I Was a Teenage Pokemon Gym Leader

The PAX Pokemon League made the world of Pokemon come to life

I’m not that into the series anymore, but I still can remember the first time I played a Pokemon game. It was my birthday, and I unwrapped a gift from my best friend to find a copy of Pokemon Blue, the first game — along with Red — released in the series in North America.

I’d been obsessed with the series ever since reading about it in the library’s copies of Nintendo Power, going so far as to convince myself that it was okay to tear out the Pokemon comics included in those issues and keep them for myself. I was so hyped for this thing that I faked sick to stay home one day because I thought the first episode of the TV show was airing during school hours. (It turned out to be a completely unrelated children’s program called Pocket Dragon Adventures.)

Professor Oak offered me my first Pokemon and I set out into a game unlike any I’d ever played. I picked Bulbasaur, and we journeyed together across Kanto. I tore through the game, acquiring badges from each Pokemon gym leader, picking up new Pokemon, and eventually claiming my place as the League Champion. My friends and I aspired to set up our own gyms during recess, challenging each other with unique, themed challenges, but they never quite got off the ground.

We studied rumours about hidden creatures online — this was before we had reliable sources of information — and attempted every trick we could find to unlock the “PokeGod Pikablu,” which turned out to be the common Marill from the game’s then-unreleased sequel. I used the now-infamous Missingno glitch to poke at the edges of the game’s code. I even got my hands on a Gameshark for the sole purpose of catching a Mew.

Of course, I grew up and Pokemon fell by the wayside — until college. It had been just long enough that there was a sense of nostalgia to the series for my friends and me, and I fell deep into Diamond — to this day, it’s still my favorite entry. I played it on every lunch break and day off, and when Black and White were released I was primed to jump on those too.

Pax Pokemon League
Mr. Pinchy, my faithful Kingler

Living the Poke Dream

I don’t remember how, but I stumbled across a group of people setting up their own Pokemon League at PAX — back before it was called PAX West or PAX Prime. They aimed to recreate the experience of the anime and games by assembling a team of Pokemon gym leaders who’d be open to challenges by con-goers, awarding victors with their own special badge in the form of a pin that could be proudly displayed on the winner’s person. Some of these leaders cosplayed existing characters from the series like Misty or Giovanni, while others invented their own personas. Any challenger who collected all eight leader badges could then go on to contest the league champion and claim the title for themselves.

Some of our challengers were adults, but many of them were children excited about the prospect of having their favorite game brought to life in the midst of the show floor. In the games, players who fail to defeat a Pokemon gym leader are forced to try again — but many of the gym leaders in the League modeled themselves on those of the anime, who seemed to care less about the outcome of the battles and more about the spirit demonstrated by the challengers.

In other words, I wasn’t playing to win. I assembled a team of some of my favorite, underpowered Pokemon like Slowking, Gastrodon, and Empoleon, restricting myself to a single type (Water) like the gym leaders of the games. The rest of the league was just as committed to the bit — someone played N, the pacifist character from Black and White, and instead of battling challengers, he made them use the “Feeling Check” feature to determine the strength of their friendship.

PAX Pokemon League
PAX Pokemon League volunteers at PAX West 2019

Pokemon is a game that’s meant to be shared with other people, but the relatively low uptake of portable game systems and the much lower population density of the US relative to Japan mean that historically it’s a rare occurrence to encounter another player in the wild here. Getting to be a part of a group dedicated to creating that kind of connection between strangers was the highlight of the convention for me.

Even though I’ve mostly moved on, I’ve made so many memories with the Pokemon series — shirking work in a hellish retail environment to trade monsters with my coworkers, distracting myself from the  with Sun and Moon, and playing X & Y with a friend on a roof in New York after she’d gotten copies from a store that broke the street date. But being a part of a real-life Pokemon League and helping make those kinds of memories for younger fans is the best of them all.

If you can believe it, the PAX Pokemon League is still running after all these years. If you’re going to be at PAX West this year, swing by and challenge them to a battle or two — you just might get some nice shiny badges for your effort.