PAX West 2021: A Return To Normalcy To Some, A Path Forward For Conventions
Thanks in part to the vigilance of attendees to keep masks up and time spent congregating in queues brought to a minimum, the city of Seattle was host to one of the first in-person events since Covid-19 related restrictions and lockdowns went into effect. In fact, it was both PAX East 2020 in Boston, MA, and now PAX West 2021 in Seattle, WA that bookended the current chain of events that I’ve been present to cover on behalf of Wccftech. With fans around the world viewing PAX West as a testing ground for what conventions could be in 2021, it’s important to view this weekend as a success, albeit at a much smaller scale than the usual convention circuit.
The event opened on Friday with the usual fanfare: fans held in massive queues and congregating and intermingling with one another as the doors open up at precisely ten o’clock, nine for those holding a yellow Media or Content Creator badge. Ignoring the number of attendees for a moment, the most noticeable change was the willingness and support of each and every attendee to wear a face mask for the entire duration of the convention. To even pick up an attendee badge and make it into the queues to get in, every attendee needed to provide either proof of vaccination or a negative test result from the past two weeks. Numbers got out after the show floor came to a final close that some 93% of attendees, in general, opted to come fully vaccinated to see PAX West 2021 in person.
We were curious so we ran the numbers, and it turns out an incredible 93% of PAX West 2021 attendees were vaccinated(!!!). Thanks so much, you are the absolute best, and we can’t wait for PAX Unplugged.
— PAX (@pax) September 7, 2021
Upon opening the doors to PAX West 2021 and entering through the Seattle Convention Center for the first time, I was taken through clusters of booths that looked familiar to someone that had only attended one PAX convention prior. Game developers all vied for the attention of con attendees with a newly published build of their games, some newly released while others might be as far out as 2022 or 2023. These booths with hands-on demos were often flanked by vendors of a wide variety of merch and gaming gear, from tentpole vendors like Limited Run Games and Fangamer to the odd retro game vendor or tabletop purveyor. What stood out the most among those booths the lined the show floor was that for every place one could sit down and get a controller in your hands for a few moments, there would be at least two or three shops in number.
If digital games aren’t your focus, PAX West 2021 brought the usual diversity to events no matter your geek calling. The uppermost floor of the Seattle Convention Center held the majority of tabletop gaming including a library of titles to play with friends or perhaps pick up a group of new adventurers to go out and seek glory. Scattered throughout the rest of the expo halls were rooms of events, panels, even a Pokemon Gym League or two. With few games to play on the main show floor, these panels were perhaps the main draw of the show unless you were just coming to cosplay and socialize with friends offline. Even the litany of Pinny Arcade traders propped up in one neat little corner near the PAX West merch booth to show off their collections and trade away spares for ones missing in their collection (if only I earned and had the full Killer Instinct pin collection to trade away).
For fans that haven’t had a convention in months to splurge on a new bag of dice or a scantily clad swordswoman adorning your desk mat, PAX West 2021 appeared to be a huge boon for the vendors that felt brave enough to bring their wares to the general public. By the end of the fourth day of PAX, it wasn’t uncommon to see huge swathes of booth space cleared out of inventory that had been stocked as high as the eye can see on the first day. For my own haul, it was modest in comparison to some I had seen walking the show floor: a couple of small deckbuilding card games, a shirt or two, a variant cover of River City Girls for PlayStation 4 from the Limited Run Games pop-up shop, and a loose Vita cart only copy of Tales of Innocence R from Pink Gorilla Games’ main store up in the University District. A suitcase that might otherwise be filled with booth swag at prior conventions was instead filled with business cards from eager indie developers and the odd pin or sticker gained in exchange for the promise of wishlisting their upcoming title on Steam.
While many publishers opted to pull out from attending PAX West 2021, some at the last minute upon news of the Delta variant, those that did make the trek out to Seattle were rewarded with hundreds of eyes on their yet-unreleased (or newly released titles in the case of Lake and Rivals of Aether). Last year’s PAX East held massive booths from Square Enix and NCSoft among others, a stark contrast from the publishers present at PAX West 2021 on a much smaller scale than I could have expected. Some of the largest booths held on the show floor were reserved to that of PM Studios and Apogee’s first public presence since their announced return to the industry in one hall, while Bandai Namco dominated the other half of the show floor with a massive booth dedicated solely to Tales of Arise. The sting of publisher pullout was most obvious in this second half of the expo hall where large swathes of space were cordoned off under the guise of social distancing and to funnel attendees into the smaller number of booths present.
For those looking for big video game announcements, PAX West 2021 didn’t offer what many were looking for in terms of news but perhaps it’s better to view Reedpop’s latest convention as an experiment to see how things could proceed in the future. Whether you’re a creative type looking for an outlet to get your art into the world, a game developer testing their ideas on the general public (shout out to the Klak chat app that I downloaded on a whim from a QR code taped up to a light pole downtown), or someone that just missed being able to run a campaign face to face, PAX West showed that it is possible to hold these kinds of larger-scale events if everyone involved is responsible in both their own safety and that of the society around them. As a journalist that’s always chasing after the latest and greatest titles, it can be a nice reminder to enjoy these 'calmer' events rather than the nine-hour days dashing from hall to hall to see all of the new titles shown off at E3. All-digital events may have changed the landscape for game reveals and previews but nothing compares to getting a controller in your hands and speaking earnestly with the developers putting their passion into their craft.
With the success of PAX West 2021 to keep vigilance and mitigation throughout the four-day weekend, the plans laid out this past week could prove a way forward for similar conventions. There may continue to be a stronger focus on digital events in the future, but for now, I would like to see another event like PAX in the near future with stronger publisher support like the way things used to be.
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