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Pokemon Go has taken over Comic-Con

At San Diego's annual pop culture fest, whose lifeblood is unapologetic obsession, the smartphone game is the fixation of the year.

Jerod Harris, Getty Images

At 10:30 p.m. on a Friday in San Diego's Dublin Square Pub, you can hardly hear yourself speak over the whooping and fist-pumping.

There's a rugby game on the flat-screen TVs overhead, but no one is really paying attention. Instead, people are either looking down at their phones or joining the cacophony of chants:

VA-LOR! VA-LOR! VA-LOR!

MYYYYYYYS-TIC! MYYYYYYYS-TIC!

Those are the names of two Pokemon Go teams. Team Valor and Team Mystic. There are pepperings of INSTINCT! -- the game's third team -- but not enough to make a respectable dent sound-wise.

We're in the middle of San Diego Comic-Con, the world's biggest annual pilgrimage for comic geeks and pop-culture fanatics. The undeniable phenomenon of this year's gathering is Pokemon Go, the mobile game launched earlier this month in which players venture out into real world locations and try to catch little monsters on their screens. At a convention whose lifeblood is unapologetic obsession, this is the obsession of the year.

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Wesley Rodriguez (left) and his friends said they like Pokemon Go because of its community.

Tania Gonzalez/CNET

"I've never seen anything like this before," says Jade, the pub's hostess. Dublin Square is in the city's historic Gaslamp district, just a short walk from the San Diego Convention Center, where Comic-Con holds all of its official programming.

The bar is filled to the brim with Pokemon hunters. After the chanting, the crowd puts aside its differences and starts to sing "Gotta Catch 'Em All," the theme song for the cartoon spawned by the game. As people walk into the bar, some are wearing shirts that say "Valor," "Mystic" and "Instinct," while others are wearing the trademark hats the characters wear in the game and cartoon.

As one man walks past a table of players, a guy at the table looks up, reads the man's shirt, nods approvingly, and says, "Valor?" Then they high five.

Pokemon Go, for the uninitiated, was developed by Nintendo and Niantic, a gaming company that was spun out of Google. It's a free app for iPhones and Android phones based on Nintendo's classic video game Pokemon, but this is nothing like the old Game Boy version.

Here, instead of just sitting on the couch, you're physically exploring the world around you. The goal is to become a world-class Pokemon trainer by finding Pokemon monsters, PokeStops and Gyms, which are all represented by real-world landmarks. Once you hit a certain level, you can join a team.

The game was a hit from the start. Apple said the app was downloaded more times in its first week than any other in App Store history. Spotify said streams of the Pokemon theme song spiked more than 300 percent after the game came out because people wanted a soundtrack for their Pokemon hunting. Scores of organizations, from the Arlington National Cemetery to local police departments to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, have issued statements about the game, bringing up issues of safety or appropriateness.

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The invasion

Comic-Con has caught Pokemon fever too. Thousands of people here are dressed as Ash and Misty, the two main human characters from the cartoon, or any number of the 150 Pokemon in the game. The clear favorite is Pikachu, the cute electric mouse-like creature that's been Pokemon's de facto mascot for two decades. Most of the crowd at Dublin Square is here as part of a Pokemon pub crawl, though not every player I talked to at the pub is here on the organized outing.

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Comic-Con attendees dressed up as Ash and Misty, the main characters from the Pokemon cartoon.

Tania Gonzalez/CNET

Pokemon Go has also seeped into official Comic-Con programming. During a question-and-answer session for the movie "Snowden" -- about the NSA contractor who leaked secrets about government spying -- director Oliver Stone described Pokemon Go as leading us toward "totalitarianism" because of all the data it collects on players. Comic-Con even made a last-minute change to its schedule, moving a panel with Niantic CEO John Hanke on Sunday from a small room to Hall H, the most coveted space at the convention reserved only for the biggest, e-ticket panels.

Pokemon Go is everywhere when you roam the streets, too. That's because there are riches to be had. Or, more accurately, Pokemon to be caught.

"I'm from Canada, and there are like four gyms in my town," says North Alton, a 20-year-old from Alberta who co-owns a comic store called Hangar 19. "You open the app here, and there are Pokemon everywhere."

When we first met on Thursday, Alton stopped every few feet for a Pokemon battle as we walked the radius of the convention center. He caught four Pokemon during our 10-minute walk. Other people told me they'd caught at least 50 Pokemon since they arrived at Comic Con. One player said he could catch a hundred in a day here, easy.

Alton says Comic-Con is the perfect place for the game.

"It's the atmosphere," he says. "You're allowed to do geeky stuff here."

A kinship

Back at the Dublin Square Pub, another group of Pokemon hunters has sauntered outside.

Wesley Rodriguez, 25, from Los Angeles, says part of the pull is nostalgia. He grew up playing the video game and is enjoying reliving the memories. He and his friends say it's also about the community. "You feel a kinship when you see another Pokemon player," he says.

His friend, Brea Zolletta, 24, chimes in. "Then you ask them what faction they are and you're like, 'Oh...'" she says, laughing.

As Rodriguez is leaving, he asks if I've played the game. I have. I say it's fun, but lament the toll it takes on my phone's battery. He pulls a portable phone battery from his pocket. "We've all got these," he says. "It's part of the movement, bro."