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How Comic Con became a video game hotspot

Views Of The Comic-Con International ConventionViews Of The Comic-Con International Convention
The Lego Dimensions toys-to-life video game is demonstrated during an event at the Comic-Con International convention preview in San Diego, California, U.S, on Wednesday, July 8, 2015. Comic-Con International is a nonprofit educational corporation dedicated to creating awareness of comics and related popular artforms. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty ImagesPhotograph by Patrick T. Fallon — Bloomberg via Getty Images

San Diego’s Comic Con is increasingly resembling Austin’s South by Southwest.

While the show initially focused on just one thing—in this case a place for comic book fans to meet writers and artists, rather than SXSW’s music—it has over the years become a launch pad for many others. And while movies and TV shows have commanded the lion’s share of the spotlight for the past 15 years, video games have been grabbing people’s attention more and more.

Most major game publishers will have a significant presence at this year’s show, which officially kicks off today, both in panels at the San Diego Convention Center and at several unofficial exhibits in the surrounding area.

“It has really become the Super Bowl or Oscars of entertainment for people around the world,” says Mike Silbowitz, senior director of marketing for Square Enix. “It started as a comic book show, but as the years progressed, movies began to dominate. Now video games have jumped on board to show off our biggest and brightest products.”

They’ll be showing off in a big way, too. Take-Two Interactive Software will host a laser tag arena for its upcoming game Battleborn. Ubisoft is offering an obstacle course based on its Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. And Activision (ATVI) has put together an escape room for fans for Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, which will showcase the game’s fan-favorite zombie mode. Microsoft (MSFT) and Nintendo (NTDOY) will also be on hand, with gaming lounges and other events.

Hollywood certainly paved the way for the gaming revolution at Comic Con. Star Wars showed its first footage there in 1976. In 2009, James Cameron showed off 25 minutes of Avatar. And the cast of The Avengers was revealed in 2010.

During those years, though, games were becoming their own pop culture phenomenon. Realizing that the comic-loving and sci-fi/fantasy film audience was right in the sweet spot of the industry’s demographic, it was a natural move for publishers to commit to the show.

“What started as a fan gathering of comic-based activities became a celebration of popular culture,” says Todd Harvey, senior vice president, consumer marketing for Destiny and Call of Duty at Activision. “At the same time, I think big video games have moved from being a form of digital entertainment to being mass pop culture in their own right. For us, it always seemed a natural platform.”

“Fans of video games love comics. Fans of video games love movies,” adds Silbowitz. “And they come to this event to learn about all the properties everyone has.”

Amplifying the decision to move in was the rise of Facebook and Twitter. A strong presence for a game at Comic Con can dramatically increase its buzz factor. And with the holiday season kicking off in just a few months for publishers, that can make the difference between a profitable title and a break even one.

“We see it as an opportunity to reach a large number of people—not only at the event, but outside the event,” says Adam Novickas, vice president of marketing at Ubisoft. “With the rise of social media, you can reach a whole group of people that you couldn’t reach before. … It used to be you could talk to 100,000 people. Now you’re talking to millions.”

Ubisoft was an early adopter of Comic Con—and its success at the show did not go unnoticed. Silbowitz acknowledges that the interest the publisher was generating with Assassin’s Creed was a factor in Square Enix’s decision to launch its own presence at the show.

Like South by Southwest, the audience at Comic Con goes well beyond ticket holders. Fans who are unable to get one the coveted passes still show up in force to absorb the unofficial show events.

That forces publishers to take a two-pronged approach in their approach to Comic Con. The big exhibits outside of the show, like the Assassin’s Creed course (which last year hosted 30,000 people), are flashy, but it’s also important to make an impression in any panels you host. Activision, for example, will not only showcase the zombie mode of Black Ops 3, it will also reveal the game celebrities who provided voice over work for the game at its panel.

“Water cooler moments: That’s what Comic Con is all about,” says Novickas. “You can’t see a direct impact [on your IP], but what you can see is social chatter. You see how many people are engaging with your product.”

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