Siberia or Japan? Expert Google Maps players can tell at a glance.

A nondescript stretch of road and trees, as seen on Google Maps Street View, appeared on the screen. It could have been anywhere from Tasmania to Texas.

“This is going to be the southern Philippines, somewhere on this highway,” Trevor Rainbolt said instantly, clicking on a location on a world map that was less than 11 miles from the spot.

Next was a path that snaked through the forest. Lake Tahoe? Siberia? “It looks like we are going to be in Switzerland here, unless we are in Japan. Yes, we have to be in Japan here,” Rainbolt said, correctly pointing to the country.

Rainbolt has become the face of a rapidly growing community of geography fans who play a game called GeoGuessr. The premise is simple: while looking at a computer or phone, you are somewhere in the world on Google Street View and you have to guess, as fast as you can, exactly where you are. You can click to travel through highways and cities, searching for landmarks or distinguishable languages. The closer you get, the more points you get.

To some, Rainbolt’s quick responses seem like magic. For him, they are simply the result of countless hours of practice and an insatiable thirst for geographical knowledge.

“I don’t think he’s a genius,” said Rainbolt, a 23-year-old online video producer from Los Angeles. “He is like a magician. For the magician, the trick is easy, but for everyone else it is much more difficult.

For the casual gamer, traversing stills of winding pastoral lanes, Mediterranean hills, and streets lined with tuk-tuks can be uneventful, especially with no time limit. But for artists like Rainbolt, the pace is frenetic, and pinpointing a location can take just a few seconds, or less.

Rainbolt is not the best GeoGuessr player in the world. That distinction is often seen as belonging to a Dutch teenager who goes by the name GeoStique, or a French gamer known as Blinky. But since earlier this year, Rainbolt has been the standard bearer for GeoGuessr, thanks to his captivating social media posts, shared with his 820,000 followers on TikTok and other social platforms.

Appearing wearing a hoodie and sometimes headphones while dramatic classical music plays in the background, Rainbolt identifies countries after what appears to be simply a glance at the sky or a group of trees.

In some videos, you guess the correct location after looking at a Street View image for just a tenth of a second, or black and white, or pixelated, or all of the above. In others, he is blindfolded and guesses (correctly) at a description someone else gives him.

The videos that have generated the most buzz are those in which Rainbolt, using his topographical research, pinpoints exactly where the music videos were filmed. In a viral clip, he found the exact street in Nevada from a video of a person driving with a capybara. “If I ever go missing, I hope someone hires this guy on my behalf,” one Twitter user commented.

GeoGuessr was created in 2013 by a Swedish software engineer, Anton Wallén, who came up with the idea during a trip to the United States. Early influencers like GeoWizard, a British YouTuber, helped promote the game. It also gained popularity during the pandemic, when it introduced a multiplayer mode called Battle Royale.

Rainbolt’s social media posts pushed him further. Last month, in a publicity stunt, Rainbolt went live with Ludwig Ahgren, a former Twitch personality who now streams for 3 million followers on YouTube.

The GeoGuessr site has 40 million accounts, said Filip Antell, who runs content for GeoGuessr, a 25-person company in Stockholm. Some of those people are subscribers who put in $2 a month so they can play an unlimited number of games. The revenue, Antell said, goes to pay developers and Google, which charges GeoGuessr for use of its software.

Despite his worldwide knowledge, Rainbolt, who grew up in Arkansas, has never left North America. But he has plenty of places on his wish list, including Laos and the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. People tell Rainbolt that his passion is kind of crazy. The most common question his friends ask him is, “Is it real?”

He says that he is and promises that he has never faked a video. He sometimes he is wrong with the countries. Confusing the United States with Canada, or the Czech Republic with Slovakia, are two common mistakes even for the best players. And he acknowledged that for the most part he was posting only the best moments of his on social media, rather than an occasional fumble.

So how does he do it?

The key, of course, is practice. Rainbolt fell down the GeoGuessr rabbit hole during the pandemic, watching others livestream his gameplay and poring over study guides put together by geography lovers. He said he spent four to five hours every day studying: playing GeoGuessr in specific countries repeatedly to get a feel for the terrain and memorizing how landmarks, such as road markers and telephone poles, differ by country. .

“Honestly, I haven’t had a social life for the last year,” he said. “But it’s worth it, because it’s so much fun and I enjoy learning.”

Some of the main features Rainbolt uses to distinguish one country from another, he said, are bollards, poles used as roadside barriers; telephone poles; license plates; which side of the road cars drive on; and soil color.

Trevor Rainbolt, who has become the face of a rapidly growing community of geography fans who play a quirky game called GeoGuessr, in Los Angeles on July 1, 2022. At GeoGuessr, competitors can tell you which way to go. Philippines was a music video. filmed and distinguishes Latvia from Lithuania blindfolded. (Jack Bool/The New York Times)

There are other clues, if you know where to look. Image quality matters: Google filmed different countries using different generations of cameras, as does the color of the car used to record the terrain. One glance at a white car in South America, for example, means you’re in Peru, Bolivia or Chile, Rainbolt said.

GeoGuessr has a variety of game modes. One of the most popular formats is a duel, in which players or teams start with 6,000 points and take “damage” based on the accuracy of their opponent’s guesses until they are reduced to zero. In some games, you can click to move around the map, while others are “no movement” games. Once one player has guessed, the other has 15 seconds to post a prediction.

Described as such because they are the best in the world, not because they make a living doing it, GeoGuessr’s pro players say the competitive scene is still nascent but growing rapidly.

Leon Cornale, a 21-year-old pro gamer known as Kodiak from Ratingen, Germany, described competitive GeoGuessr as “fragmented and divided.” A group of gamers in France, for example, formed their own community and organized tournaments, while other gamers formed groups via Reddit. But GeoGuessr’s recent popularity on social media has sparked interest in broader competitions.

Top players, often as young as 15, compete for world records and have begun competing in tournaments hosted by Rainbolt and streamed live on Twitch. There is little money available, but star players earn the adulation of the thousands of more casual GeoGuessr players who gather on a Discord server to exchange tips and share scores.

Lukas Zircher, a 24-year-old from Innsbruck, Austria, became obsessed with GeoGuessr when he came across one of Rainbolt’s Instagram posts. Zircher decided that he, too, wanted to become one of the greats in the game.

“It’s hard to be good, really good,” said Zircher, whose free time is now spent studying bollards and memorizing the color of South African soil. “I can recognize all the African countries from a few photos, but I’m still far from good. I miss all the countries of Eastern Europe.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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