The Summer of Online Anime Cons – Review!

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By: Peggy Sue Wood | @peggyseditorial

OKAY. This review has been way overdue, but in my defense, I wanted to wait until Summer was officially over, and for me, that meant the Crunchyroll Expo needed to happen before making this post. So let’s get into it:

This summer, in addition to the Big Three Anime Weekend (where people could attend Anime Expo Lite, Funimation Con 2020, and Aniplex Online Fest all at once), we also had Comic-Con, the Virtual Crunchyroll Expo, and several other small conferences happening online like the Toonami special. 

The events I “attended” happened to all be free (woohoo!), and to be perfectly honest: I LOVED it. I hope that they have more virtual conventions like these in the future.  It’s not because I don’t love in-person and live conventions. I mean, anyone that knows me personally knows that I love conventions, traveling, dressing up, and more. I am a massive nerd for literary/professional/writing conferences and actively seek them out to attend throughout the year (if not present at them). I love anime conventions just as much and see them as a way to geek out with people from all over the world who share the same interests I do (and often know the niche anime/manga/webcomic/etc. that so few of my regular friends know about or have any interest in seeing!). 

However, I think that Anime Expo has seriously fallen apart in recent years. It’s something I’ve been more than vocal about in the past, like last year. Last year, as much as I did have fun, the convention space was overly crowded. AX is one of the largest anime conventions in the US, and overcrowding isn’t unexpected given the size of it; however, since 2017, the convention has gone from simply full/crowded to claustrophobia-inducing. Enough so that someone like me, who had never felt claustrophobia before in their life, became overwhelmed and physically ill due to the number of people touching me on all sides as we attempted to shimmy down packed hallways. As a reference, I usually love enclosed and or crowded spaces–like, my mom and I frequented packed swap-meets as a child that I loved navigating. I also grew up with six older siblings, in a home next to Disneyland… so, like, crowds are not an issue for me, which is why I never expected to feel the level of anxiety I did in that horrible 2017 crowd, which repeated in AX 2019.

Add on to that panel experience: whereas before people could and would regularly slip in and out of panels with lines sometimes being outside the door for smaller rooms with more popular content, now the lines for most programs are often placed outside, in the heat, with attendees asked to line up sometimes hours in advance to have even a chance of attending. To my knowledge, Sakura-Con and several other conventions I’ve gone to in the last few years don’t have that problem, and it’s a fair guess as to why but let’s leave that topic for another day.

By comparison, the virtual convention was a breeze! Yes, sometimes I had to sacrifice going to one panel over another, but who hasn’t had to do that at conventions before? Ultimately, I could enjoy the panels from the comfort of my own home in PJs. I didn’t need to worry about food, overheating in the sun, or finding the bathroom while at my house. I didn’t get to meet new people (😥), but I did get to “attend” with friends of mine that can’t go to conventions regularly for health reasons.

My major criticism of the virtual conventions can be summed up pretty easily. One issue I found was that the scheduling of three digital-conventions in one weekend was far too tight, but that was quickly mediated by the Funimation and Aniplex groups banding-together and merging the events so that Day 2 of FC2020 was a split with AOF2020. Another criticism I had is the lack of shopping–but I’m sure my wallet and bank account were relieved to find that I was much too entranced in panels to care about putting my cards through a ringer. I thought I would be upset by panel cancellations, but since virtual conventions are new and since panel cancellations happen at live conventions too, I can’t say I’m all that upset by them. Not to mention how easy it was to handle such cancellations online when you have many more panels to attend freely.

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What was probably most upsetting was, at times, the layout. Of all the conventions, I think AX and Comic-Con did the best job with panel layout. AX used Twitch live streams, YouTube, and a handful of unique call-in panels that were easy to navigate. More frustrating was the ever-changing schedule times at AX, but that happens (mainly when you are one of the first conferences navigating the online-field and thereby making all the first mistakes). Ultimately, it was EASY to get to the right “room” for the right panel. It helped too that their schedule was frequently updated, so it was rarely a question of “which room?” and “when does this thing start?” Comic-Con, which featured all their panels on pre-scheduled youtube posts, was similarly easy to navigate and enjoy. Frankly, I preferred the use of YouTube as Comic Con’s primary platform for distribution more, but that’s just because I enjoy being able to go back and rewatch things later.

Funimation and Aniplex suffered a bit by not updating their schedules consistently. For example, Funimation kept listing panels for Day 2 in the room merged with the Aniplex Online Fest live-stream, leaving me (and I’m sure a few others) to wonder what in the world happened to all those disappearing panels. Though, I’m sad to say that Crunchyroll Expo had it way worse. Their different “rooms” attempted to allow for many panels and multiple languages, and it suffered due to the way they handled this, among other complications. The way things were labeled for different languages meant you either had to search through the individual tabs to make sure you wouldn’t miss anything, or sift through all of it at once. There was no in-between. You also wouldn’t know which panel was whereafter it aired, meaning things got lost easily. Sometimes I wouldn’t even know what panel was canceled, rescheduled, or entirely overlooked by me! This issue is difficult for me to find acceptable, as the Crunchyroll Expo happened months after other conventions and had arguably more time to review platform options and layouts for their digital conference. It almost felt like they were aiming for a “different just to be different” feel ultimately at the cost of user experience, which is crazy since Crunchyroll is one of the largest online anime streaming platforms in the US abroad. It would have been better for them to publish their pre-recorded panels similar to episodes of a show that people could scroll through than the disorganized mess that their expo “stages” tried to do.

With that said, let’s focus on content. 

Panels were the main focus of these conventions (obviously), and content-wise, they did NOT disappoint. AX hit HUGE on the industry panels from major licensing and publishing companies in the US and Japan. They also had the most in terms of interesting focuses. There was a healthy mix of fan panels, culture panels, industry panels, and such, meaning someone could find something of interest in nearly every hour. In fact, at the time, Casea (@madamekrow) and I were in a real panic about how to watch everything we wanted to watch. You could tell that a lot of thought had gone into making this thing work given how quickly they had to switch from live to digital, and I appreciate that. FC2020 and AOF2020, by comparison, were not as reliable in terms of those profession-based and fan-based panels, and given that they are mainly licensers of anime rather than convention planners, it makes sense. They were also up against a convention with a long history (BTW, AX celebrates 30 years in 2021). That’s not to say they didn’t come to the table without the cards. 

FC2020 brought it home with premiere screenings of animes to come. My favorite of their premiere list is By The Grace of The gods, set to come out in October of 2020. Meanwhile, AOF2020 lacked premieres, professional and fan-based panels but made up for it with entertainment of a different kind. They hosted all-night marathons of popular works they license, held a digital concert, and unintentionally perhaps, generally gave a place to “chill” between the stressful jumping from panel to panel. In conclusion of the Big Three Weekend, they gave the summer a phenomenal start!

Next up is Comic-Con. In my opinion, their panels were heavily movie-based as opposed to print-media comics, manga, or anime. Yes, of course, there were plenty of comic panels too, but they weren’t the same as what we saw during AX, FC2020, or AOF2020. The feel was different–maybe because of content. Regardless, it was interesting. I enjoyed much of the industry-related panels, like “Manga Publishing Industry Roundtable” and “How to Thrive as an Indie Comics Creator Now!” (I mentioned before I’m a publishing nerd, right?) Perhaps most preferable to me is that the Comic-Con panels are still available on their YouTube channel, which means that unlike many other conventions, I can share the panels with friends interested in a particular series, subject, or person. I LOVE that. Share-ability is huge, and I think Comic-Con was smart to make their content available moving forward. It has certainly been great for my film-loving friends and our team members here at The Anime View (like Jenna @jkmorgan-media​).  

Lastly, Crunchyroll Expo. What can I say about this one? The panels were huge variables. I know that everyone on our team found them to be a mixed bag, myself included, as Crunchyroll opened up to fans hosting panels. This was great, in my opinion, but with that comes a bit of criticism. Some fan panels were polished, exciting, and engaging. I loved many of the mecha panels. I also loved some that were engaging discussions of a topic between people that were close friends. HOWEVER, with that came just as many who were new to public speaking, hadn’t prepared much of anything and just recorded an awkward Zoom call, or worse (it’s hard to describe how).

As for the smaller conferences like the mini-Toonami Con during Adult Swim’s digital conference, I don’t really have anythings specific to say so I’ll be leaving them out of this review. 

I don’t want to shoot down any of the fans that hosted panels despite this negative review. It’s HARD to present at conferences, and for some, it’s even harder when they know they are being recorded. I remember my first conference where I stared at my paper the whole time and had to be asked to raise my voice twice for people to hear, while my friend aimed my phone at me to record the mortifying presentation for my mother. I don’t blame the people that had a hard time doing this, and I fully support Crunchyroll for giving fans, particularly young ones, the platform and experience to do this. Some of those panels were very interesting, despite the presenter’s awkwardness. Controversially, the handful that made no effort (and you could tell which), I don’t extend that empathy.

For me, panels quality has nothing to do with camera work, lighting, or even sound in some cases (for the most part, as long as you can hear the words–awesome). I didn’t need to see spot-on PowerPoint slides, anime clips to fit the conversation or hyperactivity. To me, it was all about what was being said or not said. One panel that comes to mind that I aimed to attend was about picking the right anime for you or a friend. I ended up ditching half-way through. It was, sorry to say, terrible. The hosts definitely had the energy and passion to discuss anime and interesting subjects beyond their approach to the idea of recommendations. 

For example, they spent a reasonable amount of time comparing how they grew up experiencing anime to how many people now entering the fandom have come to know it. They started by describing how they watching anime on a handful of VHS rentals from BlockBusters, while many people in my (Peggy’s) “anime generation” grew up in the age of fansubs and illegal uploads; meanwhile, my (Peggy’s again) niece grew up experiencing all of her anime through legal online licensing services like Netflix, Funimation, Crunchyroll, etc. After discussing that difference, they mentioned briefly (as in one time in a single sentence) that the popularity of a particular genre in anime when you entered may affect what you find most interesting before completely undercutting themselves to say that you can’t recommend anything to anyone because people always think about what they like first. (I hate to break it to them, but I find it pretty easy to recommend things based on my friends’ stated interests in past series. Maybe that’s because I watch almost everything of every genre in anime, but also–it’s not rocket science. If your friend likes thrilling action movies, you can probably name a few thrilling action animes to satisfy their interest.) It felt as though the panel’s title was misleading when the answer to recommending anime is “you can’t.” (when, in fact, you can with little to no complications!)

Overall, for me, AX takes the crown in terms of content. They had a fantastic mix of everything you hope to see at a comic convention in addition to making it fun. Comic-Con takes the crown for best platform use and layout (AX takes a close second and Aniplex/Funimation sharing third)… Crunchyroll doesn’t rank in this category. Aniplex/Funimation shares the title of Best Entertainment. Crunchyroll takes the crown for fan inclusion into the presentation spotlight. They’re all winners, but if I really had to rank them, it’d be this:

  1. Anime Expo – Title: Content is King  👑
  2. Comic-Con – Best Platform/Layout
  3. Aniplex/Funimation (Sharing is caring) – Best Entertainment
  4. Crunchyroll – Best Fan Inclusion

With that, I conclude my long drafted review. Thank you for your patience, and I’ll see you all next week in another post!

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