Why MAGfest is What Videogame Conventions Should Be

What do you think of when I say (or write, whatever) the phrase “video game convention”? Probably things like E3, PAX, maybe even Comic-Con depending on your familiarity with video games (hint: Comic-Con is not a video game convention). But for myself and many like me, the first think that pops into our brain and tumbles out of our mouth almost before you can finish the question is MAGFest.

MAGFest, or the Music and Gaming Festival, started in 2002. Back then, it was called the Mid-Atlantic Gaming Festival. It was just 265 people, spending the weekend at a Holiday Inn in Roanoke, rocking out and playing video games. Each year, it steadily grew its modest numbers, until its 9th convention, when it absolutely exploded. To date it’s the only MAGFest that has met its hard cap. The sheer size of MAGFest 9 caused a shift in venue to one much, much larger. And for good reason – MAGFest 10 more than doubled the attendance of the year previous. Then, 3,000 more people came to MAGFest 11. And still 3,000 more to MAGFest 12. Odds are, they’ll hit 15,000+ at MAGFest 13. And that’s huge.

If I may slightly digress, my experience with MAGFest was as one of those responsible for the doubling at 10. I grew up in suburban Northern Virginia. A nice place, sure, but one more focused on sports and politics than on video games. I’d see videos and hear people talk about going to San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, places I’d go and conventions I’d attend if I’d had the travel money. Then I learned of MAGFest. A convention? About games? Within driving distance?! Sign me up!

And it was magical. It truly was, for ways I’ll discuss in a moment. But I’ve been to every one since. Including its most recent event, MAGFest 8.5. It was an attempt to get back to the basics of MAGFest, a way to rekindle the nostalgia of the MAGFest old guard. It returned to its much smaller venue from MAGFests 6 through 9, and only 1,500 people attended. And, though I was an outsider, I got it. There was room to breathe, and many friendships were more easily made from running into people on the small show floor. It may be my favorite MAGFest event so far.

But as I thought about it, and looked at the numbers, I was shocked that the same magic I felt at 8.5 was present at the exponentially larger events I’d been to previously. The same energy, the same fun, was not dampened but the extra 10,000 or so attendees. How? Well, I think it comes from the event’s simplicity. There are four main sections on the “show floor” if you can call it that. Tabletop games, Arcade/Console games, Merchants, and a LAN room. In addition, there are usually 2 or more concert halls, and various events and panels all around the venue. There you go. Have fun, go nuts. Play games, have fun, meet people.

And the people, the people who attend are what makes it. Everyone there is there to have fun. They’re not fighting over who gets to play the next unreleased AAA game, everyone is there for a singular purpose – to have fun. There’s a genuine warmth at all hours of the event, like you are hanging out with 12,000 of your closest friends. Anyone trying to tell me that gamers are unsociable, neckbearded assholes needs to go to MAGFest and just…just look. Look at all of the people, all of the gamers, hanging out, socializing, and loving everyone and everything around them, at least for the weekend.

And my theory of why this convention continues to exude these feelings is the fact that it’s virtually untouched by the industry proper. Yes, there are a myriad of YouTubers and internet celebrities in attendance, and the occasional voice actor or two. But guess what? They’re there for the same reason you are – to have fun. Even the few indie games that have shown up in recent years have been shown by some of the nicest developers on Earth.

If you couldn’t tell already, I love, love, love MAGFest. So much so that I don’t go on vacation anymore – I go to MAGFest. No other event can I say that I met at least 18 people I’d only seen on YouTube, played in a Persona 4 Ultmax tournament before the game even released, and played Johann Sebastian Joust with a man dressed as Little Mac, in the same day. If you can, I implore you, come to MAGFest. I – and 12,000 of my closest friends – would love to see you.

MAGFest 13 is this weekend, January 23-26, at the Gaylord National Hotel and Convention Center in National Harbor, MD. You can find more info at magfest.org

Ethics disclosure: The author wrote this editorial of his own volition. He has no affiliation or partnership with MAGFest, Inc., other than being a huge fan and a three-time supporter.

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