amongst their peers.

   So how do they play? Miles has the red version, while James has the blue. Miles estimates he's played the game six times, and between the two of them, that they've captured all of the Pokémon. Never in a single game, however; that's the summer project for the two of them. This resource sharing extends to other titles, too; Miles owns Pokémon Snap, while James has Pinball. Between the two of them, their collection is complete. Miles likes the game because the Pokémon are all different according to their various type (Grass, Fire, Psychic, etc); James is enthralled by beating the crud out of his enemies. As for their favorite Pokémon? Miles prefers Butterfree ("Cause he can put people to sleep") and Blastoise. James' favorite is Psyduck, but even Psyduck fans must admit their hero's shortcomings. For actual battle, MewTwo is his Pokémon of choice.

Rare foil-stamped cards

   As for the rest of the Pokémon phenomenon? Both boys are avid card players and came to the convention with boxes and binders in hand. They watch the cartoon every day they can, and are already bugging Miles' mom to take them to the movie. Mom offered her thoughts of the Pokémon phenomenon: it was a big part of Miles' day and he talks about it all the time. She watches the TV show sometimes and finds it enjoyable; at this point, she can even name some of them. She approves of the hobby, as it's relatively non-violent and the Pokémon are cute, but she only gives it another year before it starts to die out.

 Lots of people

   Perhaps the most telling quote of the convention came near the end of our interview with Miles's crew. "How much do you think you've spent so far on Pokémon?" I asked. "Probably ... about $200," she replied. "So far!" piped in Miles. Mom rolls her eyes, knowing the prophecy to be true. "Anything that's Pokémon, I try to get," he says. And with hundreds of thousands of Mileses all around the nation, Pokémon may be around for a while yet.

Mall Tour Photographs

Feature by Andrew Vestal, GIA
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