Melissa Robb, 48, is no soccer mom. But she's a proud "Pokemom."
Her son, Ian, has grown up immersed in all things Pokemon, collecting and playing with the popular trading cards half of his life. In the competitive arena of the Pokemon World Championships, taking place in Boston this weekend, Pokemon plush toys sit near players like figureheads on a ship for good fortune. And parents cheer from the sidelines.
Friday at the Hynes Convention Center, 12-year-old Ian joined more than 700 trading card enthusiasts and video gamers from almost 40 different countries. Ages range from six to adult at the invitation-only event. It's the largest turn-out in the championships' 12-year history with as many as 5,000 people expected over the weekend. At stake is $2 million in prizes including $500,000 in scholarships.
"I get to meet plenty of people ... it's very fun," Ian said. "I'm ready for the unexpected."
The championships continue through Sunday.
Mother and son have practiced together almost every morning this week. A 6:30 a.m. Pokemon battles over breakfast lasted an hour. Then he'd jump on the trampoline. If he wasn't reading strategies online, he'd practice with friends on Skype. One day last week, there was a lull for laser tag.
"Everything is Pokemon ... stop talking about it," Melissa told Ian and his cousin JJ Leonard, 10, who qualified in the championships' junior division. "Let's do something else for a little while."
At age 6, Ian learned to read, at least in part, so he could read the trading cards himself during a game. His parents home-schooled the boy and said it improved math and reading comprehension.
Family vacations began revolving around Pokemon World Championships. In 2012, Pokemon flew the family to Hawaii. Ian came in second at the World's junior division. On YouTube, there's a video of his appearance at the 2013 regional junior finals. Commentators dissected his moves as if they were watching the US Open.
"It's a cross between playing chess and poker," said Cameron Robb, 40, Ian's dad. "You build the deck, you bring your strength and strategy to play, but there's a strong luck factor. You're controlled by randomization of your deck and what your opponent will do."
Do they have an estimate of how much they spend for travel and Pokemon-related expenses? Melissa and Cameron laughed. "Oh my gosh," she said. "About $4,000 a year?"
Introduced in 1996, Nintendo's popular franchise featuring hundreds of Pokemon such as Pikachu, Charmander, and Squirtle grew beyond the video games and anime to include trading card leagues and online gaming. More than 21.5 billion cards have been shipped to 74 countries in 11 languages as of last year, according to The Pokemon Company.
Pokemon coach and competitor Raymond Cipoletti, 21, of Londonderry, NH, has played the trading card game as long as he can remember. A brain tumor, epilepsy, and multiple open-heart surgeries made Pokemon one of his few hobbies. He says he has trained 7-year-olds and 50-year-olds.
"You have to be very into [Pokemon]," Cipoletti said. "There are people who come to World's every year ... everyone wants to be on that big stage."
Using the hashtag #PlayPokemon, fans in South America cheered on the Peruvian delegation. Players from Australia to Singapore tweeted excitedly about landing in Boston.
The scene inside the Hynes was Pokemon utopia complete with a giant Pikachu balloon floating above the scrum. A stage brimmed with fog and blue and purple lights. Video games were strategically located at the corners of the auditorium. Tables adorned with red, green, and blue mats stretched the room. In a sea of Pikachu caps, key chains, backpacks, and other swag, Ian shuffled cards like a Poker player, while his mother spoke to other Pokemoms and dads. The first round ends and she catches her son's eye.
"I tied," he said and runs off again.
"When he was younger, he needed me nearby all the time," Melissa said. "Now I'm lucky if I get a thumbs up. He's got a good support system in his friends."
Ian said he's not superstitious, not really. But he'd wear a baseball hat his uncle gave him. And he got lucky dice, lucky sleeves to hold trading cards, and a feather he found in Hawaii he placed in a knitted cap. This year, he's got his mom.