12:48 am EDT, July 23, 2017

I survived Pokémon Go Fest: It was basically Fyre Festival for nerds

What could go wrong with 20,000 people playing Pokémon Go in one place, right!?

As someone who has played Pokémon Go religiously every day since it launched a year ago, I was so pumped to learn that Pokémon Go Fest was happening in Chicago. While a lot of people joke that “no one plays Pokémon Go” anymore, the fact is that there is a very, very enthusiastic and dedicated fan base that plays very often (myself included).

So what happened at Pokémon Go Fest in Chicago? Here’s my harrowing tale.

My friend and I arrived at Grant Park in Chicago Saturday morning at 10 a.m. Once there, we couldn’t believe the line. The line was literally thousands of people long and snaked endlessly for three city blocks. Realizing that we were going to be in line for hours, we decided to go get brunch nearby in hopes that the line would eventually get smaller and we wouldn’t have to wait as long. Unfortunately, it took us 35 minutes to find the end of the line. Here’s a video I took of what looks like a regular crowd but is in fact the endless, snaking, 20,000-person line.

Eventually the line was slightly shorter, and we snaked and swiveled for an hour before we got inside the gates.

While we were in line, Niantic CEO John Hanke was welcomed to the main stage to uproarious boos and jeers. Many people who were already inside were chanting “we can’t play.” Check out this video of the moment he was “welcomed” to the stage:

And the festival goers were right. Once we entered the gates, it was a complete disaster.

We ended up getting inside around 1:30 p.m. There were close to 20,000 people within Grant Park. However, because of the dense amount of people in one place there was basically no cellular service to play Pokémon Go. In the rare chance that you were able to get through the loading screen and into the game, you had about 30 seconds to do something before the game either a) crashed, b) froze, c) glitched or d) all of the above.

What made this experience all the more excruciating is that it seemed that people using Verizon or the two sponsor carriers (Sprint and T-Mobile) were able to access the game longer and actually catch rare Pokémon. I, personally, use AT&T, and had way less luck. So, imagine finally getting into this festival, excited to catch the rare Pokémon, only to hear people yell “There’s an Unown by the fountain!” while you stare at a load screen for the 29th minute in a row. It’s like you want to be happy for people catching the region exclusive Heracross but also if I can’t have fun THEN NO ONE ELSE SHOULD EITHER!

A few hours into 20,000 people being frustrated with their horrible service and basically giving up on the festival, there was another announcement on the main stage. CEO John Hanke returned to the stage and announced that everyone would be receiving full refunds (a whopping $20), and $100 worth of Pokécoins (the in-app currency). And while, yes, this is a great way to respond to 20,000 people showing up to Pokémon Go Fest only to be disappointed, for some it just wasn’t enough. People have come from all over the world, paid hundreds (or thousands) of dollars in flights, hotel and travel, only to have their event be a huge disappointment. And coming from New York City, I have to add my name to that list, unfortunately.

Hanke eventually added a few more perks to the disappointment, letting fans know that the rare Pokémon that most people were there to catch would be spawning at higher rates and throughout the city of Chicago. The idea is that dispersing the crowd through Chicago would allow servers to start functioning correctly and give people a chance to actually login and play.

Hanke also announced something pretty incredible. All players who checked in to Pokémon Go Fest in Chicago would be awarded the Legendary Pokémon Lugia to their account! When this was announced you could hear screams and cheers of excitement near the main stage.

After we realized the festival was pointless, we ended up exploring the beautiful parks surrounding Grant Park as well as several city blocks nearby due to Niantic’s expansion of the Pokémon spawn rates.

At around 7:30 p.m. even more excitement: Lugia and the Generation One Legendary Articuno were appearing as level five raid bosses all over Grant Park and the surrounding city blocks. There are reports that these two Legendaries also appeared in Las Vegas. I am happy to report I was able to successfully battle Lugia in a raid and captured not one but two!

Here is a pic of me standing in a median on Michigan Avenue in Chicago with my Lugia (don’t worry I was totally safe!).

And though it wasn’t Niantic’s intention, several hundred, if not thousands of fans and I spent the rest of the evening running around Chicago hunting Unowns, Heracrosses and any other rare Pokémon that we could get. There was something actually really fun about this. We were all so disappointed and frustrated with the event itself earlier in the day, by the time the night had fallen, many of us were high-fiving and cheering each other on with the Legendary Pokémon that did appear.

Here is the official statement from Niantic about the day’s events:

“Today at Pokémon GO Fest in Chicago, technical issues created problems for a large number of players attending the event. From everyone at Niantic, we apologize to all of the Trainers who came out to Pokémon GO Fest today. Although we were able to solve many of the technical issues, we were not able to offer every attendee a great experience.
Niantic is taking the following steps immediately:

All registered attendees will soon receive an email with instructions on how to receive a full refund for the cost of their ticket. These instructions will be sent to the email addresses associated with your Pokémon GO account.

All registered attendees will receive $100 in PokéCoins in their Pokémon GO account.

Special Pokémon, Eggs, and check-in PokéStops appearing during Pokémon GO Fest have had their range increased to a two mile radius surrounding Grant Park through Monday morning, July 24. These Pokémon and Eggs will only be visible to Pokémon GO Fest attendees who validated the QR code they received when they entered Pokémon GO Fest. Attendees who were unable to validate their QR code during the event can do so through the special PokéStops through Monday morning.

All registered attendees will have the Legendary Pokémon, Lugia, added to their account.

We appreciate the patience of all the Trainers who joined us in Chicago this weekend. We will strive to make sure our experiences are of the highest quality going forward.”

It’s too bad the festival itself will be known as somewhat of a disaster. Despite the technical issues during the day, Niantic did a great job of pivoting and putting out the fire as best as they could with the resources they had. Ultimately I will end up with $100 worth of coins, a refund of my admission, a very rare Pokémon, and a great “I was there” story for next year’s Pokémon Go Fest, which, yes, I will be attending!

Were you at Pokémon Go Fest in Chicago? Leave your comments or experiences in the comments below!

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