Saboten Con 2022

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Back in 2019, I had written an article describing my very first experience with Saboten Con, the largest anime convention in Arizona, located in the heart of Downtown at the Sheraton Grand Phoenix. Overall, I was blown away by what the convention had to offer compared to others that I had attended in the past, and I ended the article stating that my only regret was having to wait 364 days for the next one but would definitely be back for it. I purchased an ‘OtakuPass’ (essentially their VIP-level badge) in the beginning of 2020 and counted down the days.

Then the pandemic happened. Conventions were rescheduled and then cancelled entirely. People wondered if things were ever going to be the same again. Saboten Con ultimately came back a year afterward in 2021, but personal issues at the time made it very difficult for me to attend that year as well. Thankfully, the convention was more than kind to allow anyone who had purchased a badge since 2020 (including this year’s event) to roll over their badge to the following year.

So here we are now in 2022; conventions appear to be back in full swing, including some new ones starting this year. Having already attended Phoenix Fan Fusion and GameOn Expo a few months previous (and enjoying each of those thoroughly), I was curious to see if Saboten Con would live up to expectations post-pandemic as well. One decision that the convention announced the Monday prior to the weekend of the event was that there would be a mask mandate in effect, which led some to change their mind about attending (or have their badge rolled over to next year) given that other conventions this year (both in earlier months and currently) had no such mandate. This was almost a deal-breaker for me as well. Almost.

However, initially figuring that I would try and make the best of it, I am VERY glad that I decided to go. By far this had to be not only the best Saboten Con I have attended to date, but also the best convention I have attended so far this year! For a convention that lasted only 4 days, it had so much packed into it that even the first day felt like a full weekend with everything I experienced. To compare, 2019 had five concerts plus an amazing rave on Saturday night, 33 guests (cosplay, industry, and musical guests combined), and a total attendance of over 15,000 people across the entire weekend.

2022 blew these numbers out of the water for so many, many reasons.

For starters, the hotel had undergone a massive renovation that completely changed the look and layout of the lobby, giving it a more spacious, brighter appearance. The carpets on the second and third floors were overhauled as well, replaced with a lighter design that also felt very cushy when walked on; this came in handy given the amount of foot traffic that spanned the 4-day event. The hotel staff, kind-hearted and courteous as could be, were amazing as well, assisting in handling any issues that arose (of which for the entire weekend, to my knowledge, could be counted on one hand with fingers left over) and treating the attendees with dignity and respect throughout the event.

The convention staff was not to be outdone, though. Registration was restricted to a small corner of the hotel lobby just inside of the main entrance, and yet they were able to process over 6,000 attendees who were there for one day (Saturday) and keep the line that ultimately ran out the door and down the block to just around the corner at a 15-minute wait max. Even with the large numbers of attendees, convention staff and security were able to keep the flow of traffic smoothly running throughout the entire venue where the only minor unplanned wait was at the elevators.

Programming for the convention was both plentiful and widespread in its variety. From informative techniques on cosplay (at all levels), to game shows (complete with prizes), to different fandom (translation: guaranteed hilarious) panels, this year’s Saboten Con had it all…and more! Aside from the panels (which ran until almost 1AM for the first three nights of the convention), there were at least 5 concerts from musical guests Kazha, Melon Batake A Go Go, and the maids of @Home Café. And if that wasn’t enough, there were THREE late-night raves this year; one on each of the first three nights of the convention, and every one of them with a new set of DJs that spun different genres of electronic dance music (variety across the weekend was amazing). The energy from these was so high that most who went stayed until they ended the set at 2AM, then turned around and came back later that morning at 11AM when the convention started the next day proper.

The Vendor’s Hall/Artist’s Alley was also filled with a great mix of products; there was literally something for everyone there. Just to list a summary of what I saw there – stickers, keychains, art prints, cosplay/cosplay accessories, imported snacks, manga, figurines, t-shirts, and even weapons (both prop and real swords) – there was a lot to buy from both vendors and artists alike. In addition, the convention also maintained the “Otaku Closet” for a couple of hours every night on Friday to Sunday, where individual sellers who reserved a space could sell their personal goods to attendees bazaar-style in the corridor opposite the Main Stage area. I witnessed many a deal to be had on rare merchandise not seen elsewhere in the convention.  

As for the gaming area, it was busy throughout the duration of the event. At any point you could walk in or past the room and see plenty of people either busy at the consoles or VR setups they had present. Playing card and board games (even some Dungeons & Dragons campaigns) were constantly going on at the opposite side of the area as well. The overall traffic in there across the weekend was around 7,000 people by itself, which is a big part of the reason for Saboten Con’s expansion plans next year…but more on that in a moment.

For the guests this year, there were a total of 37 (announced and unannounced) across the areas of cosplay, music, and industry. Hirokatsu Kihara, former head of Production at Studio Ghibli, had such amazing energy sharing his passion for anime over the weekend (at closing ceremonies he had everyone laughing with his antics). Voice actors Sandy Fox and Lex Lang (who were present back in 2019) held their charity auction for the Love Planet Foundation towards the end of the convention, easily raising over one thousand dollars for this awesome cause. Dave Fennoy (the iconic voice of Lee Everett from ‘The Walking Dead’ series of games) and Corina Boettger (who a lot of you may have heard as the voice of Paimon in ‘Genshin Impact’) rounded out the ranks of amazing voice talent, all of whom were happy to be here and meet so many of their fans. They (the guests) were literally everywhere during the convention; if they weren’t in their own respective individual panels, they could be found in a group panel all 4 days of the weekend called “Senpai Chit Chat”, in addition to numerous opportunities meeting with them for autograph signings up by the Vendor’s Hall. My OtakuPass actually gave me the opportunity to have a private meet-and-greet with all of the guests together, which was a little intimidating at first but ultimately so worth it to sit shoulder to shoulder and share in some light refreshments and casual conversation with them.

Overall, it was great to come back to this convention after 3 long years. What was really uplifting and heartwarming to see was the message of diversity and inclusion throughout the event; in the panels, in items sold within the Artist’s Alley, and especially all over the convention in the many cosplayers that I had the pleasure of meeting during the weekend. It honestly felt like coming home to a big family reunion where the family keeps growing…and grow it did. For some, it wasn’t just their first Saboten Con, it was their first convention ever! As I said earlier in this article, the total attendance in 2019 was just over 15,000 for the full weekend. This year, that number had grown to almost 26,000 (25,812, to be exact).

To that end, as I also said earlier, the convention has plans to expand…here is what was divulged at Closing Ceremonies by Greg Fennell, head of Saboten Con:

“For 2023, we will be launching a new gaming convention that’s tied to Saboten…your badge gets you everywhere, but we’re also going to offer a lower-priced badge just for the gaming side of the convention…it’ll have its own curated vendors and artists, but it is not just another vendor hall with some gaming around it; this is a gaming convention with some vendors in it. We sat down and talked about names, and we came up with Saboten Slam.”

What this means is that the Gaming room and Main Stage area will be relocating to the nearby Renaissance hotel, where Saboten Slam will be held (there will also be gaming-related guests for this event in addition to the previously mentioned vendors and artists), and the space used by those rooms at the Sheraton will become a new expanded Artist’s Alley and Special Guests area (which will also increase space in the Vendor’s Hall upstairs) for those attending “Saboten Prime”, as it was joked about by Greg in his closing remarks. A transportation system (either with the local pedi-cabs, or something similar) for ease of travel between the two hotels is also currently in the works.

Given that next year will also be Saboten Con’s 15-year anniversary, I can only imagine how big that one is going to be even with all the expanding; rest assured that I look forward to attending and covering it in extensive detail! Hopefully I’ll see a lot of you there!

Until next time, ja ne tomodachi!

-Last Samurai