Arts and Culture

Long Before (and Probably Long After) Pokemon Go, There Was the Pokefreak

Twenty years after Pokémon took the world by storm, the cute pocket monsters are back in the spotlight with Pokémon Go, an enhanced-reality game for smartphones. This apparent resurrection of a ’90s fad comes as a sly surprise to many: It’s been a long, long time since Pokémon was cool. But for some knowing millennials, the Pokémon craze never really died; they’ve been playing under the radar on the lowest-tech platform imaginable.

David Frisk was seven years old when he first felt the rush.

It was 1997, and David and his nine-year-old brother, Matt, had begged their father to take them to HobbyTown USA, just two and a half miles from their Lakewood home. The brothers stood at the rack of trading cards by the cash register and stared at the little foil packs, trying to guess their contents. Selections made at last, their father paid the cashier, and the boys raced back to the family’s red minivan, clambered into the back seat and ripped the packages open.

“Pikachu!” David cried, holding up a card depicting a laughing yellow mouse with a lightning-bolt tail. “Charizard!” his brother declared, waving a shiny card with a flame-tailed dragon. Matt’s prize was a rare holofoil card, and it shimmered in contrast to Pikachu. David shook off a flicker of envy and dug into the rest of the pack to see what other fantastic creatures he had caught. The Pokémon contagion was in full bloom across the country, and David Frisk was its latest victim.

Now 25, Frisk estimates that he has never gone an entire year without buying something from the Pokémon Company. “For a long time, I would try and stop buying the cards entirely, but it was amazing how deep this thing was in me. I’d see new packs at Target or Walmart and…” His voice trails off and he shrugs. “There’s a real rush involved in opening a pack and seeing if you get a rare card.”

Nineteen years later, Frisk is still chasing the rush.

The Pokémon craze erupted in Japan in 1996, spread to the States a year later, and ignited such a furor that Time magazine put Pokémon on its cover in November 1999. While the franchise has lost some of its grip on the market since then, it has had remarkable staying power. The Pokémon Company International has been among the world’s top licensors since the beginning, and currently earns $1.5 billion annually. And it’s not just kids buying the cards. Legions of young adults, most of them men, play the game competitively in leagues and tournaments across the U.S. and Canada. There are 12,000 North American players officially registered in the game’s “Masters’ Division — ages sixteen and up — and many of those players are 21 or older. These are the kids who, like Frisk, got hooked during the Pokémon craze. They either never quit playing or they came back to it after some time away.

These grown-up Pokémon players largely defy the stereotype of the basement-dwelling gamer who leaves the sofa only to restock the Mountain Dew and Cheetos: They have college degrees, real jobs, spouses and children. They would rather spend Saturday night hanging out in the back room of a game store with like-minded friends than battle the bar crowds. They road-trip to big weekend tournaments that rival Las Vegas on the spectacle meter. They spend thousands of dollars a year on cards, supplies, tournament entry fees and travel, in service of Pokémon fun. They keep score, track standings, and seek out (and sometimes pay for) Internet expertise on deck-building and card resale values. They cruise eBay and Pokémon Facebook pages for old cards, rare cards, super-rare cards and whole collections. They read Pokémon blogs, lurk in Pokémon online forums, and stream live tournament play, complete with commentary. They get a lot of “When are you going to grow out of that?” and they occasionally face outright scorn from non-Pokéfreaks, so they tend to keep their obsession under wraps at work. They are driven by nostalgia and a need for community in a faceless digital world, and they are having as much fun playing Pokémon TCG as they ever did.

Pokémon looks like a child’s game, with its cute animal-like creatures with names that sound like they sprang from the brain of an eight-year-old: Squirtle, Bulbasaur, Magicarp. The first cards sold in the U.S. featured 150 different monsters, all modeled on the Pokémon video game for Game Boy and a weekly animated TV series. Grade-schoolers of the day snapped the cards up like seagulls over a plate of French fries.

Lots of kids simply collected, obsessed over and traded the cards, but never played the Pokémon Trading Card Game. Pokémon TCG, as it’s known, is a two-player card game that mimics the action and role-playing in the video version. Each player assumes the role of a Pokémon “trainer” and sends his or her Pokémon into battle, one by one, against his opponent’s creatures. The winning trainer is generally the one with stronger Pokémon who make the right kind of attacks against his opponent’s creatures.
Some kids, like Frisk, eventually looked beyond the cute little monsters to the numbers, words and special symbols on the cards. What did it mean that Pikachu had an HP of 60? What the heck is “Thundershock"? David figured it out and assembled the deck of sixty cards he needed to actually play the game. He bought a set of 102 cards and added to it with booster packs and singles. Many of the cards were crap, but each purchase usually yielded a good Pokémon for his team, as well as “Energy” cards and “Trainer” cards that affect the strength and abilities of the Pokémon and dictate the mechanics of play. His Pokémon-minded friends came around for practice games. By the time he was nine, David was winning at the HobbyTown Pokémon league challenges.

But just as his star was ascending, everything he’d built disappeared.

Frisk had arrived at league play one summer day with multiple decks — the one he intended to battle with that day and another, better deck that he was still building. He had shown his special deck to another kid, then tucked it under his chair for safekeeping while he left the table for a few minutes. When he came back, the deck was gone. Frisk confronted the boy who had been looking at his cards but got no admission, and the boy’s parents were no help. Frisk's father, Scott, says his son was devastated. Frisk mourned the creature friends he had lost, and since he couldn’t afford to rebuild the deck, he quit playing. He moved on to little league, violin lessons, Boy Scouts, chores and after-school jobs. But every now and then he would succumb and buy a pack of Pokémon cards.

It’s Saturday night in downtown Greeley, home to the University of Northern Colorado. While cowboys and college kids bounce between pubs and pizza joints, a different scene is unfolding at the Nerd Store. Up the green-carpeted stairs is a harshly lit room filled with rows and rows of molded plastic cafeteria tables and stackable banquet chairs. It looks like a church basement with a side of street ethos, thanks to the giant graffiti tags on the walls. Welcome to the Nerd Store Pokémon League.

Frisk is among the dozen or so young men who are scattered among the tables, sitting mostly face-to-face, talking in hushed tones and shuffling through boxes and binders of cards. The tables are littered with water bottles, soft-drink cans, backpacks and, on one table, a diaper bag. There are the remnants of a birthday cake (bright-blue cake, white icing) that one of the players brought for Chris Danner, who just turned sixteen and is one of only three gamers here under twenty.

The vibe is casual: Sweatshirts and cargo shorts, slouchy beanies and baseball caps rule. Twenty-three-year-old J. C. Sharp is kitted out in a classic Pokémon trucker hat and, despite the chill, an orange tank top that highlights his anime tattoos. In contrast, Frisk looks almost dressed up in a Merino-wool crew sweater. Lean and clean-shaven, Frisk has a head full of thick dark hair, with eyebrows to match. He leans on his elbows as he hunches over a stack of cards, and his sleeves are pushed up to reveal a string bracelet on his right wrist, a friendship token from a Utah TCG player. On his left ring finger he wears a wedding band, even though his wedding is a future event with no date set.

It’s a ninety-minute drive from Frisk’s Lakewood home to Greeley, but he makes it most weeks, even though there are at least five Pokémon TCG leagues closer to home. His fiancée, 25-year old Amanda Randolph, usually drops David off at the Nerd Store so she and their eighteen-month-old son, Alyxander, can visit relatives in town before joining David later in the game room to catch up with their TCG league “family.” The couple met at UNC and after graduation moved to Colorado Springs for Amanda’s teaching job. When Amanda got pregnant, they moved to Lakewood to be as close as literally possible to Frisk’s parents. Frisk lives in his parents’ basement, but he pays rent on the two-bedroom apartment and he also pays his dad to babysit Alyx during the week while he and Amanda work — David as a help-desk technician at Hain-Celestial in Boulder, and Amanda in administration at Red Rocks Community College.

Several of the players here tonight are members of Team Spirit Link, a group that Frisk and his friends put together to cooperatively build the best possible battle decks and hone their tournament skills. Frisk’s first match is against a current UNC student, Jimmy McKeag, who at nineteen is the youngest man on Team Spirit Link. As they finalize their decks, McKeag and Frisk debate the merits of the cards they plan to play. Although they are technically opponents for the next twenty minutes, they feel no need to hide their battle plans. There are no secrets among friends.

It was a friend who pulled Frisk back into Pokémon TCG his senior year of high school. He was initially skeptical. “I was like, ‘I don’t know. Pokémon? Well, all right, let’s give it a shot.’ And, oh, my God, I’ve just been completely enthralled since then.” Since he started playing competitively, he realized that it’s “more about the community than the game.” He’s made friends all over the country, and he travels to out-of-state tournaments in part to spend time with them. Pokémon is the strong glue that binds these long-distance relationships.

His story is not unique. Andrea Sargent has been running leagues and judging tournaments in Utah for fifteen years. “I’ve seen them come and go,” she said. “They leave about junior high, and then they’ll come back in tenth or eleventh grade or in college because they miss it, they miss the community.” Sargent’s 27-year-old daughter, also a tournament judge, met her husband while playing Pokémon at the Idaho State Championships.
Just before play gets under way at the Nerd Store, another player, the only child here, approaches Frisk to make a trade. The nine-year-old needs a Pokémon that Frisk has, and he offers a particular “Trainer” card, “Virbank City Gym,” in return. (Trainer cards support Pokémon in battle by allowing or requiring the trainer to do a specific act, like drawing an additional card.) Frisk flips open his binder and hands over the chosen Pokémon, then looks at the kid’s trainer card. “You know,” he says to the child, “This Virbank is worth a lot more than you think.” He opens the binder again, and tells the surprised kid to take a second card.

Curtis Hill, a friend of Frisk’s since high school and a witness to the transaction, says it’s typical. “David’s philosophy is to make as fair a trade as possible,” even when he could take advantage of a younger player. “With a kid who oftentimes won’t have as many cards, David will make trades that seem like bad trades for him, but he doesn’t really care about that. He’s just trying to get more kids to play.”

Pokémon players are known to look after their own. Last year, a younger gamer’s deck went missing at the Colorado state tournament. When the older players got wind of it, they went to the head judge to find out what the kid needed to continue to play, and pooled their reserve cards for him. At the 2015 Regionals tournament in Utah, another young player had his deck stolen, Hill says, and Frisk sold him most of the cards he needed at a heavy discount.

No matter how supportive or fair or friendly your fellow competitors, no one is going to stick around unless a game is interesting and fun. Pokémon TCG is a fairly simple game, but heavy on strategy. And it helps, says Colorado Springs tournament organizer Duane Simmons, that the Pokémon Company keeps the game fresh by tweaking it often. New card sets come out quarterly, introducing new monsters into the mix and retiring others. Game mechanics change. Competitive players have to constantly buy more cards and devise new strategies to keep winning.

While some might balk at a game that requires frequent new card purchases, it is precisely this feature that appeals to collectors. And as rabid Pokémon collectors know, there are many ways to acquire cards, new and old, but it’s still an enormous challenge to “catch ’em all.” Billions of cards have been printed in eleven languages in the past twenty years, and while most are considered “common” cards, many are out of print and must be hunted down on the secondary market. More intriguing are the many categories of “rare” cards, some printed in limited runs, others available only as promotional cards at special events, given as prizes at tournaments or as perks to event staff and volunteers. In contrast to the 150 original Pokémon twenty years ago, there are now 721 individual creatures, and many of these monsters’ artwork has gone through multiple iterations, with each successive version more elaborate than the last. The Pokémon franchise figured out early that the way to sustain the obsession — “Gotta catch ’em all!” — is to feed it.
In any other family, Frisk’s second bedroom might be a nursery full of baby stuff. Instead, it’s Pokémon Central, full of cards and memorabilia, a table for two with play mats at the ready and a dual-monitor desktop computer — the better to play Pokémon TCG online. And, yes, there’s an app for that.

Amanda calls this room David’s “nerd dungeon.” Almost every horizontal surface is occupied by Pokémon cards — cards in boxes, cards in binders, stacks of loose cards. On one wall is a whiteboard, appropriated from Amanda when she quit teaching, that Frisk uses in deck-building strategy sessions. Above it is his most prized card, a “secret rare” Japanese Mew, which he bought for $700 and tacked to the wall, but only after sealing it in a protective plastic case. He thinks it’s worth more like $1,200.

Mew, a slender pink cat-like creature, is a genderless mythical psychic-type Pokémon (according to the Bulbapedia, a wiki for Pokémon) and Frisk’s favorite monster. The rest of his Mews live in a large white binder, also in protective plastic, eighteen cards to a sheet, nine cards to a page. There are basic cards, holofoils (or “shiny cards” in the Pokéverse parlance), reverse holofoils and variants known as “full art.”

He has also amassed an impressive collection of historical “meta decks” — competition decks that were considered the most successful at the time they were being played. With these decks, Frisk considers himself less a collector than a curator of Pokémon history. They are from Pokémon’s “golden era,” no longer legal for sanctioned tournament play, and most Internet data about the cards has vanished from the now-antiquated Angelfire and Geocities forums.

A longtime tournament organizer and collector in Chicago, Jimmy Ballard, recently sold a similar but more complete and pristine collection of meta decks for $17,500. That prompted Frisk’s dad to ask him how much money it would take for him to part with his set. Frisk’s answer: “There is no answer.”

As for his current tournament decks, Frisk keeps those in a compact ballistic nylon backpack dotted with Pokémon pins. He takes the backpack to work so he can strategize during his lunch break. He doesn’t leave deck boxes under his chair anymore.

While league matches and local tournaments make up the bulk of Pokémon cardplay, the big excitement is saved for the Pokémon Company’s yearly sanctioned tournaments at the city, state, regional and national levels, culminating in the Pokémon World Championships, or “Worlds,” to be held this year in San Francisco the weekend of August 23. The top division winners at Worlds take home scholarships or cash prizes upwards of $20,000.

Andrea Sargent has competed, judged and watched her kids compete at Worlds, and she is downright breathless when she describes the scene. “The feeling that you get when you are in a room of 1,500 people, all loving Pokémon, and there are cosplayers, and they’re playing the theme song, ‘Gotta Catch ’em All’ [now she’s singing], and there’s a gigantic fifty-foot Pikachu looking down at you? It is probably one of the most spectacular sights I have ever seen. It’s a three-day party that just doesn’t stop.”

While Frisk has never been to Worlds, he and his Nerd Store friends have made the rounds at many of the major tournaments for the past four years, partly in the hopes of taking home some prize money, but mainly to catch up with far-flung friends. All that travel doesn’t come cheap. Add in the near-constant card purchases and tournament entry fees, and it’s close to a $5,000-a-year-habit, he says. Now that Frisk is a father, he is more aware than ever how much it costs to be a member of the competitive Pokémon TCG community, but he says it’s worth every penny.

Notwithstanding all of the talk about “community” and “fun,” there’s something else that has brought these former Pokékids back to the battlefield as adults: nostalgia.

“It’s the memories they had, “ says Simmons, the Colorado Springs tournament organizer. “It’s like collectibles. A lot of people, once they get in their twenties and thirties, might want to go get that old toy they used to have, for sentimental reasons. And with Pokémon, you can play a game and have fun and make new friends.”

Frisk still has the Pokémon theme song on his iPod. One Halloween during his college years, he threw a party at his apartment complex. Nerd Store friends were there, as were non-gaming classmates and other young people from the complex. He plugged in his iPod, and eventually the Pokémon theme came up on the playlist. Amanda ran to the dock to skip to another song, but the party-goers shouted her down. The whole room started singing along, because, of course, everyone knew the words:

It's you and me
I know it's my destiny
Pokémon! Oh, you're my best friend
In a world we must defend

A heart so true
Our courage will pull us through
You teach me and I'll teach you
Po-ké-mon, gotta catch ’em all!