Pokémon — the video-game, trading-card, and anime franchise — may have reached its high water mark in the late 1990s. But at the Rhode Island Convention Center in downtown Providence this past weekend, the 20th Century geekery lived.
PIKACHU! McClain gets into character.
This was the regional championship. And Pokémon images and logos were splashed everywhere — on T-shirts and baseball caps, player mats and banners, even the stray beach ball. One judge puttered around the room in a white lab coat, with a black-and-white Pokémon logo on the back.
Sam McClain, a 21-year-old stay-at-home dad from Brooklyn showed up in a yellow Teletubby-style jumpsuit as Pikachu, a fictional rodent that is probably the most recognizable Pokémon. "This is the most adorable outfit they had," he said.
Our conversation was cut short by a young boy who ran up, shouting, "Pikachu!"
"Pika," McClain said back.
There were plenty of little ones dashing about. But teenagers and adults outnumbered children roughly two to one, according to Tom Shea, the tournament organizer.
There was the Boston University law professor clutching a book on evidence, an unemployed MBA, and a grocery store manager. Some were recent college grads nursing a bit of nostalgia for their favorite childhood pastime. But others were soccer dads who had turned into "Poke-parents" after getting hooked on the game by their children.
"It's a good diversion from work," said John Conti, an oncologist from Little Falls, New Jersey. "Medical oncology can sometimes be a sad field."
After an all-day trading-card competition on Saturday, the Juniors division, which is for ages 10 and younger, narrowed to two nine-year-old boys, who faced off in a final round that had all the intensity and solemnity of a championship chess match. Seated around them were Shea, a corporate representative, and two judges. The group was cordoned off from the rest of the exhibition hall by velvet ropes.
As the head judge, Steve Arena, who is Tom's father, was responsible for more than adjudicating the rules; he leaned in at one point to make sure one of the players wasn't crying. He wasn't — but Arena was prepared for the worst: at the national competition two seasons ago, he spied a player who was so nervous he was about to throw up. Arena scooped up the kid, covered his mouth with his hand, and spirited him away from the other players.
Arena only had to exercise his more formal duties on this day. But they can be equally intense.
After a dispute erupted over whether one of the players had properly announced his Pokémon's imminent attack, Arena convened a huddle with two other judges and Shea. After a few minutes of intense whispering, the verdict was announced: the attack had been announced.
Soon after that, the other player, Brendan Zheng, a New York City fourth grader, won the game. He skipped toward his father on the sidelines, fist pumping the air.
For an afternoon in downtown Providence, it felt like 1999 again.