CHICAGO — About 20,000 Pokémon Go players travelled from all corners of the world to Chicago’s Grant Park for a highly anticipated event on Saturday that quickly turned into a disaster.
The first-ever Pokémon Go Fest promised the hit game’s most diehard players the chance to catch extremely rare Pokémon throughout the day, including the long-awaited unveiling of ultra-powerful Legendaries.
But rampant server outages and poor cell service quickly turned the celebratory Poké-mecca into an experience so disappointing that the game’s owner, Niantic Labs, issued refunds and $US100 worth of in-game credits for each ticket holder.
Business Insider was in Chicago to witness the Pokémon Go Fest, and all the troubles, firsthand. Here’s what it was like:
Pokémon Go Fest started early in the morning for many of the event's roughly 20,000 attendees. When I arrived to get my press credentials at 8:30 that morning, there was already a line that wrapped around Grant Park for several blocks. Hundreds had been waiting since as early as 6 AM.
The game's developer, Niantic, charged each attendee $20 for entry into the park with the promise that rare and exclusive Pokémon could be caught inside.
Tickets to the event sold out in under 10 minutes, and many people ended up paying hundreds of dollars extra to buy them off the resale market. Anticipation and excitement for this event were very high.
A lot of attendees, like this 'Magikarpet' cosplayer, dressed up to celebrate the game and their favourite Pokémon.
The way you got into the park was through a wristband mailed in advance by Niantic. The wristbands had chips inside them that had to be scanned before entry was allowed.
Every attendee received a special, real-life badge to complement the virtual achievement badges in the game itself.
Pokémon Go has long been plagued by cheaters who spoof their locations in the game from afar. To keep the event safe from these spoofers, each ticket holder was required to scan a special QR code after spinning the first virtual Pokéstop they encounter in the park.
The park included a main stage for announcements, a concessions area for lunch, water stations, and stations for Sprint, which sponsored the event.
Physical Pokéstops were placed throughout the park to designate virtual ones in the game, which could be spun to collect special items.
There were giant tents for each of the game's three teams: Mystic, Valor, and Instinct. Tables included charging stations, but most people brought their own battery packs.
People started excitedly filing into the park around 9 AM. Because of the security checkpoint and small number of wristband scanners, it took several hours for many to get through the line and into the park.
Despite the long waits to get in, people started catching Pokémon as soon as they entered the park and their spirits were lifted. For a while it looked like the event was off to a good start and the day would be a success.
I got lucky and caught this Heracross, which is normally only available in South America, within a few minutes of being in the park.
Niantic and The Pokémon Company sold merchandise throughout the day, including shirts for each of the game's three teams.
There were also special Raid Battles throughout the day, including the first-ever Pikachu raid. Players had to fight together to take down and catch each Raid Boss.
People didn't start having issues connecting to the game until the park started to fill up. Then things got ugly.
The game's servers started to buckle under the pressure of so many players in one area. Players were unable to log in to the app, or, in some cases, the app simply refused to open at all.
The vibe of the event started to turn dramatically when Niantic CEO John Hanke stepped on stage to welcome everyone around 11 AM. He was loudly booed and had to talk over chants of 'Fix the game!'
Despite the connectivity issues in the park, people tried to enjoy the event and catch whatever Pokémon they could. Niantic gave everyone three challenges to complete throughout the day with the end goal of unlocking the first-ever Legendary Pokémon.
Between the hot, humid summer weather and server outages, people spent plenty of time under the shade of the tents.
It was odd to see so many people glued to their phones in the park, even as the game refused to load for many. While walking through the park I overheard many people expressing their frustration with the lack of service and communication from Niantic.
Towards the middle of the day, Niantic started giving people updates from the main stage about the state of the game's outages. Each time someone got on stage to speak, they were booed and jeered loudly.
Niantic ended up announcing that everyone who paid for a ticket to the event would get a full refund along with $100 worth of in-game coins. That helped appease the angry crowd, but shouts of frustration still persisted.
The crowd started to thin out slightly as the day wore on and game outages persisted. Some were able to play, but most had constant issues trying to maintain a connection. Niantic had promised to reveal Legendary Pokémon at the end of the day for those who stayed.
To further appease attendees, Niantic later announced that it had extended the area where rare Pokémon could spawn to a two-mile radius around the park. The rare Pokémon spawning in downtown Chicago and other in-game bonuses for all players would also continue for two days after the event.
It was getting towards the end of the day, and everyone was ready for the grand finale: ultra-powerful Legendary Pokémon.
Niantic told everyone that they would be getting a Legendary Lugia Pokémon added to their accounts, which resulted in much-needed cheers and applause. The Legendary bird Articuno was also unveiled to start appearing in Raid Battles that evening.
But the two Legendary Pokémon were going to appear around the world for all players, not inside the park first like originally expected. When everyone realised they no longer needed to be in the park to catch Legendaries before everyone else, they started filing out hours before the event was scheduled to close.
Niantic later issued the following statement apologizing for how the event turned out:
'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 apologise 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.'
'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.'