In case you were on the moon last week and missed it: Pokemon is back. The recently launched "Pokemon Go," a GPS-based mobile app released by The Pokemon Company and Niantic on July 6, has swept the nation with tens of millions of downloads and, with upcoming launches throughout Europe and Asia, it is set to become a global phenomenon.
One MIT cohort has been particularly excited to see the Pokemon characters hiding all around campus: the MIT Pokemon League. In spring 2014, the club was started by rising senior Lucy Yang, an avid Pokemon fan who got hooked after playing "Pokemon Ruby" as a child. When Yang arrived at MIT, she quickly found other Pokemon fans and, since there was no existing club, decided to start one.
“It’s a really rewarding game,” says Yang. “I like animals, and I’m studying bioengineering now so I feel like it was also part of my academic interest as well.”
Pokemon, which first started in 1996, has seven generations of video games, an animated TV series, and a trading card game. The MIT Pokemon League is pretty niche as it is made up of followers both of the video game and the trading card game. Their meetings usually involve trading cards, participating in or watching others free-play, or playing games on their Pokemon Showdown server, an online battle simulator.
Yang describes the concept of the original game as a separate universe where you work alongside the Pokemon. “The animal-like creatures, called Pokemon, have special abilities and amazing powers … you’re supposed to befriend them, train with them, battle with them, trade them. In contrast, "Pokemon Go" is focused mainly on capturing Pokemon and then capturing locations, called Gyms, so there isn’t a personal connection to your Pokemon.”
Although some avid Pokemon devotees are mixed on the new version of the game, Yang is a big fan. “I’m enjoying it particularly ’cause everyone is playing Pokemon again,” says Yang. “Even if it’s not the original Pokemon game, everyone is enjoying the characters, which is pretty nice.”
Those hundreds of characters, says Yang, have made it such a huge success. “If you did this with a game like [Super Mario Brothers], it just wouldn’t be a hit because there wouldn’t be enough characters.”
Yang is not just the club president of the MIT Pokemon League, she is an official Pokemon professor and league leader, a position sanctioned by The Pokemon Company international that involves annual exams and requires tournament staffing. It also gets her and the club the benefit of Pokemon prizes, promotional cards found only at Pokemon League events, and other paraphernalia.
The MIT Pokémon League meets every Thursday and the gatherings are open to the public. Additional trips to go outside in search of Pokemon are on the horizon.