Evolution vs. Revolution: A Tale of Two Anime Conventions

Anime revolution - GoToVan flickr stream

I have a first world problem: all my friends went to PAX, and I didn’t.

Unfortunately, this year, my favorite convention fell on the same weekend as my mother’s 75th birthday, so I decided early on to give it a miss. Naturally, this was a signal for all of the colleagues and friends I’ve made at past GDCs and industry events to make this the year they went to PAX, so not only did I miss out on seeing them again, but my Twitter feed was pretty much pure PAX joy that I didn’t get to partake in. Luckily, I’d already developed a strategy for dealing with this, so somehow, I will live.

Besides, it’s not like I have a lot of room to complain; I’ve been too busy going to local anime conventions. Somehow in the past year or so, Vancouver has become a nexus for anime fandom, sprouting not one, but TWO full-blown anime conventions… and that’s not counting the smaller cons like MiniComi and Cos and Effect. In June, we had Anime Evolution take place in the University of British Columbia, and in August, we had newcomer Anime Revolution in the Canada Place convention halls. But how did a single Canadian city somehow generate multiple anime conventions whereas before, we had trouble staging even one?

Would you believe me if I told you it all started with tax fraud?

Two Cons, Not Alike In Dignity, In Fair Vancouver Where We Lay Our Scene

Once upon a time, there was but one single anime convention, Anime Evolution, which had grown out of yearly special showings of the SFU and UBC Anime Clubs as well as the Vancouver Japanese Animation Society and the Vancouver Sleep is for Wimps Anime Team before becoming its own full-fledged convention entity. Anime Evolution was pretty small as anime conventions went, capping out at about 5,000 at its peak, but it managed to balance being a small, personable convention with a little bit of pizzazz from voice actor and cosplay guests. As it grew from its humble beginnings, its organization was handled by a board of enthusiastic volunteers while the finances were handled by a corporation known as AE Convention Corp. And a good time was had by all.

At least until 2011, when suddenly the proverbial Japanese animated poop hit the fan. Information about exactly what happened is somewhat sketchy and partisan, but the general consensus seems to be this: the AE Convention Corporation ran like a non-profit but did not declare itself properly as such, which led to a few minor infractions such as, oh, neglecting to pay proper taxes. Needless to say, when Canada Revenue uncovered the discrepancy, it was Berserk-levels of unpleasant. The corporation went bust, the board of volunteers resigned in angry protest, and the 2011 event was cancelled only a few months before it was scheduled. Anime fans in Vancouver were left to fend for themselves, and several mini-conventions like Summer Fest and Cos and Effect sprung up as something to do to during the once-fruitful summer con months.

Cue “A CHALLENGER APPROACHES!” One year later, there was a new kid on the block, Anime Revolution, run by an entirely new group of entrepreneurs with a few AE alumni from several years before the con sank, inspired to fill the gap AE left behind. Right out the gate, they seemed to be aiming for a slightly different feel to Anime Evolution, with a more professional and polished presentation similar to bigger cons like SakuraCon or Anime Expo. Lining up some Japanese voice actors, some cast members from the dub of Sailor Moon, and contributors from That Guy With the Glasses, they managed to nail a “bigger” feel, though many vendors were unsatisfied with their first year’s organization and pricing.

In the meantime, some good old fashioned necromancy was occurring as the shattered remnants of Anime Evolution managed to pull themselves together, this time without the “DOH TAXES WHAT TAXES” company behind them. After clearing the slate and reorganizing as a proper non-profit society, they ran a small event in November 2012 (which I was unable to attend) in order to drum up finances and good will for their triumphant return… Anime Evolution 2013. With most of the same volunteer organizers but none of the old financial controllers, AE aimed to return to its basic roots as a smaller, more “chaotic” convention.

So, one city, two anime conventions, and thousands of very, very happy Vancouver anime fans. Yay for tax fraud?

What do they have in common?

For all their differences, let’s be frank; they are both anime conventions, and as such, they’re going to have a lot of the same structure, content, and events. It’s like a checklist… you have your rooms showcasing various anime episodes and movies, you have your gaming room, you have your cosplay fashion shows and competitions, you have your masquerade ball, you have your artist alley and vendor hall, and you have your anime OP/EP song karaoke contests. Both Evolution and Revolution offered all of them, with Revolution offering a much larger vendor hall and more elaborate cosplay and talent contests (as well as a late night anime rave) while Evolution offered a bit more diversity in terms of its gaming rooms and anime showings, running several rooms simultaneously.

Both conventions also offered a lot of panels with various voice actors. Since Vancouver is home to a large number of voice actors, many of whom do anime dubs for Ocean Studios, it’s easy for even a small con like Anime Evolution to drum up some reasonably big names in the industry like Scott McNeil. Both cons, however, have been ranging even further afield, summoning up several Funimation regulars and actors from major franchises like Avatar, even getting a few Japanese actors in from time to time. If you’re looking to meet voice actors, either con will satisfy your craving.

So assume that, in terms of the general events and structure, you’re going to get somewhat similar things from both conventions. So what are the differences, then?

Anime Evolution – Old Faithful

Okay, real talk here for a second; I was starting to have doubts about Anime Evolution BEFORE they imploded. Ever since the venue moved to the University of British Columbia (more on that later), the organization and structure seems to have suffered, with the sole exception of the year they used the Vancouver Convention Centre… which, despite being one of their better years, also nearly bankrupted them due to how expensive the convention hall was! Even now, their organization still seems… a bit lacking. To be fair, though, this is likely due to their heavy dependence on volunteer staff, and while the lack of direction and structured events can be frustrating for some, for others it’s actually one of the biggest pluses, offering a more organic, homegrown feel than its glossy counterparts.

Sadly, one major problem with Anime Evolution is and continues to be the venue. UBC is a beautiful campus, but it is not set up for geek conventions. Cons work best when contained within a single building, or at the very least two connected buildings like the Washington Convention Center, but due to UBC’s design, the vendor hall is in an entirely separate gymnasium, and often panels are almost a block away from the main area in the library or Buchanan buildings. This decentralized scheme meant lots of sweaty, confused nerds in cosplay milling about, either trying to find where to go or just hanging out aimlessly in the boiling heat. Not so great! Luckily, this wasn’t such an issue this year – almost all events, booths, and showings were restricted to the Student Union Building, with only the nearby gym housing the vendor hall. But this led to its own series of problems thanks to the SUB being a bit of a weird warren of halls, ballrooms, and disused classrooms. It felt a bit less like a full on convention and more like one of those school festivals we used to put on in grade school, with each classroom offering something like friendship bracelet making or pottery… only here, they’re offering things like anime speed dating, cosplaying tips, and how to make a web comic.

So yes, the venue is rather unremarkable, and the con organizers usually do little to try and cover up the flaws with spit and polish. As a result, the impression one gets from Anime Evolution is, for better or for worse, that of the amateur enthusiast rather than the polished professional. If you prefer your conventions to feel like a few people got together and said, “hey, we like anime, let’s throw a big shindig about it!” then Anime Evolution might be right up your alley. It’s relatively small in scope, meaning that you will find it easy to see and do everything you might be interested in. In fact, it’s the sort of con where you actually don’t mind curling up in a corner and engaging in some people-watching, or even just playing some 3DS Streetpass games. You don’t feel like you’re missing a huge amount, partly because there is less to miss, and you can enjoy what there is at your own pace. The vendor hall and artists alleys can usually be covered in half an hour each, and the panels are enough of a mixed bag that you’re going to have plenty of free time between topics of interest.

Speaking of panels, while there are several voice actor Q&A sessions, the majority of them tend to be very much “by fans for fans,” like discussions on Final Fantasy theories or squeeing over Homestuck. It’s the upside (or downside!) of being a less “professional” con – rather than seasoned pros, you have people like you taking the stage to talk about whatever they’re obsessed with. Usually this is a lot of cosplay or Japanese culture, but you find some hidden gems (such as the Synaptic Chaos Theatre improv panel I reported on a few months ago). There’s also a lot of AMVs and showcase rooms where you can catch a sample of anime episodes or anime music videos at any time of the day or night.

Overall, Anime Evolution may have recovered from its sordid past, albeit without making many grand steps forward; it’s still at the same place, with the same smaller crowd, with some of the same organizational hiccups. But for many, that same small-time feel is part of its charm. There’s a lot of enthusiasm here, unpolished and unrehearsed, but genuine and warm, and that’s more than enough to draw people in. And if that’s all not enough, the cheaper ticket price – $30 full weekend early bird up to $50 at the door – is certainly a good draw.

Anime Revolution – The New Hotness

If Anime Evolution is the rough, scrappy underdog, Anime Revolution is the smooth, suave professional, polished and sophisticated. Hosted in Canada Place, one of the premier convention spaces in Vancouver, this is an anime convention on another level, offering more gloss, style, and scale without sacrificing too much in the way of heart. To use a music metaphor, this is Justin Timberlake’s “Suit and Tie,” while Anime Evolution is more like Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop.”

Anime Revolution certainly manages to score bigger in terms of guests and events. While the usual stable of random voice actors is present, they manage to get in a few of the bigger names or more far-flung actors such as Vic Mignogna or if we want to get REALLY far flung, how about actors from Japan like Toru Furuya (aka Gundam’s Amuro Ray and Sailor Moon’s Tuxedo Mask)? They also have hosted several major Internet celebrities such as Doug Walker and Noah Antwiler (better known as the Nostalgia Critic and TheSpoonyOne respectively). In terms of panels, while there are still quite a few fanbased events (examples include smutty fanfiction readings, Free! fanbase discussions, anime-themed Werewolf games and cosplay photography tutorials), there are also a lot of corporate panels by companies like FUNimation and CrunchyRoll who showcase their upcoming titles and talk about their successes. Obviously, your mileage may vary with these; some find them great previews of what’s to come, while others find them to be needless advertisements.

The convention setup itself is pretty awesome, with the majority of sessions held on the same floor of the convention center with showings and the odd smaller event up one floor; they even have an entire ballroom dedicated to lineups for popular events to ensure the hallways aren’t blocked with people waiting. The scenery is great for cosplay photos, and food courts and restaurants are close at hand. The vendor hall and artist alley are combined into a giant exhibition space which can actually be a little daunting and overwhelming, particularly at the end of a long day; think something almost akin to the PAX exhibit hall with better lighting and smaller vendors. Still, whatever your anime poison is as far as merchandise goes, chances are you will find it here, either at one of the many merch booths or with the large contingent of fanartists. Indeed, there is so much to do and so much to buy that you’re pretty much always on the go, only coming to rest during panels or on the odd lunch break. Great if you’re enthusiastic and eager, not so great if you just want to take a breath and rummage through your Mii StreetPasses.

One other thing to consider; Anime Revolution tickets are much pricier, about $75 pre-reg for the whole weekend. Most people seemed to consider they’d gotten their money’s worth – I certainly did – but it’s something to think about if budget is a concern.

Which is Better?

If you live in Vancouver, there’s really no reason to choose; go to both if you can, as they both scratch different issues. If you can only make it to one, however, you’ll need to decide what sort of con you enjoy. Anime Revolution certainly gives a more organized and thorough experience, much closer to the sort of polished feel you expect from a major anime convention… but then again, that means you get the same experience from OTHER major anime conventions such as SakuraCon or Anime North or Anime Expo or any other you care to name. Anime Evolution does offer a bit more of a unique and personal experience, but it also doesn’t offer anything too large scale, meaning it’s only worth the trip if you’re a fan of small-time cons (and if you like those, you might want to try Cos and Effect or MiniComi).

Personally, I prefer Anime Revolution; I think it better encapsulates what a well-done convention should be like. Having said that, the sheer random nature of the Anime Evolution panels – and the cheerful, close community that has grown up around it – made for a fun experience in its own right. And frankly, having too many anime conventions in one city seems like a really, REALLY nice problem to have… so I’m not about to complain.

Have you had a chance to check out the Vancouver convention scene? Let us know what you think! Do you prefer big glossy conventions or smaller, more intimate events?

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