It was a little after 2 a.m. on a cool May night. Up until that point, it was just like any other night. I did what I always do before I hit the sack: I opened Pokemon Go on my phone and checked the gyms surrounding my house. I'm a member of Team Mystic – the blue team – and since I'd moved to Highland Park a year ago, a quiet neighborhood in Northeast Los Angeles, Mystic has consistently dominated the area. The gyms we captured went uncontested for weeks at a time, and I expected to see that reassuring sea of blue when I opened the app before shutting my eyes. But that night, all I saw was yellow. Team Instinct had come to town, and they had utterly destroyed us.
It felt strangely violating, like a hostile army had marched up the street and hoisted a flag in my front yard. That feeling surprised me as much as the takeover itself.
A few months earlier, I might not have even noticed.
After the initial Pokemon Go craze died down, I kept playing casually, opening the app on my phone during dog walks and occasionally comparing progress with friends and relatives. When my girlfriend and I arrived at our new place in 2016, it was surrounded by the game's augmented reality gyms, so I started hitting Pokemon Go harder than I ever had before. Prior to the game's recent update, the gameplay around capturing gyms was extremely unfriendly to casual players. But as time passed, I found myself becoming less and less casual. By the beginning of 2017, I'd played hard to train a squad of high-level Pokemon that could squat in gyms for weeks at a time, racking up free coins. I felt like a king in a many-towered castle, guarded by a small army of pocket monsters.
There were other Mystic players in the area, and I started to wonder whether they all played alone, like me. I found the Pokemon Go L.A. subreddit, and from there a server in the chat app Discord where Southern California players had begun gathering. Just a couple of weeks before Team Instinct's invasion, I'd requested the mods make a channel for my neighborhood, where I proceeded to brag that "Mystic owns Highland Park so hard it's not even funny."
"My territory," I wrote. I was joking, but also a little proud.
That night, after I realized what my hubris had wrought, I opened the Discord and posted that Highland Park now belonged to Team Instinct.
"Sounds like the storm hit Highland Park," replied one Instinct player, whose name appeared in yellow.
"Sounds like my boy FJR hit Highland," wrote another, adding an image of Instinct's mascot, the legendary lightning bird Zapdos, with a caption reading: "There is no shelter from the storm."
I'd unwittingly found myself on the precipice of a community I hadn't even known existed – the world of hardcore Pokemon Go. How had this happened? Why? I wanted to find out who FJR was, and whether "the storm" had really come in response to my gloating.
I decided to jump in headfirst, not yet knowing what I'd gradually uncover: these waters churn with bitter turf wars, massive egos, baseless accusations, and at least one real world confrontation that was broken up by police.
On Discord the following day, I learned I'd become ever-so-slightly famous. A YouTuber, Trainer Tips Nick, was patrolling Highland Park with an Instinct crew that night, and he included a screenshot of my incredulous late night post in his video about taking over my gym. The waters kept getting deeper.
MEETING THE PLAYERS
FJR, as it turns out, is Francisco Javier Rodriguez, a.k.a. TheOfficialFJR. "I have a really common Hispanic name," he tells me. "I just did it as a little parody, where I'm like, nah, I'm the real one. I'm the 'official' one."
He's young – 23, and he looks it – but with an easy manner that speaks to his confidence. He tells me that he's involved in politics, having worked with the Bernie Sanders campaign. He started playing Pokemon Go after he got tired of the infamous toxicity in the League of Legends community. He only plays one game at a time because he read a book, The One Thing Gary Keller and Jay Papasan, about focus.
Right now, Pokemon Go is his game.
"The one that chases two rabbits catches neither," he says, sagely. We're huddling in the shade of a small umbrella outside a Highland Park coffee shop. Nearby, schools are letting out, and a young kid in a red Team Valor shirt walks by. FJR gently heckles him.
"I like seeing that. I don't care if it's Mystic, Valor or Instinct. I just like that people are still playing," he says.
FJR is not your average Pokemon Go player, though. He's level 40, the highest achievable level in the game, still a relatively rare sight even more than a year after Pokemon Go's launch. Reaching level 40 requires amassing a total of 20 million experience, which is insane even for hardcore players. I plugged my start date and current experience – nearly 4 million – into an unofficial online tool called the Pokemon Go Level Speed Calculator, and it told me I'll hit level 40 if I keep playing at this pace for another four years. FJR says he hit it last November, four months after the game's release. He's a power user, the ultimate min-maxer, the most hardcore of the hardcore.
"What I like about the game is it's basically in our neighborhood," he says. "For example, you live here, this is your block, and you basically own the gyms here. You're in them, and you hold it down. There's just some pride and some good feelings when it comes to that."
FJR's territory is Glendale, a city northwest of Highland Park. He sees himself as an Instinct leader for the area – he met up with other players early and taught them advanced strategies for leveling up and holding territory that he'd researched online. He always takes the role of team leader during Pokemon Go tournaments – unofficial, sporadically held events where players from all three teams meet up and compete to capture a single gym. But when it comes to holding gyms, he usually stays on his home turf.
For the game's first year, before Pokemon Go developer Niantic overhauled the gym mechanics, the barriers seemed insurmountable, especially for solo players who didn't roll with a full squad of friends. Taking down an opposing team's gym or training up your own to a level high enough where your Pokemon hold it could take up to an hour, an absurd amount of time to be standing on the sidewalk or sitting in your parked car staring at your phone. If you happened to choose the wrong team when you started playing – like one of FJR's teammates, an Instinct player living in Mystic-dominated Highland Park – your likelihood of ever holding gyms was zilch.
Enter Nick, the YouTuber. He wanted to make a video about taking over gyms as quickly as possible – again, no easy feat before the gym update in June. His Instinct crew, at least 20 strong, chose Highland Park so their teammate could catch a break on his home turf. According to FJR, some of their teammates had also seen me bragging in Discord, and so they thought it would be funny.
"The right-hand side, after Glendale, you guys 100 percent own all that," FJR says, glancing at a map on his phone and showing Team Mystic's territory. "It's ridiculous. It's legit an ocean of blue."
"That's what I like to see," I reply.
In the video, the Instinct players drive around Highland Park in four cars and stand in the street lights' orange glow, forming circles that evoke some kind of ritual. They dismantle our gyms one by one. Fans come up to Nick and pose for pictures, despite the late hour. "The majority of these players are from the Glendale area, which is pretty much controlled by Team Instinct," Nick narrates.
"These players are really focused on the gym game."
FJR says he had a hard time wrangling them all because they were distracted by the presence of Nick, a minor celebrity in the Pokemon Go community. But that's a leader's job.
Toward the end of the video, the Instinct players stand around discussing the upcoming gym changes that Niantic had at that point teased but not yet implemented.
"These players are really focused on the gym game," Nick says. "That's the main thing that keeps them motivated, that keeps them interested and playing the game."
The update delivered on some of their hopes – like a better framework for team play, and better incentives for engaging with gyms – but has left some hardcore players feeling cold.
This is, I would learn, a community about whose concerns Niantic is acutely aware – if not hugely concerned about.
"The game that we built before Pokemon Go was Ingress. Ingress is entirely about this team-based, cooperative, territorial combat," says John Hanke, CEO of Niantic. "The reason that that game has sustained for all of these years is that core fan base of players that are really, really into that mechanic of controlling territory and working together to control it and the casual rivalries, sort of like the ones that you encountered in Pokemon Go.
"We had sought to carry over some of that gameplay into Pokemon Go."
When Pokemon Go launched in July 2016, it became an instant cultural phenomenon. It seemed like everyone was playing it, and if you weren't playing, you were marveling about how it had caused the world to go crazy. Mainstream news outlets covered the "Pokemon Go craze" while players gathered in the hundreds and thousands to hunt for rare Pokemon in large cities like Los Angeles, Seattle and New York.
By the fall, the world appeared to have moved on, their precious Pokemon trapped forever in Poke Balls that would never again be tossed.
Vice wrote a half-satirical take on "the Craze that Swept July 2016," treating Pokemon Go as an odd vestige of the distant past. Where players gathered previously in droves, the few still playing began hiding their phone screens from passersby to avoid those incredulous looks that say: "You're still playing that game?"
Hanke blames that, at least partially, on Niantic's failure to give players a reason to stick around, like they had with Ingress.
"What happened is we ended up really tilting heavily, in terms of our development time, toward the casual aspect of Pokemon Go," he says. "We had a whole roadmap to evolve that competitive, gym-based, territorial control feature, but almost none of that made it into the initial release."
What did make it in was a bare-bones gym system that overwhelmingly favored a tiny percentage of hyper-dedicated players. Niantic wanted to correct course, but Pokemon Go's well-publicized technical issues – a seemingly endless barrage of server errors, bugs and glitches – set the developers back even further as they worked for months to simply get the game running properly. It would be a year after launch before they could give the gyms the attention they needed.
"[Pokemon Go before this update] essentially allowed the most highly ranked players to completely dominate the gym ecosystem," Hanke says. "Lower level players had no chance, and therefore had no interest in participating in gym battles, by and large. That became apparent within a couple months of launch. It took us a while to get out from under the launch craziness and then to get organized to do something about it, and that's a big part of what this release is about."
In the new system, a Pokemon's level temporarily decreases over time while it's in a gym, making it easier for even lower-level players to launch attacks and turn the tides on any team's turf. That's a positive change for casual players – and a punishing one for the hardcore players who've trained up a team of godlike monsters and enjoyed pure domination.
"If there is disappointment that they've invested in something that's not the ultimate weapon that it used to be, hopefully they're stimulated by the fact that there are new challenges," Hanke says. "New blood in the game, new blood in the gyms, new blood in terms of people discovering that part of the gameplay and going in. That just keeps it fresh and interesting. Ultimately, stagnation is the enemy."
There are more changes coming, too. Hanke says Niantic is working on leaderboards at various levels, from individual city leaders to system to track team control on a global level. Those leaderboards, whatever form they take, will appear on the web first before being implemented within the game itself. The developers are also working on ways for the game's disparate Pokemon-collecting and gym-controlling mechanics to affect one another, "so that as you control gyms, it has a favorable effect on the Pokemon, the health, the items that you collect, maybe even the Pokemon that spawn in that region, so that beyond the sort of pride and rivalry of controlling gyms or areas for your team, there's actually other secondary benefits that you get and that are shared by all the players of your faction."
"I'm intensely interested in nurturing that aspect of the game, but I'm also the first person to admit that it's only in its most rudimentary form in Pokemon Go today," Hanke says.
Then there are the changes that players want most – the obvious ones, like new features for trading and battling between individuals, a better combat system, more Pokemon, and more effective ways to thwart the "GPS spoofers" who use dubious means to trick the game into thinking they're somewhere they're not.
"Speculation is rampant and many people have different preferences, and a lot of people make assumptions that things are going to happen one way or the other. We try to be careful and not to communicate anything until we've figured out internally how we're going to do things and until it's pretty close to launching, beyond just saying generally, 'Hey, we're looking at improving combat' or 'Trading is something that we ultimately want to do,'" Hanke says.
For now, Niantic actively hiring in the community management department to try and help "stitch together" all the disparate pockets of community, on Reddit, Discord, Slack, Twitter, and everywhere else, into the connected global community Niantic envisions. A key part of that will be huge, official Pokemon Go events like the Pokemon Go Fest Niantic is hosting in Chicago on this weekend.
"The speed at which that event sold out really blew us all away," Hanke says. "All the tickets were sold within six minutes, I think. So there's clearly an appetite there amongst the fanbase."
And Pokemon Go is clearly far from dead. "I think it's going to be super fun," Hanke adds. "I'll be there with my son!"
The Pokemon Masters
Anyone who occasionally opened Pokemon Go and glanced at the gyms in their area during the game's first year couldn't help but see the same names over and over. These were the hardcore players, the dedicated best of the best who trained harder and longer than anyone else. They became like mini celebrities, beacons, their names and avatars recognizable to people like me, whose descent into this world was more coincidental and less deliberate.
I first met Melorixx, real name Paul Conrad, on the sidewalk near my house. My girlfriend and I were walking our dogs, Pokemon Go open on our phones, our thumbs casually and reflexively spinning familiar PokeStops. Melorixx stopped us to ask what level we were. We compared accounts, and I recognized his name and his avatar's distinctive top hat and mask instantly. It was like passing a minor celebrity on the street.
I'd later see his name again in a Slack chat channel another power user, Victor, had invited me to, a place exclusively for Mystic players in Southern California. And I'd learn about his reputation from players on multiple sides, many of whom described an incident that involved the Glendale police.
FJR, the Instinct player I'd met with at a Highland Park coffee shop, got into Pokemon Go to escape the toxicity of League of Legends, but it turns out this game's community has an ugly side as well. The deeper I got, the more of it I saw.
"Valor and Mystic were taking over all the gyms [in Glendale]," describes Branden Bisordi, another hardcore Mystic player. He, Victor, and Melorixx had been drinking at a nearby bar. "Instinct players come up and they're trying to start something. Someone said that Melorixx grabbed the hand and twisted it. I actually didn't see that part myself."
"He wanted to start a fight with Melorixx," he continues.
I met Melorixx again at a sushi bar in Glendale a couple of weeks later. He's a big guy with a goatee, Dodgers cap planted firmly on his head. He was waiting with a pitcher of beer when I arrived, and he introduced me to half the restaurant's staff. The bartender kept bringing us free shots while we chatted. It was 2 p.m. on a Monday.
According to some players, Melorixx and several Instinct players had been arguing online, accusing one another of cheating, and when they encountered each other in Glendale, the situation escalated. Melorixx says it's all bullshit.
"They called the cops on me, and the cops laughed at them," he says. "They just said, 'This is ridiculous. We're wasting our time. What are we doing here?'"
For some of the hardcore Pokemon Go players I spoke with, the rivalries and turf wars are all good fun. Who cares if some players are "spoofing" their GPS or cheating in some other way? But others like to throw around pretty serious accusations that go beyond the game itself. And they tend to lump all the players from one team or another together – saying "Mystic players do this" or "Instinct are a bunch of cheaters." To someone once removed, it sounds absurd, as if the millions of people playing Pokemon Go could be credibly lumped into homogenous hive minds that do and say what their “team leaders” – people they've never met – tell them to.
"I learned this from Markdang3r, the head of the red team, Valor," Melorixx says. "He was telling me how Instinct players, they get off on griefing. They want to grief people. They want people to get upset. They want to get people banned. They want to try to get them arrested. That's how they get off."
Another player, who didn't want to be identified, told me on Slack that Instinct players have "been profiling other players (seeing what car they're in and documenting license plates, video taping other players, etc.) and trying to intimidate other players on social media too."
FJR described it differently when I asked him about the beef between Instinct and Mystic. "There is just a crazy guy called Melorixx. He threatened a bunch of people. Then got physical with Lubex," he told me. "And Lubex wasn't even the guy he was looking for. He thought it was someone else ... he grabbed him. So he got the cops called on him."
Do Instinct players call the cops on people to harass them?
"Yeah, I don't know about that one," FJR replied, adding a "lol."
To hear some in the community tell it, players that hardcore are a toxic presence. Melorixx brushes it all off, insisting none of this really matters. He bragged to me about his street-racing days, the thousands of dollars he made as a teenager selling World of Warcraft characters, and his triumphs in a multitude of other games. He just wants to be the best on the biggest platform possible – without resorting to cheating, he insists – and right now, that happens to be Pokemon Go.
"That's all it is: competitiveness, at its highest level," he says. "It's a kill or be killed instinct. You're either born with it or you're not."
Then again, Melorixx can often be seen standing on the sidewalk in Highland Park, helping other players take down tough gyms, even when it barely benefits a player at his level.
Regardless, the majority of players don’t see Pokemon Go like that. Many simply like collecting Pokemon or playing with their friends. They don't care which team is winning, or who has the most gyms, or whether anyone is cheating. Like me before that fateful night in May when Team Instinct conquered my neighborhood, they're blissfully unaware this teeming, often contentious Pokemon Go subculture even exists.
For me, well, gone are the days of playing Pokemon Go casually on dog walks. But it's not all bad, and even a player as intense as Melorixx can be a positive presence in the community. Branden Bisordi, who I'd met to discuss the Glendale incident, is glad to have him in Mystic's corner. "I'm not as much into the aggressive or feudal part," he says. "But then, actually it's kind of good that Melorixx is, because he's defending all of us."
In a game with players as dedicated as those who love Pokemon Go, it's inevitable that some ugliness will emerge. But many of the players I spoke with also said Pokemon Go is their social life. It's how they met their friends. It takes them to places they'd never normally go, and they've gone on adventures that they cherish. Pokemon Go may never again reach its original, flash-in-the-pan success, but for these players – maybe even Melorixx, whether or not he wants to admit it – the game will live on as long as Niantic keeps trying to make it better.