GeoGuessr Expert Players Know Google Maps Spot Instantly
An unremarkable stretch of highway and trees, as seen on Google Maps Street View, appeared onscreen. It could have been anywhere from Tasmania to Texas.
“It’s going to be the southern Philippines, somewhere on this road here,” Trevor Rainbolt said instantly, clicking on a location on a world map that was less than 11 miles away.
A winding road through the woods was next. 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,” Mr. Rainbolt said, correctly identifying the country.
Mr. Rainbolt has become the face of a rapidly growing community of geography fanatics who play a game called GeoGuessr. The principle is simple: when you look at a computer or a phone, you are somewhere in the world in Google Street View and you have to guess, as quickly as possible, exactly where you are. You can click to browse roads and towns, looking for distinct landmarks or language. The more you guess, the more points you score.
To some, Mr. Rainbolt’s instant 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 I’m a genius,” said Mr. Rainbolt, a 23-year-old online video producer in Los Angeles. “It’s like a magician. For the magician, the trick is easy, but for everyone else, it is much more difficult.
For the casual player, traversing stills of winding pastoral roads, Mediterranean foothills, and streets filled with tuk-tuks can be leisurely, especially with no time limit. But for artists like Mr. Rainbolt, the pace is frenetic, and identifying a location can only take seconds or less.
Mr. Rainbolt is not the best GeoGuessr player in the world. This distinction is often considered to belong to a Dutch teenager who goes through GeoStics, or to a French player known as Blinky. But since the beginning of this year, Mr. Rainbolt has been the standard bearer for GeoGuessr, thanks to his captivating social media posts, shared with his 820,000 followers on TikTok as well as other social platforms.
Appearing in a hoodie and sometimes headphones as dramatic classical music plays in the background, Mr. Rainbolt identifies countries after what appears to be just a glance skyward or a patch of trees.
In some videos, it guesses the correct locale after watching 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) a description someone else provides him.
The videos that generated the most shock are those in which Mr. Rainbolt, using his topographical research, identifies 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 trek across the United States. Early influencers like GeoWizard, a British YouTuberhelped promote the game. It also gained popularity during the pandemic, when it introduced a multiplayer mode called Battle Royale.
Mr. Rainbolt’s social media posts have further strengthened it. Last month, in a publicity stunt, Mr Rainbolt went live with Ludwig Ahgren, a former Twitch personality who now streams to three million subscribers on YouTube.
The GeoGuessr site now has 40 million accounts, said Filip Antell, who leads content at GeoGuessr, a 25-person company in Stockholm. Some of these people are subscribers who contribute $2 a month to play unlimited games. The revenue, Antell said, is used to pay developers and Google, which charges GeoGuessr for using its software.
Despite his global knowledge, Mr. Rainbolt, who grew up in Arkansas, never left North America. But he has plenty of places on his to-do list, including Laos and the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. People tell Mr. Rainbolt that his passion is a bit crazy. The most common question his friends ask him is, “Is it real?”
He says yes and promises he has never faked a video. He sometimes gets the wrong country. Confusing the United States with Canada or the Czech Republic with Slovakia are two common mistakes, even for the greatest players. And he acknowledged that he mostly only posts his highlights on social media, rather than the occasional fumbling.
So how does he do it?
The key, of course, is practice. Mr. Rainbolt has fallen down the GeoGuessr rabbit hole during the pandemic, watching others live-stream their game and poring over study guides put together by geography buffs. He said he spends four to five hours a day studying: playing GeoGuessr in specific countries over and over to get a feel for the terrain and memorizing how landmarks like road markers and telephone poles differ between country.
“Honestly, I haven’t had a social life in a year,” he said. “But it’s worth it, because it’s so much fun and I love learning.”
Some of the key features Mr. Rainbolt uses to distinguish one country from another, he said, are bollards, posts used as barriers on the sides of roads; telephone poles; license plates; which side of the road the cars are driving on; and the color of the floor.
There are other clues, if you know where to look. Image quality matters – Google has filmed different countries using different generations of cameras – as does the color of the car used to record the terrain. A glimpse of a white car in South America, for example, means you’re in Peru, Bolivia or Chile, Rainbolt said.
GeoGuessr offers a variety of game modes. One of the most popular formats is dueling, in which players or teams start with 6,000 points and take “damage” based on how accurate their opponent’s guesses are. until they are reduced to zero. In some games you are allowed to click to move around the map, while others are “no-motion” games. Once one player has guessed, the other has 15 seconds to lock in a prediction.
Professional GeoGuessr players — so described because they’re the best in the world, not because they make a living doing it — say the competitive scene is still nascent but growing rapidly.
Leon Cornale, a 21-year-old professional gamer known as Kodiak, from Ratingen, Germany, described the competitive GeoGuessr as “fragmented and divided”. A group of gamers in France, for example, have formed their own community and run tournaments, while other gamers have formed groups via Reddit. But the recent popularity of GeoGuessr on social media has revived interest in broader competitions.
The best players, who are often only 15 years old, break world records and began participating in tournaments hosted by Mr. Rainbolt and streamed live on Twitch. There’s little money to be had, but star players earn the adulation of the thousands of more casual GeoGuessr players who gather on a Discord server to swap tips and share scores.
Lukas Zircher, a 24-year-old from Innsbruck, Austria, became obsessed with GeoGuessr when he came across one of Mr. Rainbolt’s Instagram posts. Mr. Zircher decided that he too wanted to become one of the greats of the game.
“It’s hard to get good, really good,” said Zircher, whose free time is now spent studying bollards and memorizing the color of the South African ground. “I can recognize every African country from a few pictures, but I’m still far from good – I miss every country in Eastern Europe.”
Syd Mills, a 22-year-old freelance illustrator from New Jersey, became captivated after watching Mr. Rainbolt’s content. She had played GeoGuessr before, but was surprised at how quickly she improved after watching its videos that provide tips on identifying countries.
“This time, instead of passively wandering around and desperately looking for a tongue clue or a flag, I would pick up things like guardrails, road markings, bollards,” Ms Mills said.
She sometimes experiences moments that she imagines similar to the awe that Mr. Rainbolt inspires. Once, while playing GeoGuessr with her father, she immediately identified an image as being in Uruguay, because of lines on a road.
Her reaction, she said, was “How the hell do you know that?”