Founded in 2008, EXP Convention is an ambitious gaming- and anime-centric event helmed by entrepreneur, Ryan Sweat.
“The joke is that I wanted to give the convention a video game-themed name, but I was also 18 years old at the time and had no experience with event planning; so I named the convention EXP Con to make up for it.”
Celebrating its 6th year, EXP Convention made its annual return to the St. Johns County Convention Center on the weekend of November 9th, promising a 3-day joyride of fandom fun and unique experiences for which the event has become renowned.
“We were the first convention to ever have Charles Martinet (voice of Nintendo’s Mario) and Doug Cockle (voice of Geralt of Rivia from The Witcher), and the first to book Alli Hillis (voice of Final Fantasy’s Lightning),” Ryan commented. “I love that part: bringing fans close to the people that breathe life into the games they love so much.”
As though in commemoration of the 2018 event, all three voice actors returned as special guests, accompanied by Bryce Papenbrook (Attack on Titan, Blue Exorcist, Miraculous Ladybug) and Cherami Leigh (Sword Art Online, Soul Eater, Sailor Moon). Otaku and gamers flocked to special guest panels, held in the spacious Main Event Hall, where they eagerly threw up their hands to ask questions of the voices that defined their childhoods and starred in their favorite modern-day media.
While the Q&A subjects ranged from favorite roles to funny stories, the panels consistently led to inspirational moments, nostalgic commentary, and even life coaching. Charles Martinet responded with encouragement to many fans’ interests in entertainment careers, offering advice that resonated throughout the event:
“It may sound cliché, but follow your heart. When you do what you love, you bring love and joy to the world because joy is contagious, as fun is contagious. The character who taught me that is Mario—because Mario is love and faithfulness and joy.”
EXP Convention attendees took the advice to heart, with artists generously offering extra handmade items to buyers (free-of-charge), cosplayers interacting with visitors while in-character, musicians providing live entertainment from popular soundtracks, and gamers gathering friends-to-be into the game room for a few hours of playful competition characterized by good sportsmanship and hearty laughter.
Unique artisan goods ranged from customizable plush pillows and pixel bead “?” block tissue boxes, to $15 real-time sketch commissions and 3D-printed Pikachus. With an equal focus on otaku and gamer culture, EXP Convention carried a strong appeal for fans of both Eastern and Western media, and a massive gaming room with over 20 multiplayer titles to choose from proved that the event hasn’t forgotten its roots.
“I was inspired to pursue EXP Convention because of video games,” said Ryan Sweat. “My mom bought me a PS2, which included Lunar 2: Eternal Blue Complete. I played it and my mind was expanded. The game centered on a bunch of friends who were light-hearted, didn’t take themselves too seriously, cared about each other and the world that they were in, and overcame insurmountable odds. The story took place in this foreign art style I had never seen. So I joined my first anime club, helped out with another event, and then wanted to do my own thing. I wanted to create the event around the medium that I was exposed to. Through games, I was able to expand into anime, manga, comics, science fiction—everything.”
EXP Convention rounded out the weekend with an exclusive VIP food-and-drink event, multiple autograph sessions, a costume contest, an after-hours dance party, and numerous industry panels, ranging from a session about the Extra Life campaign, to a hands-on paper crafting seminar. Fans and cosplayers left with arms full of souvenirs, cameras full of photos, and minds full of memories.
“With this event, I always keep that in mind: ‘What if it’s their first time?’ I want them to have that same happiness and experience that I had,” said Ryan Sweat, who has big plans for next year.
“In the future, I want to bring in mangaka and have more of a storyline, narrative-creative event. We were even going to partner with Bioware at one point. Going forward I want to work with more companies that express the values of what is possible through games—the connections, the competitions, the experiences shared when you’re playing them and talking about them, the over-arching stories that make you excited to fall into that realm of fantasy and explore and be a kid again…”
Echoing Charles Martinet’s sentiments, Ryan Sweat has one simple motive that pushes him to make each annual EXP Convention bigger and better than the last: “It’s fun. I want to work with the people who create these video games and keep building on that, doing more things that are unique—experiences you can’t get anywhere else.”