Experienced GeoGuessr players know that Google Maps recognizes them immediately

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

“That’ll be the south of the Philippines, somewhere down this road,” Trevor Rainbolt said immediately, clicking a location on a world map less than 11 miles from the location.

Next was a road winding through woods. Lake Tahoe? Siberia? “It looks like we’re going to be in Switzerland here, unless we’re in Japan. Yes, we must be here in Japan,” said Mr. Rainbolt, identifying the country correctly.

Mr. Rainbolt has become the face of a rapidly growing community of geography fanatics gaming a game called GeoGuessr. The premise is simple: while you’re staring at a computer or phone, Google Street View places you somewhere in the world and you have to guess where exactly you are as quickly as possible. You can click to travel on streets and through cities, looking for distinguishable landmarks or languages. The closer you guess, the more points you get.

To some, Mr. Rainbolt’s quick answers 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. The trick is easy for the magician, but much more difficult for everyone else.”

For the casual gamer, traversing stills of winding pastoral roads, Mediterranean foothills, and streets full of tuk-tuks can be tranquil, especially with no time limit. But for artists like Mr. Rainbolt, the pace is frantic, and identifying a location can take seconds—or less.

Mr. Rainbolt is not the best GeoGuessr player in the world. This award is often credited to a Dutch teenager walking by GeoStik, or to a French player named Blinky. But as of around the beginning of this year, Mr. Rainbolt has been the standard-bearer for GeoGuessr, thanks to the compelling social media posts he shares with him 820,000 followers on TikTok as well as on other social platforms.

Mr. Rainbolt appears in a hoodie, and sometimes with headphones, while dramatic classical music plays in the background, and identifies countries from what appears to be a simple glance at the sky or a stand of trees.

In some videos, he guesses the right place after looking at a Street View image for just a tenth of a second, or in black and white, or pixelated – or all together. In others, he is blindfolded and (correctly) guessing a description someone else is giving him.

The videos that have caused the most shock are those in which Mr. Rainbolt uses his topographical detective work to identify exactly where music videos were filmed. In a viral clip, he found the exact Nevada street from a video of a person driving a capybara. “If I ever go missing I hope someone hires this guy for me,” one Twitter user commented.

GeoGuessr was developed in 2013 by a Swedish software engineer, Anton Wallén, who came up with the idea while traveling around 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.

Mr. Rainbolt’s social media posts gave it a further boost. Last month, Mr. Rainbolt was live streaming in a promotional coup Ludwig Ahgrena former Twitch personality who now broadcasts for three million followers on YouTube.

The GeoGuessr site now has 40 million accounts, said Filip Antell, who leads content for GeoGuessr, a Stockholm-based company with 25 employees. Some of these people are subscribers who deposit $2 per month to play unlimited games. The revenue, Mr. Antell said, goes to paying 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 bucket list, including Laos and the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. People tell Mr. Rainbolt his passion is a little crazy. The most common question his friends ask him is, “Is it real?”

He says it is, and promises he’s never faked a video. Sometimes he misunderstands countries. Mistaking the United States for Canada or the Czech Republic for Slovakia are two common gaffes of even the greatest players. And he acknowledged that he mostly just posted his highlights on social media and didn’t fiddle around occasionally.

How does he do that?

The key, of course, is practice. Mr. Rainbolt fell down the GeoGuessr rabbit hole during the pandemic, watching others live stream their game and poring over study guides compiled by geography lovers. He said he spent four to five hours each day learning: playing GeoGuessr repeatedly in specific countries to get a feel for the terrain, and memorizing how landmarks like road markings and telephone poles differ from country to country .

“To be honest, I haven’t had a social life for the past year,” he said. “But it’s worth it because it’s so much fun and I love to learn.”

Some of the key features Mr. Rainbolt uses to distinguish one country from another, he said, are bollards, the posts used as barriers at roadsides; telephone poles; license plates; on which side of the road the cars drive; and floor color.

There are other clues if you know where to look. The quality of the image matters – Google filmed different countries with different camera generations – as does the color of the car used to record the terrain. For example, looking at a white car in South America means you’re in Peru, Bolivia or Chile, Mr. Rainbolt said.

GeoGuessr has a variety of game modes. One of the most popular formats is a duel, where players or teams start with 6,000 points and take “damage” based on how accurate their opponent’s estimates are until they are reduced to zero. Some games allow you to click to move around the map, while others are no-move games. Once one player has guessed, the other has 15 seconds to make a prediction.

Professional GeoGuessr players — so described because they’re the best in the world, not because it’s what they do for a living — say the competitive scene is still nascent but growing fast.

Leon Cornale, a 21-year-old professional gamer named Kodiak from Ratingen, Germany, described the competitive GeoGuessr as “fragmented and forked”. For example, a group of players in France have created their own community and are hosting tournaments, while other players have formed groups through Reddit. But GeoGuessr’s recent popularity on social media has spurred interest in broader competitions.

The best players, often as young as 15, compete for world records and have started participating in tournaments organized by Mr. Rainbolt and streamed live on Twitch. There’s little money to be had, but star players deserve the admiration of GeoGuessr’s thousands of casual players who gather on a Discord server to exchange tips and share results.

Lukas Zircher, a 24-year-old in Innsbruck, Austria, became obsessed with GeoGuessr when he stumbled across one of Mr. Rainbolt’s Instagram posts. Mr. Zircher decided that he too wanted to be one of football’s greats.

“It’s hard to get good, really good,” said Mr Zircher, who now devotes his free time to studying bollards and memorizing the color of South African soil. “I can see all the African countries in a few pictures, but I’m far from good – I miss all the Eastern European countries.”

Syd Mills, a 22-year-old freelance illustrator from New Jersey, was hooked after seeing Mr. Rainbolt’s content. She had previously played GeoGuessr, but was surprised at how quickly she improved after watching his country identification tips videos.

“Rather than passively wandering around desperately looking for a voice cue or a flag, this time I would pick up on things like crash barriers, road markings, bollards,” Ms Mills said.

She sometimes experiences moments that she imagines are similar to the awe that inspires Mr. Rainbolt. Once, while playing GeoGuessr with her father, she immediately identified an image as being in Uruguay based on lines on a street.

His reaction, she said, was, “How the hell do you know that?”

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