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Most Pokémon Go Fest attendees missed its best moment

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CEO John Hanke showed humility in the face of enraged fans

john hanke at pokémon go fest Allegra Frank/Polygon

Pokémon Go Fest ended in a cavalcade of sighing fans, sunburnt visitors and empty-handed Pokémon trainers. For those who stayed beyond its abrupt conclusion — when the event’s livestream host tearfully announced that everyone there would receive the promised legendary Pokémon free of charge — Pokémon Go Fest ended quite differently, however.

At the far end of the Pokémon Go Fest stage in Chicago’s Grant Park, where players spent the day wandering in circles trying and failing to catch rare Pokémon, a small crowd was forming. A man sat seated before them, cross-legged and sweating in the intensifying sunshine: Niantic CEO John Hanke, the very man on whom the most frustrated attendees pinned their complaints about the day’s events.

The game hardly worked for Pokémon Go Fest’s duration, which complicated its premise. Half-hour sessions where players had to catch ‘em all in order to unlock a special reward were compromised by bugs and connectivity issues. In the end, Niantic promised refunds to all attendees, as well as $100 of in-game credit and a free legendary Pokémon. This came after repeated cries of “Fix the game!” and “Fuck John!” from the crowd’s most virulent members.

pokémon go fest
The crowd at Pokémon Go Fest, slowly dispersing after a disappointing day.
Ian Hooper

But an unfazed Hanke had been sitting on stage for nearly an hour by the time I found him, and he’d been perched there periodically throughout the day. There weren’t any PR reps flanking him. There was one security guard standing by his side, staring off into the distance; but Hanke mostly sat alone, smiling, signing swag and taking selfies and just engaging in earnest conversation with fans.

Some of the people encircling the CEO were just that: fans. As I waited for my moment to talk to Hanke, I listened in as groups of friends talked excitedly about how close they were to the man in charge of Pokémon Go himself.

A 25-year-old, longtime Pokémon fan who traveled from Germany for Pokémon Go Fest— spending $880 one way, he told me — was particularly in awe of how accessible Hanke was.

“This kind of leadership is impeccable,” he told me. “He owns the mistakes directly to you. ... [He’s] owning this for hours because he knows what happened.”

To be that close to Hanke, who had to cancel interviews with me and a select number of other press to work on Pokémon Go’s persistent server issues, was indeed an inspiring experience. That was true for Hanke most of all, who told me that getting face time with fans was invigorating.

“I get a lot of energy out of [this],” Hanke told me. “I get a lot of positive energy from people’s stories.”

john hanke pokémon go fest
Hanke sat and signed swag until the very end of the event.
Allegra Frank/Polygon

These stories came from players “that came on a bus,” he said, bonding over the road trip to Chicago. They were also stories of how the game got people to love spending time outside, just as Hanke does.

But amidst those players who wanted to thank him for bringing them together, there were the ones who berated Hanke for what happened all day. Others asked granular questions about how the legendary Pokémon launch would work, or when they should expect their refunds.

Throughout it all, Hanke maintained his calm and remained humble. The compliments touched him; the complaints inspired him to do better.

“At the least, I can connect with them,” he said of why he loved just hanging out with people in the open like this, especially after such a long day. “It’s fun, and I love our community. Tons of people thank me, but more than that, people thank me for [the game].”

Hanke’s sincere affection for Pokémon Go and its players wasn’t lost on the crowd’s most ardent fans. When I asked my new friend, the German-based ex-pat who was looking at another eight-hour travel day to get back home, if he had any regrets about the Pokémon Go Fest experience, he immediately shook his head. To shake Hanke’s hand was enough.

“I’ve never been prouder of a CEO in my life,” he said.