For over 30 years, UBCon has been an annual staple of the Buffalo community, bringing dozens of Western New York vendors and thousands of attendees to UB’s North Campus.
The event — attracting anime, gaming, cosplay and various other nerd culture geeks — is large enough to require the entire Student Union and a handful of classrooms around campus to host it properly.
In past years, the event has even brought out famed guests like actor Phil LaMarr, best known for his roles in “Pulp Fiction,” “Samurai Jack, and “Futurama.”
But as a result of the pandemic, this year’s event will be held virtually for the second straight year. UB’s Strategist and Role Players Association (SARPA), which will host the convention solely this year, is putting in a lot of effort in an attempt to recapture the spirit of previous UBCons.
This year’s event is open to all and will take place virtually on Discord from April 9-11, with different channels for vendors, games and panels. With its planned Minecraft server, SARPA hopes to recreate some of the in-person interaction that will inevitably be lost in the digital move.
Ian Santora, a senior English and philosophy student and UBCon’s director, says he wasn’t expecting to have to switch to a virtual format, but is doing his best to make sure that this convention will be as well-received as those in years’ past.
“One of the things that we’re trying to take advantage of is that it is a gaming event, so people are familiar with going online and socializing,” Santora, who has been a member of SARPA since his freshman year, said. “We’re trying to get people in online games. [For example,] Dungeons and Dragons is something that we can very much still do, but you lose the in-person appeal.”
UBCon is usually a time for many of UB’s clubs to come together. In a typical year, SARPA, UB Anime, UB Cosplay and the UB Pokémon Club all collaborate on the convention; this year, it’s all up to SARPA.
The Spectrum reached out to the other clubs for comment, but only received a response from Alexander Cherniwchan, the president of UB Anime.
“In a normal year, UB Anime’s role in UBCon is mostly related to finding a celebrity guest. Given that things will be online this year, we aren’t that involved in the planning this time,” Cherniwchan, a senior chemical and biological engineering major, wrote in an email. “The SARPA leadership is in charge of almost everything this year, and they have been planning the online replacement.”
Some vendors and attendees have expressed concern that the online convention will be unable to “capture the spirit” of past gatherings. Previously, UBCon has been a place for local artists and businesses to showcase their wares and sell merchandise, but with the online format, many fear the event will be less profitable than before.
“[Our biggest concern this year is] turnout. On one hand, I think it’s less of a commitment, you can just pop in,” Santora said, regarding the Discord platform. “On the other hand, you really just kind of have that vibe, or you don’t.
“We’re going to have channels for vendors to communicate with people, and links for people to do some online shopping, but obviously we know it’s a lot more difficult because it’s just not the same as when you go and you see something in person and you’re like ‘oh that looks cool, I’m gonna go grab that.’”
SARPA used a similar method for its virtual “Mini Clash” event last November, to moderate success.
Cindy Reidi, owner of Dragonwood Studios in Sherburne, NY, makes handcrafted jewelry, along with wooden items inspired by magical worlds, such as wands and dragon eggs.
Reidi attended the “Mini Clash” event as a vendor. She said that although she didn’t actually sell anything, “it was still fun.” Discord “works out just fine,” she said, but she will still miss the sense of community that usually comes from UBCon.
“It isn’t the profits so much for me. It’s missing the interactions,” Reidi said over Facebook Messenger. “Sure, money is nice and all, but the people are what make UBCon so wonderful.”
While Reidi doesn’t have a problem selling her homemade goods online, she expressed ambivalence about the event’s communications.
“I think we just need to find a way to direct folks to our ‘booths’ so they can really see what we do,” Reidi said. “Maybe have sellers put together a schedule of when they will be live, with a blurb about what they will showcase at specific times. That could be disseminated to the attendees, like a program would be if we were on campus. People just kind of need to be reminded we are there. We put in a lot of time getting our bits together. We want people to see them and interact with us.”
Convention attendees say they are also concerned, as UBCon is usually a time when they are able to come together and socialize with their nerdy brethren, which is difficult to do when the event is entirely digital.
Christina Aviles has never been to a UBCon before, but the 2020 UB graduate is still looking forward to her first convention, even if it is online.
“I’m excited to be finally a part of UBCon, even if it is virtual, but I am worried about how it will work out with people who wanna cosplay,” Aviles, who studied anthropology, said.
Aviles is a “beginner cosplayer,” and says she is “curious” as to how the online format will work for the convention.
“I’m a little sad it’s not that full experience, but with the pandemic going on it’s completely understandable why we’d have it online. I think it’s a good compromise,” Aviles said.
While the virtual format isn’t anyone’s first choice, Santora says his team is doing the best they can to put on a smooth event.
“So far, I think the community is bearing with us,” Santora said. “I mean, nobody’s satisfied. I’m excited for UBCon, we’re gonna do the best we can, I think we’re gonna have a great time. But I’m not gonna beat around the bush and pretend that this is what we would be doing if we had [other] options… but we’re happy to be able to do what we can.”
Santora and the rest of SARPA’s executive board have expressed concern about event advertising. Aside from a couple of posts on UBCon’s Facebook page, public information about the convention is few and far between.
“We’re still working out a lot of the details, so we’re gonna be looking to generate a bit more buzz in the days coming up to it,” Santora said. “We definitely have been a bit behind on promotion.”
SARPA plans to rely mainly on social media to increase awareness for the convention, but the club also plans on putting up flyers and using email listservs to spread the word.
“We want to keep the buzz, we want to let people know that UBCon is still a thing and that it’s happening,” Santora said. “We don’t need to generate revenue, so much as we need to let people know that UBCon is still happening… one of our biggest concerns is making sure that even if this is a weaker year because it’s online, we can still have it continue in the future.”
Santora says he is concerned that the next generation of SARPA may be underprepared to host UBCon. He says that, in a traditional year, the acting director would mentor the assistant director on how to host the following year’s UBCon, establishing a comfortably formulaic cycle.
But since last year and this year's conventions were held online, Santora worries that the next director won’t have the necessary experience to run the event in person.
“It’s definitely going to be a bit of an uphill battle going forward, and I’m confident that we can do it, but a big concern is how do we make sure that the next in-person con is run by people who are ready to do that,” Santora, who plans on staying at UB for graduate school, said.
Despite all of the challenges he and his staff have had to go through in planning the event, Santora remains positive that UBCon will be an enjoyable event.
“I do think in spite of everything, UBCon is really, really fun. A downgrade from really, really fun is still really fun,” Santora said.
He says SARPA has “some good events planned,” and that he’s thrilled for people to experience them.
“I’m excited to use this as an opportunity to innovate,” Santora said. “UBCon is about the people more than anything else. If we’re there, and the people are there and we have our events together, I think we can capture the spirit.”
Reidi says the event still holds a special place in her heart, virtual or otherwise.
“Honestly, we love UBCon so much because of its personality. It’s special. We miss it,” Reidi said. “You can feel the love you all have for the events. It makes them feel like home. And that is what makes them so popular, just as much as the panels or the talent or the games.”
UBCon will be free to attend this year, and will take place virtually from April 9-11. For more information, visit UBCon’s Facebook.
The arts desk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org