An unremarkable stretch of freeway and bushes, as seen on Google Maps Street View, appeared on the display. It might have been wherever from Tasmania to Texas.
“This goes to be the south Philippines, someplace on this street down right here,” Trevor Rainbolt mentioned immediately, clicking on a location on a map of the world that was lower than 11 miles from the spot.
A street winding by woods was up subsequent. Lake Tahoe? Siberia? “It seems like we’re going to be in Switzerland right here until we’re in Japan. Yeah, now we have to be in Japan right here,” Mr. Rainbolt mentioned, appropriately pinpointing the nation.
Mr. Rainbolt has developed into the face of a fast-growing group of geography fanatics who play a game called GeoGuessr. The premise is easy: As you stare at a pc or telephone, you’re plopped down someplace on the earth in Google Street View and should guess, as shortly as you may, precisely the place you might be. You can click on it to journey down roads and thru cities, scanning for distinguishable landmarks or language. The nearer you guess, the extra factors you rate.
To some, Mr. Rainbolt’s snap solutions seem to be wizardry. To him, they’re merely the results of numerous hours of application and an insatiable thirst for geographic data.
“I don’t assume I’m some genius,” mentioned Mr. Rainbolt, a 23-year-old online video producer in Los Angeles. “It’s like a magician. To the magician, the trick is straightforward, however to everybody else, it’s so much tougher.”
For the informal participant, traversing nonetheless photographs of winding pastoral roads, Mediterranean foothills and streets crammed with tuk-tuks could be tranquil, particularly with no time restrict. But for performers like Mr. Rainbolt, the tempo is frenetic, and figuring out a location can take solely seconds — or much less.
Mr. Rainbolt is just not the highest GeoGuessr participant on the earth. That distinction is usually thought of to belong to a Dutch teenager who goes by GeoStique, or to a French participant often called Blinky. But since the beginning of these 12 months, Mr. Rainbolt has been the standard-bearer for GeoGuessr, due to his fascinating social media posts, shared along with his 820,000 followers on TikTok in addition to on different social platforms.
Appearing in a hoody and typically headphones as dramatic classical music performs within the background, Mr. Rainbolt identifies nations after what seems to be merely a look on the sky or a patch of bushes.
In some movies, he guesses the proper locale after a Street View picture for less than a tenth of a second, or in black and white, or pixelated — or the entire above. In others, he’s blindfolded and guesses (appropriately) off an outline another person supplies him.
The movies which have generated probably the most shock are ones by which Mr. Rainbolt, utilizing his topographical sleuthing, identifies precisely the place music movies had been filmed. In one viral clip, he discovered the precise road in Nevada from a video of an individual driving with a capybara. “If I ever go lacking, I hope somebody hires this man on my behalf,” one Twitter consumer commented.
GeoGuessr was created in 2013 by a Swedish software program engineer, Anton Wallén, who got here up with the concept while on a trek throughout the United States. Early influencers like GeoWizard, a British YouTuber, helped promote the sport. It additionally gained a reputation in the course of the pandemic, when it launched a multiplayer mode known as Battle Royale.
Mr. Rainbolt’s social media posts boosted it additional. Last month, in a publicity coup, Mr. Rainbolt live-streamed with Ludwig Ahgren, a former Twitch persona who now broadcasts to 3 million followers on YouTube.
The GeoGuessr web site now has 40 million accounts, mentioned Filip Antell, who leads content material for GeoGuessr, a 25-person firm in Stockholm. Some of these persons are subscribers who chip in $2 a month for the power to play an infinite variety of video games. The income, Mr. Antell mentioned, goes towards paying builders and Google, which costs GeoGuessr for using its software program.
Despite his globe-spanning data, Mr. Rainbolt, who grew up in Arkansas, has by no means left North America. But he has loads of locales on his bucket checklist, together with Laos and the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. People inform Mr. Rainbolt that his ardor is considerably loopy. The commonest query his pals ask him is: “Is it actual?”
He says it’s, and guarantees he has by no means faked a video. He does get nations fallacious, typically. Mistaking the United States for Canada, or the Czech Republic for Slovakia, are two frequent slip-ups for even the best gamers. And he acknowledged that he was largely posting solely his highlights on social media, somewhat more than the occasional fumble.
So how does he do it?
The key, in fact, is to apply. Mr. Rainbolt fell down the GeoGuessr rabbit gap in the course of the pandemic, watching others livestream their play and poring by research guides assembled by geography lovers. He mentioned he spent 4 to 5 hours every day finding out: taking part in GeoGuessr in particular nations repeatedly to get a really feel for the terrain and memorizing how landmarks like street markers and phone poles differ by nation.
“Candidly, I haven’t had any social life for the previous 12 months,” he mentioned. “But it’s value it, as a result of it’s so enjoyable and I take pleasure in studying.”
Some of the highest options that Mr. Rainbolt makes use of to tell apart one nation from one other, he mentioned, are bollards, the posts used as limitations on the perimeters of roads; phone poles; license plates; which aspect of the street the automobiles are driving on; and soil color.
There are different clues if you understand the place to look. The high quality of the picture issues — Google filmed completely different nations utilizing completely different generations of digital cameras — as does the color of the automobile getting used to file the terrain. A glimpse of a white automobile in South America, as an illustration, means you’re in Peru, Bolivia or Chile, Mr. Rainbolt mentioned.
GeoGuessr has quite a lot of sports modes. One of the preferred codecs is a duel, by which gamers or groups begin with 6,000 factors and take “injury” based mostly on how correct their opponent’s guesses are till they’re diminished to zero. In some video games, you might be allowed to click on to maneuver the map, whereas others are “no-move” video games. Once one participant has guessed, the opposite has 15 seconds to lock in a prediction.
Professional GeoGuessr gamers — so described as a result of their being the very best on the earth, not as a result of their earning a residing doing it — say the aggressive scene remains to be nascent however rising quickly.
Leon Cornale, a 21-year-old professional participant often called Kodiak, from Ratingen, Germany, described aggressive GeoGuessr as “fragmented and divided.” A gaggle of gamers in France, as an illustration, have fashioned their very own group and host tournaments, whereas different gamers have fashioned teams by Reddit. But GeoGuessr’s current social media reputation has jump-started curiosity in broader competitions.
The finest gamers, who are sometimes as younger as 15, vie for world records and have begun competing in tournaments organized by Mr. Rainbolt and streamed reside on Twitch. There’s little cash available, however, star gamers do earn the adulation of the hundreds of extra informal GeoGuessr gamers who collect on a Discord server to swap ideas and share scores.
Lukas Zircher, a 24-year-old in Innsbruck, Austria, grew obsessive about GeoGuessr when he stumbled upon certainly one of Mr. Rainbolt’s Instagram posts. Mr. Zircher determined that he, too, wished to develop into one of many greats of the sport.
“It’s powerful to get good, actually good,” mentioned Mr. Zircher, whose free time is now dedicated to finding out bollards and memorizing the color of South African soil. “I can acknowledge all of the African nations from a number of photos, however I’m nonetheless removed from being good — I miss all of the jap European nations.”
Syd Mills, a 22-year-old freelance illustrator from New Jersey, grew to become enthralled after watching Mr. Rainbolt’s content material. She had performed GeoGuessr earlier than, however was shocked at how shortly she improved after watching his movies that present tips about figuring out nations.
“This time, as a substitute of passively wandering round and desperately on the lookout for a language trace or a flag, I might choose up on stuff like guardrails, street markings, bollards,” Ms. Mills mentioned.
She typically experiences moments that she imagines are much like the awe Mr. Rainbolt evokes. Once, when taking part in GeoGuessr along with her father, she instantly recognized a picture as being in Uruguay, due to traces on a street.
His response, she mentioned, was “How the hell have you learned that?”