Pokémon’s All-Pervading Positivity: How The Euro Championships Spread Infectious Joy

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The feeling of being somewhere overwhelmingly positive is unusual. In 2024, it seems ever-more likely that even the most upbeat of events would be coated in a veneer of cynicism, if not outright skepticism. But at the Pokémon Europe International Championships (EUIC), every person I spoke to was bubbling with unadulterated happiness just to be there. And for all of them, without exception, it was a love for Pokémon that was driving this preternatural positivity.

April’s EUIC was, according to some who have been attending the championships for years, the largest ever. Official figures suggest over 10,000 people attended the three-day event in London’s ExCel Center, 4,500 of them competitors in the various fields, from the card game to the video games. And yet, despite such huge numbers of people, it all felt undeniably lovely. There were no reports of incidents, no flipped tables, and a pervading feeling of calm throughout. As a world-leading misanthrope, sporting a heavy cold, I was fascinated to feel this way. I was determined to find out why.

Gengar on the event's main logo, in the Pokémon Center.

Photo: Kotaku

Cultivating an atmosphere

“I just love Pokémon!” says one splendid lady I meet, dressed as Gothorita, accompanied by her daughter (cosplaying Gothita), and a childhood friend dressed up, appropriately, as trainer Caitlin. The three of them are here spectating, despite often playing the trading card game (TCG) at their local Geek Retreat. “It’s like my childhood,” Gothorita adds.

This is the central sentiment among so many people I spoke to. So many people citing Pokémon as the special factor, the colorful exuberance of a child-focused franchise overriding the more aggressive cultures associated with video games and TCGs. Magic: The Gathering meet-ups, say, are unquestionably fantastic spaces, but the nature of the base game doesn’t exude a sense of family-first. Here, everyone has to at least tacitly acknowledge they’re gathering because of a shared passion for the cartoon electric mouse and his magical friends.

I plopped myself down next to two guys who’d just finished a day-one round of what the locals call “VGC,” meaning battling teams in Pokémon Scarlet and Violet. The winner of the match was Simon Van der Borght, known in Pokémon circles as Shmon, a sometimes-commentator and judge for the events. The Belgian player, dressed in a spectacularly garish Pokémon-emblazoned jacket, bubbled with excitement about the event. Shmon enthused about the EUIC, talking about how it’s grown in scale over the years, and about how many friends he’s made through attending and competing. “It really makes me happy!” he declared. I asked him about his first time playing competitively, and he used a term that I’d hear again and again over the event. “Immediately I fell in love with the atmosphere.”

“The atmosphere” was almost everyone’s first answer when I asked why they were enjoying their time here. It’s an intangible thing, hard to qualify or pin down, but I think it captures senses of safety, comfort, and positivity. There’s an idea that things aren’t wrong here, that no matter what waits outside the enormous convention center, in here we’re good. We’re good people, doing a fun thing, with no judgment. “It makes my heart flutter to see these people!” Shmon declares, “and even when they’re not doing well, still enjoy their time with Pokémon! This community is so strong and so nice to each other that I really love coming back time and time again.”

Three cosplayers, as Gothita, Gothorita and Caitlin.

Photo: Kotaku

The community is lovely!

Speaking of people who’ve come back time and again, I grabbed a chance to chat with the man behind legendary Pokémon site Serebii—Joe Merrick—as well as long-time Pokémon commentator and YouTuber Ross Gilbert, better known as PTCGRadio. Both have been attending the EUIC since it started, since they were in “the event room of a theme park” as Gilbert puts it. “You’re talking 150 people total in the room, and it’s very much a school trip kind of atmosphere. Yeah, everyone’s having fun, but it’s very quiet. Whereas here, it’s a celebration. You walk around the room, there’s people trading, people drawing, there’s people playing side events…”

Merrick and Gilbert are no strangers to controversy, and to the far more toxic nature of online communities. Serebii receives an inconceivable amount of negativity and vitriol, with new Twitter storms brewing every other day. But both say that here, in person, there’s none of that. “It’s indicative of the Pokémon community in general,” says Merrick. “Yeah, I mean, it gets a lot of hate online, because—you know—people are negative online, and [so] people say, ‘Oh this community is terrible.’ But when you’re actually in a room with the actual community, the community is lovely!”

Both are overwhelmed by the growth of the event. 2023’s EUIC had approximately 1,500 playing in the TCG Masters event (there are also Junior and Senior divisions), whereas this year that number was closer to 2,700. We speculate over whether the spike in interest in the cards in 2021, caused by the imperfect storm of global covid lockdowns and Jake Paul paying $5 million for a Pokémon card, has now led to this growth in interest in playing the game itself. Ross adds, “[So] there’s more people every year that are like, ‘I fancy going to a regional… Oh look, EUIC’s in London this year…”

Merrick points out that there are also many reasons to come along to the event if you’re not competing. “You’ve got the Activity Zone, you’ve got the festival stalls, they’ve even got a challenge on how fast you can beat Red in Pokémon Red and Blue. It’s stuff like that that’s going to bring people in. It’s going to make people realize, you know what, Pokémon is cool!”

“They’ve got a bunch of random consoles where you can go and play all the games, even Pokkén Tournament,” interjects Gilbert. “They’ve got a quiet room for people who are having a bit of a stressful day, to go chill out in. They’re constantly thinking and acting on how they can make this better for every different type of Pokémon fan.”

The vast numbers of people battling in TCG.

Photo: Kotaku

Making friends and influencer people

One of the many extra events put on was the Battle Labs, where Pokémon Professors helped people new to either the video game or the card game learn how to play. Standing in line for the TCG lab, I spoke to Aoife, who’d traveled over from the West of Ireland to accompany her partner who was competing. Through Pokémon, her partner had formed a group of 12 friends who would all play together, sometimes booking giant Airbnbs for them and their partners to holiday together. Her partner, Sean, had wanted to try competing at a larger event, so they’d traveled over for the EUIC, leaving Aoife to entertain herself. “I’m here on my own,” she told me, “but I don’t feel nervous at all. Everyone here is just so nice, and the atmosphere is lovely, because everyone’s into the same thing.”

I spoke to Aoife on day two of the event, and she compared—with a laugh—leaving Sean to compete in the Swiss rounds (where players are paired up against others with the same win/loss ratio) with dropping him off at daycare. “I am able to go around and do my own thing, I’ve done lots of activities. This event is amazing.”

That sense of feeling safe was echoed when I spoke to Instagram influencer Poke Girl Rach. We mused on the family-first nature of the place, and how the shared fondness for Pokémon breaks down so many social barriers. “It’s my favorite thing to come to events. You just know you’re surrounded by like-minded people,” she explained. “It’s a really good atmosphere, a super-warm atmosphere.” Rachel Gunn got started on Instagram during the covid lockdowns, describing herself at the time as “a bit lonely.” Driven by a desire to connect with people, she began sharing her lifelong passion for Pokémon, including a sizable plush collection, and grew a community while continuing with her career in finance. Those communities have become such a pivotal part of her life that friends made within them came to her wedding. As we chatted, she was planning for the community meet-ups that were arranged for this event. “I’ve a massive friend group now,” she tells me, before we get distracted talking about the merch we picked up in the pop-up Pokémon Center.

The Pokemon Center, with press buying merch.

Photo: Kotaku

Pokémon is for everyone

Wandering the floor, I bumped into YouTuber PokeDean. “Crazy,” he said when I asked if he was having a good time. “Every time I come to EUIC it seems to be getting bigger and bigger. The atmosphere today is absolutely incredible.” Not competing this year (“I took part last year and I got humiliated.”), Dean had come along just as a spectator for 2024. Given the YouTuber is about to launch a physical store with his business partner PokiChloe, I wondered how he could possibly have the time. “It’s only because I really love the atmosphere here. I love getting to meet a lot of like-minded people, seeing some amazing players take part.”

Given just how much animosity I see whenever I read Pokémon discourse online, the sheer scale of derision as every new announcement is greeted by fury from long-time fans, I’m so struck by these repeated refrains of how differently this community expresses itself in real life. I wonder if a large part of the online animosity comes from those who have forgotten that Pokémon is…well, it’s primarily for children. On purpose. As in, it’s deliberately, by careful planning and design, for children, and then also accessible to adults.

Serebii’s Joe Merrick agrees. “Pokémon, in times past, people would age out of it. But a lot of people, they’ve grown up, they like it, but they have wanted it to grow up with them. So, if they want this edgy, dark reboot, set in a dystopian Kalos—that’s not gonna happen. Let’s face it: Pokémon is a kids’ game. That’s how they continue getting people in, because you’re not having people age out any more. People just need to understand, it’s for everyone. Not just for them.”

I mention Aoife, taking part in the Pokémon Labs to learn to play the TCG, because she wanted to better understand her partner’s passion. “Something like that is absolutely brilliant,” says YouTuber Ross Gilbert. “You can come here with no interest in competitive TCG, VG, GO, or Unite, and you’ll find stuff to do all weekend.

So where do these two old hats (a term they were less than enamored with) see the tournaments heading? “Bigger,” they both say at the same time. Between them they begin speculating whether the event will eventually take over both halves of the enormous ExCel arena, or if it will entirely outgrow the building, perhaps have to look at spaces the size of London’s O2 arena.

Even this black heart…

Over the weekend, I spoke to families where at least one member was being dragged along by others, but seemed to be having a great time despite it. I spoke to female competitors who were there on their own, but didn’t feel intimidated or concerned at all. I saw extraordinary diversity—by age, race, gender identity. I saw huge groups of friends gathering in corridors to celebrate victories, impromptu card trading groups breaking out in dining areas, and kids freaking out to see Pikachu come dancing by.

Sick as a dog, there on my own without anyone else I already knew, and a life-long misanthrope, the event weaved its magic on me too. I spent ages chatting with delightful strangers, added new friends on socials, and almost missed my three-hour coach ride home because of how comfortable I felt in this crowd of ten-thousand people. It’s always a pleasure to remember that online misery rarely translates to the real world, but even better when that real world is so utterly delightful.

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