Borne out of the arcade boom, the worldwide mega-explosion of gaming culture has been tapped for exhibition domination.
This summer, you were one of two types of people. You either took to roaming the streets, interacting with the invisible creatures that now inhabit our cities, or you were the person who crossed the road to avoid them.
What may sound like a sudden global cult conversion was, of course, the launch of Pokémon Go – an augmented reality game for smartphones that brought back the popular culture phenomenon of Pokémon. It also helped project gaming culture into the mainstream spotlight.
From Pac-Man, Mario to Pikachu, these videogame characters have attracted such massive fan bases that they’ve become instantly recognisable across the globe. Increasing numbers are pre-ordering computer games more than a year in advance, cosplayers are considered celebrities and serious gamers are making way more than a buck indulging in their hobby on stage as keynotes at events.
This sense of universal appeal is what has attracted organisations to thrive off this once niche market. Creative agencies and exhibition organisers around the world, such as QD Events, Gamer Events Ltd and MCM Central, have tapped into this culture, knowing that it has become more than an obsession and passion. It is a potential goldmine and means big money.
“The importance of live events and face-to-face is just the quality of human interaction,” says Mick Pearson, of UK Games Expo Ltd, who co-organised the first UK Games Expo 10 years ago. “It breaks the boundaries of the computer game. It also adds value to, say, visiting a sporting event, which is just something to watch.
“As for value for money, where would you get anything up to 18 hours of hands-on entertainment for the price of an expo ticket? The ability to try before you buy is priceless. The box art of some games I have bought in the past has not been matched by the gaming experience – this is no longer the case.”
It helps that the whole team have an interest in games, he says.
“I started as a figure wargamer in the late 1970s; the others have all been gamers in one or more respects for many years. Most of the volunteers who help with the expo are also gamers. Many of them volunteer to put something back into their hobby.”
Perhaps key to the gaming exhibition phenomenon is that increasing margins isn’t culturally at its core.
“Profit is not our number one aim and we strive to make sure that the show is as good as it can be for everyone,” says Pearson.
However, these events have the lucrative potential of being highly sponsorable to the major gaming companies. The week the PS4 and Xbox One were released, more than 2,500 were pre-ordered every minute. At these events, companies like Sony and Microsoft can open the doors of an exhibition hall and tap right into their target audience.
From bedroom to mainstream
What was once stereotyped as a dirty, nerdy culture, full of kids who knew so little about human social interaction that they created their own language, giggled over memes and in-jokes repeatedly, and spent their whole lives online, has made a giant leap into the mainstream. And organisers are beginning to realise this.
They do have their own languages, one being leespeak – ‘an alternate representation of text that replaces letters with numbers or character combinations’. According to gamers, in multiplayer games, every second counts; therefore, shorthand is a critical tool for communicating with other players during gameplay. (Just make sure you don’t get ‘pwned’ or called a ‘n00b’.)
It’s not only the teens who are glued to their screens, according to The 2016 Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry, released by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) in April 2016, the average video game player in the USA is 35 years old and has been playing video games for about 13 years.
It was announced earlier this year that in Japan, the central government had the first-ever issuing of athlete visas to two gamers at a tournament – a pivotal moment for the competitive gaming industry.
Society has moved a long way since gaming fans first stepped out from the shadows to play games proudly to openly celebrate geek culture. Much like how EN has reported on the rise of comic cons.
“Gaming historically has been a solitary experience, making it hard for parents to engage with their kids around gaming, but live events allow them to be involved, and to even be the cool parent that takes their kids to such an event,” Helen Doherty, marketing manager at QD Events Ltd, organiser of Resonate – Total Gaming Festival, tells EN.
“With the growth of YouTuber gamers and eSport players, mass market gamers have personalities their fans can follow and be excited about meeting them in person.”
Like any sport or competition event, Doherty explains, the atmosphere of seeing eSports matches in person is unbeatable.
Scotland’s first ever Resonate - Total Gaming Festival launched this summer at the SECC and played host to the festival of eSports and gaming, bringing some of the world’s most popular games including Pokémon, Star Wars and Minecraft to Scotland – home of 4J Studios and Grand Theft Auto.
“I think it’s the fun factor that has proved gaming shows to be so popular over the last five years, and the social and competitive elements. Meet and greets are very popular and I think overall gaming shows will continue to become more and more popular,” says Doherty.
As video games tend to have settings, characters and plots, they have often become the basis for Hollywood movies (for example the upcoming Assassin’s Creed) and have even influenced musicians over the years.
Gaming crosses cultures, demographics and even media; from events, exhibitions, online and even music. During the age of arcade video games in the 1980s, arcade game sounds and bleeps could be heard in early hip hop music, synthpop, and elctro music.
This large crossover of media has led to gaming being ever more accessible and events are helping to quench gamers’ thirst.
The question is, what has contributed to the huge boom in the gaming culture we see today? Enthusiasts speak in a special language, undertake hours of devotional activity, and together experience moments of great joy and great sorrow.
“Live events have given gaming tangibility and a credibility that they were otherwise lacking,” Doherty says. "Previously games, prizes and online competitors, etc. were virtual – you could imagine an online eSports player winning a major world tournament, logging off and getting called down for dinner by his parents who are completely oblivious to their child’s achievement. Making games and competitors more tangible makes the industry more credible, which attracts sponsors and mainstream attention, which in turn fuels more growth of the industry.”
Gamers have truly formed their own community. Some of the most advanced games take place with massive multiplayer online gaming.
Servers of tens of thousands can be present simultaneously in the same instance or environment with the player base in the millions, playing major titles including World of Warcraft and League of Legends.
Founded in 1999, Insomnia is a culmination of all of the best bits of videogaming and is a four-day gaming festival, where visitors stay up all night playing games. Literally.
With more than 36,000 gamers in attendance, it has even become a family event, with parents able to enjoy gaming alongside their children. It combines a massive LAN (local area network), a growing exhibition, internet celebrity appearances, prize-based competitive gaming tournaments and other interesting activities within the package of an inclusive, gaming-focused social atmosphere.
"For many years, there were no exhibitors. It was just a LAN party, that and tournaments," Craig Fletcher of organiser Multiplay tells WIRED.co.uk. "We didn’t even have a way to watch our tournament finals, so it’s come a long way."
Paying respect to gaming’s pixel-powered superstars, cosplay has become a huge deal in gaming events, adding even more reason to buy a ticket to the shows.
“For some people they are heroes,” says Pearson. “The cosplay hobby is wider than just walking round in costume. Devotees spend hours and often lots of money, creating the look as well as the walk and talk.
“It is not only one character; many cosplayers will have several personas and actually change costume during the show. For them it is an art form; they are actors and shows like UK Games Expo are their stage. There is also a community aspect to cosplay. We have encouraged it as it is one of those areas that enriches the overall experience of the event,” he adds.
One year, when UK Games Expo was held at the Clarendon Suites in Birmingham, the organiser had an interesting moment.
“Customers had to drive around the building to get to the car park area. Our parking team flagged the fact that no cars were coming round so I walked towards the entrance. I saw a car with all the doors open as well as the boot and saw a number of Stormtroopers ‘searching the car for droids’,” describes Pearson.
“A queue had formed behind this spectacle, but no one was complaining – they were all enthralled by the search. Eventually it was announced that the car was clear of droids and the family were allowed to proceed – the kids in the car loved it!”
Another anecdote Pearson recalls is when, at the Hilton Metropole on the NEC complex, the event had a public marriage proposal in the foyer of the hotel.
Clad in a headset, playing popular video games including World of Warcraft, Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, the sector becomes more social with multiplayer and online capability, and gamers are finding themselves in growing social networks.
With the eSports trend growing, gaming can be both competition as well as entertainment, leading to crowds gathering to watch expert gamers compete at events, much like delegates thwarting towards a known keynote speaker.
Lost in transition
In Japan for instance, video gaming is a major industry, with companies like Sega, Taito, Namco and Nintendo all producing electro-mechanical arcade games.
Japan eventually became a major exporter of games during the golden age of arcade video games in the 1970s. With the help of organisations like the Japan eSports Association (JeSPA), competitive playing of video games as a sector is being nudged towards professional status.
According to japantimes.co.jp, the most recent tournament finale attracted 350 players and roughly 1,000 spectators, while more than 10,000 people followed it live online.
One of the biggest events in Japan to date was Game Party Japan 2016, which took place in January. The prize money totalled roughly ¥100 million (almost £1m). While in the USA, one tournament is reported to have prize money of roughly US$18 million (approx. £13m). Professional players in the US can earn more than ¥100 million, according to JeSPA.
Established in 2012, DetonatioN Gaming is the first Japanese company to offer full-time employment and a salary to a professional gaming team.
DetonatioN Gaming CEO Nobuyuki Umezaki says 80 per cent of the financing for the team comes from sponsorship and partnerships, and the rest is derived from advertising and promotional campaigns.
“Shows are getting better across the board; new venues, better organisation and more information on what it happening,” says Pearson.
"There are also new shows being announced and there is room for more, though for us the appeal would be for multi-faceted shows to cater for a wider audience.”
Nostalgia arises for some, and if you can’t beat’em, join’em seems to be the mantra for event organisers as they create a platform for visitors to experience the unparalleled joy of being in the same room as their heroes and dabble in new unreleased games.
That’s what has helped this particular market be one of the few to emerge from the recession relatively unscathed over the years.
Pearson adds: “We think the 2008 financial crash may have discouraged some people from big projects and expenditures like a new house, new car etc. This possibly gave them more disposable income, and some of that has been spent on entertainment, i.e. games.
“They are also more interactive than, say, computer games, even the MMORPG genre [massive multiplayer online role-playing games] is a solitary experience, whereas real games need human interaction.”
And that is where the power of live exists.