Otakon 2016: General Impressions

narutaki_icon_4040_round When we did our pre-Otakon podcast, we felt like the Otakon staff were not dialing it in as was a concern for a number of people. There were guests both from Japan and from the U.S., premieres, concerts, autographs, and all the other things we’ve come to expect. Though most admitted to feeling like the con was missing a central, tentpole event, there was still a lot to look forward to.

Otakon 2016 was my busiest yet, in phenomenal ways, and yet I can’t pick out a singular favorite moment from the weekend. At least not one that was specific to the convention itself (amazing friends, amazing food don’t count). I’m proud of the interviews we did, but was personally less impressed with the overall presentation of the con as a whole. It was no one thing that contributed to the feeling either.

Something about this year just felt a little off. Maybe it was the impending move; that sense of change in the air, that seemed to pervade my mood over the weekend.

hisui_icon_4040_round You’re leaving your significant other due to moving half way across the world for a great new job. It was a no-brainer to accept the position. The new career pays more and is far more rewarding. You debated the move for such a long time but when push came to shove it was just too good an opportunity to pass up.  Your relationship with your partner was hardly perfect. You had your issues but none of them were toxic. They were all things that could have been worked through if you had the time. It was mostly just the fact your need to advance your career and your life with this new job was more than what you had invested in this relationship.

Just before the move you and your partner have one last meal together. It is not exactly a date or a celebration. It almost feels like a dinner after a wake. It is a ceremony to help deal with the upcoming feelings of loss more than anything else. The meal is pleasant. Nothing harsh is really said. There are even some wonderful moments that remind you why you and your partner were together in the first place. It is far from a miserable affair but it is still slightly awkward despite the best efforts on everyone’s part. You leave the restaurant with a mixture of sadness and fear tinged with some hope that the upcoming new beginning will make this all worthwhile.

I think it is fairly obvious all of this is a metaphor for the last Otakon in Baltimore. Kate’s conflicted feelings about the event summed up everyone’s feelings. Otakon 2016 has a so many clashing emotions and ideas that need to be unpacked to fully understand this convention. If you don’t mind too much we are going to try to work through our experiences in this post while we give a con report as a by-product.

narutaki_icon_4040_round Once the weekend got into full swing, it started to feel like Otakon was already leaving Baltimore behind. Before anyone had really touched down in the Inner Harbor we saw guest cancellations, completely out of the conventions control, kick things off. Some of the hottest and most humid weather ever wrapped the area in a haze the days and nights. Technical difficulties plagued panelist newbies and veterans alike. The overall quality of fan panels, which is one of Otakon’s strongest points, even seemed to have dipped a little.

Otakon’s 2016 attendance numbers made a comeback though from a stumble in 2015. It almost felt like last year, Otakon was saying, “Don’t worry about the D.C. move we are still putting on a great con!” But people didn’t come. Then, when everyone seemed to be over the shock of a move in the future, Otakon became the one under-delivering.

hisui_icon_4040_round I love Tamamo-no-Mae as a Fate Universe Servant and therefore being buried in the ample bosom of an aspect of the sun goddess Amaterasu is normally something that you would pray for. Sadly, in this case, it was merely torturing as the day-star poured down nothing but heat and humidity. It was supposed to rain but it never did. Theoretically, it could have taken some of the edges of the oppressive atmosphere but it also meant that we were never caught unexpectedly in the middle of a downpour as well. It definitely made it so you wanted to spend as little time outside as you could. Anyone hoping for a mild Otakon was going to be greatly disappointed.

It was also fairly obvious that the attendance numbers were more than 2015 but less than 2014. It was a rare occurrence to hit a major traffic jam at the critical choke points last year. The sky bridges occasionally were a little backed up last year but those instances were few and far between. The horrific traffic jams in 2013 and 2014 were infamous and often made crossing the convention center an ordeal. This year was clearly in between those two extremes. While it was not the sometimes oddly lightly traveled hallways of last year it was also not the crazy crowding of Otakon at its height.

It is also worth noting that mailing out badges made everything run like clockwork on Thursday. It was easy to miss mostly because not that many people commented on it. The thing was there was no army of fans who could not get their badges on Thursday, people angrily tweeting as they wait outside on Friday, or anyone loudly mentioning how they missed half of the day despite getting to the BCC early. In fact, no one was loudly proclaiming that this must be a convention for Naver’s application or for infinity long geometric objects. (OK, No one actually makes jokes like that. They just shout, “WELCOME TO LINE CON” and then just wait for a dozen other people to repeat the same stale shout meme but I would ask that you afford me a bit of artistic license.) It was a miracle.

It was also important to note that I also did not notice some insane uptick in the number of people at the convention with counterfeit badges like a reverse New York Comic Con. One of the major reasons (but not the only reason) Otakon has always been hesitant to mail badges has been that they were worried about a flood of counterfeit badges. While there might have been some amount of forgeries I never felt a flood of people at any time incongruous with the estimated attendance numbers.  I have a feeling while a certain amount of badge fraud is probably inevitable the only conventions that usually have a problem with it are conventions that sell out. It is scarcity more than cheapness that pushes attendees to buy fakes.

Random note: Does anyone know how much those tickets contained in the Omakase Box deal affected this year’s attendance?

narutaki_icon_4040_round The convention was packed, but it wasn’t crazy overwhelming. There seemed to be only one major incident of overcrowding. On Saturday in the middle of the day the skybridge between the BCC and the Hilton was shut down for a period of time forcing attendees out into the horrific heat. And one minor complaint, by Saturday evening it seemed nearly every down escalator in the BCC had been turned off and stayed off. Otherwise the venues seemed to be reasonably staffed to keep the people moving.

Because of my sort of weird schedule, I realize now that I never waited in a line at all during the weekend. I tended away from autographs, concerts, and premieres which all draw the biggest crowds. The one exception was the very end of the con attempting to get into closing ceremonies which I never knew were that popular! I was actually turned away from it.

hisui_icon_4040_round I was a little surprising that there was not a dominate cosplay this year. You saw One Punch Man, The Melodious Ladybug (Yes, I am continuing the running gag that I never remember the adjective with an M in the title), Harley Quinn and Steven Universe. The thing was while it was nearly impossible not to see one of those at least once an hour you never felt like you were lost in a sea of any of those characters as well. I am very curious if this is because in an increase of media choices prevent anyone from flooding the landscape or it merely because no franchise really has been dominating nerdom recently.

I really expected to see more Overwatch cosplay. I keep reading articles about how much there is at other conventions but overall it was no more represented than anything else that was popular. Actually, D.Va cosplay was fairly ubiquitous with a decent amount of Tracer but any other character from the series was actually sort of rare. Considering how every other table at artist alley had something Overwatch related I was a little surprised that it was not out in full force.

Also, you would think that there would be a little more Star vs. the Forces of Evil cosplay. It seems like something that would be everywhere at an anime convention given the magical girl aspects of the show. I can’t say I am shocked I did not see more of it. I’m more curious why I was completely correct in assuming it would not be prevalent.

narutaki_icon_4040_round Otakon 2016 wasn’t the best Otakon there ever has been, not every year can always be the most memorable, it will rank squarely in the middle of the road category. But many of us are probably feeling disappointment more acutely because the 2016 convention was the end of an era. This was Otakon’s last year (maybe forever) at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. The Inner Harbor had come to really embrace the con over the years.

Luckily, this isn’t the last Otakon though. Not by a long shot as the end of the convention was marked with an announcement that the con will be making its home in Washington D.C. through 2024.

Some have said they will not be going with Otakon as it moves, but for me Otakon long ago proved itself to be a stellar moment of the year for anime fans, even when it isn’t having its best year. So I will follow wherever it goes.

hisui_icon_4040_round I am already looking to see how all of this effects 2017. Otakon is recovering from its drop last year. It is doing better than last year but it still a little anemic especially when you compare it the robust growth of Anime Expo (which people are going to do). When AnimeNEXT moved to Atlantic City I hear it had an expected slight reduction in attendance.  Nothing drastic but it killed their growth for a year with the promise that it would eventually lead to far greater growth later on. One has to wonder if the same thing will happen to Otakon.

As it stands I see next year either dropping back down to 2016 numbers or only having minimal growth. As it stands after the convention ended there were a whole bunch of people who went to social media to announce that they were not making the move to DC. Theoretically, there could be an eve greater vein of fans that will attend a DC convention as opposed to Baltimore convention but I am more likely to believe such a wellspring will only be effectively tapped a few years after the move. If nothing major changes I could see Otakon taking a year or two to really get back on track as the East Coast rival for Expo.

But there are a few major changes that could turn the tide. If Otakon was able to pull out a guest lineup like it had in 2013 it would do a lot to reinvigorate the convention. Oh, provided that they actually tell anyone they have that lineup more than a week before the convention. I’m not saying they have to announce guests as far in advance of something like SDCC but a little advanced notice would be helpful to draw in some people who might have otherwise been on the fence.

All of that aside I can’t see why we would not attend Otakon 2017. While this year was not our favorite year it was still extremely solid. There was a full and diverse panel selection, a healthy selection of creative and interesting guests, and a rewarding experience overall.

I won’t even hold the fact that they announced Vic Mignogna (noted fire alarm prankster) as their first guest. If they really want to make me happy they will get Kenjiro Hata and/or Takashi Takeuchi. Yes, I will cap off all of my con reports with that until I see both of them.

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