Saadiq Newton-Boyd, at left. (Photos: Kai Burkhardt)

Huddled in the seating area of the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center, 68 battlers sat in pairs. For seven rounds that lasted over three and a half hours, these Pokémon fanatics fought for the first place trophy for the regional tournament—and a rayquaza plushie.

Dressed in all black, reflecting his in-game player name ShadeKing, Saadiq Newton-Boyd went from battler to battler. After a few minutes of mental calculations, he loosened up his wrists and was ready to go. The first battle was close. His last pokémon was low on health, but he managed to defeat his opponent with a last-second killing blow. While he won the first round easily, he knew the competition at this tournament would be tough.

Newton-Boyd, 26, spends 20 to 30 hours every week playing and practicing Pokémon GO. He shares a common dream with a lot of kids who grew up in the early 2000s: to be a Pokémon master. Like the main character Ash from the cartoon Pokémon, which first aired in 1997, Newton-Boyd always wanted to go on endless adventures and battle other trainers with his sidekick pokémon. Now, he gets to live out that dream; not with his childhood Gameboy, but on his phone with Pokémon GO.

Through the mobile app’s new player-vs-player battling mode, Newton-Boyd launched past thousands of Pokémon GO trainers in New York City and into the top one percent of global players to distinguish himself as one of the very best. He earned a spot in the game’s first ever Silph Arena Regional Invitational, where he faced the city’s other elite battlers.

The regionals at Lincoln Center.

Before Newton-Boyd was an elite Pokémon battler, he grew up in the Louis Heaton Pink Houses, a NYCHA development in East New York, and then a private home with his family in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. His parents worked for the department of corrections; his father a corrections officer, his mother on the administrative, clerical side. Newton-Boyd had a childhood full of video games and books. “I wouldn’t say a gamer, because when you say gamer you imagine the guy in their mother’s basement playing video games all day. But yeah I was really into video games and I read a lot.”

He spent countless hours playing Mario Party, dodging barrels in Donkey Kong and slamming wrestlers in WWE games. He fondly remembers his old Gameboy, which didn’t have a backlight so he could only play during the day. That is, until he convinced his mom to buy him an attachable light so it worked in the dark. His mother and father never married, and separated when he was young, so in the summer Newton-Boyd took trips upstate to his dad’s house to play with his siblings from his father’s side.

He and his sister, Sehiya, were especially close. “We did everything together,” Sehiya, 28, said. “We’d stay up all day and night playing video games. We’d get so loud that our screams could be heard by neighbors.” Their parents made sure to buy two of every game so they wouldn’t fight over who got to play first. Sehiya still visits her brother to play together, but Newton-Boyd has always had a competitive edge over her. “Saadiq didn’t know how to lose,” she said, “because it never happened.”

Now, Newton-Boyd works in Social Services with Brooklyn Justice Initiatives, connecting court-involved individuals to services in lieu of what would traditionally be shortterm jail sentences or court fines and fees. In his spare time, he plays Pokémon. “Usually when I’m outside, 90 percent of the time I’m going to be playing,” Newton-Boyd said. He tries to limit it to when he’s outside. “I try not to play too much at work,” he said. “Unless some type of event is going on, so I might open the app in between meetings or clients.” He says his work is enjoyable but can also be stressful, so Pokémon often acts as his release.

Jamie Steiner, one of Newton-Boyd’s colleagues, describes him as a diligent and hard worker. She enjoys his humor and attitude, and isn’t surprised by his Pokémon prowess., “He goes above and beyond to make sure that our clients are being supported,” she said. “He is also incredibly competitive, as I can imagine translates into his success with Pokémon GO.” 

Pokémon has captivated kids for decades, starting with the release of the first game in Japan in 1996, and the television show in 1997. Since then, the world of Pokémon has grown nonstop, becoming the highest-grossing franchise of all time with games, shows, movies and toys capitalizing on the popularity. Its most impressive expansion might be the creation of Pokémon GO. The app struck a chord with children and young adults, creating an international phenomenon in the summer of 2016. Pokémon GO was downloaded 100 million times in its first month, yet due to bugs and limited gameplay many players deleted it. Contrary to popular belief, the game is more popular than ever. In May 2018, it had 147 million active users.

One reason for this resurrection is the app’s added gameplay mechanics. The basic game consists of an augmented reality experience where players travel to realworld locations to find and catch pokémon. In the beginning, it was a collecting game with just enough nostalgia to keep players interested. The game’s developers, Niantic, have slowly added features and in January, introduced a player-vs-player battling mode. This allowed trainers to finally pit themselves, and their pokémon, against each other.

With the new update, people were eager to fight each other and replicate the most exciting part of the Pokémon world: battling. A fan-run website, The Silph Road, created a battling ruleset and structure, and set up a series of competitions and tournaments for players around the world. Local Pokémon GO communities, often formed online, registered themselves with The Silph Road and hosted tournaments where members battle each other. Each month the website releases a different theme, limiting which pokémon a trainer can use. They’ve created a worldwide, highly complex game of rock paper scissors where the weapons change every month.

Newton-Boyd loves this update. He said the mode adds a new layer of strategy and competitive edge. He goes to as many tournaments as he can. Newton-Boyd has visited 13 in the last three months, and most of the time he wins. He’s ranked first in the Pokémon GO NYC community, and in the top one percent on Silph Road’s global ranking system. While winning doesn’t yield monetary prizes, the prestige of beating other players is highly sought after.

Newton-Boyd has played Pokémon GO ever since its release, but he didn’t love it right away. “I actually thought the game was really stupid when I heard about it,” he said. His sisters convinced him to download it, then he realized his coworkers had it too. He started playing more and more, until he passed his sisters in level. Then he passed his coworkers. He was hooked.

For the last two and a half years, Newton-Boyd hasn’t stopped playing. He never deleted the app, even during a brutally cold winter where he didn’t get to play much. His loyalty paid off with new game modes, which have started orienting the game towards community. Battling and raiding, a mode where multiple people are needed to defeat a strong pokémon, bring trainers together more than ever. “It almost forces you to organize with other people,” said Newton-Boyd.

The first-place trophy and rayquaza plushie.

Through these forced interactions, he met other trainers and got involved in the many community groups in New York. He said he used to be a lone wolf, going to raids alone, but he kept running into the same people. Eventually, they convinced him to join the Facebook group Park Slope Raiders, a page with over 1,000 members. This group, co-founded by Michelle Guelbart, has a highly organized page that helps local trainers team up to take down some of the toughest pokémon.

Guelbart, 31, who works for ECPAT-USA, a non-profit that helps protect children from the threat of trafficking, met Newton-Boyd through the Park Slope Raiders group. “He was friendly, seemed kind, and has a friendly sense of humor. And he’s great in-game,” Guelbart said. “He knows what he’s talking about and brings his intelligence in when he plays so he has good strategy.” 

When that Pokémon switch flips on, Newton-Boyd displays an endless stream of pokémon intellect. He often gets together with his training partners to discuss strategy and type matchups. Brendan Mahoney has trained with Newton-Boyd for the past couple of years and through Pokémon, they’ve formed a friendship. “Saadiq works his ass off in this game. Nearly every night of the week I see him practicing,” Mahoney said. “He easily understands how different matchups would play out in a theoretical setting and can look into that deeper level of the small things that make a difference. He has that critically important nerdy passion that we all need to be good at the things we love.”

Newton-Boyd has done so well in local competitions he received an invitation-only placement to the regional Pokémon GO competition at Lincoln Center. On May 11, he battled the strongest trainers in New York. In the fourth round of regionals, he faced one of his training partners and friends. In a best-two-out-of-three format, they were tied with one win each. Newton-Boyd was hyper-focused. The two constantly switched in pokémon, trying to counter each other’s typings. It came down to the wire, Newton-Boyd frantically tapping, but his opponent got the better of him. Newton-Boyd congratulated him and said, “Good game.” He got quieter. He looked online at the standings, doing mental math to see if he could somehow still win, or at least if one of his friends could win.

By the end of the tournament, Newton-Boyd dropped another round, giving him a final record of five wins and two losses. The winner was TonyCJ, a trainer based out of Troy, New York. Even though Newton-Boyd didn’t win, he kept a positive attitude and rooted for his friends. He said these tournaments are always fun, and always stressful. One small mistake—like switching in the wrong pokémon or attacking at the wrong time—can lose you the whole thing.

“Of course I wanted to win,” he said, “but I’m happy with my performance.” He said he’s already focused on the next tournament. “There’s not much time until the next one, so I need to prepare.”