Con of Champions: Virtual Gaming

by Transmute Jun

I admit it, I’m a die-hard when it comes to cons. I love pop culture conventions and attend as many as I can each year. I am always willing to attend even more cons if they fit within my schedule and budget . Unfortunately, 2020 has been an abysmal year for cons, as the vast majority have been cancelled due to the Covid-19 shutdowns around the globe.

When the shutdowns first began, some fans called for virtual cons to replace the in-person cons as an alternative. Personally, I was not excited about the idea, as a one of the appealing factors for me when I attend cons is to meet with friends and interact with others who share the same interests. I enjoy wandering through the crowds, meeting people and immersing myself in waves of excitement at panels, offsites and events. While none of this is possible at a virtual con, I have come to realize that (while clearly inferior to ‘real’ cons) there is positive value to virtual cons, particularly those focused on gaming.

In April, I attended ZoeCon 4, a small online gaming convention organized by Zombie Orpheus Entertainment (Gamers series, Journeyquest), in conjunction with ConZealand, as a ‘test run’ for this year’s virtual WorldCon (to be held later in 2020). Approximately 300 attendees enjoyed live-streamed panels, entertainment, and gaming. While the panels and shows felt distant (like a dull reflection of ‘the real thing’), the gaming was far more fun than I had anticipated. I participated in role-playing games (RPGs) which used Discord text and voice channels to bring players together and create a gaming experience. While it wasn’t the same as gaming in person, the voice chat allowed everyone to connect and interact real time. I enjoyed myself enough that I decided to give another virtual gaming con a chance.

Con of Champions DIscord server

Con of Champions was held online May 23-25, 2020, offering tabletop, video and role-playing gaming, along with a few seminars. The con was hosted by Tabletop Events, a company that provides ticketing services and event scheduling for many small gaming cons around the country each year. With all of these cons being canceled, Tabletop Events was on the verge of going under in 2020, unable to financially keep themselves afloat until mass gatherings were supported once again. However, the company decided not to go down without a fight, and created Con of Champions as a way to finance themselves until business picked up again. Attendees were encouraged to purchase a badge at whatever price they wanted to pay (based on their budget), with options ranging from $2 to $10,000 for the entire weekend. While those who donated more for their badges were able to register earlier for events, practically, there was almost no difference between badge levels. Fortunately, fan support allowed Tabletop Events to reach their financial goals, making the con a success in more ways than one. Attendees numbered in the thousands, and hailed from all across the US and Canada.

Fantasy Grounds roleplaying game software

Over the course of the 3-day weekend, I participated in 7 different RPGs, while my family participated in a dozen tabletop and role-playing games. While there were many different sites and apps involved in making events happen, for the most part everything was smooth and attendees were able to move from event to event with little trouble. Tech people were on hand to assist with any issues. Tabletop Events used its proprietary software for event registration, but the main access to the con itself was through a dedicated Discord server. The server was broken up into 100 different gaming ‘tables’, each represented by a unique Discord text and voice channel. While gamemasters were directed to these channels, many decided to supplement their presentations with outside apps, such as Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds (for RPGs) and Tabletop Simulator and Tabletopia (for board and card games). Voice channels were always required, but video was always optional (and not used in every game). While attendees had to create accounts on these apps, all accounts were free and no one was required to pay anything other than the initial badge cost to participate. Vendors had their own channels in a special ‘Vendor Hall’, where attendees could chat with exhibitors about their merchandise and even see demos.

Tabletop Simulator for virtual board games

While I hesitate to say that virtual cons are the ‘wave of the future’, my personal experiences over the Con of Champions weekend convinced me that online gaming is a viable alternative, where gamers in isolation can connect with others and socialize while enjoying their favorite pastime. For those missing the personal interaction that comes with attending cons, virtual cons might just be the band-aid to tide them over until such gatherings are once more permitted in North America and around the globe. In the meantime, fans can look forward to many more online gaming cons over the next couple of months, including IGN’s Summer of Gaming and Gen Con Online.

Did you attend Con of Champions? Join the conversation on the FoCC forums!

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.

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