Exploring: Cosplay, Capsules & Crowds oh my! At ChinaJoy

The China Digital Entertainment Expo and Conference (otherwise known as ChinaJoy) turned 15 this year, making it one of the longest running “fun things for the youth to do” expos available in China. It’s been billed as the E3 of China, where fans can meet gaming companies and gaming companies from across the vertical can schmooze with each other.

Being super into game culture and nerd stuff, I’d been debating whether or not to go for almost a decade, but only managed it this year.

To be fair, I wasn’t REALLY the target audience (the Chinese gaming industry has almost from the start been focused on lightweight browser games) and from the pictures, it looked like the copious amounts of crowds were mostly showgirls and people leering at showgirls.

Well, as I said, I finally went.

I’ve now had two weeks to reflect back on the experience. And…

The Good

1. MEMES IRL: ChinaJoy does take care to embrace China’s internet and nerd culture, and it was really fun to see how it looks in real life. While yes, it's still heavily influenced by anime and Korean manghwa, like all other things copycat in China, nerd culture here too is quickly picking up very distinct local nuances. I hope to see more of it represented in future expos.

Duang! You can you up!

Duang! You can you up!

One thing I hope they DO pick up more from Japan are capsule machines. There was one mega booth filled with reams and reams of gatchas. Considering how popular it was at ChinaJoy (a bunch were completely sold out by the time we reached them, 3pm on a Saturday), I don't get why I don't see more of these just placed around town.

2. COSPLAY: Yes, this is why most photographers go to ChinaJoy (especially after they told the showgirls to start covering up more), and this time was not disappointing. Most of the cosplay was in the farthest hall, where they also were having a competition starting at some indeterminate time. Watching the people mill about preparing while they waited for the competition to begin was its own kind of fun. But even better was walking around and running into someone in a super elaborate outfit who came just because. Man, I love it.

My favorite random encounter was these two: I don't think they were actually affiliated with Bethesda but, there they were, repping Fallout and even handing out Nuka Cola caps.

3. VR: Earlier in the summer, I'd gone to CES (Consumer Electronics Show) Asia which, incidentally, was held in the same gigantic expo area as ChinaJoy. There, I'd already gotten a taste of the explosion of the China-based VR industry, but most of the displays were geared towards the demonstration of B2B usage - you know, how does this explainer look when you put on these glasses, how do you use this for advertising etc. etc. One of the complaints was that there didn't seem to be any good content that would actually spur consumer usage. Well, I guess that's ChinaJoy's job. This is a taste of what the next year of VR content is going to actually look like:

With the crowds, actually getting to try out a VR rig meant you'd have to wait in line for about an hour... and with the amount of people milling about, you didn't really know where the line began. Which leads me to:

The Bad

1. MEH BOOTHS: Okay, like, the VR stuff is fun but the booths containing them still look like they're out of a convention ten years ago. You'd think that after 15 years in the game, there would be some attempt for companies to outdo each other even a little bit - like, look at these galleries of E3 booths and gape in delight at the amount of thought that went into them. Over here, even major nerd companies like Bilibili, ACFun and the one of the folks behind SNH48 didn't have much more than a stage, maybe a giant screen, and one big ass logo on the top.

Though watching otaku SNH48 fans go rabid did help elevate the fun of that stage at least.

Though watching otaku SNH48 fans go rabid did help elevate the fun of that stage at least.

By the time we entered Hall 3, everything blended together. And it's not a China thing - companies that had gorgeous booths in CES Asia, like Pico, the Chinese VR headset maker, were lackluster AF here. I don't know if it's just that the crowds are so overwhelming that everyone's afraid of making anything too nice in case it gets damaged, or if it's just that nobody feels like they NEED to impress with a booth because people will go to it no matter what.

The one that I remember being kind of semi-creative was, weirdly, the booth for Runescape, which was at least completely decked out in a castle theme.

I know, I didn't know Runescape still existed either.

I know, I didn't know Runescape still existed either.

2. MEH SWAG: I can't exactly put into words how disappointed in the swag I was. I got two fans, a luggage tag and a water bottle. A friend won a game and got a forehead cooler. What? I couldn't even get a picture of it, because the swag was so pathetic. 

Come on people. This is a gaming convention. Give out some cool ass swag already.

3. AND YES, THE CROWDS: It seems silly to complain about crowds when you're in China. But yes, ChinaJoy is crowded. Most of the time, it felt reminiscent of my rush hour commute, where you can't help but press yourself against the person in front of you, the smell of their sweat intermingling with the general heat given off by 100s of people in very, very close proximity.

So a warning: don't go if you have claustrophobia or some sort of crowd-induced anxiety.

You WILL trigger an attack.

You WILL trigger an attack.

 

The Fascinating (to me, at least)

I'm going to China Watcher geek out for a minute, which I tend to do because even after 20 years of on and off following this country, I am still in awe when I actually sit down with its statistics.

You wouldn’t know it from the lack of flash and pizzazz at ChinaJoy, but did you know that China is now the largest gaming market in the world?

Turns out China was pretty ahead of the curve in predicting how everyone would want to spend their money online. Heck, Tencent – one of China’s 100 billion dollar tech giants - might be famous for WeChat now, but its real rise began with licensing online micro-purchases for games and avatars on its ICQ clone, QQ.

And you can see the world it and its ilk have wrought. Mobile gaming is a gargantuan part of ChinaJoy, far more an important part of the mix than in the West. Honor of Kings, a League of Legends-esque (I’m being generous) mobile game and Tencent’s latest “core title,” took in over $744 million in revenue in the first quarter of this year.

Just so you can wrap your head around that figure, that is one smartphone game beating the combined revenues of Activision Blizzard’s divisions of Activision and Blizzard. That’s Overwatch + Warcraft/Starcraft + Assassin’s Creed + Rabbids (or whatevs) and all their associated sub-franchises generating less money per month than smartphone PvP.

And after I'd gotten a 100% complete on those stupid treasure chest quests too.

And after I'd gotten a 100% complete on those stupid treasure chest quests too.

Considering how large a part of the gaming pie it represents, it wasn't surprising that a lot of booths were dedicated specifically to mobile gaming. While most companies decided to go for a cosplay version of their famous apps a couple even held smartphone PVP competition.

I'd honestly never seen a live PvP Smartphone battle! To be fair, it looked about as dorky as that scene in The Wizard where the dude uses his Nintendo Power Glove to play Super Mario Bros. Maybe next time they'll embrace the smartphone aspect of it and let these guys sit in lounge chairs.

Though, I guess if they do end up lounging, they'll look like this guy.

Though, I guess if they do end up lounging, they'll look like this guy.

A parting thought

I'm curious to see how ChinaJoy evolves. In many ways, it seems to have stayed exactly the same over the last decade - not straying far from the formula of a giant trade fair with some demos, some sexy ladies ostensibly tied to the product, and some cosplay opportunities for the plebes. 

But as with all things China, these steps seem to happen incrementally for years and years... and then all at once everything changes (ala WeChat and Alipay). There has been an incremental creep of more wonderful, interesting stuff on the horizon for Chinese gamers, backed by boatloads of cash earned off Chinese gamers. Who knows? Maybe ChinaJoy 16 will be the one where I look around and go "Woah. We're in the future."

And if I go, you can bet I will be awkward posing up a storm.

And if I go, you can bet I will be awkward posing up a storm.