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Conventions are Cancelled: What that means for cons, companies, and consumers

It’s offcial, GenCon is cancelled, as is Essen, Europe’s largest gaming convention for nerds. And it’s old news that Comic Con has been cancelled.

GenCon is a staple for roleplaying and board gaming nerds. It’s the largest, drawing in 60,000+. It’s also the oldest, began by Gark Gygax: King of the Nerds himself.

Personally, this is a bummer. Nerds Earth travels to GenCon on a press pass and Abram was our intrepid reporter this year. It was my gig a couple years ago and I have fond memories of being in the Paizo press room with Erik Mona, getting the skinny on the release of Pathfinder 2e.

But although the cancellation of GenCon is disappointing news, it’s the correct call. 60,000+ nerds crammed into a convention center feels like a pandemic possibility in the best of times. Con Crud is a real thing. We don’t need Con Covid.

But rather than just share the news of GenCon’s cancellation, let’s talk for a moment about what this means for conventions, publishers, and fans.

From Cancelled Cons to Virtual Cons

First, conventions are taking things online. Most of the major conventions coupled their news of cancellation with news of an online substitute, despite little time to strategize best practices nor time to implement an online experience adequately.

Kudos for everyone trying to make the best of a disappointing situation, but it’s a pivot, quite frankly, that many con organizers won’t be able to make with excellence. Expect a lot of mediocre, underwhelming online experiences.

Will fans tune in to virtual conventions? Clicking through stuff on your screen is nowhere near the same as pushing through crowds to browse merchandise floor aisles or sitting in the audience of a panel at a live show.

Crowds can bring social anxiety but they also deliver energy. Experiencing the live roar of applause from 1,000 fellow like-minded nerds when a star-studded panel is unveiled is a pretty great experience. Standing in line for hot games at GenCon is exhausting, but I also cherish my memories of geeking out with other fans in the line.

So, will virtual conventions work? Who knows. But they are what we’ve got for now.

The celebrity-fueled conventions are fully out of the box. Many conventions like Comic Con and Dragon Con make hundreds of thousands of dollars by paying nerd-beloved celebrities to attend their shows, then charging fans hundreds of dollars to line up like cattle for a 30 second chat and a selfie.

It’s wish fulfillment for millions. Nerds everywhere daydream that a 30 second encounter with their favorite star will be all that it takes for them to get noticed and form a life-long friendship with the famous person. It’s cringingly immature. But we’re a star-struck culture and all of us have had those daydreams at least once, despite how embarrassingly needy they are.

Well, virtual conventions are trying to tap into the same fan frenzy by offering 90 second Zoom meet and greets with celebrities. For hundreds of dollars a pop, of course.

Will it work? Well, pretty much any brush with celebrity is incentive enough to convince an American to part with their money, but there is no question this is not the position convention organizers (or celebrities for that matter) thought they’d find themselves in.

But what about the show room? How does a virtual convention replicate the sales of the convention floor salesroom? Well, they don’t.

There is no question that the inability to demo board games or to have a tactile product available that nerds can touch will hurt sales. Zoom simply can’t replicate the feeling of picking up a game component and rolling it through your fingers.

I’ve written extensively on the benefits on an FLGS, so before you shout “digital Amazon” in the comments at me, at least do that syllabus reading. Sales will suffer without that physicality and the lack of the energy and hype that surrounds cons is a killer as well.

Small publishers might be fine. Many of those were part-time affairs where the designers kept the day job, but trekked to conventions as a side hustle in hopes of maybe going full time some day. Many of those will skip a year and return to the scene in the next.

Large companies will likely do fine as well. Most of those have a broad back catalog coupled with a mature online presence. That might provide enough margin to ride it out. Will there be belt tightening. Sure. But companies like Wizards of the Coast are fine.

The middle class of publishers will get a knock out blow, just as the middle class in the broader culture gets the same. A medium sized publisher with 4-10 employees simply might not have the reserves to ride things out. They’ll need to downsize.

And if you are that type of publisher in the roleplaying section, it’s worse because those are the houses that offer a lot of freelance work. That’ll dry up because even if they could get the products made, they can’t sell them.

Gaming Library, Gen Con 2019.

How You Can Help Publishers

Nerds on Earth will do what we can to help. We’re always pleased to highlight products we enjoy. We’re turning down most products from publishers now, but we’ll likely loosen up a bit on that if we think we can offer a “billboard” opportunity for some products looking to find an audience. We hope other websites will do likewise.

There are things you can do as an individual as well. If you had a convention budget this year, consider spending it direct. Paizo, for example, was a premier sponsor of GenCon and they had Starfinder and Pathfinder 2nd Edition books scheduled. Look them up at Paizo.com instead.

Consider doing the same for other products and publishers you enjoy. Of course, I in no way want to tell you how to spend your money. That’s your choice to make. 300,000 people have died worldwide, an absolutely heartbreaking number of souls that’s the equivalent of 5 full GenCons. Convention organizers are doing the right thing in cancelling, even if it’s disappointing to many.