There's an old joke about kids sticking a comic book between the pages of their text books at school. "I was always reading Nintendo Power," says Christian Deitering, board member of the Let's Play Gaming Expo. Together, he and a group of retro game enthusiasts have built a successful annual gaming convention located in the Plano Centre.
The Let's Play Gaming Expo wrapped up its sophomore year in June with double attendance the attendance of its first outing — 2,400 eager gamers and families. That number doesn't include the kids under the age of 12 that got in for free.
I attended on Saturday, June 18 with friends and family. My young daughter enjoyed grabbing controllers and playing pixelated games on old Cathode Ray Tube Televisions in the Console FreePlay area. There were systems from Atari, Nintendo, Sega ... someone even built a fully-functioning table-sized NES controller.
We watched some ridiculously good players compete at the Super Smash Bros. Tournament, browsed rare '90s Japanese video games at the vendor hall, and delighted in showing off my nostalgic love for the old X-Men arcade game among the nearly 100 arcades and pinball machines that were there.
Deitering describes the Let's Play Gaming Expo as "one of the most interactive conventions you'll ever go to. It's got something for everybody. My 70-year-old dad played pinball in the arcade room while the kids hung out in the Microsoft area playing Minecraft."
Gaming culture often comes under fire for being insular and unwelcoming, but Deitering specifically mentions that they target a wider, more family-friendly atmosphere. This year, the Expo fell on Father's Day weekend, and the event was promoted as a fun day for the whole family. "There are conventions that model themselves as being a party convention. You drink the entire time. Those can be a lot of fun, but they bring in an element I don't want to deal with anymore."
Deitering says the expo has been widely successful, and will continue on an annual basis. He regaled his journey from gamer to collector to event planner for a large-scale convention.
"In college I would always take my Nintendo to parties," grins Deitering. "We'd camp out for tickets to basketball games and I'd bring a TV and my Nintendo. Mega Man, Zelda, Contra — the classics."
Deitering's passion for his 8-bit-fueled childhood eventually gave way to becoming a collector of NES games. He still owned and played all his original games. While attending the University of Texas in Austin he began seeking thrift stores, where large boxes held treasure troves of old used cartridges for just a few dollars. "In 2008 I looked over at my shelf and noticed I had a big shelf of games. I was at a little under 100. That's when I thought, 'I wonder how many games there are total?' That's really what started all of this."
In case you're wondering, Deitering was able to complete his collection several years later, collecting more than 700 games. "The idea behind 'Let's Play' comes from when I was a collector," he says. To him it became about the hunt, rather than the game.
Deitering missed the social gatherings of actually playing games. "I was just doing stuff on my own. Then I met another collector in D-FW on Craigslist." He was quickly introduced to the wider world of retro gaming and conventions. "It was like Disneyland for me," said Deitering of the annual Portland Retro Gaming Expo. "That was it, I was sold."
He fell in love with the culture and community, but also the behind-the-scenes development of such a major event. He made an effort to meet the people behind several events he attended. Deitering's college background in business management and exposure to gaming conventions and tournaments helped inspire him to look at these conventions from a technical point of view. "Now I go to concerts and start pricing how to do everything. After two years I've become very comfortable with it."
The biggest takeaway was that he wouldn't be able to tackle it alone. "I met Albert [Yarusso], who runs AtariAge. He lives in Austin and put on a convention in 2005. People still talk about how awesome that convention was, but he only did it once." Deitering learned that the event cost about $25,000 and took all of Yarusso's time. While he did make the money back, it wasn't sustainable in the long run. "I made a mental note: I couldn't do it by myself."
Deitering discussed his plans for an annual gaming expo with the community he'd quickly become a part of. A team of six local board members was formed. Each member specializes in a different aspect of gaming and expertise that's brought to the Let's Play Gaming Expo.
Deitering's the Nintendo guy. Darren Sulfridge is the arcade guy. There's a a guy for TurboGrafx-16, and another for Sega Saturn. One owns Dallas-based streaming company TourneyLocater, which hosts the official Super Smash Bros. Tournament that brought in 450 competitors. Each board member provides all of the physical games, televisions, and logistical planning needed for the Expo.
For anyone keen on starting their own event like Let's Play, Deitering gently reminds me that no one's really getting paid here. The staff is all volunteers, and half them are friends and family of board members. The Let's Play Gaming Expo makes enough money to pay for itself, and a little extra to fund next year. "The point isn't really to make money. To be honest, we're all doing this for fun. As long as we're all enjoying putting it together and the attendees are coming out and having a good time, we'll keep going."
The response to this year's Expo was very positive. "Wobbles, a local [professional Smash Bros.] player, came up and said something to my family. He didn't even know they were my family. He said, 'You know the sign of a good convention is when it's over already.' You can't ask for a better compliment than that!"
By Eric Watson, Special Contributor
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