Otakon 2017 was held August 11th -- 13th at the Washington DC Convention Center, Washington, DC
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A New Home
Otakon in 2016 was a bittersweet event. It was the end of an era for Otakon and it moving away from the Baltimore Convention Center -- which had been its home for 18 years -- brought with it a lot of uncertainty. I had a bit to say about the history of Otakon after last year.
But to get right to the point, the move to Washington has worked out great from as far as I can tell. When it was first announced the availability of hotels and food in the area was an unkwown. Though I'd been to the facility and the area recently (AwesomeCon is held in the same location) I still had concerns about the area and how well it would work for Otakon. As it turned out food and hotels were no farther to get to compared to the Inner Harbor area. The facility itself is well-suited to a fandom convention. It's also a lot bigger and has room to expand, unlike in Baltimore.
At the time of this writing the official attendence numbers haven't been released yet. Attendance had declined in recent years from a peak of around 34,000 in 2013 and saw a sharp decline in 2015 after widespread riots and looting in Baltimore made national news. Attendance increased again to 2011 levels in 2016. The move to Washington DC may spur new growth, especially among commuting attendees, as the convention is conveniently located directly next to a metro (subway) station.
Overall it looks like Otakon has successfully stepped up its game. But not without some growing pains, too. The proximity to the federal government makes heightened security a need and the local area is overall more expensive (though not by much) compared to the Baltimore Inner Harbor tourist area. AwesomeCon, a general comic / popular culture convention is located in the same location earlier in the summer and is of comparable size. BronyCon (a My Little Pony convention aimed at non-children) took place at the same time in the Baltimore Convention Center, which may have drawn away some attendees, too.
Though attendance numbers haven't been announced yet, the next year's dates have been announced (see below) and Otakon Vegas will be taking place next year as well, on January 13th -- 18th at the Planet Hollywood Hotel. The guests, panels, and events at Otakon 2017 kept me very busy with a lot of things to do. As much as I enjoy Otakon, in the past I've focused more on photography than anything else. But with so much to do this year I got fewer photos than I usually do. It's good to see Otakon still providing a great fan experience after years of operations and growing industry influence.
The Location and Area
Otakon is held in a world-class facility in a world-class city. The Walter E Washington Convention Center has huge spaces and is fairly new. It has three main levels, with the second being the main level. The third level is a single giant ballroom on the south end of the facility. The bottom level is split with carpeted walkways overlooking the very large exhibit rooms which Otakon uses for the Artist's Alley and Dealer's Hall. The lower level also includes a small food court at the very south end, which was filled with mostly Japanese offerings.
Outside the convention center itself are a few hotels very near by. Otakon uses part of the attached Marriott Marquis for convention space. The Renaissance (where I stayed) is a very short block south of the entrance to the convention center. With the relatively mild summer heat that walk was almost enjoyable. The Carnegie Library sits directly in front of the convention center and is one of the only open spaces nearby, and populated by a lot of cosplayers and photographers as well as attendees simply looking to take a smoking/vaping break. Other than the food courts (which charged what you'd expect for the convenience) located inside the convention center there's relatively few food options directly next to the facility. A few blocks in almost any direction will take you to all kinds of food options, though.
To the south-east of the convention center, about 3 blocks of walking away, is the DC Chinatown. After building the Verizon center in Chinatown a lot of the locals left to nearby Rockville. Most of the food in the area is typical chain or franchise fair, such as Fuddruckers, Panera, and Ruby Tuesdays. A block farther east provides more typical fare one would expect to find in a Chinatown: noodles, Chinese food, authentic Chinese food, and a smattering of other ethnic restaurants. For those willing to walk a short distance very affordable food is easy to be found. (The local Ramen shop almost always has a long wait of an hour or more; the wait during Otakon was not out of the ordinary.)
To the southwest are a lot more restaurants, but more of the sit-down, full-service type. I managed to plan something of a surprise birthday dinner for my girlfriend at a wonderful (and somewhat pricey) French restaurant DBGB about a block from our hotel. It's typical of the restaurants in the area and was such a culinary experience that I want to return other than just for conventions. While the priciness of the local area may drive away some attendees it will probably also bring in a slightly more adult crowd who tend to support the local economy more -- which can be a driving factor for cities to subsidize conventions.
I went to a wonderful creole restaurant called French Quarter Brasserie for dinner during the convention just a short cab ride north at 9th and Q St. It's open late (2 am or so) on weekends which might just be perfect for a lot of convention attendees, though I'm almost hesitant to share this little secret. On the way there I saw a number of smaller, quick bite restaurants inside the north side of the convention center. There's lots of options to explore.
Baltimore's Inner Harbor had a lot of usable spaces for photography, which is of prime importance for a lot of cosplayers and photographers. The spots available in the DC convention center and area are a bit more sparse. Other than the Carnegie Library I found only a few good spots. Incidentally the entrance area to the convention proper is on the second level of the convention center and on the bridge over L Street. It's very well naturally lit and a surprisingly good spot to get photos, since so many people pass through there on their way to or from most of the convention. The bottom level of the convention center also had a few nice areas with clean beige brick backgrounds and a surprising amount of light at certain times of day. I'm sure that as Otakon continues on in Washington DC a lot more photo spots will be discovered.
Panels, Cosplay, AMVs, and Much, Much More
There was plenty to do at Otakon this year. Incidentally, Otakon 1997 was my first anime convention. So this marks 20 years of anime cons for me. I've seen a lot. And my tastes have changed over the years, too. Many conventions have less in the way of programming that interests me. It's often a handful of guests or events that I particularly care about that draw me back, plus the opportunity to be social in the kind of environment conventions provide. Otakon this year was different.
Programming started off early Friday morning with a number of fan and interest panels like the Bubblegum Crisis 30th Anniversary fan panel, which was mostly a retrospective on the original 8 episode OVA series, and the Biology of Monster Girls run by the owner of AnimeScience101.com, which was mostly about biology with some anime shoehorned in to appeal to the Otakon attendees. There was a medical emergency in the latter panel, but staff was on hand to take care of the injured very quickly. (It appeared to be some kind of fainting or fall, nothing involving malice.) The Anime Music Video contest also had a showing early and I caught a large portion of it. The videos can mostly be found all online but part of the fun is watching it with an audience.
One guest of particular note was Simon Tam of The Slants, who held a panel on the history of his band's legal battle for the right to trademark their name. The effort made national news when it made its way to the United States Supreme Court on 1st Amendment grounds. The court decided, in an important victory for proponents of free speech, that the band had the right to use a term considered racially offensive by some, counter to the policy of the US Trademark Office. Tam spoke passionately about the history of his band and their legal struggles, pointing out often how much of their victory was thanks to those who volunteered their time and effort for what was an important legal and social issue for them.
There was a huge line for entering the dealer's room and artist alley Friday morning. It reached from the very back of the bottom level of the convention center to the front -- approximately a five minute walk taking into account the general crowding of those just trying to get around. It's good to see that in an age of instantly available shopping people still want to see things up from and first hand. Both halls were gigantic and allowed booths to be a bit bigger than in the past (12' × 12' this year instead of 10' × 10' as in previous years). The aisles were also much more generous, allowing people to crowd in front of booths without completely blocking traffic in the aisle. Perhaps the only drawback of such a large area is that some vendors in the back may have gotten less traffic, being far away from both the entrance and exits. The dealer's room also had a third food court in it, with very typical convention center fare such as hot dogs and nachos.
One event of note was that due to the thunderstorms over the weekend the pipes carrying away rainwater were quite strained. One pipe in the ceiling of the Artists' Alley burst and drenched one of the last rows of booths. There's one reported injury from the whole ordeal with no serious outcome. Booths were quickly moved to an alternate location (possible thanks to the ample space in the hall) and business resumed mostly as normal after briefly closing the hall. (Video in link.) I'm not aware of any particular statement Otakon has made on the possibly damaged merchandise but the Otakon Artist Alley Co-Head commented on Facebook during the event that both injuries were checked out by EMTs and no further attention was needed.
Perhaps the biggest events at Otakon this year were the Anisong World Matsuri concerts featuring JAM Project, T.M. Revolution, Yousei Teikoku, and FLOW. These concerts were held in the main ballroom and had separate ticketing requirements. Tickets were $25/person for each of the two events featuring two of the performing artists each. The bands played both some of their newer works and many fan favorites. The events lasted about an hour each on Friday and Saturday. Though neither sold out completely, the halls were fairly packed and by my very rough estimates probably drew upwards of 5,000 people each, with the Saturday concert (Teikoku and TMR) being slightly larger. A microphone glitch during TMR's concert was the only real technical problem I'm aware of; it was solved quickly with a backup mic.
One of my favorite events at all conventions is the masquerade. Otakon runs a great show for its size, with separate Hall Costume walk-ons and skit performance competitions. This year I ended up video taping the contest instead of photographing it. Videos will be up on BitChute.com, though if you're itching to see video of the full event it's available by others. The growing industry support of the convention was obvious with the repeated reminder that the masquerade was sponsored by We Are X from Hulu, a documentary on the history of one of Japans most influential bands.
Change is good. As much as I do miss having Otakon in Baltimore this move was probably for the best. Otakon had long since outgrown Baltimore's facility and the new location makes the event accessible to more people. There are clearly some growing pains with the new facility. The BCC had traditionally let attendees stay in one of the lobbies after the show closed on Sunday to avoid the heat and keep an eye on their luggage. This year the convention center staff pushed out everybody at closing time, though the Marriott lobby next door was available. The in-house food service was unprepared for the waves of attendees. The same restaurant that had delicious food on Friday served up something entirely different (and less tasteful) as the same dish Saturday. The security checkpoint at the entrance got very crowded quickly as there was nobody on hand to do crowd control. People just piled up past the checkpoint and blocked passage. Some dealers reported very inconsistent patronage over the weekend, sometimes seeing nobody and other times swamped.
Otakon is the biggest east coast anime convention and one I've been enjoying to see grow and improve for 20 years now. It looks like it's going to provide a lot of programming and entertainment for fans in its new location. Even if a few things in Baltimore will be missed this move does come with a lot of improvements. During its stay at the BCC Otakon grew by a factor of more than 10. I don't know what will happen over the next five or ten or more years Otakon finds a home in Washington, DC, but I'm excited to find out.
Only a few videos are up so far, but if you'd like to check them out you can find them here:
Otakon 2018 will be held August 10th -- 12th at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Washington, DC