When the creators of the annual Game On Expo launched the event in 2015, it was a bit of a gamble. The Valley hadn't hosted a video game-specific convention for years, and Game On organizers like co-founder John Lester weren't certain it would be a success.
Their gamble paid off, however, and Game On Expo has proven to be a hit. So much so that they'll stage its fifth edition this weekend.
"When you start any new event, there's always a level of risk involved," Lester says. "Everything worked out, and we're just very lucky that Game On Expo took off and found an audience."
But the expo's creators also have had some bad luck. This year's event, which runs from August 9 to 11 at the Phoenix Convention Center's South Building, will happen only days after President Donald Trump and other Republican politicians alleged that violent video games are among of the reasons for deadly mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.
"It certainly is bad timing," Lester says. "But, really, violent video games aren't what we're about. The games at the expo are very diverse and family-friendly. We'll have Mortal Kombat 11, but that's a very small portion of the games that will be there."
Like many others, Lester doesn't buy the argument that violent video games are linked to real-life violence, a claim that's been made for decades with little, if any, data to support it.
"People have been saying that about video games going back to the early '90s with stuff like Night Trap or the original Mortal Kombat. So that's nothing new," Lester says. "People just like to point fingers without any real facts involved. Millions and millions of people play games these days all over the world. If video games did cause violence, I'd think there'd be way more proof of it happening."
Even so, Lester says that Game On Expo has had security measures in place the last few years to prevent any sort of violence. Attendees will undergo bag checks, pat-downs, and screenings with a metal detector before entry. Officers from the Phoenix Police Department will also be present.
"We're just trying to put on a fun, safe, and family-friendly event," Lester says.
And those families, just like everyone else in attendance at Game On Expo 2019, will have plenty of things to do. The three-day event will feature an enormous amount of retro and modern console systems, arcade games, and pinball machines to play. There are even areas devoted to tabletop, board, and role-playing games.
"Since the beginning, we wanted all types of gamers to come and hang out and just enjoy gaming, whether you're hardcore or casual," Lester says.
The expo will also feature programming and activities like auctions, a slew of tournaments and competitions, vendors, panels, Q&A sessions, and appearances by special guests like game creators and voice actors.
"Content-wise, this year is certainly bigger than it's ever been before. We've got three stages for [e-sports] as opposed to just one last year," Lester says. "We've more tournaments, more panels, more event rooms, more guests ... more of everything. So there's certainly a lot more to do this year than in all the previous years combined, to be honest."
If you'd like to know what else awaits you at Game On Expo, here's our guide to the event with everything you need to know, player.
When and where is the event? Game On Expo 2019 takes place from Friday, August 9, to Sunday, August 11, at the Phoenix Convention Center’s South Building, 33 South Third Street. Hours are 1 to 10 p.m. on Friday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Sunday.
What’s the location like? Free-play gaming, e=sports action, the vendor areas, and various competitions will be located in the South Building’s main hall. Meanwhile, Game On Expo’s various panels, programming events, and activities will occur inside various rooms adjacent to the hall.
How much does it cost? Adult admission is $25 on Friday, $32.50 on Saturday, and $27.50 on Sunday. A full event pass is $47.50. Kids ages 3 to 12 are $10 for the whole weekend, and children under 2 are free.
Are there age limits? Nope. Game On Expo is a totally family-friendly event open to all ages.
What’s the best way to get there? Light rail. There are stations on either side of the convention center (one’s Third and Washington streets for westbound trains and the other is at Third and Jefferson streets for eastbound trains). Fares are $2 per ride or $4 for the whole day.
What if I’m driving? Take the Seventh Street exit off either Interstate 17 or I-10 and go either north or south, respectively. Then, head west on Washington Street for four blocks to get to the convention center.
Where can I park? Street parking is available for $1 to $1.50 per hour between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. each day. You can use the ParkMobile app to reserve and pay for a spot in advance. Several nearby parking garages and surface lots are also available. Prices range from $10 to $50 per day. More details can be found here.
What’s the security and prop policy going to be like? The expo’s security staff will conduct bag searches, patdowns, metal detector wandings, and prop checks on all attendees in the lobby of the South Building. There will also be certain restrictions on cosplay items you can bring into the event.
Prop guns, anything resembling a firearm, or any bladed metal or wooden weapons (such as axes or daggers) won’t be allowed. Ditto for blunt weapons like bats or clubs made from hard plastic, wood, or metal, as well as whips, metal chains, paddles, and spikes.
Can I bring water? Yes. Security will allow sealed bottles of water into the event.
Will there be food and drink available? Yup. There are vending machines and a coffee stand in the lobby and concession stands in the main hall selling fast-casual options like burgers, chicken fingers, and nachos.
Will there be vendors? Of course. Hundreds of vendors will be available at this year’s expo, ranging from local used game stores to companies like Microsoft. As is the norm for any geek event, there will be an artist alley featuring a lineup of local creatives.
What sort of programming will be at the expo? You name it. There will be multiple tabletop and RPG sessions, as well as panels and discussions on topics like “The State of [Sonic] the Hedgehog,” “Dungeons & Dragons Character Creation,” or “Why and Why Not to Start A YouTube Channel.” Special guests will also conduct Q&A and autograph sessions.
Programming activities will take place in a trio of rooms located just off the main hall all three days of the expo. "We've spaced things out,” Lester says. “In the past, everything was, like, on Saturday, but this year we’ve planned it so there’s something always going on, whether people go Friday, Saturday, or Sunday.
Check out the Game On Expo website for more details or a complete rundown of the programming.
Who are the biggest guests at the expo? This year's guest list will have a Nintendo theme this year, with the voice actors behind Mario (Charles Martinet), Jenn Taylor (Princess Peach), and Bowser (Kenny James). Additionally, most of the voice cast from original Pokémon cartoon from the 1990s will also be on hand, including Veronica Taylor (Ash Ketchum), Megan Hollingshead (Nurse Joy), Rachael Lillis (Misty/Jessie), and Eric Stuart (James/Brock).
Other notable guests include Tim Kitzrow, who played the announcer in both NBA Jam and NFL Blitz, and Mary Gibbs, the voice of Boo from Monsters Inc. Famed cosplayers like D Piddy and Lucky Lai will also appear at Game On Expo 2019, as well as a slew of YouTube content creators.
A full list of guests can be found here.
What sort of games will be available to play? When it comes to modern and indie gaming, more than 100 tables featuring the latest gaming consoles – including from the PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and Xbox One – and high-end PC gaming rigs will be set up throughout the event. Phoenix-based indie game developers will also have their own area.
As for classic arcade games and consoles, three rooms will be devoted to the consoles of yesteryear. Naturally, that means Nintendo Entertainment Systems will be in abundance, as well as more than a few Sega Genesis, Super Nintendos, Atari Jaguars, and original PlayStations. Several dozen arcade and pinball machines will be arranged in rows in the main hall, each set to free play mode. There's even a Pachinko area equipped with 16 machines.
A rundown of games that will be available can be found on the Game On Expo website.
What will the competitions be like? The expo will have extensive e-sports and competition areas devoted to Fortnite, Street Fighter V: Arcade Edition, Super Smash Bros., and Dragon Ball Fighter Z all weekend long. Local retailer The Gaming Zone will host Mortal Kombat 11 and Tekken 7 tournaments.
Meanwhile, the Retro World Championships will take place with competitors playing a combination of classic games like the Sega Saturn version of Daytona USA, the Neo-Geo game Viewpoint, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater on Playstation, and the Nintendo 64 classic Blast Corps. The winner will get a custom wrestling-style championship belt.
Costs vary depending on the particular competition or tournament. Full details can be found here.
Can I wear a costume? Absolutely. If you’ve got a gaming-inspired getup (and are willing to brave the heat), get dressed up and wear it out to the expo. You might even win some cash.
Any sort of costuming is encouraged at the event, whether you’re rocking some enormous armor made from cardboard and foam to something you threw together at the last minute. Attendees who go all out will want to attend the cosplay contest on Saturday night at 6:30 p.m. in rooms 164-66.
Will there be live music and entertainment? Yes. Indie and video game-inspired bands will perform on Friday and Saturday night. Here's the full schedule of who's playing and when.
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Friday, August 9
6 p.m. – DJ Mercurius FM
6:45 p.m. – Kawaii Robot Shark
7:30 p.m. – Snailmate
9:40 p.m. – Fygar
Saturday, August 10
6 p.m. – 8-Bit Zero
6:45 p.m. – Sergio and the Holograms
7:30 p.m. – Super MadNES
8:30 p.m. – Minibosses