Pokemon Go Fest was an International Disaster

All photos by Christopher Demelo.

Pokemon Go Fest turned into a Pokemon No Fest in Chicago over the weekend.  With nearly 20,000 attendees from around the world, the July 22 Grant Park event was a colossal foul up that is already being described as the Fyrefest of video game events.

“That’s an 8 hour plane ride from Rio to Miami and another 3 hours from Miami to Chicago” said Miguel Carvalho, who trekked all the way from Brazil just for the event.

The Fest was organized by Pokemon Go developer Niantic, and it introduced the first legendary Pokemon to the game more than a year after its initial release. The problem is that few players were able to log in and play the actual game while at Grant Park. Organizers pinpointed three key factors for the snafu, the most obvious of which was the lack of bandwidth provided by the telecom companies on-site (At&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile). The spotty coverage led to fans booing Niantic CEO John Hanke off the stage, chanting “Fix the Game” as he left.


“There is also a crash bug issue and an authentication issue,” added Mike Quigley, the Chief Marketing Officer at Niantic.

Anyone coming to the event from outside of the U.S faced additional hurdles. Attendees that already had wristbands were able to go to Sprint stores in Chicago to get passes that granted entry to the park one hour early, allowing them to get in at 9am instead of 10am. The option was not available to international attendees, largely because the telecoms didn’t seem to take those fans into account. Similarly, Sprint and Boost Mobile had booths inside the park with in-game rewards for people who signed in, as well as rewards based on each player’s level in the game. The perks were only available to Americans, resulting in a dramatically worse experience for the fans who had traveled the farthest to be at the event (including those of us who made the trip from Canada).


The crux of the issue seems to be poor communication. In a video following the event, popular YouTuber Trainer Tips suggested that the network providers did not properly anticipate the demands of the event, stating that most of the companies failed to deliver adequate coverage even though Niantic had told them what to prepare for in terms of bandwidth. Trainer Tips disclosed that Niantic had flown him to Chicago and given him media credentials for the event, though he still had problems connecting to the game with his T-Mobile account. (The video linked above is not the video Trainer Tips was contracted to produce for Niantic.)

Fortunately, Niantic did make a good faith effort to appease the fans. Niantic decided to refund everyone’s wristband (wristbands started at $25, but got more expensive as resellers entered the market). The company is also giving out $100.00 USD in in-game currency to everyone that attended the event, which is confirmed through a QR code received from entering the park, and extended the proximity of the event to 2 miles beyond Grant Park, allowing people to catch the two legendary Pokemon (Lugia and Articuno) that were unlocked at the event, as well as Heracross (Regional Pokemon) and Unowns (That spell Chicago). Finally, everyone that was as the event was gifted a free Lugia as an apology for the foul up.


Though the rest of the world got access to Articuno and Lugia around the same time as Chicago, the catch rate was completely different. Players in Chicago had a 100% chance of catching legendaries as soon as they were in a Pokeball. Outside the city, the catch rate was 2%. The original intent was to have attendees battle Lugia before capture, but as a means of apology, Niantic decided that the gift was  the least it could do.

John Hanke appeasing the masses (Photo by Chris Demelo)
John Hanke appeasing the masses

John Hanke, meanwhile, earned some more good will as he sat on the side of the main stage for hours, signing memorabilia and talking with fans.

“It’s not like you are going to see Bobby Kotick apologizing for poor sales in Call of Duty,” said one of the fans waiting to speak to the CEO.

Rachel and George from Decatur, Illinois told me that Hanke was approachable and apologetic.


“We talked to him about the legendaries today and told him he’s doing a good job and to have fun. Even if the game is crapping out right now,” said George.

Hanke, for his part, was relatively optimistic despite everything that had happened.

“Absolutely,” said Hanke, when asked if he would do another Pokemon Go Fest. “It’s a learning curve and we hit some roadblocks, but we didn’t give up on it. We just have to do better next time.”

For now, that honesty – coupled with Niantic’s official apology – seems to have mitigated the fallout. However, the first Pokemon Go Fest was still a disaster for the people who were able to attend, and the next one will have to be better if the game wants to keep its most dedicated fans. A game like Pokemon Go is only as strong as its community. Despite the obsession, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be as forgiving the second time around.



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