In the early 2000s, I was a Pokemon addict. I carried my beloved cards in a Lisa Frank binder and built a shrine to Pikachu, the game’s most iconic character, on top of my dresser. I wasn’t alone—the country was so addicted to Pokemon that TIME had featured the characters on its cover in 1999. But as I grew up, Pokemania faded. I thought my childhood obsession was something children no longer cared about.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
This past weekend, for the third year in a row, Indianapolis hosted the Pokemon U.S. National Championships. The three-day event brings more than a thousand players from across the country to compete in both trading-card and video-game competitions, for a chance to advance to the Pokemon World Championships, which will be held later this summer in Hawaii.
Participants entering the event room at the Indiana Convention Center were greeted by an enormous Pikachu balloon that hung from the ceiling—one quarter the size of the one what flies in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The cuddly, yellow creature is one of the few Pokemon characters from my childhood that remains popular today; since the release of the original games, four more generations of Pokemon have been created, bringing the total number of creatures to more than 600.
On Saturday, as I watched the seriousness of the card game’s youngest competitors, my childhood love of Pokemon felt like, well, child’s play. Starting at nine in the morning, decked out in their finest Pokemon shirts and hats, these children shuffled through their decks on silicone mats. Many of the kids had talismans with them on the tables—plush characters, plastic figurines, a Pokeball or two. As intense as these kids were about their game, it was cute to see that they still played with stuffed toys.
I watched as 9-year-old Sydney Morisoli, whose family drove 13 hours from Pennsylvania to attend the event, defeated her opponent and advanced to the top 16 in the Junior Division. Sydney placed second in her division in last year’s national event and hoped this year to become the first female national champion. She wore a picture of her favorite Pokemon, Oshawott, on her t-shirt and had two Oshawott dolls by her side. “He’s just so adorable,” she says. “I like the really adorable ones, and I don’t like the ugly ones.”
Sydney’s is a name well-known in the Pokemon tournament world, a surprisingly close-knit community. Event organizers point out familiar faces and recognize parents from previous years. One couple, Joe and Christel Barnes of Chicago, stumbled upon last year’s tournament on accident while attending another event, and their children, Josh, 12, and Christopher, 10, registered on the fly and competed. “It’s a relief to know that it’s not just our son,” says Christel Barnes. “It’s nice to see we’re not the only parents that are doing this.”
Many of the local league leaders and judges had children involved in the competitions. Kevin Forbes and his family moved to Fishers two years ago from Virginia, and Forbes started the Fishers Library Pokemon League, where the kids call him “Professor Kevin.” The Dittochu plush he had attached to his backpack is his trademark, and people recognize him at tournaments for the imported toy. He described the game as a bonding experience for him and his children, and said his sons learned to read and do basic math with Pokemon. That evening, Forbes himself competed in the Professor Cup, an event for judges and other Pokemon-involved adults that serves as a “thank you” for their work in the tournament.
The sight of parents not only tolerating their kids’ Pokemon obsessions, but also joining in and playing, was heartwarming. And everywhere you looked, children were talking with one another, chatting in big groups, and high-fiving winners. Card games like Pokemon often get a bad rap for being antisocial, but here, the competitors were friendly, chatty, and diverse.
For me, a former child who grew up worshipping a little yellow electrified mouse, finally meeting Pikachu was a dream come true, although I do regret not giving him a hug. I was just as excited to meet the costumed characters as the kids and nearly squealed with excitement when I discovered that Pikachu could wiggle his iconic ears.
I watched a toddler walk up to Tepig, who waved and gave him a high five. “It’s a dancing Tepig!” yelled one little girl as the character danced around with several of the children. The scene reminded me of why I loved Pokemon in the first place—and why it’s nice to embrace your inner child once in a while.
Editor’s Note: Sydney Morisoli did not win the championship as she had hoped; she will likely be back.
Photos by Myrydd Wells