Tuesday, May 23, 2017

SUPER! BitCon 2017 Video Game Convention

Since last month’s Pop Culture Collective column (published in AntiqueWeek) centered around Dallas Fan Expo, I hadn’t planned on writing about another convention so soon. But then disaster struck SUPER! BitCon, the biggest and best annual video game tradeshow in Oklahoma, hours before I got there.

Flash back to Friday, April 28. In preparation for my usual role of vendor at SUPER!BitCon, where I sell everything from Atari to Xbox, along with autographing copies of my books about video games, I loaded my Chevy Trailblazer with as many boxes as it could hold. Instead of heading up to Oklahoma City Friday afternoon as per usual, I had to wait until early Saturday morning to leave because I had a family obligation that evening—my wife was being recognized as Teacher of the Year, and, since I have good survival instincts, that’s certainly something I didn’t want to miss.

So I got up at 4:00 a.m. on Saturday and hit the road at 4:30. My only stop on the three-hour drive from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City was a roadside casino to go to the bathroom and grab a free soda. Since casinos want you to stay put and keep feeding money into their machines, many of them keep customers carbonated and caffeinated with complementary fountain drinks.

The drive was uneventful, but when I arrived at the Oklahoma State Fair Park where SUPER! BitCon was being held (it’s a cheap venue for the amount of space you can rent), a cop stopped me at the road to the back entrance and told me a storm had ripped through the area earlier that morning, damaging the convention center and knocking out the power.

I told the officer why I was there, and he said, “There’s not gonna be anything going on here today.”

You can imagine how disappointed I was. In addition to supplementing my writing income and helping me promote my books, video game conventions are a blast, from panels hosted by popular YouTube personalities to arcade games set on free play to a huge room full of vendors selling a vast array of video games and accessories.

Load-in time was from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m., and I had arrived around 7:30. I checked the SUPER! BitCon Facebook page on my iPhone, and they had posted instructions for an alternate route that would allow vendors access to the convention center. I circled the labyrinthine State Fair Park a couple of times and finally found my way in, dodging tree branches and downed powerlines as I drove—I’m surprised we were allowed in at all.

The scene at the convention center was like some kind of fallout shelter, but colder and with less lighting. Since it had gotten into the upper 80s on Friday afternoon in Fort Worth, it didn’t occur to me to pack warm clothing—I was wearing a T-shirt and shorts, which wasn’t nearly enough to counter the 47-degree temperature brought on by the cold front that had coincided with the storm.

I stepped inside the drafty convention center via a side door that was propped open. Since the only lighting was from several open doorways and the space left by an overhead door that had been torn down by the storm, I used the flashlight on my phone to look around, same as several other vendors were doing. Many vendors had set up the night before, but only one or two had lost any stock from water damage.

After wandering around in the barely lit darkness for a few minutes, I found my booth and then made my way to the front to speak with a couple of the SUPER! BitCon organizers. Obviously, they were a bit frazzled and shocked by the situation, but they were already expressing hope that the power could be turned back on later that morning. After all, Oklahoma gets lots of storms, and experienced emergency crews are always on call. I wished the organizers well and walked around a bit more, shivering as I went.

After speaking with a few vendors I knew, I went back out to my vehicle to dig through the boxes until I found the one marked “SHIRTS.”  I dug out a Captain American T-shirt and pulled it over the shirt I was already wearing for another layer of warmth. It wasn’t much, but it was something. I eventually decided to unload my vehicle and stack the boxes in my booth. At least it gave me something to do and kept me moving.

Finally, at 11:00 a.m. the organizers called a meeting and said they didn’t know when the power would be back on, and they were cancelling the show for the day. We could just leave our merchandise there in hopes of having the show on Sunday. I texted my friend, Delf Meek, who I was staying with that night, and who was going to help me at the show, with an update of what was going on, and he said to come on over—we could run around town, going to video game stores, thrift stores, used bookstores and the like. He also bought my lunch and let me borrow a coat.

Delf and I spent the afternoon thriftin’, junkin’, game chasin’ and, to borrow a term from Larry McMurtry, book scoutin’, and it turned out to be a pleasant experience. While we were upset about the show cancellation, going from store to store was a fun, funny and even heartening experience as we kept running into vendors and others who had planned to attend the show but were left with an open afternoon.

The mantra among all the vendors was to “make the best of things,” and that’s exactly what we did.

The best stop of the day was a big, musty comic book store that reeked of old-school retail. Silver Age comic books lined the wall behind the cash register, supplementing boxes of less expensive back issues positioned in rows in the middle of the store. There were also disheveled shelves filled with action figures, toys, video games, superhero coin banks and other geeky gear. Most impressive was a row of vintage Ben Cooper superhero costumes still in the box.

The power at the store had gone out, so we used the flashlights on our phones to look around. After about half an hour, I got a headache from squinting at all that treasure, but it paid off. I found some cheap boxes of sports cards to sell by the pack in my antique mall booth, an issue of Pizzazz magazine that I was missing, and a copy of Movie Special Magazine featuring Flash Gordon (1980), one of my favorite films.

Best of all was a box of 70 Doctor Who paperback books from the 1980s. The store owner said he “doesn’t really deal in books” so to make him an offer. I got the entire lot for just $50. I’m just a casual Doctor Who fan, so the books aren’t for me—I can sell them at comic book shows for $6 each.

That night the SUPER! BitCon organizers hosted an after-show party at the local Main Event, even though there was no show. The party, where Delf and I hung out at the bar with YouTubers like The Game Chasers and 8-Bit Eric while others got their NES copies of Double Dare signed by Marc Summers, was a blast as we held to our “make the best of things” attitude. However, by this time we—or at least I—figured the show would be cancelled for Sunday as well. Despite the hardship, all the vendors, YouTubers and everyone else involved expressed far more concern over the fate of the organizers than their own lost revenue. After all, the organizers had much more invested in the event than we did.

As fate would have it, emergency workers managed to restore the power to the State Fair Park by late Saturday night, and, incredibly enough, the show was in full swing by 9:00 a.m. Sunday morning. It remained busy all day, with attendees and vendors equally excited that the event was salvaged. The organizers were especially relieved—if Sunday hadn’t happened, there likely wouldn’t be a SUPER! BitCon in 2018.

While the lost revenue from Saturday still stings a bit, I’m grateful for the experience. Bonds of friendship were strengthened, it was nice to see the vendors more concerned about the organizers than themselves, and it turned out to be a heck of a fun weekend.

In all that darkness—both figuratively and literally—no one panicked, got overly discouraged or even had a bad attitude. Selflessness, unity and perseverance were on display everywhere as we did our darndest to “make the best of things.”

I call that a win.


Anonymous said...

We appreciate the fact that you were so gracious and understanding that the City of Oklahoma City and State Fair Park worked day and night in order for "the show to go on". We are so lucky to be working with the awesome organizers of the SUPER BitCon event, and really were touched by everyone's support during this time. What awesome people you are, and we appreciate all of the positive vibes and encouragement that has been received. Thank you!

Brett said...

Thank you!