Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge
The years-old browser game became a competitive thrill this year
The camera-mounted Google truck that drove through South Africa’s Kruger National Park is equipped with a distinct, camo-green paint job and a pair of white racks resting on its rooftop. The car can’t be found anywhere else on Earth; so, if you pan down and see its blurry edges on Street View, you know that you’re somewhere within a 7,523 square mile radius north of Eswatini and west of Mozambique.
This is a completely useless piece of trivia for everyone except those who take the browser game GeoGuessr very, very seriously — and more people are joining those ranks every day.
The game is simple. In each round, a player is dropped at a random location on Google Street View’s wide, interlocking atlas, potentially anywhere across the globe. Using only the context clues gleaned from the surrounding fauna, climate, billboards, and language, players are challenged to identify their coordinates on a map as accurately as they can and, in certain competitive settings, as fast as they can. So, at the highest levels of cutthroat metagaming ambition, the contours of the Kruger National Park’s truck becomes vital information — a way to separate the pros from the hobbyists.
“You might not see that car again for two years playing the game,” says RadoX1988, one of the moderators of GeoGuessr’s competitive subreddit, who asks to be referred to by his online pseudonym. “But if you can remember it, over a long period of time, that becomes a massive advantage.”
GeoGuessr was never designed to be played at high stakes. The game arrived in 2013 as a freeware project authored by a Swedish IT professional named Anton Wallén, right as Google was working to fill in the gaps to worldwide camera coverage. (“Was fiddling around with backbone and Google maps API v3 and decided to make a small application. Would appreciate your feedback/suggestions?” wrote Wallén on an ancient Reddit thread unveiling GeoGuessr’s original incarnation.) It became one of those enduring social media curios — something you showed your mom on winter break. The idea that anyone would grind away at Wallén’s invention in the same way that top World of Warcraft guilds plowed through raid bosses was totally ludicrous.
And yet, scores of subscribers now log on YouTube to watch GeoGuessr semi-pros like Tom Davies, aka GeoWizard, who’ve trained long and hard to become oracular, all-seeing masters of Google Street View. It’s incredible to watch him cook. Davies plops into a bustling flea market, pans the camera around, and sees the abbreviation “KSI” on a banner. “Does that stand for Kumasi?” a city in central Ghana. He pins down his location with omnipotent precision. (“2.2 miles away, fair enough,” he says.) A few minutes later, Davies touches down on a tranquil river and investigates a few highway signs bearing some telltale script: “I think this is Montenegro.” He comes within five yards of an exact match.
Davies is the harbinger of one of the most unexpected trends in gaming. In 2021, more than 240,000 people follow the GeoGuessr tag on Twitch, and a casual competition in late October, hosted by the French player AntoineDaniel, earned over 100,000 views. At a time when the future of the esports industry is in flux — with economists warning of market corrections and high-profile leagues teetering on the brink — plenty of young players discovered that nothing in video games rivals the drama of scouring a map as the timer ticks down, unsure if you’re in either Vietnam or Cambodia.
RadoX1988 isn’t sure how all of this happened. When he started participating in the GeoGuessr subreddit in 2017, there were only about 10 users actively competing. “We all just played the daily challenge together, and that was it,” he says. Participation grew slowly through the end of 2020, when suddenly, a huge swathe of fresh blood poured into the community, eager to showcase their topographic aptitude. RadoX1988 speculates that a zeitgeist circled around GeoGuessr’s newly launched “Battle Royale” mode — translating the anxious, one-vs-all bedlam of Fortnite into the sedate act of map-pointing — which hit live servers last winter. “That made GeoGuessr mainstream for the first time,” he says.
GeoGuessr gives you Street View controls, a map, and the challenge of figuring out where on Earth you are.
Filip Antell, head of communications at GeoGuessr, says he welcomes the newly energized cast of pin-droppers tearing up the game. The team released a “Pro Leagues” function, where players can create their own round-robin competitions among invitees. They’ve also put together a “Career Mode” with daily challenges and experience points, which evokes the enveloping progression systems you might find in League of Legends and Counter-Strike, nudging GeoGuessr closer to esports terrain. “When you look at the pro players that can be dropped anywhere in the world and actually find out where they are based on the road, the sun, the environment, it’s really jaw-dropping,” says Antell. “And I believe that when you see someone being able to differentiate and excel in that, it also encourages you to do the same.”
There’s no centralized competitive infrastructure in GeoGuessr — nobody battles in this game while swaddled in plush, nylon FaZe Clan jerseys — so those invested in the art of atlas combat must create their own rivals. Anyone can host a tournament, and they come in all sorts of different flavors. There’s an ongoing Reddit League, complete with a stringent regular season that ranks players on their win/loss records before eventually crowning a winner and relegating the bottom-feeders. Each week, the Street View action goes down in a distinct region (Germany, Guatemala, Saskatchewan), accentuating the versatility necessary for longitudinal superiority. “You have to be serious about it and play on the regular,” says RadoX1988. There is also a “World Cup” challenge, in which players compete head to head in “home” and “away” games. The first match takes place in one player’s chosen country, the second in the other’s backyard, like a summer series between the Yankees and Red Sox.
That said, there are rarely any prizes on the line in high-level GeoGuessr play. Zotomo, a tournament organizer in Japan, tells me champions will occasionally receive a small trophy or a GeoGuessr Prime subscription — which guarantees an unlimited number of free games on the platform. But for the most part, the only reward is bragging rights. This is the nature of the beast. GeoGuessr is a free browser game with no security safeguards or automated pit bosses, explains Zotomo. That makes it easy for someone to open a surreptitious tab and Google the name of whatever street they happen to land on, totally derailing the spirit of sportsmanship. “It is very hard for organizers to be able to prevent cheating,” says Zotomo. “So no serious prizes can be given away without a lot of issues.”
It’s the elephant in the room and perhaps the only barrier facing GeoGuessr as it continues to stretch its legs as a nascent esport. Wallén developed this game on the back of data scraped directly from Google, and as such, GeoGuessr headquarters will never be fully in control of its servers. Does that rule out a timeline full of LAN events, cash prizes, and all the pageantry we associate with the modern esports industry? Not necessarily. “Having an official GeoGuessr Masters would be really interesting to set up in the future,” says Antell. “If one can dream.”
I understand his optimism. The GeoGuessr team has already beaten the odds by proving that a geography game can exist in the same competitive atmosphere as Call of Duty. Scores of players are pouring in, all of whom are eager to demonstrate how quickly they can identify the trucks of Kruger National Park. With just the sun, the mountains, and a handful of road signs, the sky’s the limit.