Last July, months and months before most people were thinking about South by Southwest 2016, the Interactive portion of the fest announced some significant changes to SXSW Gaming.
SXSW Gaming, which once upon a time was called “ScreenBurn Arcade,” has grown and evolved along with the video-game industry as a free, public event. By last year, according to SXSW Interactive director Hugh Forrest, it attracted 55,000 attendees including video-game tournament players, families with young kids suffering from Pokémon fever and fans of tabletop gaming and cosplay.
A lot of that growth could be tied to a decision to move SXSW Gaming out of the Austin Convention Center to the Palmer Events Center starting in 2012. Before that, ScreenBurn was in a big, empty-looking expo space in the convention center. At the time, SXSW said that Palmer would give the event more room to breathe, to build its own identity and to be more accessible to the public. Based on the event’s year-over-year growth, that apparently proved true.
But this year, SXSW Gaming is moving back to the Austin Convention Center on March 17-19, during SXSW Music. Previously, Gaming has coincided with SXSW Interactive, which this year is March 11-15.
To make matters more difficult for those in the video-games business, SXSW Gaming overlaps with a key industry event, the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, which runs March 14-18.
Should fans of SXSW Gaming be worried? For families who’ve made an annual tradition of SXSW, the institutional convention center may seem less inviting than Palmer with its large parking garage and friendly outdoor spaces. And several games journalists and developers I’ve spoken to have said they simply can’t attend both events and will be choosing GDC this year.
Chelsea Stark, a games writer for the popular website Mashable, said she hasn’t been to SXSW Gaming for several years, largely because it falls so closely to GDC.
“GDC is incredibly important,” Stark said. “It is for the developers to learn lots of stuff and make connections. It’s the big American center where game developers come.”
Wiley Wiggins, an Austin game developer and one of the leaders of Austin’s Juegos Rancheros monthly meetup group and Fantastic Arcade, said he’ll be in San Francisco. “They’ve kind of doubly shot themselves in the foot this year,” he said recently of the SXSW Gaming time and location change on the “Statesman Shots” podcast. Wiggins said that while SXSW Gaming has always been one of the few kid-friendly Austin video-game festivals, “How many parents are actually going to take their kids to the convention center in the middle of SXSW Music?”
Complicating matters is a track of SXSW virtual-reality/augmented-reality panels that will take place on March 16-18, after SXSW Interactive is over but squarely during GDC. Virtual reality is one of the hottest development areas in video games and is considered by some to be the future of the industry.
For SXSW’s part, it’s saying that SXSW Gaming’s growth and success is what makes the festival confident that the changes won’t hurt. Said Forrest in an email, “Moving the SXSW Gaming Expo to the Palmer Events Center very much helped it build the stronger identity and following that it needed. To this end, in 2016, the SXSW Gaming Expo is much better prepared/positioned to thrive at the Austin Convention Center than it was four years ago.”
Forrest said he doesn’t believe getting downtown during SXSW Music will be significantly more difficult than during SXSW Interactive and that MetroRail is one example of a transportation option that will actually make it easier to get to SXSW Gaming than when it was at Palmer.
The GDC problem, he says, is also not a new one. “We have faced this challenge in one form or another every year that we have had a gaming element at SXSW,” Forrest said. “For this reason, the SXSW Gaming Expo has a strong consumer focus” and will continue to be family-friendly.
Besides, says SXSW co-founder and managing director Roland Swenson, “I think most of the audience are locals, the people who come through to check everything out. So I’m not particularly worried about moving to a second weekend, because most of the audience is local.”
Gaming will have a Geek Stage for panels and presentations and will continue to run game tournaments, tabletop game demos and an expo hall area for hands-on game time, mostly in Exhibit Hall 1 of the Convention Center. And it will host its Gaming Awards at 8 p.m. March 19 at the Hilton Austin Downtown.
In past years, heavy hitters including Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment and Nintendo have had booths and demonstrations — including one memorable “Mario Kart” race track in 2014. That’s one area, Forrest said, where SXSW Gaming does get hurt by GDC.
“Proximity to GDC has always been of the biggest challenges for the SXSW Gaming Expo. Although the degree of proximity changes from year to year. … So, yes, this has hurt us with some of the bigger heavyweights. That said, overall industry participation in this year’s SXSW Gaming Expo is healthier than ever before,” Forrest said.
This year’s exhibitors include Insomniac Games, the popular streaming service Twitch, Minecraft, Hasbro and Alienware.
The largest local video-game events each year include RTX, an annual gaming-culture convention from Austin’s Rooster Teeth Studios, and the Classic Games Fest, both held in the summer. For the last two Januarys, PAX South, a large gaming convention, has been held in San Antonio. Last year’s RTX brought about 45,000 attendees and PAX South 2015 brought in about 40,000 people. Classic Games Fest attracted about 5,000 last year.
SXSW Gaming Expo
12-8 p.m. March 17-19
Free with SXSW guest pass,
Austin Convention Center
On the Web
Visit Omar L. Gallaga’s technology blog, austin360.com/digitalsavant, and listen to “Statesman Shots,” a weekly Austin culture podcast hosted by Gallaga and Austin Eavesdropper blogger Tolly Moseley, statesman.com/shots.