Otakon 2016 – A Bittersweet Goodbye

The East coast's largest anime convention held its final year in Baltimore Convention Center this year, drawing in an estimated crowd of 30,000 attendees to its halls for the last time before moving further down south to D.C. Though the gathering was perhaps the best it's been since it first started, the 3-day celebration ended with a sad goodbye.

Otakon 2016 - A Bittersweet Goodbye
Otakon 2016 was not what I was expecting it to be. As I skipped down the halls of the Baltimore Convention Center wearing a red cape and a purple wig, occasionally flourishing my ridiculous pink fan in the 95 degree heat, I couldn't help but grasp at a hint of sadness. This 18 year-old gathering of otaku, misfits, and straight-up nerds was coming to an end, and it left the Charm City on a bittersweet note.

My first trip to the East coast's largest anime convention was two years ago with my parents (…). I still remember the first night we walked together along the Inner Harbor, my Italian mother from the outskirts of Venice nearly hysteric after witnessing someone around my age breakdance in a Pikachu onesie on the hard brick street. Though he was surprisingly good, I couldn't help but think how strange it must be to be an "outsider" looking in – how in one person's eyes, this all seems like one big joke.

Although I might have thought that way, I felt in my heart the exact opposite. I felt an enormous sense of pride, and I felt like this was somewhere that I belonged.

Some cosplayers at Otakon 2016 - photo courtesy of the Baltimore Sun
Flash-forward to just a week ago and that same sense of fitting-in welcomed me home. One can't easily forget the smiles plastered on each and every face, the spectacular cosplays that pushed the limits of gravity, the genuine love for creativity that everyone on the show floor shared. One of my favorite aspects of any convention I go to, the artist alley, came to Otakon this year in full force, picking up on some of pop culture's most noticeable trends and manifesting them through channels of unique, independent talent (I managed to nab myself a really cute Mimikyu poster and I still can't believe life is real). It's love like this that drives a lot of us forward, inspiring us to think and climb out of whatever box we're stuck in.

Of course, the real draw of the con was in its big name guests, and Otakon 2016 didn't disappoint in that regard either. Death Note, Card Captor Sakura, Ninja Scroll, and Redline producer Masao Maruyama, Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors game designer Jiro Ishii, P.A. WORKS CEO and producer Kenji Horikawa (known for popular anime like Angel Beats!, Charlotte, and Another), and Amy Rose's voice actress Lisa Ortiz, amongst many, many more, all participated in industry panels and signings for fans to witness and actively participate in. I myself managed to meet One Punch Man's Zack Aguilar, Full Metal Alchemist's Aaron Dismuke, Love Live and Tokyo Ghoul's Caitlin Glass, BlazBlue, Tales, Skullgirls, Sailor Moon, and Puella Magi Madoka Magica's Lauren Landa, and Space Dandy's Alexis Tipton courtesy of good friend MrAJCosplay, and even got their autographs!

The author and his friend MrAJCosplay at Otakon 2016 with Zack Aguilar, voice of Genos from One Punch Man
As a celebration that prides itself on being "by otaku, for otaku", the community shined this year in a way it hasn't in the past. Aside from everyone being extraordinary friendly (I frequently found myself striking up a conversation with people standing next to me on line), the panels, workshops, and events were each particularly well-organized and executed. Much of it catered to fans of all ages – I managed to finger paint a crab on a paper plate then nearly sustained an epileptic shock at a rave all in one day! – giving everyone a chance to have fun. There were, of course, plenty of risque over 18 panels to attend too, but we'll talk about those some other time…

Cosplays were on point as well, as Otakon is well-known for bringing in some of the East coast's best-dressed for a low-key battle of attention. Some of this year's most notable costumes came from games like Fire Emblem Fates, Overwatch, and Pokemon, to name just a few. The community also arranged for photoshoots of specific series or franchises to be had within the show space, which almost always made for quite the sight to behold.

Otakon 2016 Cosplay Showcase

Growing from a small group of 4,500 fans to over 30,000 attendees annually (not including volunteer staff), the crowd that swept through the 1.2 million square foot building was beautiful to be a part of, with or without costume. Oftentimes you found yourself in jeans and a T-shirt standing next a guy with iron battle armor and an axe. It's a strange world to be a part of, but very easy to get used to. Like playing a video game or watching an anime, it's like living in a fantasy.

But when I look back at it now, I can't help but to feel sad. The imagination, dedication, passion, and incredible love for creativity found here gives nerds like me inspiration to follow our dreams, no matter how far-fetched they may be. It gives us confidence knowing there are a lot of other people like us out there, making us unafraid to push forward in our lives without doubting what makes us feel whole. It gives us a sense of identity, a purpose…

…and it all ended in a place we've called home for 18 years.

Otakon moves to Washington D.C. in 2017, and I hope that we never have to say goodbye for good.

Signage found when entering the Hilton hotel, connected to Otakon's Baltimore Convention Center

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