Saboten Con 2023: A Milestone Celebration, Welcoming Old and New Family Alike

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Out of all the conventions that I’ve written about, the one that never ceases to amaze me is Saboten Con. This year marks the 15th anniversary of the convention overall, and the 8th year that they’ve been at the Sheraton in Downtown Phoenix. With each passing year the attendance continues to climb ever higher, which led a lot to wonder how they would create more room within the same space. It was mentioned briefly at the closing ceremonies last year that they would try something brand-new that I’ve been curious about since then, up until a couple of days ago; the gaming side of the convention (along with the main stage) would be relocated to the nearby Renaissance Hotel, and that space used in the Sheraton would then be reconverted into an expanded guest signing area/Artist’s Alley. Sounds good in theory, but practical application can be a whole different story. Little did I know just how much I was about to eat those words, but this was a good thing.

Over the course of the extended weekend (given that Saboten Con takes place on Labor Day weekend, it lasts four days compared to most conventions that only run Friday to Sunday), the hotel(s) were filled with attendees excited about everything that this year had to offer, in addition to reconnecting with friends that they haven’t seen for a while. The Vendor’s Hall was still on the third floor but relocating the Artist’s Alley allowed for even more merchants to sell their wares; the selection of items was both varied and impressive, with something for everyone’s tastes. As for the Artist’s Alley, it is now located on the second floor of the Sheraton taking up the majority of the massive room there (again, allowing for many more artists to sell their creations in a spacious area) that previously housed the Main Stage/Gaming Rooms (back then separated by a moveable wall), with the Guest Signing Area located on the far side of that area. One of the things that amazed me regarding that area alone was how there were no ropes or taped marks on the floor designating where attendees should line up for each guest.

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Given how the tables were arranged, it was easy for attendees to create queues as needed without interrupting the flow of traffic throughout the rest of the area, and wait times were kept to a minimum (if at all!) for anyone who wanted to meet their heroes, even if just to say hi and thank them for their work.

The guest list this year was also beyond impressive; it boasted no less than thirteen voice actors, five musical guests, thirteen cosplay guests, plus twelve additional guests covering the areas of art, illustration, writing, and dance. Voice acting greats including Michelle Ruff, John Swasey, Richard Epcar, Ellyn Stern, and an amazing near last-minute addition in David Hayter were all there across the entire weekend, one (Carrie Keranen) even saying their goodbyes at closing ceremonies before leaving to catch a flight (which is a testament to how much the guests love coming here as much as the attendees love to meet them). Kazha made an awesome return appearance, performing over the weekend along with Ayakashi no Kiko, Tokyo Psychopath, Kohei, and Daisuke Hasegawa, all who had amazing concerts over at the Renaissance’s Grand Ballroom which was the new (much larger, in my opinion) Main Stage area for this year’s convention. As for the cosplay guests (who are all amazing; I got to meet a good majority of them that weekend, and they were all so kind and happy to talk with attendees), they could be found both on the third-floor corridor outside in front of the Vendor’s Hall and along the perimeter of the second-floor walkway in front of the Artist’s Alley room, which allowed for easier access and much better visibility than the previous years. D-Piddy, a known Deadpool cosplayer and popular YouTube content creator (who tends to be more active and not tethered to a table during most cons) could also be seen throughout the weekend shooting scenes for his videos (some of which are already available to watch) with the many cosplayers there.

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Speaking of which, the third-floor corridor to the right of the Vendor’s Hall (which previously housed the cosplay guests) was now wide open for attendees to take pictures and shoot video, as the giant windows that make up one side of the area made for the perfect backdrop to photographers and content creators alike. In the evenings, this area became the new spot for the nightly ‘Otaku Closet’; where anyone who had personal items to sell (whether it be wigs, cosplay, classic anime/manga, etc.) could purchase a floor spot in advance of the con and peddle their wares to anyone interested.

Karaoke, which normally took place in the alcove right outside this area, was actually relocated to a panel room on the opposite side of the floor and reduced to only two nights; given that it would be too difficult for the host, who is also chiefly responsible for photography/video of the Masquerade, to move between the two hotels quickly to set up in time for it after that major event (which again was fully packed with a wide field of contestants this year; congratulations to all the winners!).

Now, I know to this point I’ve talked a lot about the Sheraton and all it had to offer up for this year’s Saboten Con; but let’s change tracks and swap over to the Renaissance for Sabo Slam, the gaming portion of the convention. First and foremost, even though it was only a couple of blocks away, as mentioned during closing ceremonies last year there were pedal bike cabs available from Noon to 5 PM on Friday through Sunday ready to transport guests to and from the two hotels. Not only was it a very nice way to travel in style (especially in cosplay!), but I also overheard how having this in place really helped a lot of attendees with chronic mobility issues. The pedal bike operators were also happy and thankful for the constant flow of riders which kept them busy during the times they ran. Once inside the Renaissance hotel, attendees were greeted by a massive first floor gaming room which had vendors selling cards, dice, board games and other memorabilia as well as tables set up across the majority of the room for a wide variety of these games, to include console gaming for classics such as Smash Brothers and Street Fighter. The second floor is where the panel rooms were located, which had a non-stop rotation of gaming-related panels, in addition to gaming itself. There you could find rhythm games like Beat Saber, unique games such as Mahjong (which even had some automatic tables for randomizing/dealing tiles, a nice touch), Shogi (Japanese chess) and Go, plus a few light Dungeons & Dragons campaigns going on across the weekend.

The third floor of the Renaissance hotel is where (as previously mentioned) the Grand Ballroom was located; the site of the Main Stage for all major events over the weekend for the entire convention. This included all of the concerts, the Masquerade/Skit Contest, and of course, the nightly Raves. A full complement of DJs (twelve of them!) played across the first three nights of the con from 10PM to 2AM, which saw a massive turnout from attendees ready to dance the night away. Saturday night alone had around 500 people in the ballroom, which should also give you an idea as to how large the room itself is, given that it was spacious enough for people to move around and have fun without feeling crowded. There were even free glow sticks given out each night, a nice touch for anyone who wanted to add some flair to their already impressive cosplays or rave attire.

Overall, the entire convention from top to bottom, beginning to end, was amazing. It honestly felt longer than four days with everything that was going on, including the wide variety of panels held over the weekend; from game shows to informational panels, mini-dance parties to Cosplay Chess, this convention had everything to offer and then some! There were some minor hiccups between panels being cancelled or rescheduled, but everyone seemed to take it in stride given that there were plenty of other panels around to choose from! What really impressed me were the staff for both the con and the hotel worked tirelessly around the clock to ensure a pleasant experience for all the attendees.

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Any issues (there were only a handful that I was aware of over the entire weekend that I could count on one hand and have fingers left over) were quickly dealt with and minimized the potential for things getting out of control. I actually had my friends thank me at the end of the convention for making this the first ‘drama-free’ one they’ve ever been to, which made me happy to hear.

Closing Ceremonies summed up just how successful this year’s Saboten Con was, along with some updates to look forward to for the following year. The Artist’s Alley saw record sales across the weekend; most artists making on Friday what they would normally make on a Saturday. As a result, the entire Artist’s Alley for next year is already sold out. The Vendor’s Hall is already 90 percent booked for next year as well. And given the numbers of total attendance, Greg Fennell (President of Monkey Paw Entertainment and Chairman of Saboten Con) announced a few things for the following year to continue making this the best experience for all:

  • the pedal bike cabs will now have 4 additional units run during the day on a Noon to 6PM schedule, and then 3 dedicated ones will continue to run until 10PM. 
  • an updated Event Support page is forthcoming which will make it easier for people to volunteer and sign up for various positions to assist with the convention, if interested.
  • the Creator’s Corner and Artist’s Alley will be closed for the first hour each day to give them more time to set up while allowing the Vendor’s Hall to see the initial waves of traffic and disperse the crowds more evenly between the two floors
  • Kazha has already been confirmed as the first guest for Saboten 2024

He ended with something that he says every closing ceremony, which sums up what this convention is all about; being part of a larger family. One that is welcoming, inclusive, and open to all who want to be in it. To quote:

“This is your place for the weekend. This is your chance to be you. You are the norm here, and I want you to appreciate that. I want you to walk out of here and go confident, and I want you to know that everybody here loves you. And I want you to make sure that you make a friend at this show or the next show, because everyone needs someone to help, right? We’ve all been that person in the corner that’s afraid to talk to someone.”

These words rang true for me, because if I had to sum up this years’ experience in one word, it would be that – friendship. I got to catch up with old friends as well as make some new friends over this weekend, and I couldn’t be happier. The community has continued to grow by leaps and bounds, and the final numbers speak for themselves; total unique attendance this year for the Renaissance was 3,500 people, and the total complete attendance for Saboten 2023 was…29,002 (almost 3,000 people up from the previous year). Looking forward to seeing them break the 30k ceiling in the coming year, and I will be there to experience every moment of that with all of my friends, both old and new ones alike.

Until next time, ja ne tomodachi!

-Last Samurai