Nerd Culture

Game On Expo in Downtown Mesa: A Field Guide to This Weekend's Event

It seems as though a lot of big cities across America offer a major convention these days devoted to video games, past and present. Seattle, for instance, has hosted the renowned Penny Arcade Expo since 2004, which has since spun off into separate events in Boston and San Antonio. Meanwhile, there's the MAGFest in D.C., Chicago's annual Video Game Summit, Retropalooza in Dallas, and the Portland Retro Gaming Expo in the Rose City.

Here in Phoenix, however, we've been without an all-encompassing event aimed at gamers and devoted to gaming culture, save for the annual ZapCon, which is specifically focused on the vintage arcade experience. That changes this weekend with the debut of the Game On Expo at the Mesa Convention Center.

The three-day extravaganza, which kicks off on Friday, August 28, and runs through Sunday, August 30, is geared towards all aspects of gaming, both electronic and otherwise, including everything from RPGs and tabletop games to classic and modern consoles. Besides offering plenty of opportunities to vanquish hordes of digital enemies and pwn opponents in adrenaline-filled death matches, the Game On Expo will also explore the history of video gaming, as well as such topics as programming, collecting, and restoring old systems.

John Lester, one of the local hardcore gamers who is organizing the expo, says that it will be focused on the many facets of gaming culture.

“It's an all-encompassing gaming convention catering towards all types of gamers, whether they're into RPGs, card games, classic arcades, retro, modern, or even PC stuff,” he says. “It was designed to be a diverse event that will cover a wide variety of things involved with gaming. That's what we were shooting for with the expo.”

According to Lester, the expo's organizers – including local gamers Jason Heine, Gray Rogers, and Neil Kotler – have spent the last year planning and have been inspired by similar events around the country.

“We've had a lot of experience going to different shows and we've kind of taken notes over the years of what worked really well and what didn't. And we noticed that there wasn't really anything like those events in the Phoenix market or Arizona as a whole. And gaming is huge right now,” Lester says. "We wanted to make this a community event since there's such a big game scene here. There's a broad spectrum of gamers, whether it's those who are around my age in their 30s or 40s who have nostalgia for Nintendo or the classic systems or those who are younger playing the DS or League of Legends or what have you. We wanted to start somewhere and see where it goes.”

While gaming has been a component of various local geekfests like Phoenix Comicon for years, it's rarely been the focus of an entire event. There was the now-defunct Devastation, of course, which centered on competitive gaming and took place for several years before (sadly) going belly up in 2012, as well as the annual ZapCon.

Lester says that the Game On Expo differs from those events because of its wide focus and all-encompassing nature.

“Other gaming conventions have happened but they've been more niche-oriented, like Zapcon or Devastation,” he says. “What makes it different is that we're going to have a little bit of everything at the expo.”

That includes appearances and panels by renowned video game collectors, podcasters, YouTube stars, programmers, and experts like Intellivision Productions president Keith Robinson, online raconteur Pat "The NES Punk" Contri, gaming historian Norman Caruso, collecting gurus like The Game Chasers. 

And every hour on the hour throughout the expo, presentations on the history of video games will take place in the "Retro Game Living Room," with old-school systems dating back to the early '80s available for play.

"On Friday, we'll start with the Odyssey, the very first console and then every hour we're evolve from ther," Lester says. "So if you grew up with this stuff, like the Atari 2600 or the Intellivision and Collecovision, then you'll definitely get a kick out of it."

There will also be a lot of actual gaming happening at the Game On Expo, both of the digital and analog variety in the form of free-play stations, game rooms, and various tournaments and competitions.

“We're going to have a lot of that, like a Mortal Kombat X tournament, but we really wanted a show that was really geared for all ages and all sorts of gamers,” Lester says. “We're even going to have a Pokemon card tournament, which is officially sanctioned by Nintendo, and even a Magic: The Gathering tournament.”

They're even recrating two of the biggest video game competitions of all time during the expo – the fabled Nintendo World Championships from 1990 and a follow-up Nintendo PowerFest from 1994.

“Basically, what we're doing is recreating both [competitions], but on a smaller scale of course,” Lester says.

With everything that's scheduled to take place during the event, it might help to have a game plan on how to get the most out of the event. With that in mind, we've put together a field guide covering everything you might need to know.

Dates & Times: The Game On Expo will go down from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Friday, August 28; 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturday, August 29; and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday, August 30. Those who spring for VIP admission can get in an hour earlier on Saturday and Sunday.

Location: The event will take place at the Mesa Convention Center, 263 North Center Street. Activities and attractions will be set up throughout the venue, including a large vendor area in the main exhibitor hall with a large Microsoft booth armed with several Xbox One game stations. While a few preliminary rounds for the various competitions throughout the weekend will occur in the vendor hall, most of the action and battles will happen inside the game room next door. Multiple consoles and arcade titles will also be available for free play.

Meanwhile, panels and programming will happen in various rooms throughout the convention center while the theatre room will screen movies like The Wizard and The Nintendo Quest during the daytime and host the expo’s cosplay contest on Saturday night.

Admission: Daily tickets to the expo are $15 each for either Friday or Sunday, while Saturday-only admission is $25. A three-day pass covering the entire event will run you $35. VIP access, which includes early bird access to the vendor hall and an exclusive event poster, is $35 per day or $50 for the entire weekend.

Age Limits: The event will be open to anyone, regardless of age. Each paid adult admission will include one free children's ticket. Additional tickets for kids ages 3 to 12 range from $7.50 to $12.50 daily, $17.50 for the whole event, or $27.50 for VIP. Children under 2 get in free.

Getting There: Thanks to the recent extension of the light rail system into downtown Mesa, taking the train is now your best option of getting to the event. The closest station is approximately three blocks south of the convention center along Main Street and an all-day pass is only $4.

If you gotta drive, take the eastbound Red Mounatin (a.k.a. Loop 202) or Superstition freeways (a.k.a. U.S. 60) to Country Club Drive in Mesa and then head either south or north, respectively, to Second Street in downtown Mesa, which leads right to the convention center.

Parking: It shouldn’t be much of an issue, since the convention center has an enormous lot with hundreds of spaces and free parking. If it’s filled up by the time you get there, there's plenty of street parking available.

Weather: It’s the dog days of summer and temperatures will be around 105 degrees during the daytime this weekend. Thankfully, the venue is fully air conditioned with plenty of water fountains located throughout.

Food and Drink: While there won’t be much in the way of either at the convention center (save for a few vending machines), a wealth of restaurants, bars, and cafes are located a few blocks south on Main Street or throughout downtown Mesa.

More than 50 different vendors will participate in the expo, a majority of which are focused on video games. The list ranges from local secondhand stores (Game Over Games, Flashback Games, The Gaming Zone) and arcades (Dave & Busters, Starfighters) to geek artists (Joyce Rainbow, Jessica Higgin's Homemade Stuffed Animals) and a few comic book stores.

Costumes: As you’d might expect, cosplay will be welcome at the event, especially if it's inspired by gaming in any way. That said, any sort of costumes are acceptable. “We’re encouraging people to dress up in costume for the event, since it brings a certain excitement to the convention,” Lester says. “The nice thing about gaming is that you can take anything pop culture-related and tie it into gaming, like G.I. Joe or Transformers, there's always a crossover.”

Several local enthusiast groups will present — including the Arizona Autobots, the 501st Legion’s Dune Sea Garrison, and (fittingly enough) the Resident Evil-inspired Umbrella Corporation Arizona Hive — as will such local cosplayers as Angelica Danger Dawn, Luluko, and Courtney Leigh. A big costume contest for prizes will also be held on Saturday night. (Those interested in participating can find more info here.)

Special Guests: Owing to the expo's focus on gaming history and culture, its list of special guests features many renowned video game collectors, podcasters, YouTube stars, programmers, and experts. Each are scheduled to appear in their own panels and Q&A sessions throughout the weekend.

Some of the notable names include Intellivision Productions president Keith Robinson, online raconteur Pat "The NES Punk" Contri, gaming historian Norman Caruso, collecting gurus like The Game Chasers and Aaron Stapish and Ricky Avila (a.k.a. RetroLiberty), Nintendo Powerfest '94 champion Mike Iarossi, and Indie Game University czar Mark Soderwall.

Competitions: Tournaments and battles will go off on Saturday and Sunday at Game On Expo. The two main events of the weekend, however, will be the Retro World Championships and the RetroFest.

The former was inspired by the Nintendo World Championships in 1990, which involved competitors playing a specialized NES cartridge with a combination of Super Mario, Rad Racer, and Tetris. The expo's homage to the famed competition, however, will involve playing through series of three custom-designed 8-bit games in the spirit of the old system. Each participant gets six minutes and highest scores will win.

Meanwhile, the RetroFest is a recreation of Nintendo PowerFest tournament, which took place nationwide in 1994 and involved playing such SNES games as Mario Kart and Ken Griffey, Jr. Presents Major League Baseball. Lester says that they'll not only be using some of the original hardware from the actual competition back in the day but the PowerFest champ Mike Iarossi will be going head-to-head with players during the event.

Expo admission is required to participate, and you can register here.

What to Bring: As with any convention where you'll be on your feet most of the time, comfortable shoes are a must. And since it's all about video games at the expo, feel free to wear any gaming-inspired clothing (such as a NES controller belt buckle or a vintage Atari T-shirt.)

While all the games at the expo are free to play, you'll want to bring cash for the vendors (just in case they can't accept credit or debit cards). And those who happen to have any rare games in their collections that they're willing to part with, a massive auction will be held on Saturday evening. If you're doing battle in any of the contests or competitions, be sure to bring your custom controllers or other gear.

Oh, and some limber wrists wouldn't hurt either.

What not to Bring: Too much trash talk if you triumph at pwning your opponent. Conversly, avoid being too much of a sore loser if you're the one getting pwned. And try not to be too impatient if the game you're hoping to play is busy at that moment. You've got the whole weekend, bro, so chill out.
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.