The Pokemon Masters • Page 2

A gathering of monsters at the National Championships.

What leaps out most is the sheer variety of people who have turned up. The skyway from the NEC train station across to Hall 8 is criss-crossed by the obligatory bewildered dads, tugged along by eager kids with TV show t-shirts, but that's only the start of it. Pokemon fandom has been around long enough that it is now as eclectic as gaming audiences can get.

The age range takes in everything from toddlers to middle aged couples. There are as many girls as there are boys. Families have made a day of it. Groups of teenagers have made their own way down to the event. There are trendy students, trying hard to pretend they're here ironically, but inevitably failing to mask their delight when the chance to be photographed next to Pikachu presents itself. There's a man in a suit who looks like he's wandered in by accident from one of the boring industry trade shows running in the hall next door, until he whips out a DS and joins the queue for the Masters tournament. There are heavy metal fans in leathers, a smattering of punk hairstyles, hip hop heads and shameless adult Pokemon geeks indulging in some tongue in cheek cosplay.

And all are clutching a DS; there are some battered original models, lots of DSi XLs and enough 3DS owners to give Nintendo some comfort that the sluggish start of their latest handheld venture hasn't held back the faithful. Every time I open my own 3DS, there's a procession of new StreetPass contacts waiting for me, with locations drawn from all over the UK and even abroad.

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This is the casual gaming audience that we hear so much about, those unseen mainstream masses, and they've travelled across the UK, hundreds of miles in some cases, because they love Pokemon. That's hardcore dedication, and it pays off with a genuine sense of community. You can't move for Pokemon branding, yet it somehow feels celebratory and inclusive rather than marketing slung at a captive audience.

It's the finals that pull it all together, as the top two players from each group take to a raised stage for their moment of truth. These matches are shown on LCD screens, and it's amazing how quickly the crowd gets sucked in. To the outside observer, it might as well be gibberish, but to those gathered around it's as nail biting as any Premiere League match.

A late substitution for Haxorus causes the sort of excitement that once greeted the introduction of David Beckham to a game. Gasps and applause erupt when, with the match in the balance, one of the Senior finalists reveals one of his Pokemon to be the shape-shifting Zoroark. Kids lean conspiratorially to whisper explanations in their parent's ears, thrilled to be in a place where they're the ones with all the answers for once.

And, soon enough, it's over. The young winners are hugged by proud families, the older winners make do with a high five or two, and all return home with a medal and a new 3DS for their trouble, as well as an invitation to be flown to San Diego for a week in August for the World Championships.

As fans filter back out down the echoing hallways of the NEC, to taxis, buses and trains that will take them back to boring old real life with schools and colleges and offices, the NEC staff move in to start tidying up. I overhear a doughty pair of fifty-something Brummies discussing who their favourite Pokemon is, as they start to close up shop. These salt of the earth souls, who wouldn't know a Gears of War from a Call of Duty, pause to consider their options. Finally they reach a consensus: "the big yeller one".

Now that's hardcore.

The UK Pokemon Championship.

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