January 2015, San Antonio will play host to a new regional iteration of one of the largest gaming conventions in the world, Penny Arcade Expo (PAX).
PAX South, the fourth trade show under the PAX brand, will take over the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center Jan. 23-25, attracting gaming fans from across Texas, the United States, and the world.
“We’ve always wanted four shows,” said Robert Khoo, president of Operations and Business Development for Penny Arcade, the company that runs the event. “For us, it was a matter of ‘when,’ not ‘if,’ in regard to expanding the PAX name into the southern United States.”
The history of PAX is an unorthodox one to tell. In 1998, Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins began publishing online a web comic entitled “Penny Arcade,” a comedic, three-panel look into gaming. Due to the comic’s popularity, and Robert Khoo’s entrance into the company in 2002, the Penny Arcade name expanded explosively into a wide array of video game business and cultural ventures.
The company made their initial foray into the convention world in August 2004, organizing the first PAX in Bellevue, Seattle, which drew just over 3,000 people.
In subsequent years, PAX grew exponentially. The event in Bellevue eventually moved to Seattle and dubbed PAX Prime and spawned answering events nationally and internationally. Today, PAX is held annually in Seattle, Boston, and Melbourne. This year, PAX Prime drew tens of thousands of attendees. A similar turnout is expected for PAX South.
In part, the new San Antonio event solves a logistical problem.
“In its current form, we have a supply and demand problem with PAX event tickets. They sell out in minutes, literally,” Khoo said. “To solve that problem, short of making the show worse to lower demand, we’ve had to expand our global footprint.”
PAX South has been strategically placed to make attending a PAX event easier for residents in the South to attend.
But why in San Antonio? When the Convention & Visitor’s Bureau (CVB) heard news that Penny Arcade was on the lookout for a southern location, they took the first step of reaching out to the company to pitch the downtown convention center.
“We have an amazing mix of community sense and tech industry presence in San Antonio,” said District 1 Councilmember Diego Bernal. “As we’ve shown with Alamo City Comic Con, that exact mix is perfect for trade shows like PAX.”
Khoo admits that when Penny Arcade sent him to scout out the venue, he knew almost nothing about San Antonio.
“I visited for the first time on my way to Orlando, Florida,” he said. “I was ignorant of everything except for the Alamo, and I honestly didn’t expect much for that reason.”
The beauty of the River Walk and San Antonio’s welcoming atmosphere, however, quickly worked their magic, winning the company president’s opinion.
“Within the first hour, I knew that this was where I wanted PAX South to be held,” he said.
Khoo reported that he found the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center “just right” for the event, which requires enough space and power for dozens of vendors, video game exhibitions, and mountains of new gaming tech.
PAX’s tried-and-true formula for fun is based on three pillars that cover all aspects of gaming – even off-screen. First, the event focuses on console gaming, or video games played on dedicated machines built by industry giants Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo. Second is PC gaming, or games played on top-dollar personal computer rigs. Last, but not least, PAX makes a place for table-top gaming, including complex and beloved nerd classics like Dungeons & Dragons.
Attendees of PAX South will have chances to play and get the latest industry news on games of all these types. For serious players hoping to test their mettle, the event will play host to officially organized tournaments in which skilled gamers will compete for cash prizes. For those less-inclined to take a virtual beating, PAX also offers a lighter kind of social gaming experience: free play.
“Free play is one of the most popular aspects of PAX,” Khoo said. “Essentially, you rent out a system, a game, and controllers, take a screen, and play with friends or strangers. It’s a true living room experience in the middle of the convention.”
Whether an attendee is looking to experience bleeding-edge graphics or relive childhood classics, free play will have something to offer.
The games don’t stop there. PAX South, as a video game trade show, hosts elaborate publisher or developer exhibition booths, in which attendees can play games yet-unreleased to the public. Panels given by top industry talent and “nerd-core” musical acts round out the entertainment. The event schedule for PAX South has yet to be posted, but given the event’s prestige, the list should be impressive.
“It really is a Woodstock for gamers,” Khoo said. “Above everything else, it’s a celebration of a pastime we really love.”
As for its host city, the CVB expects 30,000-40,000 attendees for the event, as well as a healthy boost in exposure for San Antonio as a mainstream convention venue.
“We want to diversify … though PAX already plays to San Antonio’s many strengths,” said Sandy Bench, a Senior Sales Manager.
Bench points to the gaming program at St. Phillip’s College and the Twenty-Fourth Air Force at Lackland AFB as indicators of San Antonio’s established tech relevance.
Both sides expect important economic and industry impacts.
“I don’t want to say that, ‘Oh, PAX goes to a city and that city becomes a gaming hub,’ but it is part of the equation,” Khoo said. “Penny Arcade wants the gaming industry and culture to ‘see’ the potential of San Antonio, just as we want San Antonio to ‘see’ gaming.”
“For this event, we expect a mix of industry professional presence and mass community impact,” said Bernal.
Marketing for PAX South has not taken place, and, thus, downtown businesses haven’t begun to react. With San Antonio’s history of conventions, however, they will undoubtedly be ready once the time comes. To get a feel for the upcoming event, Bench traveled to Seattle at the end of August to attend PAX Prime 2014.
“It took over the city in the best way. It was overwhelming,” she reported. “We’re looking forward to that enthusiasm for PAX South.”
As for problems and reservations moving to a new, untried location, PAX has had few.
“We’ve worked on PAX with many of the same people for years,” Khoo said, speaking of bringing game publishers, developers, and vendors to PAX South. “They trust us to bring the good-time convention feeling wherever we go.”
With PAX South, San Antonio stands to gain visibility and stock in a new culture, one backed by a billion-dollar industry. Perhaps more importantly, though, it provides an international event for resident San Antonio gamers to call home.
“PAX really has the power to create a blast radius of good nerd feeling,” Khoo said. “We can’t wait to do it in San Antonio.”
While 3-day passes for PAX South have already sold out, tickets for individual days are still available for $30. To register to attend, visit the registration page of the event website.
*Featured/top image: Event goers attend a panel discussion in costume at PAX Prime 2010. Courtesy photo.
Correction: An earlier version of this story quoted Sandy Smith, director of Marketing for CVB. Reporter Samuel Jensen spoke with Sandy Bench, a CVB senior sales manager.
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