8 min read

Pokemon Travelogue: Origin Story

Going back to a kinder, gentler time called 2022...
Pokemon Travelogue: Origin Story

In the 3 month lull between our final regional tournament of the year and the World Championships in Hawaii, I’m going back to explore how this innocuous game turned into such an intense hobby. Because if you had asked me 10 years ago, “what role do you think Pokemon will play in your life?” I would have looked at you sideways. I was a bit too old to catch the first wave of the Pokemon fever, and I was too suspicious of what seemed like intense data harvesting when Pokemon Go dropped so I never got into that craze either. The sum total of the mental energy I have spent on Pokemon in the last 2 years vastly exceeds the amount I spent for the 40 years prior. It’s probably like 3 orders of magnitude more.

If you need evidence and/or haven’t been following the Pokemon Travelogue up to this point, the archive is here

So…how did we get here?

If we want to really go down the rabbit hole, it probably started with Christmas 2021 when Sarah & I bought the two oldest kids the Pokemon Battle Arena - what I now think of as the gateway drug. Most people who collect Pokemon cards never really get into the game itself, but Battle Arena provides 2 super basic decks and a scaffolded approach to learning the game. In full candor, those 2 decks are pretty dull. This, of course, makes sense because the Pokemon Company more than anything wants you to buy more cards, and if the game captures you then buy more cards is exactly what you will do. And we did.

But if I want to locate the real origin, it came a few months later. One random evening in March 2022, Tommy was digging around on the internet for a reason that remains lost to history when they discovered the world of competitive Pokemon tournaments. That night at dinner, the topic was broached. “There’s a Pokemon tournament in Germany next month. Can we go to it?”

And this was the “Sliding Doors” moment. There exists a world in which I simply said “no” or even a much gentler “sorry bud, I don’t think we can do that” and Pokemon just never became that big of a thing in our family.

If she'd never made this movie, would she have ever ended up on top of a mega beauty empire? The world will never know.

But we had moved to Europe only a few months earlier because we wanted to give the kids opportunities to explore their diverse interests, so instead, I said, “Where in Germany?” Tommy was unsure so went away to do a bit more research and reported back that it was in Frankfurt. They even found the dates, and when I looked at the calendar I realized that those dates coincided with a 3 day weekend from school, so I told Tommy, “Here’s the deal: I’ll get us there and make sure we have somewhere to sleep and food to eat. I know nothing about Pokemon tournaments, so you’ll need to figure all that out yourself.” They agreed, and within an hour I had us booked.

A week later came the next request: “Since we’re going to the tournament, can Nate & I compete?” And my response was essentially the same: “I have no idea what that even means. If you can figure out how to register to compete, then I’ll pay the entry fee.” And, again, they agreed.

With that, the die was cast. I figured I was getting into a fun weekend away with 2 of the kids. I had no idea where it would all lead…

Intro to a third tier city

A little known fact: Back in 2004, Frankfurt was the first city I ever set foot in on the European continent during a full day layover on the way to Beirut. I had spent some time in the UK, but as we learned in Liverpool, the UK is hardly Europe at all, so it was my first experience of European density, European transit, European post-war damage and reclamation, European cultural subsidies, etc. I found it all quite charming and fondly remember walking around, finding a small independent bookstore, buying artisan chocolates, and visiting an avant garde exhibition at an art museum.

Also this: Frankfurt is the worst city in Western Europe with a population greater than 500k people. It asks a profound chicken and egg question: after the war, did they rebuild Frankfurt to be dull & inaccessible in order to attract the insurance industry, or did the insurance industry find it a blank canvas that it could shape to its dull tastes? Finally, an internet rabbit hole that I feel no actual temptation to go down. German urbanism isn’t my favorite in the first place, but I’d still rate Frankfurt at the bottom of my list of all the German cities I’ve been to[1]. It was very clearly built in the age of automobile dreams, and it’s that much worse for it.

How we’re rolling

Frankfurt is a scant 3 hours on a train directly from Utrecht Centraal, so we were on the German ICE trains - still to this day, the best international train service in Europe. Not the fastest, but the most comfortable seats, the best dining, and the largest network served.

Did this establish a link in my psyche between Pokemon tournaments and enjoyable train journeys? Almost certainly. Did we, in fact, take the train to most of the tournaments this past season? No. No we did not.

Where we’re eating

When I let the kids know that I had booked the hotel, Nate let out an enthusiastic celebratory exclamation, “We’re going to a hotel! That means a breakfast buffet!” This was a child who had spent the previous 6 years living in a tropical paradise, eating at the breakfast buffets of 5 star resorts. I had to burst his bubble on this one…in fact, the affordable business hotel I had booked did not have any food service at all, which I have never experienced before or since in Germany. That meant we ended up eating breakfasts at the only gluten free option available at 7am: McDonalds.This was not great, though it wasn’t nearly as bad as the Stuttgart airport McDonalds. This one, at least, actually served breakfast.

So…breakfasts, pretty disappointing. Lunches - there were quite a few decent options at the venue, none of them memorable enough to deserve a writeup. Dinners: we managed to find both a taco place and a gluten free pizza place, the latter kicking off what seems to now be a bit of a tradition. It was, you know, fine. Nothing too exciting or noteworthy, befitting of my expectations of Frankfurt.

What we’re playing

In hindsight, all I know is this: Tommy signed up to play the card game, and Nate signed up to play the video game [2].

Also this: we had absolutely no idea what playing entailed. Tommy threw together a random deck of 60 cards, and when we arrived we learned that several of the cards were no longer legal to play & one of the cards that had been acquired from a friend at school was counterfeit. Oops. Tommy had no play mat, no damage counters, nothing. It was a steep learning curve.

Nate forgot that the Switch had a time limit on it, and in the middle of one of his matches got locked out of the game because the time limit expired.

Even among noobs, we were some serious noobs.

Oh, and did I mention that we thought this might be the kind of event where people cosplay, so both kids dressed in their Pokemon onesies for the first day of competition? Oh and also that it wasn’t the kind of event where people cosplay [3]?

Headed to our first ever tournament (evidence of McD's breakfast in hand)

But this is probably one of the reasons that the experience stuck with me, because in all of our unforced errors the people around us were unfailingly kind. Every person running the event patiently explained when one of the kids committed some sort of faux pas and also provided some follow up encouragement. Other card game players helped Tommy build a new deck to replace the cards that weren’t legal, even giving them some cards for free. SO MANY people complimented the kids on their onesies and offered enthusiastic high fives.

We had no idea what we were doing, but we were made to feel that we belonged. That’s a feeling that is hard to beat.

How we did

It all kind of depends on how you look at it… Let’s get the easy part out of the way first: both kids lost every match and finished last in their respective competitions. Tommy didn’t know what a Swiss style competition was & had only seen videos of online tournaments that were double elimination, so after their first 2 losses they thought they were out and missed their final 3 matches. Oops. But Tommy also made 2 friends…so, great?

In Nate’s videogame tournament, there were only 8 competitors, so Nate only played 3 matches anyway - including a first match against the girl who eventually won the whole competition.

But here’s the rub: this wasn’t any old competition. This was an International Championship, and at the Masters level it was still a HUGE competition - hundreds of players in the videogame tournament, nearly a thousand in the card game. It was the first in person tournament since COVID. It was a big deal.

As such, there are rules…and one of those rules during this particular [4] season was that the top 8 finishers at an International Championship would earn prize money, boxes of cards, and automatically qualify for the World Championship.

Consequently, one of the judges running the tournament approached us after the videogame juniors matches wrapped up to let us know that due to his 8th place finish - yes, out of 8 total competitors - Nate had qualified for Worlds and should go to the prize wall to pick up his booster boxes and Top 8 playmat.

At this point, all 3 of us broke out in hilarious laughter because, well, this was the most hilarious outcome possible. Nate lost every match & still earned - I kid you not - $500.

Still quite a flex to pull out an IC top 8 playmate. They don't have to know how you earned it.

Not missing a beat, Tommy pointed out, “Worlds is in London. That’s also a quick train ride away from us, so can we go?” And, with precedent now established, I agreed.

Next month: our first ever Pokemon World Championship.

  1. Judgment on Stuttgart withheld based on extremely limited exposure.
  2. A pattern that would be repeated 2 years later in London.
  3. At least, not at this one - which was largely a function of a lack of spectators due to COVID concerns. We have been at ICs since where there are spectators in costume. But by and large, it’s not a thing.
  4. Covid-impacted