Established back in 1996, the Pokémon media leviathan is the highest-grossing entertainment franchise that the world has ever known.
With an estimated £71.8bn in combined revenue, the company spans the world’s best-selling toy brand, a trading card game which has sold 27.2 billion cards, the most successful video game TV series adaption in history, and – most famously – a video games series which ranks second only to the historic Mario franchise in terms of sheer sales.
But aside from entertaining and thrilling billions for over two decades, Pokémon is also responsible for the formation of a relatively new group of friends in Preston.
Now almost 600 members strong, the Pokémon Go Preston City Raids Facebook group is a collection of people from all walks of life who have been brought together by their mutual love of the franchise’s mobile game Pokémon Go.
And they’re growing.
The group’s founder and one of its Facebook page admins, Lee Ward, has been playing Pokémon since it first entered the zeitgeist in the mid-‘90s and took to Pokémon Go as soon as it was released in 2016.
An immediate global hit, the augmented reality game involves players using GPS to locate and battle Pokémon which appear on their devices as if they reside in the player’s real-world location.
“It’s great,” says Lee, 31. “I used to play the GameBoy games when they first came out; I’ve always been a fan of the franchise. I wish we’d had Pokémon Go when we were kids, though - it would’ve been so much better, but we’re still playing.”
Merging the nostalgia of Pokémon with the escapism of gaming and the novelty of operating in real-world settings, Pokémon Go has been downloaded more than one billion times since its release and has made more than £2.4bn in three years.
As the game adapted to promote more communal gaming, Lee says local interest in collaborative playing grew and through word of mouth, social media, and physically passing other players in the street. As more people took to the game, the Pokémon Go Preston City Raids page blossomed into a friendly mini-society of like-minded people.
“The group that we’ve got... I’ve never known anything to be so unique. We get people from all backgrounds from university students and their tutors to office staff out on their lunch breaks - someone from every walk of life,” said Lee. “It just gels together and we have fun.
“We made the Facebook page to get more active players coming in; we started to grow and wanted to make it more of a community thing,” added Lee, who runs the Facebook group with Amelia Frances, Lee McGowan, Katie Eames, and Amar Chauhan. “Now we have enough people to do meet-ups: there’s one in a few weeks and I can guarantee there’ll be 60 or 70 of us out for about three hours.”
The meets take members all over the city. From the bus station, through town to Avenham Park, then up to Moor Park, the good-natured raids and Pokémon battles involve some serious treks – a happy side-effect of the game which has seen a global increase in visits to national parks and local places of interest due to Pokémon and in-game targets being located in such places in the game.
While the concept of 60 or 70 people congregated in one place all staring devoutly at their phones may be enough to provoke an eye-roll or two amongst folks of the opinion that those buried so completely in their devices are steadfastly shunning the idea of socialising, there are also myriad layered benefits to getting out and about and playing Pokémon Go.
“For me it’s not really nostalgia, but for plenty of people it is,” said Lee. “We have players with anxiety and depression so just coming out and playing the game helps them forget about things and have fun. You can’t put a price on that and it’s great to see people get the benefits from it.
“That’s what it’s about,” he added.