At this point, it feels like pretty much everyone I know, regardless of their interest in the subject, knows what Comic-Con is.

The Super Bowl for Nerds, it’s inflated over the years into a four-day extravaganza of celebrities, merchandise, and, of course, the legendary lines and claustrophobia-inducing crowdedness that has become a hallmark of the San Diego Comic Convention.


However, unlike the Super Bowl, there are actually a metric ton of other conventions to go to if you need tiding over until late July, depending on what you’re looking for. Although Comic-Con and its peers (I’m looking at you, Blizzcon and E3) are certainly the leaders of the pack in terms of convention size, there are any number of “mid-level” conventions taking place throughout the calendar year that still have a lot to offer the adventurous nerd.

In fact, I’d argue that mid-level cons have a certain appeal to them that bigger, flashier cons just can’t replicate. Having less people can often be a boon in and of itself, but these mid-level cons also present a more specialized approach to the kinds of experiences they deliver, with less formal events and intimate settings, which can make for some truly unforgettable moments.


Sometimes, Less is More

Likely the first thing a veteran Comic-Con attendee will notice when walking into a smaller con like MAGFest or Katsucon is that there are a lot less people (SDCC pulled in ~130,000, whereas MAGFest saw record numbers this past year at ~17,000).

Obviously, there are a lot of logistical advantages to this, like parking and whatnot, but the main reason I include it as an incentive to go to one of these cons is because when there aren’t over a hundred thousand people at an event, it turns out it’s much easier to go do the things you want to do. At last year’s MAGFest I was told about a Game Grumps Q&A panel only a half hour before it was supposed to start – about 2 hours too late if I was at a larger convention – and while it was a closer call than I would have liked, I was still able to grab a spot in line and experience what turned out to be the highlight of my weekend.

Anyone who goes to conventions for the events knows that when you’re budgeting your time, what you’re really doing is accounting for the time you’re going to have to spend waiting in line. At mid-level cons though, you don’t necessarily have to show up two hours beforehand to secure a spot, giving you way more options when trying to make the most of a weekend.

Things are usually more specialized

The smaller conventions tend to focus in on one or a few niche subjects and just do the hell out of them, meaning you usually get some really unique events or panels that might get dropped at a larger con.

For instance, MAGFest is the Music and Gaming Festival, and so the emphases are games, music, and the fusion of the two. At last month’s event, I was able to attend a live concert of the Journey OST, but with a twist: five lucky people played through the game while the orchestra acted as the game’s music, sometimes changing pieces mid-note as a new area was entered. It was a surreal experience, watching what was essentially a Let’s Play, but with a full orchestra blasting a concert hall with an award-winning soundtrack.

Where it went from good to great, however, was when in the middle of the playthrough, a random player hopped into the game, unaware that they were effectively performing for a 1,600 person audience, and played alongside us for a while. The crowd cheered them on while they helped us, and when they finally dropped out of the game, there was a unanimous exclamation of disappointment that our new friend had left.

It was a way of experiencing games and music that I’ve never been privy to before, and may not ever again.

Events can afford to be a lot less formal

There’s a level of informality and unpredictability at smaller conventions that I think is what leads to the incredible stories and memories they spawn each year. There’s a certain “you had to be there” quality to them that keeps regular attendees coming back each year in hopes of a new wondrous little moment or crazy tale.

In the D.C./Maryland area, there is a group that frequents these mid-level conventions called Super Art Fight who put on a pro wrestling-esque, live art competition (with completely color commentary), and one of the big reasons I like them so much is because they’re really great at just chatting it up and getting an entire audience comfortable with being a little wild and silly – something that is much more difficult to do when you go from a couple hundred attendees to thousands…

Similarly, I went to more than one panel at Katsucon that finished early, and so the fifty or so people attending just broke into smaller discussions or pulled out games, maybe even making a few new friends in the process.

And these types of smaller conventions are everywhere!

I’d bet cash money that there is a convention at some point in the year within a few hours drive of wherever you live, and they’re untapped gold mines of networking, events, and other nerds to hang out with.

We exist in an time where being a nerd has never been more socially acceptable (even encouraged, at this point), and the convention scene has been growing to reflect that. I can’t help but think of them in terms of cities; the big city is definitely glamorous and exciting, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t really awesome things to do and people to meet over in the next town.

You never know where you’ll find a great adventure…