Otakon - 2003
Otakon - Writeup

by Mikhail Koulikov,
The tenth Otakon—fifth at the current downtown Baltimore location—was, by all criteria, a major front-page event, yet another reminder of the ever-growing place of anime and manga in American popular culture. Unfortunately, as a convention, it left much to be desired. Some of the problems and issues were not specifically the convention's fault, others the unavoidable result of growth that exceeded most expectations. But the fact remains that an event attracting thousands and seeing hundreds of thousands of dollars—if not more—change hands has to be held to a high standard of customer service. Sure enough, for many attendees, Otakon was the highlight of a summer, if not the year. Unfortunately, in many cases, this was in spite of, rather than because of, what actually took place on a stereotypically muggy August weekend in downtown Baltimore.

Everything that can be said about Otakon's location already has been. This is no surprise, as the convention has remained at the same location for five years, very possibly the longest time of any North American anime-themed event. However, every year, the convention has expanded to the point that, for at least the last two years, it has been the only event in the venue on this particular weekend. Surprisingly, one of the biggest complaints attendees had was the rather inefficient way in which room space was used. Some rooms, in particular the panel ones, were often clearly too small for the number of people they attracted while others like the combined artist alley/artshow and the videogame area were so large as to be overwhelming. Positioning the dance in a blocked off area of the convention center hallway was certainly an unorthodox decision, and I can't say it worked. A dance, especially a rave, calls for a very specific atmosphere, surroundings, and most of all, darkness, none of which Otakon was able to provide. What seemed to be originally planned as a chill-out room, on the other hand, was packed to way over capacity and soon turned into an entirely unpleasant experience as too many people crammed into too small a space could to little more than bounce up and down, vaguely following the rhythm. Finally, the dealer's room, while adequately sized, suffered from a poorly planned arrangement of booths in an irregular shape, as well as a lack of signage. Attendees were left to depend on a map of the layout that was included in their registration package, and, in variably, lost fairly quickly.

The expansion has also lead to an ever-increasing number of hotels being used by attendees. The convention website listed nine, and there were at least some fans staying in almost every single hotel, motel and bed-and-breakfast in the downtown Baltimore area. The result, really, was that unless one had a cell phone or other means of communication, or stayed together with friends the entire time, finding anyone you got separated from or were looking for was a game of chance against very high odds.

In a move towards the inevitable, badge pickup for pre-registered attendees opened on the night preceding the convention. By Friday morning the line of fans, many already in costume, wrapped all around the building. When the doors finally opened, they were processed relatively rapidly, especially compared to the sluggishness of the lines at events such as Anime Central, and the convention's tradition of offering a number of different badge designs to attendees offered at least some measure of reward for spending all the time in line. Once registration was complete, and an attendee finally stood there with badge around his or her neck and con program in hand, what hit them straight in the face was an absolutely bewildering array of programming options. Speaking of the con program, it very much rises to the high standard established by those Otakon put out in previous years – not merely a guide, but a publication containing, in addition to the usual information pieces, several stand-alone articles on topics like the history of Otakon and the troubles and tribulations of dating within fandom and the con circuit.

Other conventions may plan on moving beyond the anime/manga paradigm and embracing the whole range of Asian entertainment, but in this, they are behind Otakon by at least nine years. Whereas other events still only present four or five tracks of video programming, Otakon ups the ante to a total of seven running simultaneously, including one room dedicated solely to Japanese, Korean, Hong Kong, Chinese and other Asian live-action features, another to classic titles, and a third still to nothing but music videos. Other tracks include fan parodies and, in a move that many other conventions are reproducing less and less frequently, a room featuring the latest unlicensed episodes subtitled by fans online. Unfortunately, an entirely confusing array of title cancellations and reschedules left many fans wandering about confused, while other titles listed in the pocket program simply never appeared in the video rooms.

Ultimately, if there is one area in which Otakon shines, it's the event schedule. Programming panels, games, unique events such as "Mystery Anime Theater 3000," and the highlight of this year's convention, a concert by J-rocker T.M.Revolution rounded out the con's best events. In this, the ability to attract truly impressive guests and to throw money to put on truly unique events, a convention like Otakon will always be more impressive than a local or regional con. But size can also be an impediment, and this year, this was painfully obvious. With a staff that, at over 300 people, is larger than that of many companies, and a volunteer corps nearly as large, interdepartmental communications unraveled. Thankfully, there were no major outside crises like an evacuation or fire alarm, but very often, asking three different staff members the same question produced three if not four different answers that, all too often, sent the person making the question running all about the convention center on a frustrating quest.

In the end, a smaller local or regional convention with a limited number of events is successful when enough of its individual parts are. At a huge event like Otakon, though, where no attendee can hope to participate in everything that is offered, the impression he or she will get will be based on the success or failure of the programming they are specifically interested in. That is, a convention may have absolutely spectacular programming in a certain track, but if all the attendees see are long lines, crowds, and inefficiency, the hard work and dedication of the staffers who organized that one track is for naught.

My recommendation to anyone interested in attending a future Otakon, then, is be prepared to gamble. It may be that the events you are most interested in will run without a hitch, but it also very well may be that for one reason or another, they will be spectacular failures or thorough disappointments. Whether or not the risk is worth the price is up to you.

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