Our first New York Comic Con - behind the scenes and recap

Our first New York Comic Con - behind the scenes and recap

When we were offered the opportunity to exhibit at New York Comic Con 2023, it was a little last minute - it would be the biggest convention we'd ever done but we'd only have 6 weeks to prepare. So of course we said yes! The chance to engage with such a huge audience, especially at a local event, was too valuable to pass up.

A little bit of history first: we're a very small organization. Doing conventions has always been a Big Thing for us to pull off, considering our convention staff and teachers are all volunteers. At our core, we're just a board game club with a big dream of spreading mahjong far and wide. The first convention we exhibited at was PAX East (Penny Arcade Exhibition) in 2014, when our club USPML had been operating for only 4 years. The first convention is always going to be a learning experience, which is another way of saying that we made a lot of mistakes and ran face-first into a whole array of obstacles. Getting staff and products was hard enough, let alone importing an automatic mahjong table to be a draw for the booth. We've done at least one convention every year since, making our setup better and better each time.

So as much as we've gotten better at this over the years, 6 weeks to prepare was not a lot of time. On top of this, we'd only done 3-day conventions before and this would be our first time exhibiting at a 4-day event.  Getting volunteers for teaching was fairly easy, thanks to the wonderful and enthusiastic members of USPML. Sourcing products and making new custom merch was a little harder. Most difficult of all, the unknowns: could everyone keep going for 4 days?  Would anyone recognize the game and come up to us? Would anyone care about learning mahjong? Would this be at all successful in promoting our new venture, Sparrow's Nest Studio?

We hoped for the best and planned that we'd have 6 tables open for lessons and 1 open for free play. We planned on having about 10 staff members available on any given day for all the roles we would need to fill - teachers, cashiers, and "flex". We invested in a few more pieces of equipment for our booth setup, including a bookshelf for a mini mahjong museum and a TV display for our mahjong sizzle reel. The biggest investment of all was a 10x20 foot backdrop featuring a version of the custom mural by Hong Kong artist Karen Aruba that we recently installed at the studio.

Sparrow's Nest Studio staff at Comic Con
Picture of convention staff from the final day, including Erik, Tom, Garthe, Rob, Allon, Dennis, Chris, Jenn, Dave, and Andrew. Not pictured are Ann, Pete, John, Alicia, and Sam

Behind the scenes, load-in for a convention is always a bit of craziness. Every single booth has to somehow get all their stuff into the convention hall and set up before the floor opens. Our lovely volunteer staff helped pack everything into our rented van on Tuesday night. But since load-in was happening on a Wednesday during the day, it was just Chris and Dave navigating the Javitz loading dock labyrinth and carrying everything in. Luckily, help arrived later in the night to unpack and set up. We had two areas, the actual booth and then our lesson tables across the aisle. Because we brought two autotables, 5 hand shuffle tables, and our booth furniture, this was the most set up we ever had to do for a con. Whoever says mahjong is a mental game is wrong, we've figured out how to make it a physical exercise as well!

When we came back Thursday morning, we put on our yellow t-shirts and waited anxiously as the floor opened and convention goers began to trickle in. We still had no idea what to expect.

For most other conventions we've done, the first couple hours are kind of dead as people wander around and get their bearings. For Comic Con, this was, wonderfully and terribly, NOT the case. After only one hour, all our lesson tables filled. They remained filled for pretty much every hour of the convention after that, for all 4 days. We were constantly having to turn people away. 

Comic Con mahjong lesson tables
A typical scene during the convention - 6 full lesson tables of enthusiastic students.

It was truly a privilege to teach such a mass amount of people. We were running lessons every hour on the hour, for 8-10 hours each day. Depending on availability of teachers, there were 4-6 tables for lessons. Do the math and that's 96-180 people taking a lesson every single day. Demand was so high we often asked instructors to teach a table of 4 instead of the standard 3 students. I would estimate we taught at least 500 people to play mahjong over the course of the convention.

Friends of USPML and Sparrow's Nest Studio
Pro players Garthe and Jenn. Jenn went the extra mile of wearing a new cosplay each day of the convention.

Another big investment we made for this convention was flying in professional mahjong players (and great friends and supporters) Jenn and Garthe.  Affiliated with the Japan Professional Mahjong League and featured in Konami's Mahjong Fight Club, we were thrilled that they were available on such short notice.  A lot of people were curious what it means to be a "pro" in Japan, and they explained it's sort of like being a professional chess player or even an Olympic athlete. "Pro" status is based more on competitive play ability rather than mahjong being your day job. You of course also have to move to Japan if you want to participate in Japanese professional organizations, which each of them did long ago. Their enthusiasm for the game and combined decades of experience in mahjong made them excellent teachers and general fan favorites.

Not only were we successful in our efforts to reach out and teach more people to play the game, but we were also able to do a great job spreading the word and promoting Sparrow's Nest Studio as the first public mahjong parlor in New York (To our knowledge, it's one of only a handful in the whole United States). We came in with the fear that maybe our idea for a mahjong studio wouldn't get any traction at all, and left realizing we hadn't even been prepared for how much support we would get.

If you found out about us through Comic Con and are now reading this blog, we are so grateful for how kind, welcoming, and engaged the audience there was.

You can see more photos of the awesome crowd at this link.

And if you're a mahjong group or club thinking about exhibiting at a convention like Comic Con, here are our key takeaways:

  • A good backdrop is worth having and replaces the need for a bunch of floor signs. No one was ever confused what our booth was about
  • If you can manage to haul one in, an automatic mahjong table is a huge crowd pleaser and people go crazy for seeing how they work
  • Think carefully about how many instruction tables you want to run and how lessons will work. Getting exactly 3 people to take a lesson at the same time can be a bit of a magic trick, especially when trying to "turn" the tables on an hourly schedule
  • As a small group it feels risky to bulk buy a bunch of expensive mahjong sets and try to sell them during the convention, but have at least a couple. We ruled out trying to sell sets only to find that there was a lot of interest and we could have sold quite a few of them
  • Stickers and pins are much more economical to source in bulk and many of your students will be happy to buy them, whether to celebrate the game or simply because they want to toss you a few dollars of support

We'll definitely be back at New York Comic Con 2024. In fact, we can't wait for it!

The next convention on our schedule is Pax Unplugged in Philadelphia, Dec 1-3. We're crossing our fingers for just as much success!


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