Texas senator Ted Cruz’s incendiary rebuke of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump on the stage in Quicken Loans Arena on Wednesday evening seemingly transformed the home of the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team into a gladiatorial colosseum, complete with screaming fans and enraged detractors.
But the greatest battle on the stage during the week of the Republican national convention may be for control of a different kind of stadium entirely: its Pokémon Go gym.
The mobile phone game, which integrates the hunt for fictional cartoon monsters with real-world locations in which users can battle one another’s teams, has become hugely popular at the RNC, where cellphones are ubiquitous and the downtime can be lengthy and tedious.
(For the uninitiated, Pokémon – or “pocket monsters” – are a hugely resilient late-1990s cultural import from Japan that typically resemble real-world animals imbued with elemental powers. Originally, there were a mere 150 Pokémon, but the numbers have since swelled to 722. Put another way, there are more Pokémon than there are Democratic super delegates – and they’re much more powerful.)
At the time of this writing, the grand stage on the convention floor is held by BuffaloStar, a level-17 Pokémon trainer, and his Hypno, a Pokémon that looks like a psychokinetic Carl Paladino. Like many of the non-Pokémon visitors to Quicken Loans Arena, the turnover of gym masters is brutally high. (Despite numerous attempts to take the stage, my comparatively puny Pidgeot was forced from the convention floor with the speed and humiliation of a Rick Perry presidential campaign.)
Its popularity among journalists at the convention has been particularly pronounced. There are three PokéStops (check-in spots wherein trainers can obtain supplies) at the Huntington Convention Center alone, each of which is almost constantly installed with a “lure”, which draws Pokémon to the area.
In the vast scheduling gaps between speeches, votes and briefings, pairs of reporters are frequently seen roaming the vast convention center in search of rare Pokémon.
One Fox News Channel producer, seen wandering in haphazard concentric circles in the lawn outside the convention center, said he was more excited for Cleveland’s Pokémon offerings than the convention itself.
“Drowzees are like Pidgeys here,” the producer, who declined to give his name out of minor embarrassment, said. He was referring to a sleepy tapir-style Pokémon and a near-ubiquitous pigeon-esque Pokémon, respectively. “My girlfriend is so mad – I’ve been sending her screenshots of my Pokédex every time I catch a new one.”
The game isn’t popular with every RNC attendee, however.
As Utah waited to cast its vote during the roll call on Monday night, Senator Mike Lee, a steadfast opponent of Donald Trump who has yet to endorse the nominee, declared that he was not a fan.
“The bottom line is, it is not a fun game,” Lee said. “There is nothing about Pokémon Go I find enjoyable.”
Lee then took out his phone to try to elaborate on this theory, but the GPS didn’t work on the packed convention floor.
With the epic taxonomy of Pokémon, some users have noticed that certain Pokémon share more than passing resemblances to famous political figures. An anti-Westboro Baptist church protester in Cleveland’s Public Square named Kris Steadman, noticing this reporter’s buffering Pokémon Go screen, observed that “Donald Trump’s hair looks like a sad Flareon”. In my Pokédex, a freshly caught Jynx, a Pokémon with pouty lips and stringy blonde hair, is nicknamed “Ann Coulter”.
Pokémon Go, like the Republican national convention, is a masterwork of augmented reality. The source of the game’s rapid popularity – two weeks after its launch, Pokémon Go has more users than Twitter – is its incorporation of a real-world environment augmented by computer-generated gewgaws.
Some attendees of the RNC, spotted idly swiping their phones during keynote speeches, see the game as having political applications. “They should put rare Pokémon in poor areas,” Jordan Brewer, a volunteer at the RNC from Mississippi, said. “It’s social entrepreneurship! People would come to poor, rural areas to catch, like, a Dragonite, and then stay and spend money.”
Perhaps ironically, few Pokémon Go players the Guardian spoke to had engaged in many battles, even at the now-storied Quicken Loans Arena stage Pokémon gym.
“There are a few diehards who must play, like, 20 hours a day, and they’re at insane levels,” said the Washington correspondent for a major international daily. (He declined to have his name included out of concerns that his editors would find out he’s been stalking Pokéstops instead of delegates.)
“There’s basically no point in fighting someone with that level of obsession,” the correspondent continued. “Like, let the baby have his bottle.”
He caught himself and laughed.
“Okay, I’m either talking about a Pokémon Go guy, or Ted Cruz.”