Pikachu was bouncing up and down, weeping with joy.
The bright yellow, red-cheeked Pokémon mascot had just acted as an accomplice in a marriage proposal, distracting 19-year-old Avery Ogle, while her boyfriend, 24-year-old Braden Sawyer, got down on one knee and asked if she would be his Player Two for life.
Standing in a private spot at the Pokémon World Championships, dressed in a rainbow outfit embodying one of her favorite Pokémon, a balloon-type character called Jigglypuff, Ogle said yes. Coincidentally, she had also planned to propose to Sawyer during the event, which brought an estimated 7,000 to 9,000 people to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center this past weekend. After Sawyer surprised Ogle with an opal ring, she dug into a backpack where she’d been hiding gifts for him: an engagement ring and small Pikachu doll wearing a tuxedo.
Newly engaged, Sawyer and Ogle pulled the life-size Pikachu in for a three-way embrace. The character — and the cheery Japanese anime world it inhabits — has been a constant source of glee in their relationship.
The couple met at an anime convention in Salt Lake City three years ago and bonded over their love of Pokémon. Back then, Pokémon Go, the augmented-reality smartphone game, was just starting to captivate players around the world (while also leading to injuries, robberies and security flaws). Sawyer and Ogle still play Pokémon Go — or PoGo, as its fans call it — and often bake treats for fellow players in their local community on special days when rare Pokémon are released in droves.
PoGo is just a small piece of the Pokémon enthusiasm that still burns as bright as a dragon’s fiery breath and has the magnetic power to bond strangers, neighbors, friends, even lovers. The championship weekend was like a Comic-Con mixed with the Super Bowl — a whirlwind of casual-to-extreme fandom for this clan of fictional characters and the very real joy they inspire.
Pokémon Co. International says PoGo has 1 billion downloads since its inception three years ago (though the company won’t say how many are active). There’s also the Pokémon card game, which has been around for over 20 years; more than two dozen Nintendo video games; a cartoon television show that started airing in the late 1990s and is in its 22nd season; and more than 20 animated films, plus the recent live-action film “Detective Pikachu.”
At the annual world championships, held in a different city each year, approximately 1,500 players as young as 5 years old from nearly 50 countries competed in the card- and video-game championships for a combined $500,000 in prize money. To qualify, hundreds of thousands of players had to battle it out in various regional competitions.
The world championship matches are intense. Some last more than an hour in front of thousands of spectators cheering them on and even more watching via live stream. The top competitors play onstage, wearing headsets to cancel out the noise around them, as their every move is dissected by “casters,” video-game sportscasters giving spirited play-by-play narration.
Walking through the convention hall, you can hear Italian, Spanish, French, English, Japanese. But everyone has one language in common. A former card competitor recalls a time he played a matchup with someone whose cards were in Japanese. Because they both knew what powers every character possessed and what each could accomplish when paired with certain special effects, no dictionary or interpreter was necessary.
Inside the convention hall, red-and-white searchlights dance overhead, making the ceiling look as if Poké balls, which players use in the game to catch the various characters, are bouncing on the ceiling. Characters are emblazoned on banners throughout the hall — look, there’s a Slowpoke! There’s a nervous Psyduck with his hands pressed against the side of his head. A furry, adaptable Eevee. A muscle-bound Machamp. A snoozy Snorlax. Twenty-somethings lean down to get on the same eye level with 7-year-olds as they trade characters during a PoGo scavenger hunt. Parents hover with snacks, making sure their kids get nourishment and bathroom breaks between rounds of card matches.
Some competitors place stuffed-animal Pokémon next to them for good luck. A young girl comes to a card match with a plushie Bellossom, a grass-type character resembling a hula dancer that can deploy solar power against its opponents. A grown man competes onstage with an Ampharos, an electric-type character that can beam light from space, by his side.
Ask anyone to name their favorite Pokémon, and they either know right away or caaaaaan’t pick just one. The characters may not be real, but for many here, they spark wonder or nostalgia — or they’re just cute. Cazzy Medley, a 23-year-old from Maryland who’s been playing the video games since childhood, loves Rockruff because he reminds her of her dog.
Even their weaknesses can seem relatable. Ogle loves Jigglypuff because the balloon character enjoys performing, even imperfectly. “It’s kind of inspiring that she keeps going even though people don’t always pay attention to her,” Ogle says on day two of the competition. Her other favorite character is Shaymin, a pink-and-green hedgehog who can dissolve toxins in the air. Shaymin “reminds me of that sweet spot in my childhood when Pokémon was all I did,” she adds while standing in line with Sawyer to play a demo of “Pokémon Sword” and “Pokémon Shield,” new Nintendo games being released this November.
For some, Pokémon knowledge has become their personal superpower. Jonathan Kilburn, a 25-year-old from Cincinnati, has extreme social anxiety, but Pokémon events “are the only place I feel no anxiety at all,” he says.
Because the Pokémon card and video games have been around for so long, fans can connect across generations. Back in Ohio, Kilburn started a Pokémon card league at his public library, which allows him to help younger players improve their game. At the championships, Medley bonded with a teenage girl whose first Pokémon video game is a remake of the first game Medley played as a child. “I felt like she was me,” Medley says.
When Austin Knowles was a college student in Pennsylvania, Pokémon gave him an opening to talk to Meredith Romano, a cute girl who lived down the hall. When he learned that she was into the video games, he asked if she wanted to go to a GameStop and buy a new one they were both excited about.
Almost seven years later, they’re still playing together — and they’re playing for keeps. On their most recent anniversary, Knowles, who’s a 25-year-old graphic designer, gave Romano, also 25, a pack of Pokémon cards as a gift, with a special card he’d designed in the middle of the pack. “When you play this card, a proposal will be made,” the card read, paired with an image of an engagement ring. “If you say yes, you will be affected by the status: Engaged.”
It was modeled off the game’s item cards, which make a Pokémon character stronger. Romano didn’t see it at first; the card blended in with the pack. But once Knowles pointed it out, and brought out a sparkling ring to match, she said yes.