UPDATE [09/06/2016]: 2016 – 2017 dates, locations, pricing, and new names of select conventions. Happy geek convention-ing!
Thanks to your excellent feedback on this article, I’m starting a series of geek convention round-ups. They’re a curated resource to see when the convention is happening and what’s worth seeing there. Check out the first in the series – a list of anime conventions!
Think about what gets you excited. You know, what do you love to do so much that you stay up until 1am on a work night thinking about, talking about on the Internet with friends, or building?
Image: Boba Fett Multimedia Page
Awesome. Now, have you been to a convention about it? It’s definitely not a requirement to be a certifiable geek on a topic. But in my experience of attending conventions for 14 years, you haven’t lived until you attend a convention. Find a good one and you’ll be on your way to a 72-hour non-stop high with hundreds or thousands of people who are just as passionate as you are.
Sound intense? It is. In the most fantastic way. Don’t know where to start? I put together a guide of U.S.-based geek conventions across gaming, anime, comics, sci-fi, fantasy, and more. It’s certainly not an exhaustive list, but a carefully curated one based on my experiences and those of my convention-pro friends.
PAX West (Formerly PAX Prime)
Location: Seattle, WA
Dates: TBA (likely Labor Day Weekend 2017, September 1-4)
Ticket price: $45 – $150 (Registration will likely open Spring 2017. Check here.)
Great for: Playing big-name games before they’re released, tabletop gaming, learning from industry pros
Photo by Danosuke (creative commons)
Who knew that a humble web comic about gamer life, borne from the creativity of two friends, would grow into the largest fan-operated gaming show for the public? The Penny Arcade comic creators could branch off into a comic convention. But why would they when they have built up a critical mass of a gamer fan following with their comic of nearly 4 million readers?
PAX draws in crowds large enough to fill a football stadium – and in record time. (Would you believe me if I told you they sold out tickets within 30 minutes in previous years? You should. Because it’s no joke. And that’s after weekend passes doubled from $65 in 2013 to $110 in 2014.) Short for “Penny Arcade Expo”, PAX is known for representing a comprehensive breadth of gamerdom: from retro to next season’s anticipated console release, from tabletop gaming to independent gaming, expect to find it there. And revel in it.
I could easily write blog posts for a solid week about PAX, so I should stop while I’m ahead. Hopefully that’s enough to whet your whistle and get you watching the official PAX Twitter feed for when tickets are up for a whole, oh, I don’t know, 10 minutes before they sell out.
Don’t forget to stop by the Big Fish Games booth and say hi! We love to meet our gaming peeps.
Location: Boston, MA
Dates: Rumored to be March 10 – 12, 2017
Ticket price: $50 – $105 (Check here for registration starting Fall 2016.)
Great for: Meeting industry folk, music, playing new console games
Photo by nvidia. (creative commons)
PAX West was such a smashing success for years that the convention set up shop on the East coast.
One of the highlights of PAX is their music talent. The convention has been an early supporter of “Nerdcore”, a genre that blends the heavy beats of rap with the subcultural geek sensibilities of gaming, comics, and lyrics that play out like a Revenge of the Nerds movie. Now the musical genre is becoming mainstream with songs such as Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s “Thrift Shop”, and I’d like to think PAX had a big hand in it.
Other goodness that’s in store for you: a library full of all the tabletop gaming you can possibly cram into one weekend, massive gaming industry panels, one helluva big exhibit hall, and probably the single most epic gaming tournament ever.
Location: Seattle, WA
Dates: TBA 2017
Ticket price: $70 – $100
Great for: Making friends, trying independent tabletop games, learning how to make your own tabletop game
Photo by Brendan Adkins (creative commons)
Nothing can replace our electronic games. But sometimes a rainy day, time with friends and family, or just childhood nostalgia moves us to bust out the tabletop variety.
Engagement designer, Stanford lecturer, and tabletop geek Chris Bennett gave me the inside scoop on GoPlay Northwest. He travels from the bay area every year to join the intimate but thriving GoPlay community. “The event is small enough that I know most of the people there. I can always find wonderful indie role-playing game designers to kibbutz and play with.”
If you love RPGs, story games, experimental games, board games, card games, and more, you’ll eat up GoPlay Northwest.
Location: Indianapolis, IN
Dates: August 17-20, 2017
Ticket price: $50 – $100
Great for: Tabletop gaming, massive exhibitors’ hall shopping
Photo by heath_bar (creative commons)
Best be respecting one of the longest-running gaming conventions in North America. Gen Con has been bringing a bevy of gaming to the masses since 1968. Its roots are deep in tabletop games such as RPGs, card, strategy, board games, etc. They’ve since broadened into the computer game arena.
Fun fact: Gen Con’s name is short for “Geneva Convention”, named after nearby Lake Geneva. It’s also a play on words since the origin of the convention focused on war games, and as you know, the original Geneva Convention is a series of war treaties. Pretty clever.
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Dates: October 14-16, 2016
Ticket price: $25 – $495
Great for: Learning how to design your own game, introspective panels, staying up late with friends to play lots of games
Photo by jeriaska (creative commons)
Some of the biggest games of the last five years started out as a little independent setup with big aspirations. With the advent of mobile devices, it’s becoming easier than ever to self-publish your own games.
Welcome to the rise of indie gaming. Visit IndieCade for a jam-packed weekend of game development education for all ages, a 10-game arcade tournament, the chance to try out 27 top independent games, and much more.
BONUS ROUND! E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo)
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Dates: June 13-15, 2017
Ticket price: $995 (and only if you can prove you’re a gaming industry professional)
Great for: Rubbing elbows with industry insiders, expanding game business knowledge, learning about upcoming gaming technology
Photo by phatfreemiguel (creative commons)
I’m calling this a “bonus round” because attendance is tightly reserved for industry members only but definitely worth some coverage.
E3 is gaming’s largest convention, hands down. It’s where gaming news not only breaks, but E3 is where news is created. Many gamers have nodded off into a daydream or two about being able to go at some point. And not even a decade ago, you only needed to be one or two connections removed from a game industry pro to score tickets.
E3 started cracking down on the fandom attendance to get it back to its insider industry roots. It’s tough as nails to get in without knowing the right people. But if you want a taste of it, look no further than PAX. (See above.) It’s an excellent ‘E3 for the people, by the people.’
By the way: if you happen to have an extra E3 pass, I’d be happy to take it off your hands. ;)
Location: Seattle, WA
Dates: March 2-5, 2017
Ticket price: $40 – $150
Great for: American comic book enthusiasts, families, sci-fi fans, meeting celebrities
Photo by artvixn (creative commons)
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s the Pacific Northwest’s largest comic convention!
Since its inception in 2003, Emerald City ComiCon has exploded to include huge names across a number of geek-tastic industries: comics (of course), science fiction, movies, television, gaming, and more. Don’t be deceived by its down-to-earth approach to conventions: this event is supported with very professional underpinnings that will make you feel engaged. Its family-friendly format makes it a big draw for people of all ages.
One gauge for the evolution of a convention is the talent it can attract. Previous years have been dazzled by star-sprinkled ensembles including Patrick Stewart, Felicia Day, Wil Wheaton, Gillian Anderson, Carrie Fisher, Adam West, and so many more.
A word of warning: Emerald City ComiCon sold out at least a month in advance this year. Make sure you get your tickets as soon as you can – they will go on sale in late summer.
P.S. – I’ll be attending, so be sure to say hi if you see me!
Location: San Diego, CA
Dates: July 20-23, 2017
Ticket price: $40 – $55 per day
Great for: Meeting celebrities, all sorts of American media such as movies and comics, cosplay
Photo by Kevin Dooley (creative commons)
This prominent event hardly needs an introduction: San Diego Comic-Con International (formerly known as San Diego Comic-Con) is synonymous with “pop-culture convention” since geek became chic. The four-day event takes over downtown San Diego to accommodate for every corner of fandom: from movies, to comics, to television, to gaming, to cosplay and everything in between. An overwhelming mélange of 130,000+ attendees pack it in to meet some of the biggest names in media.
Sleep is unlikely. Fun is guaranteed. Buy your tickets early and book your hotel as soon as possible. And don’t forget to bring water and your camera.
Location: Anaheim, CA
Dates: March 31 – April 2, 2017
Ticket price: $20 – $65
Great for: American comics, cosplay, anime screenings, movies
Photo by besighyawn (creative commons)
If San Diego Comic-Con is just a little too intense for your tastes but want the same level of quality, WonderCon is the convention for you. The sister Comic-Con International event hones its superpowers on comics and movies. Buying back copies of rare comics is a favorite here, and the much-awaited Trailer Park is a feast of upcoming releases for moviephiles. Independent comic producers and costuming fanatics feel right at home at WonderCon.
Location: New York City, NY
Dates: October 6-9, 2016
Ticket price: $40 – $50 [Only Thursday badges are available as of this update.]
Great for: Panels, American comics, meeting industry professionals
Photo by numbphoto (creative commons)
Pick up almost any American superhero comic and you’re transported to New York City (or at least a metropolis made to closely resemble The Big Apple *cough*Gotham*cough*). It only makes sense that there is a comic book convention hosted in New York City. My cosplay brain is already running wild on the photoshoot possibilities with those gorgeous sky scrapers in the background.
New York Comic Con is friendly to all sorts of fandom. Find anime, video games, movies, TV, toys, manga, and more to keep you geeking out over a weekend.
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Dates: July 1-4, 2017
Ticket price: $65
Great for: Anime (of course), expert cosplay, tons of panels, meeting industry professionals
Photo by patpayne79 (creative commons)
The largest and second-longest running anime event in North America, Anime Expo is a pilgrimage for anime fans. Make the trek if you enjoy getting lost in the crowds, seeing the most amazing costumes west of Japan, and staying up way past your bedtime to cram in a million activities. Four days of this and you’ll be ready to sleep for a week. And then jump right into a manga-reading marathon.
Pro tip: don’t wear full-body vinyl if you’re wearing a costume to this event. I wore a black vinyl bodysuit one year and just about passed out from heat exhaustion. Los Angeles on the 4th of July + black vinyl = not a good idea. The more you know, kids. The more you know.
Location: Seattle, WA
Dates: April 14-16, 2017
Ticket price: $50 – $75
Great for: Meeting Japanese guests, cosplay, families, teenagers, lots and lots of hand-made and imported goods in the exhibitors’ hall and artists’ alley
Photo by Oscar Chang (creative commons)
I won’t lie. My bias is going to shine for this one. Sakura-Con was my first convention way back in 1999 (I suddenly feel old) and what kicked off my sweet, sweet geek convention and cosplay addiction.
Sakura-Con is the Pacific Northwest’s largest Japanese pop-culture convention that often sells out admission every year to crowds of over 20,000. The staff works hard to keep this con fun, energetic, and family friendly. There’s something here for every age, from kids’ karaoke idol contests to edgy late-night adult anime viewings.
If you’re not dressed up in costume, you’ll be in the minority. Trust me. I brought my introverted husband one year who’s not into this scene and he felt weird not dressed up as a character.
Gaming lounges, big-name J-pop concerts that rock the house (literally – the floor started to bow in from all of the dancing one year), an enormous exhibitors’ hall filled with hand-made goodies, music video contests, an impressive charity auction (come say hi – I help staff this!), the crown-jewel Masquerade, and more. Attend with bells on and be sure to find me so we can revel in our geekery together.
Location: San Jose, CA
Dates: May 26-29, 2017
Ticket price: $55 – $75
Great for: Cosplay, a plethora of events, quality time with friends
Photo by David Yu (creative commons)
My friends return from Fanime weekend all abuzz and with gorgeous cosplay photos, so this convention must be something worth sharing. Their slogan “For Fans, By Fans” welcomes a friendly spectrum of anime geeks. It has a small convention feel for a crowd of 20,000+ that take over downtown San Jose.
The big names in Japanese pop culture, cosplay shenanigans, karaoke contests, video & tabletop gaming, and a large exhibit hall make this event a fan favorite.
Location: Dallas, TX
Dates: June 1 – 4, 2017
Ticket price: $50
Great for: Families, cosplay, mini topic-focused conventions, J-pop
Photo by Wolfnet Archives Photography (creative commons)
A-Kon has to honor of being firsties to the now-prolific U.S. anime convention scene. It was originally named “Project A-Kon”, which I’m pretty sure is a nod to the popular 1986 anime parody Project A-Ko. (Who doesn’t love high-school girls with superhuman strength on a secret mission?)
Any con that’s been around for over 20 years and has had hundreds of thousands of fans in attendance has probably generated a metric ton of event ideas. A-Kon is host to geek speed dating, foam weapon sparring, a swap meet, anime music video contests, a doll fanatic gathering, a grip of cosplay contests, Japanese pop concerts, live action role playing games, and so much more.
Looking for a convention in your neck of the woods? Surprised I didn’t list your favorite? It’s probably my big list of anime conventions!
Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and More
Location: Atlanta, GA
Dates: September 1 – 4, 2017
Ticket price: $50 – $130
Great for: Sci-fi, fantasy, tabletop gaming, cosplay, meeting celebrities, partying
Photo by greyloch (creative commons)
Some conventions hinge on a medium (like comics or movies). Others focus on genres, however they’re presented. DragonCon falls into the latter category.
Hailed as the world’s largest fantasy and sci-fi (and horror?) convention, DragonCon has been drawing tens of thousands of attendees since 1987. A number of my con-going friends have reported that despite its size, it’s a fun and laid-back atmosphere.
And apparently, their parade through downtown Atlanta is something to experience. Now if they could just get everyone to dress up as a zombie, I’ll most definitely geek out a la WALKING DEAD.
Location: Seattle, WA
Dates: October 8-9, 2016
Ticket price: $30 – $55
Great for: Education, meeting genuinely great people, American and British sci-fi TV shows, families, girl power
Photo by GeekGirlCon (creative commons)
Where are all my lady geeks at? RIGHT HERE, RIGHT HERE! We can all agree that the world is a better place because of women who are deeply passionate, smart, and engaged. No matter your age or gender, if you love the women of geek culture, this convention is for you.
Now it its third year, GeekGirlCon is a welcoming and comfortable atmosphere to celebrate and learn about movie effects, game design, authoring a book, building a website, creating a costume, and so much more. I’ve been impressed with the quality and variety of panels, as well as the amount of love that goes into every aspect of the convention.
Bring your passions, leave with a warm glow.
Location: Las Vegas, NV
Dates: August 2 – 6, 2017
Ticket price: TBA
Great for: Meeting Trekkie celebrities, partying, buying rare merchandise
Photo by The Convention Fans Blog (creative commons)
Those new Star Trek movies directed by J.J. Abrams are hot. You don’t need to be a series fan to appreciate them – they’re bringing ST back to the masses.
And like the movies, you don’t need to be a hardcore pointy-eared, V-handed geek to enjoy yourself at the official Star Trek Convention. Over 70 Star Trek celebrities beam down to share their experiences and even perform. Yup, that’s right. Several ST celebs have another career on Broadway and beyond, and share their stage talents with Star Trek fans. Get lost in an enormous vendor room. And even be a part of a World-Record attempt at the largest meeting of costume-clad Star Trek fans.
Life’s short – get out and start conventioning. Which conventions have you attended? What’s your favorite?