To call 2020 a mere dumpster fire is damning by faint critique. Demoralizing shit-show of epic proportion doesn’t quite cut it either. This is true for most industries, including tabletop gaming.
The industry took a hit when physical convention season was suspended and we were offered the methadone of online facsimiles. Advocates for online gaming conventions maintain that they are a necessary substitute. I concede that they are better than no convention at all, but I have my reservations. In part because I’m middle aged and loathe change, but also because I see the technology as an impediment to proper communication. We’re all making due but it’s not for me.
The effect to the cities that host large physical events is serious. The four days that downtown Indianapolis should have been filthy with gamers this year was a stark contrast to years past. Hotels plagued with vacancies, businesses boarded up due to recent vandalism, stores barely staffed, impacts of the pandemic evident everywhere. It was bleak, but I had no trouble getting a table at a restaurant. Except at the Ram; it’s as dead as Dillinger.
Of course, the city isn’t dying. It’s simply persisting on the absolute minimum daily requirement of commerce. Convention tourism is non-existent, excepting the few travelers that retain their reservations and come to town anyway. I encountered some tribe members that had done just that, some I spoke to and some I just observed. The consensus I heard – and I’m paraphrasing – was “Fuck it. Let’s go out of town for few days anyway. You may be wondering how was I able to identify them as members of the tribe. Forgive my generalization, but I’m only blind in my left eye and not entirely. We all fly our respective flags. Be it t-shirt, tattoo, haircut, or affectation. We adorn ourselves with the garments, icons, and traditions of our tribe. Walking out of a parking garage scanning left and right for their hotel, in a Wood 4 Sheep shirt, with a Board Game Tables bag in tow… They’re one of ours.
For service industry workers the situation was some variation of the same: hopefully things recover next year. People all over were surprised to be serving a non-local. Oddly not a one was surprised to hear that GENCON was my motivation for coming to Indy. Huh? Everyone knew the convention and lamented its cancellation. GENCON provides enormous revenue for Indianapolis, and not only to hotels and restaurants. I spoke with a sanitation professional whose business lost over $40,000 in Porta Potty income for GENCON weekend alone. Uber drivers, pharmacies, and fetching young ladies raising capital for their dental hygiene educations all losing out on crucial tourism dollars.
Not the case for the majority of the game store personnel to I whom spoke.
I was in the hobby retail industry for fifteen years in the St. Louis MO area, about a four-hour drive to Indianapolis. I have been to my fair share of GENCONs and consistently encountered regular clientele. It’s an enormous convention not too far from home. All the better if you live in Indiana. Better yet if you live in Indy. Unless you run a game store. Being a good midwestern town Indianapolis is a glut for choice. There are over a dozen places within a twenty-mile radius of Indianapolis to consume gaming product, and GENCON takes its toll. Consumers budget well in advance for the show. The show has exclusives, early releases, and deals. Things I may not be able to get at my FLGS. Things that I may have to pay full retail for. Or… g-d forbid, that I may have to wait for. GENCON can adversely impact those retailers for months prior to and afterward. For the most part they see the convention as an immense boon to the industry, but it is a factor in their bottom-line calculus.
One clear exception was Good Games, located right there in downtown Indy, a decent shop well within walking distance of the convention center. As a general rule their proximity to the convention proper does not adversely affect business. They were on my itinerary to visit, but I ended up stumbling across their location while discovering a love of Lime scooters. For them, it meant four days of drastically reduced foot traffic. What gamer doesn’t want to pop into a game store a few doors down from where they decided to grab lunch while at a major gaming convention?
I did participate in the online convention, to a small degree, attending a handful of seminars. Like all of my in-person GENCON experiences, they ranged from good to an hour that I’ll never recover. I’ll save us both the time and refrain from blathering hundreds of words regarding my disdain for online communication. Alas, it is the world in which I’ve found myself.
I’m hopeful for what we’ll see at GENCON 2021. Assuming there is a GENCON 2021. For local businesses, for tax revenue, for the health of the hobby industry, but most important to me, the health of the tribe and what it loves.