Walking around National Harbor — a small, almost European-like town just outside of DC — during the first weekend of 2013 was a sight to behold. Amidst the couples walking arm-in-arm on their way to the Tasting Room Wine Bar or families heading to ICE! featuring DreamWorks’ Shrek the Halls, a group of gamers dressed as the characters from Castle Crashers enters the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center. That’s right, MAGFest 2013, the first gaming festival of the year, is here.
For those unfamiliar with the format of MAGFest, it’s an annual get-together that happens in the charming town of National Harbor, MD each year in January where gamers, voice actors, vendors, cosplayers, and musicians collide for four days centered on the unadulterated love of gaming.
“Excitement” may be the best way to describe what happens at MAGFest, as people converge on one thing: a shared love of gaming and music. The organizers behind MAGFest are very intentional in using the word “festival” rather than “convention” or “expo” to describe their event. Where conventions and expos are typically geared towards showcasing a particular product, a festival, as MAGFest is categorized, is more about celebrating the passion that unites the community of whatever industry is being showcased. With MAGFest, the event organizers have hit the nail on the head as far as that mission is concerned.
And the culture is what was most celebrated and focused on. The panels aren’t typically with those who make blockbuster video games but rather with those who do periphery work in turning fun games into beloved games. Whether featuring a voice actor, such as MAGFest favorite Jon St. John, voice of Duke Nukem, or a news site with a heavy focus on community, such as Destructoid, the panels echo the sentiment of the festival’s mission statement. The crowd that MAGFest attracts is a perfect reflection of that, as inside jokes (such as the infamous Colossus Roar) persist from year to year, and new ones are introduced along the way. There are truly no outsiders in the culture that exists at MAGFest, and that shows through a severe lack of animosity or arguing.
The featured guest of this year’s MAGFest was Kinuyo Yamashita, the composer of the Castlevania score. Yamashita was also a direct part of another highlight of the festival, as Castlevania was the game featured in the first part of the the Bit Brigade speedruns, which also featured a full playthrough of Contra while the band played the soundtrack to the game on the screen. In addition to the concerts, fans could attend screenings of game-based movies, including the world premiere of the Blue Core Studios’ Sonic Fan Film, which will debut everywhere else on January 9.
The main show floor allowed for gamers to satiate their craving for nostalgic gaming, as the four sections of the enormous room catered to that need. On the far left, MAGFest 2013 housed console gaming, allowing for attendees to step up and play Pong, Call of Duty, and everything in between. This section even hosted many of the game tournaments, which typically drew pretty substantial crowds. On the other side of the wall, festival-goers would find themselves in the midst of nerd memorabilia heaven, as vendors, shops and artists migrated to MAGFest 2013 in the name of selling you their craft. Here, one could peruse the latest stock from retro games dealers like Mad Gear and Video Games New York, as well as purchase humorous buttons, posters and plush toys featuring the likenesses of their favorite game characters.
The next room was perhaps the main attraction, as MAGFest 2013 set up its retro arcade, which was open 24 hours a day and featured some of the most iconic arcade machines of all-time, including a small section devoted to pinball. The final section of the MAGFest 2013 main floor was devoted to board games, autograph signings and the always entertaining “Table Flipping for Charity” event, which allowed participants to flip tables containing stacks of items proportionate to the amount donated.
MAGFest is the kind of festival that can catch the unsuspecting attendee off-guard with its down-to-earth approach and the extremely niche appeal of the majority of its activities, but those who can allow themselves to become truly immersed in the excitement of this love letter to video game culture will find a lot to love about MAGFest. If you were there for that reason, MAGFest 2013 was a smashing success.