An inconspicuous stretch of highway 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 Southern Philippines, somewhere on this road down here,” Trevor Rainbolt said immediately, clicking a location on a world map less than 18 miles from the spot.
Next to it was a road that wound through woods. Lake Tahoe? Siberia? “Looks like we’ll be here in Switzerland unless we’re in Japan. Yes, we should be here in Japan,” Mr. Rainbolt said, pointing the country correctly.
mr. Rainbolt has become the face of a burgeoning community of geography buffs who play a game called GeoGuessr† The premise is simple: while staring at a computer or phone, you’ll be plopped down in Google Street View somewhere in the world and have to guess where exactly you are as quickly as possible. You can click to travel on roads and through cities and scan for recognizable landmarks or language. The closer you gamble, the more points you score.
To some, Mr. Rainbolt’s quick answers may seem like wizardry. To 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 based in Los Angeles. “It’s like a wizard. For the magician, the trick is simple, but for everyone else, it’s a lot harder.”
For the casual player, it can be peaceful to traverse stills of winding pastoral roads, Mediterranean foothills and streets full of tuk-tuks, especially with no time limit. But for artists like Mr. Rainbolt’s pace is frenetic and identifying a location can take just seconds — or less.
mr. Rainbolt is not the best GeoGuessr player in the world. That distinction is often attributed to a Dutch teenager passing by GeoStics, or to a French player known as Blinky. But since early this year, Mr. Rainbolt has been the standard-bearer for GeoGuessr, thanks to his engaging social media posts, which he shares with his 820,000 followers on TikTok as well as on other social platforms.
He appears in a hoody and sometimes headphones with dramatic classical music playing in the background, identifying countries after what appears to be simply a look at the sky or a patch of trees.
In some videos, he guesses the right location after looking at a Street View image for just a tenth of a second, whether it’s black and white, or pixelated — or all of the above. In others he is blindfolded and (correctly) advises against a description given to him by someone else.
The videos that have caused the most shock are those in which Mr. Rainbolt, using his topographical sleuthing, identifies exactly where music videos were shot. 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 man on my behalf,” commented one Twitter user.
GeoGuessr was created in 2013 by a Swedish software engineer, Anton Wallén, who came up with the idea while trekking across the United States. Early influencers like GeoWizard, a British YouTuber, helped promote the game. It also became popular during the pandemic, when it introduced a multiplayer mode called Battle Royale.
Mr. Rainbolt’s social media posts further boosted it. Last month, in a publicity coup, Mr. Rainbolt with Ludwig Ahgrena former Twitch personality who now broadcasts to three million followers on YouTube.
The GeoGuessr site now has 40 million accounts, said Filip Antell, who leads content for GeoGuessr, a 25-person company based in Stockholm. Some of those people are subscribers who put in $2 a month to play an unlimited number of games. The proceeds, Mr. Antell said, will go towards 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 locations on his bucket list, including Laos and the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. People tell Mr. Rainbolt that his passion is a little crazy. The most common question his friends ask him is, “Is it real?”
He says he does and promises that he has never faked a video. He sometimes lands wrong. Confusing the United States with Canada, or the Czech Republic with Slovakia, are two common missteps for even the best players. And he acknowledged that he mostly just posted his highlights on social media, rather than the occasional fumble.
So how does he do it?
The key, of course, is practice. Mr. Rainbolt fell down GeoGuessr’s rabbit hole during the pandemic, as he livestreamed others their game and browsed study guides curated by geography enthusiasts. He said he studied four to five hours every day: playing GeoGuessr in specific countries to get a feel for the terrain and remember how landmarks like road markings and telephone poles differ from country to country.
“I honestly 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 enjoy learning.”
Some of the key features Mr Rainbolt uses to distinguish one country from another, he said, are bollards, the posts used as barriers on the sides of roads; telephone poles; licence plate; which side of the road the cars drive on; and ground color.
There are other clues, if you know where to look. The quality of the image matters – Google filmed different countries with different generations of cameras – as does the color of the car used to capture the terrain. For example, a glimpse of 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 guesses are until reduced to zero. Some games allow you to click to move through the map, while other games are ‘don’t move’. Once one player has guessed, the other has 15 seconds to record a prediction.
Professional GeoGuessr players – described as being the best in the world, not because they make a living – say the competitive scene is still in its infancy but growing rapidly.
Leon Cornale, a 21-year-old pro player known as Kodiak, from Ratingen, Germany, described the competitive GeoGuessr as “fragmented and divided”. For example, a group of players in France has formed their own community and organized tournaments, while other players have formed groups through Reddit. But GeoGuessr’s recent popularity on social media has fueled interest in wider competitions.
The best players, often as young as 15, compete for world records and have started participating in tournaments organized by Mr. Rainbolt and are streamed live on Twitch. There’s little money to be made, but star players do deserve the admiration 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 in Innsbruck, Austria, became obsessed with GeoGuessr when he appeared on one of Mr. Rainbolt stumbled upon. Mr. Zircher decided that he also wanted to become one of the greats of the game.
“It’s hard to get good, really good,” said Mr. Zircher, whose spare time is now spent studying bollards and remembering the color of South African soil. “I recognize all the African countries from a few photos, but I’m still far from good – I miss all the Eastern European countries.”
Syd Mills, a 22-year-old freelance illustrator from New Jersey, became enthralled after viewing Mr. rainbolt. She had played GeoGuessr before, but was amazed at how quickly she improved after watching his videos that offer tips on identifying countries.
“This time, instead of passively wandering around desperately looking for a language cue or a flag, I would pick up things like guardrails, road markings, bollards,” Ms Mills said.
She sometimes experiences moments that she thinks are comparable to the awe that Mr. Rainbolt awakens. Once, when she played GeoGuessr with her father, she immediately identified an image as being in Uruguay, because of lines on a road.
His response, she said, was, “How the hell do you know that?”