Earlier this year, I wondered if–like in 2020–most in-person game conventions for 2021 would be cancelled. Vaccinations and masks provided a glimmer of hope, but can you imagine yourself in a crowded space with thousands of other people right now? Maybe you’re there, but I’m not.

Then Dragon Con attracted 42,000 attendees, followed by 35,000 for Gen Con (Origins is happening right now, so I don’t have their results yet). I have other examples below, but those numbers were a big reminder to me that conventions still have quite a bit of of life and value. Today I’ll talk about different types of conventions and how creators might get value out of them.

In-Person Conventions (Large)

Dragon Con: The reports indicate that 42,000 people attended Atlanta’s Dragon Con the first week of September. Attendees either needed to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test, and masks were required indoors.
Gen Con: Reports indicate that around 35,000 people attended Gen Con in mid-September, with masks required indoors (though little other precautions, which had attendees worried on the first day). My coworker, Alex, attended to take meetings, and he reported afterwards, “As a whole I would say it was definitely worth it to go. I got to have a lot of in person interactions with various people across the industry.”
Essen Spiel: This big game fair is coming up in mid-October in Germany; see the link for COVID precautions and requirements.

I really wondered if these big conventions would survive the pandemic, but the data seems to indicate that these conventions will thrive even while masks remain a necessary part of social events. I think there’s a huge opportunity here for smaller, newer publishers who previously may have had difficulty getting a booth in these exposition halls.

In-Person Gatherings (Modest)

The Calling: The growing CCG called Flesh & Blood held a large tournament in Las Vegas in mid-September, drawing 877 participants for a $10,000 prize pool.
Geekway to the West: Here in St. Louis, Geekway will take place next week (October 5-7), and they’re expecting around 1200 fully-vaccinated, masked attendees. I will be one of them, as I love to play new-to-me published games with a variety of people there.
Stonemaier Games Design Day: On a much smaller end of the spectrum, we held our annual Design Day playtesting gathering and Pieces Board Game Bar & Cafe earlier in September. There were 75 attendees–a mix of designers and playtesters–and everyone wore masks and was fully vaccinated.

Smaller, focused, more local gatherings seemed to be thriving before the pandemic, and I think they’ll continue to do well for the foreseeable future. The pandemic is a good reminder for these gatherings that size and growth aren’t the goal–it’s the experience they offer to those who choose to attend. Pieces has a capacity of around 100 people, and we could have pushed that capacity for Design Day, but packing more people into the door wasn’t the goal–we just wanted those who attended to have a good, safe time.

Virtual Conventions

PortalCon Online: In July, Portal Games hosted a 20-hour live-streaming event featuring “contests, gameplay sessions with designers, seminars, special guests, and more.”
CMON Virtual Expo: Prior to 2020, CMON hosted an in-person expo to showcase their current and upcoming products; they’ve switched for now to an online expo. The videos they streamed in late August averaged around 3000 views and had fairly good audience participation.
Board & Dice Con: Board & Dice used Discord to host an event in early April featuring live streams, interviews, panels, and demo tables of their upcoming products.
Steam Digital Tabletop Fest: In late October, Auroch Digital is hosting the “main stage” streaming events. I’ll be on a panel (already recorded) about alcohol in games.

I think companies are still learning how to most effectively run virtual conventions. At the time of the live event, you want to capture that sense of community and excitement. But you also want to post the videos and other information so people can discover it for weeks and months afterwards.

What’s the Value for Creators?

This was a big topic discussed on a recent Secret Cabal Gaming Podcast, which is definitely worth a listen. Of what they said and my observations, here are the primary reasons a creator of any kind might consider participating in a convention in 2021 and beyond:

attract the attention of people wouldn’t normally look your way: Conventions can be a good way to expand your audience simply due to proximity. I think the key here is to take full advantage of those who pay attention to you while you’re at the convention; in my opinion, the number one way to do this is to use promotions and discounts to get their email addresses (and their permission to add them to your newsletter).
connect directly with people who already know you: I try to do this in a variety of ways via social media, but Design Day is always a reminder to me of the value of true face-to-face interactions. There’s no virtual replacement for them.
create memorable moments: There’s so much happening at a convention that people are likely to walk away with a lot of blurry memories and only a few distinct ones. Put your biggest personalities on display, and if that’s not your style, find another way to create a special, memorable experience for those who visit your booth.
have fun (and learn in the process): Conventions are meant to be fun. Even though they are work for any creator, it doesn’t mean that they can’t also be fun. I’d recommend trying a few different types of conventions to see which type is the best fit for you. I’ve found that the pomp and grandeur of Gen Con isn’t a good fit for me, while the intimacy, inclusion, and convenience of Geekway is perfect. Plus, as a designer, I’m always trying to learn from other published games, so any easy-to-attend gathering where I just play a lot of games for a few games is awesome.

Note that I haven’t emphasized revenue or sales on this list. If that’s your motivation for attending a convention, there’s a good chance you’ll be disappointed (but please prove me wrong!).

What are your thoughts on game conventions in 2021 and beyond, either from the perspective of a creator or an attendee?

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Also read: 9 Observations from Not Attending Gen Con 2019 and Kickstarter Lesson #37: Conventions and Face Time

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