Online Lotteries in Action at WonderCon 2018

by Transmute Jun

Recently, Comic Con International (CCI) surprised attendees by announcing that WonderCon autograph signings would be conducted through an online lottery in advance of the convention, rather than in person at the con, as has been done in the past. This announcement then fueled rumors that a similar procedure might be in place for San Diego Comic Con (SDCC) later this year (although as of this writing,  there has been no official announcement of such). The idea that WonderCon’s online lottery procedure may be used at SDCC is not without precedent, as in the past, WonderCon has been used as the ‘Guinea Pig’ for new procedures and technologies, such as when WonderCon debuted the use of RFID badges in 2016, ahead of their introduction at SDCC later that same year. Now that WonderCon 2018 (held March 23-25) is over, CCI will have the chance to evaluate how well this new system worked, and what tweaks might have to be made to bring this system to SDCC.

While we cannot speak on CCI’s behalf, Friends of Comic Con Blog interviewed a number of WonderCon attendees, asking them what they thought of the system, and learned of their experiences.

ID and confirmations were checked against a master list when picking up signing wristbands at WonderCon 2018

Generally, attendees agreed that the online signup process for the lotteries was easy, and while there were some problems reported with the signup page, they were few and far between, and all of these were eventually addressed by CCI. However this very ease of signup naturally encouraged more people to sign up for the lotteries, which then led to its own set of problems.

While there have been high profile signings at WonderCon and SDCC for many years, these signings have usually required effort on the part of attendees who wish to participate. In recent years, attendees would have to line up early in the morning (or even earlier, for SDCC) and go through the lottery process. Most of these lotteries involved pulling tickets from a bag. If a winning ticket was not pulled, attendees would have the chance to get back in line and try again, as many times as they wanted, until all of the slots had been distributed. The stress of not knowing if the early time invested would pay off was both painful and addictive for attendees, but in the end, people who put in the time and effort were rewarded more often than not. While it was possible for lucky people to win a lottery and then attempt others, it wasn’t something that happened often. With online lotteries, minimal effort is required, and there is no difference in the effort to enter one lottery or multiple lotteries. As a result, for the WonderCon signing lotteries, most attendees entered multiple lotteries, including some for which they had little interest. This resulted in two major issues.

First, there were many more attendees entering the signing lotteries than ever before. This meant that the majority of attendees did not win anything, and were unable to participate in signings at all. Many attendees who were used to participating in lotteries under the old system, and who were accustomed to being successful a good percentage of the time, did not win and were bitterly disappointed. It was clear that making it easier for attendees to enter the lotteries had shut out many of those who were willing to put in a lot more time and effort.

Attendees pick up signing wristbands at WonderCon 2018

At the same time, many of the attendees who won signings did not show up at their appointed time to collect their wristbands. Signings that had 80 to 120 places each saw a significant number of unclaimed wristbands. Even Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., arguably the hottest signing ticket at the show, had 20 unclaimed wristbands, and the numbers were similar for the also-popular Ready Player One signing. Signings with a lower profile, such as Unikitty and Cloak & Dagger, had even higher numbers of no-show winners. The question then became what to do with these unclaimed wristbands.

In the end, these extra wristbands were given to attendees on a standby basis, which led to its own host of problems. Every day of the con, CCI volunteers and employees would outright tell anyone who asked (or anyone who was just hanging around the wristband distribution area) that there was no standby line and that extra wristbands would not be given out. Yet this was not the case. Despite the official messages of the mornings, the extra wristbands were eventually distributed to those who were persistent and remained in the area waiting for the handout. While it is good that the extra places were given to deserving attendees, doing so undermined the entire online lottery process. Instead of waiting in lines to enter an in-person lottery, dedicated attendees were waiting in groups (and later, in a line) to get standby wristbands. It was reported that many of the ugly and aggressive behaviors seen in lines in the past were present. Once it becomes common knowledge that there is a standby line and that extra wristbands will be handed out, these lines will grow, and eventually become as big as the original lines before an online lottery was instituted for signings.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Ready Player One autographed posters from WonderCon 2018 signings

If CCI’s intent in setting up online lotteries for signings was to eliminate the lines, they were not successful. The lines simply moved from the lottery to the standby area. This is similar to the effect of instituting the Hall H wristband system at SDCC: rather than reducing lines, waiting attendees were only forced to line up earlier in the Next Day Line. While the movement of attendees from one line to another is not significant at WonderCon (which compared to SDCC is a very low-stress con), at SDCC, line culture is ingrained into the attendee base. If there is any chance at all that extra wristbands will be given out on a standby basis, then lines will form. In order to truly make a change, CCI cannot give out leftover wristbands in this manner. They will have to come up with some other way of distributing the extras.

One possibility is to give out more wristbands than available spaces, anticipating a certain percentage of no-show winners, similar to how airlines overbook flights. The problem with this method is that if more people claim wristbands than there are available spaces, the winners may not be accommodated, and this would lead to even longer lines to claim wristbands and upon arrival at the signing itself.

Another option would be to have all signings scheduled after the panel for the property/guest takes place. Then any unclaimed wristbands could be handed out on a random basis to people who are at the panel. This would prevent having a separate line for extra wristbands, and the additional spots for the signing would go to attendees who are clearly interested in the property.

Teen Titans Go! signing at WonderCon 2018

CCI could also attempt to reduce the number of unclaimed wristbands by creating a small barrier to lottery entry. For example, if attendees had to pay a small fee (say, $5) for each signing lottery they entered, then they would only enter the drawings in which they had a significant interest, meaning that they would be much more likely to show up to claim a winning wristband. The money collected could then be used for increased line security personnel, or perhaps as a charitable donation.

Going forward, it seems that there is a good chance that CCI will institute an online lottery system at SDCC. While no one has yet had any official word, CCI and DC employees who worked with the WonderCon signings all seemed to think that it was likely that this new system would be in place for signings at SDCC this year. Additionally, the naming of the lotteries as ‘exclusives’ (despite only having signing lotteries at WonderCon) is also leading attendees to think that this system will be implemented not only for signings at SDCC, but also for exclusives (such as for Funko, Hasbro or Lego). If CCI is to implement lotteries for these situations, it seems that some tweaks will have to be made to the system to ensure a smooth transition from the old process to the new. Fortunately, there is still time before SDCC for changes to be implemented. There is no doubt that CCI has the best intentions toward attendees, and wants to make everyone’s experience more pleasurable and stress-free. It will be interesting to see what changes, if any, are made to the signing (and possibly exclusives) lotteries at SDCC this year.

What do you think of online lotteries for SDCC? Join the conversation on the FoCC forum!

Transmute Jun

Transmute Jun has an addiction to pop culture conventions, and attends as many as she can each year. When she's not traveling, she likes to stay at home reading a good book, playing a video game, or binge-watching a TV show. She can be bribed with pizza, Coke Zero and Belgian milk chocolate.