PAX West 2021 was a smaller show, and it was better for it

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By the middle of the first day, pictures and videos of Pax West had spread on social media. Mass exposures to big-name titles were missing; Console makers and major studios were all noticeably absent. The list of vendors and the schedule of panels was drastically reduced. Some online commenters scoffed and said they were happy they didn’t waste their time or money on the show. A corner of the internet had decided within hours of the four-day show that Pax West was a crapshoot.

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they were wrong. The story of PAX West 2021 wasn’t about the big players who weren’t there, or the crowd-drawing keynote speakers who didn’t show up. Quite the opposite. The story of PAX West 2021 is about the little people.

indies headlines

Line outside the Washington State Convention Center for Pax West
Justin Corris / Nerdshala

Like many others, I approached Pax West with a little apprehension and caution. After all, there is still a pandemic raging around the world. Several studios and publishers made the very wise decision not to attend the live expo. As a lifelong gamer and native Northwesterner, I have had the opportunity to participate in PAX West for many years, and always see it as an opportunity to break myself away from daily life and immerse myself in the world and culture of gaming. used in. . I, like many others, wondered what to expect this year, or if what was going to happen at PAX would justify the time, expense, and risk that comes with participating.


“Come on. We know why we’re here. You’d probably be listening to Kojima right now if this was a normal year,” quipped comedy gaming troupe Mega64 as they gave the keynote address at the Paramount Theater in Seattle. The big names weren’t coming. When the show floor opened on Friday, Sept. 3, it was confirmed: PAX was about to get quite small. Microsoft and Nintendo had massive sections. There were no giant statues, no Bungie or There were no Capcom mega booths.

In their place were dozens of indie games, developed by small and passionate teams. Where Microsoft could once stand, you get games Captain Toonhead Vs The Punk From Outer Space, an absolutely bonkers VR-Tower Defense-FPS game. Instead of giant LED walls, we had a fake shack built in the garage of three brothers to promote their game Blacksmith’s Bay.

Mega 64 giving keynote address at PAX West
Justin Corris / Nerdshala
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The niche retail booth, which had long moved into the less busy upper area of ​​the convention center, was now given a full wing of the main show floor. Suddenly, BattleTech figurines, custom 20-sided dice, and themed skirts, and scarves were front and center for attendees to shop. The top floor was now an open space for board games. There were Magic the Gathering tournaments, games to buy and play with friends, and tables for people looking for groups to play.

The panels were very similar. With most of the “star power” missing, it opened the door to new and interesting conversations. People filled seats (all isolated and far enough away) to hear talks about how to network at conferences, or how to make the Raspberry Pi into a retro gaming powerhouse.

The smaller scale extended to PAX parties as well. There were no halls, clubs or bars to rent for preaching cyberpunk 2077 Or Monster Hunter World. Instead, there were more intimate gatherings, celebrating Queer Women of Esports, or Seattle Online Broadcasters.

a different kind of discussion

Crowds are gathering around indie games
Justin Corris / Nerdshala

Talk quickly spread about what the actual offering was at PAX, and murmurs began to pour in about the short wait to play the game and the unique merchandise to buy. PAX attendees were as hungry as ever to see and do video game-related things.

The people at PAX West, it seemed, were there on purpose. There were queues for games and shops. The attendance may have been less as compared to the previous years, but the trekkers showed their enthusiasm. visitors began to gather around the games like break, a particularly spooky party game in which cheering takes place after competitive matches between convention participants. A constant stream of new patrons poured into the retail stores. Panels about lore for specific sports, or how networks at events, quickly impact their COVID-safe capabilities.

The board game floor became the center of activity. The action was stagnant and was extended long before the closing time of the show floor. People flocked to Facebook to find additional players, and instant friendships had long been PAX’s hallmark.

Vendor selling gaming merchandise with full line
Justin Corris / Nerdshala

The smaller PAX gatherings, which had replaced the major PAX parties, were now a focal point of nightlife. People took to Reddit, Discord and Facebook to discuss what was happening and where.

By the end of the weekend, attendees were back to the usual practices of lining up and racing early to watch the hottest games on the show floor. Instead of rushing to see the latest Zelda titles or learn about the latest fate 2 expansion, an early chance people needed to spend time with titles like the classic doom-meets-Titanfall shooter turbo overkill.

Monday, as the show began to end, I began informally checking in with several vendors and merchants to get their perspective on how the weekend went. A Retro Game Shop employee told me they had made more money than at PAX 2019 as of Saturday afternoon. Many of the indie developers I spoke to who were there for the first time were thrilled with the small project they worked with. Their siblings or friends were now being played by PAX attendees all day. I heard great success stories. mid Autumn, an ethereal roguelike with themes of the Asian diaspora and gentrification, sent out an email saying that in just three days, it has raised more than 50% of its $30,000 Kickstarter goal. The sponsor of the Queer Women of Esports party told me they had a (COVID-safe), packed house, and an attentive, inclusive audience for sex-positive educational dialogue in their program.

looking back

PAX.  Crowds gathered to hear from a booth of
Justin Corris / Nerdshala

On the train back home to Portland, Oregon, I reached out to ReadPop and Penny Arcade, the organizations behind PAX, to see what reaction they had heard. He had this to say:

This Labor Day weekend, ReadPop and Penny Arcade held the first in-person PAX, and first major North American video game event in 18 months, after canceling six shows in a row for the health and safety of our community. We established stringent health and safety guidelines that require either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test, with mandatory masking for everyone at the convention center. 93% of attendees were fully vaccinated, with the community ensuring almost universal compliance with our mask mandate.

Most of our attendees told us they had a great experience, and that we were all together understanding the consequences given the ongoing pandemic. Most of the exhibitors gave us positive feedback about how the show turned out for them. Everyone at PAX is confident that as we establish a new normal, many of our attendees will return to attendance at companies we know, love, and hope to do as they initially did. Had planned to do it a week ago.

The stories about empty spaces, walled-off squares and minimal AAA attendance at Pax West all hold true. Getting frustrated on a small scale, or wishing it was like a pax of old, is a perfectly valid way to feel. However, the space left by the big players vacating the packs didn’t go to waste. PAX West 2021 was dominated by small voices. Many were brand newbies who took advantage of opportunities that might not have existed at the previous expo. Others were always there, but were hidden from view, or drowned out by industry stalwarts. The pack was not empty. It had its place, and the story of PAX West 2021 is the story of those who were able to see and hear themselves.

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