Trade show a playground for 'geeks' of all stripes

March 29, 2010

Dan Loosen and Gary Heil were visited by a few friends this weekend.

Sorry - make that a few thousand friends.

At least, that's how they see the attendees of the Midwest Gaming Classic, an annual event billed as the largest all-encompassing electronic gaming trade show in the region.

And looking around the Brookfield Sheraton - twice the host of the Classic, including its most recent run last weekend - one can see how founders Loosen and Heil can make that claim.

Over here, there's a room filled to the gills with pinball machines, their lights flashing and bells dinging as players rack up points. Over there, members of the International Game Developers Association share tips with a rapt audience of aspiring designers.

A jam-packed vendors hall offers everything a gamer could want, from rare Atari and Nintendo titles to old-school arcade machines like "Punch-Out!" and "Ms. Pac-Man." A few die-hards show off their best "Final Fantasy" costumes, but the one thing everybody here is wearing is a smile.

"It's all about community," Loosen said. "It's like I have thousands of friends here who are all saying 'hi' to me, so that's kind of cool."

Classic fills a niche

Loosen and Heil started the Atari Jaguar Festival, the precursor to the Midwest Gaming Classic, in 2001. Loosen said it was an event at which fans could gather and talk about - obviously - the Atari Jaguar, a 64-bit gaming system released in 1993.

From there, the Classic took off, moving from the North Shore to Brookfield to Oconomowoc before returning to the Sheraton this year.

More than 3,500 people attended last year, and its focus has widened as the event has grown. Sure, you'll still see some Atari Jaguars for sale, but you'll also see tons of pinball machines, arcade games, dozens of gaming systems and pretty much any classic game title out there.

And tournaments abound, challenging participants to rack up the highest pinball score or to take on new games like "New Super Mario Bros. Wii."

But mostly, the Classic is about getting like minded-people together, Loosen said.

"Even though it's a little hectic like this, it's a fun event to be a part of," Loosen said Saturday as he scrambled to fix a touchy pinball machine. "It's hard to really explain. It's just like throwing a big family party."

No shortage of interest

Count Don Caldwell as a member of Loosen's extended family.

Caldwell, who has been collecting and refitting pinball machines for 20 years, first attended the Midwest Gaming Classic in 2003, and he liked it so much, he decided to bring one of his machines there the next year, when the event first came to Brookfield.

"It's a great mix of the pinball nerds and the gamer nerds, and they get along pretty well most of the time, and we have a lot of fun," he said.

Caldwell, who serves as a de facto publicist for the Classic, said he has made a push to get the word out about the event in newspapers and on television, but most of the growth has come via word-of-mouth advertising.

"You reach a point - and I think we've reached that point in the last couple years - where it just gets to be quite a big thing," he said. "And it's a lot of fun. There's a lot of things to do."

Geek pride

Jesse Oleson and Bo Sollars of Waukesha, who have been coming to the Classic for years, are part of the Classic's extended family, too.

Oleson said he likes checking out the old systems in the classic gaming and computing rooms, where there's everything from a ColecoVision system to a PlayStation 3.

"It's better than a museum," he said.

But Sollars said the Classic is all about camaraderie.

"The people that like this kind of thing don't generally have one spot (to get together)," he said. "You're among your own kind."

And what about those people who might be tempted to poke fun at the attendees' enthusiasm for all things electronic?

"If someone calls me a geek or nerd, I say 'thank you,' " Oleson said. "Absolutely I'm a geek. Geeks make all the money."

AT A GLANCE

Previous locations and estimated attendance for the Midwest Gaming Classic, which started in 2001:

2009: Olympia Resort and Spa, Oconomowoc (3,600 attendees)

2008: Olympia Resort and Spa, Oconomowoc (2,600 attendees)

2007: Olympia Resort and Spa, Oconomowoc (2,000 attendees)

2006: Olympia Resort and Spa, Oconomowoc (1,600 attendees)

2005: No show

2004: Brookfield Sheraton, Brookfield (1,500 attendees)

2003: Nicolet High School, Glendale (200 attendees; event was then known as the Midwest Classic)

2002: PieperPower Center, Milwaukee (100 attendees; event was then known as the Midwest Classic)

2001: PieperPower Center, Milwaukee (no attendance figures available; event was then known as the Atari Jaguar Festival)

ONLINE

For more information about the Midwest Gaming Classic, visit midwestgamingclassic.com.

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