What Made The Big Anime Conventions So Big?

by Justin Sevakis,

Brandon asks:

I've been able to attend a few conventions, spend way too much at some, and meet new and old friends at others. However, when I look at the conventions and the news you all cover from events like Sakura-Con or Anime Expo, I wonder “What made these specific conventions so big?”

The top ten anime conventions of 2014 by attendance, according to, were Anime Expo, Otakon, Anime Central, Anime North, A-kon, Anime Boston, Sakura-Con, Anime Weekend Atlanta, Anime Matsuri and Otakuthon. They have not yet compiled their list for 2015, but beyond a general upward trend and Otakon sinking in the rankings a bit, I expect it to stay roughly the same.

These are big, big shows. All of them host between 20,000 and 30,000 attendees (with Anime Expo being the insane outlier at over 90,500 this year). How DID they get so big? Each convention, of course, has its own story, but if we look at them all, there are definitely some patterns that emerge.

First and foremost, the shows that do best are the ones that have a lot of otaku in the area. California is generally recognized as the birthplace of anime fandom in North America, given its huge Asian and Japanese population, its close proximity to the entertainment industry (in Southern California at least), and its highly organized sci-fi and fantasy fandom. Anime Expo (and its immediate predecessor AnimeCon) was not the first anime-specific convention in North America, but AnimeCon was the first to break 1,000 attendees. Los Angeles may or may not be the most otaku city on the continent, but there are neighborhoods where it's not uncommon to see One Piece or Totoro decals on cars on the street, so clearly critical mass is there.

Similarly, Texas had an active fan community, so when Project A-kon first came along in 1990, it was able to grow quickly, requiring the show to move venues 8 times in its first decade. Early support from ADV Films (who brought voice actor guests and hosted a hospitality suite to chill with fans) made the show a must-attend for industry watchers. Otakon filled a similar need on the East Coast, which was close enough to the New York City area to attract fans from the North. (The New York area has long been too expensive for anime conventions to take root, although a few have managed over the years.)

A lot of new, young cons spring up every year, but these shows have managed to grow by being run well enough that people want to come back every year. This is far easier when the convention is small, but even small cons run by inexperienced, disorganized people can quickly careen out of control. DashCon, although not an anime convention, was a small event that was so epoch-making in its failures that the meltdown became a spectator sport over social media.

Conventions grow in the early days because people have a good time, and want to come back, and bring friends. To maintain this growth, the convention must allocate enough space and resources for those fans, and program new guests and events that people will want to see. Once a show reaches a critical mass (and nobody ever really knows where that line is), the show can afford some mistakes and keep going out of inertia -- to fans in their area, they are simply the event everyone looks forward to, and most will probably keep going unless it's outright dangerous to do so. To date, no huge annual anime conventions have completely fallen to pieces (although Anime Expo has threatened to a few times -- clearly that's not a danger these days).

All this is to say that anime conventions grow in an organic way. They start with having a fan base for their subject matter, and grow based on how well they serve that fan base. They serve that fan base by providing the space to have a good time, and events, shopping, and activities that they'll want to take part in. This includes everything from inviting guests and industry, to making sure everyone has enough food. As the event grows, that becomes harder and harder, but maintaining enough fan goodwill to keep going becomes a little easier.

For an anime convention to get truly huge and successful, the event depends on the tireless, endless and sometimes thankless efforts of a dedicated staff that runs the show. I was one of them for a year, so I know just how insane their jobs are. I can't imagine coming back to do it every year for decades, despite political rancor, weird crises, chaos, and angry fans, but many of them have. What they have achieved is nothing short of incredible.

Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!)

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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