Insomnia63 Gaming Festival

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This weekend I had the brand new experience of going to the Insomnia Gaming Festival. Having never been to any gaming events or tournaments, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I had a full weekend ticket, so I was there from Friday morning until Sunday afternoon.

As families often attend over just Saturday and Sunday, Friday was a fairly quiet introduction to the festival environment. We were able to get our bearings and explore the arena, and we could try all but the largest activities without queuing.

Layout and Content

The front of the arena hall was dominated by upcoming AAA games such as The Division 2, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, FIFA 19, and Marvel’s Spider-Man. A large Nintendo Switch zone, with playable pre-release and already-released games plus live stage shows, was hugely popular all weekend. A major sponsor was Belong by Game: they provided a gaming space of ~80 PCs, which were used for pre-booked team tournaments and impromptu public tournaments.

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Part of the Belong gaming space.

Much of the arena was reserved for people with bring-your-own-console tickets, rather than for publicly-accessible gaming. However, there was a retro gaming space with arcade and pinball machines,  older consoles such as the PS1, original Xbox, Gamecube, and Dreamcast, plus Japanese music games with peripherals I’ve never seen before. Other activities included a tabletop gaming zone, a laser maze, and an emerging sport called Flightball which was essentially Rocket League with drones.

PC parts manufactures such as Corsair and Razer were also present, but one glaring exception was Microsoft. There were no Xbox One consoles and no Xbox or Microsoft stands anywhere in the festival. The most visible game was Fortnite, to a surprising degree. A dedicated Fortnite zone was always busy, as was the small Battle Royale zone, yet every other playable space also contained Fortnite setups. Also, an entire merchandise stall was dedicated to plushy llamas.

Speaking of merchandise …

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I was mildly disappointed by the proportion of merchandise stands to gaming stands. While there were creative, interesting stands from well-placed companies, there were also multiple stands with the same generic plushies and t shirts, or with “mystery boxes” which could cost up to £50. The focus on merchandise, and especially the mystery boxes, showcased an incredibly consumerist view of gaming that didn’t sit comfortably given how family-friendly and kid-friendly the event was.

Friday

On Friday we tried out the phone-controlled PS4 party games Chimparty and Knowledge Is Power. Chimparty is a collection of mini-games carried out to earn and keep stars, similarly to Mario Party. The minigames we played were all controlled by one button on the smartphone screen; this incredibly simple setup meant doing well at the games was decided by how quickly you could pick up what the button meant for each game.

Knowledge is Power is a quiz-show game resembling the Buzz! series. Each player voted on which decade questions would draw from, and on the topics of individual questions. However, votes could be stolen or overruled by power-ups. Other powerups let players obscure an opponent’s screen or stun opponents to slow them down. As well as standard multiple-choice questions, there were alternate modes involving other phone controls such as swiping. (Apparently I was the only person all day who completed the mode based on swiping the scattered words of a franchise title into the correct order). Both games were simple, but fun and competitive. Like many other quiz games, the proportion of filler and animations to actual questions seemed high, but in the context of a party this would probably not feel as odd.

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The King of Bots arena.

Then, it was robot combat time. King of Bots, the Chinese equivalent of Robot Wars, filmed their Featherweight Championships within Insomnia. Since RW’s cancellation, KoB has attracted many of its teams. Friday’s show featured both amateur and professional featherweight (13.6kg) contestants, while the judges included Jason Marston (Thor), and Ian Lewis (Razer). A playlist of every fight from Insomnia is here.

I watched the first filming session, which had some production issues like faulty syncing between the presenters, camera operators, and on-screen graphics. The first two fights ended quickly, as electrical and safety-link issues immobilized some robots – a common problem in RW. The third fight – between Chinese robot Calabash Bros and English robots Shrapnel and Strix- showed skillful driving and good damage, and the rest continued to improve. Later fights included robots being mutually pitted, spun out of the arena, and even flung into the ceiling. Although King of Bots isn’t established enough to reach Robot Wars or Battlebots level yet, it definitely has potential to grow, as the basic elements seem to be in place.

Friday Night

On Friday night, we went to the “World-Famous pub quiz”. First, imagine a pub quiz scaled up to fit 2000 people. Now imagine that as the night progresses, the content and the between-question clips get dramatically less safe for work. The environment gradually built up during the night, from a standard pub to an almost-nightclub, with a soundtrack of pop-punk, rock, one-hit-wonders and mashups of viral songs.

Overall, it was an interesting night. Despite some of the questions and video clips being too NFSW for me to enjoy, the majority of the rounds were challenging and the gleefully meme-filled environment was interesting to watch. It’s certainly the only time I’ll  ever say that I got into a paper airplane fight with an eSports team, or watched people conga to the Pokemon theme tune.

Saturday

Today I tried out my first VR game, Beat Saber. As I’ve been a long-term Guitar Hero and Rock Band player, the idea of Beat Saber was instantly appealing, and my short time on the game was really fun. The most difficult aspect was remembering to avoid the obstacles by sidestepping and ducking.

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I only game on console, and I’ve always had trouble trying to synchronize all the movements required when gaming with a keyboard and mouse. However, I had to learn quickly today, as I was put into not one but two of the open PC tournaments with my group.  Firstly, a 1 vs 1 Overwatch tournament. I ended up being placed against someone in my group, who is normally  ~700 SR above me. I surprised myself by winning a round against him, and by working the controls well enough to use my characters’ abilities. Then, my group took part in a broadcast tournament for PUBG, which I’d never played before. I survived long enough to take #53 place, albeit more by avoidance rather than skill. (The player who killed me shot from behind me, so I never saw any players during the match). I wouldn’t have expected myself to be comfortable with trying a game out for the first time in that context, so the experience was interesting.

One aspect of Insomnia I haven’t mentioned yet is cosplay. On the Saturday there was a cosplay competition, followed by a community masquerade on Sunday. Although I’m not really a cosplay fan, its difficult to watch the entrants perform without being awed by the level of detail and work put in to all of the costumes. To me, the competitor playing Mercy from Overwatch had the most impressive costume, a replica of her Viking-themed Sigrun outfit, while the competitors playing Alexios and Kassandra from Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey had a stellar performance routine.

The final activity I watched was a session of Nerds and Noobs, a gameshow-type experience that ran multiple times throughout the weekend with different contestants, mostly YouTubers or streamers. This was probably my least favourite part of the weekend, as the questions were incredibly simple and reliant on a small reference pool of modern or extremely famous games… as a result, I found the show repetitive and predictable.

Sunday

On Sunday, we first repeated a couple of the activities we had already explored. We tried another Overwatch tournament, where I completely lost against one of my friends. I also checked back on King of Bots, and was happy to see that they’d fixed their production issues. The Sunday shows had better transitions between elements, better timing, and an overall professional appearance. The fights were also more consistent, with fewer last minute issues. I revisited the PSVR stand and tried Firewall Zero Hour. Unfortunately, I couldn’t play it because the movement and camera angle switching made me feel really strange… this was a shame, as I had enjoyed playing Beat Saber before.

Finally, I watched people try the Flightball boot camp. Flightball, described as “the world’s first drone-based team sport” was at Insomnia as part of the developers’ quest to grow it into a full-fledged sport. The Insomnia Open Tournament was intended to recruit potential pilots, and to fine-tune specific facets of the game. In each boot camp, two teams of 4 contestants were shown the ropes of their 25mph drones, which were protected with carbon-fibre cases. Then they were challenged with a penalty shootout, where they needed to hit the ball from the hands of brave (and well-padded) Drone Masters. I really enjoyed watching the Flightball boot camps, and I would personally support its goal of becoming a full sport with competitions and teams.

Overall

As I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing any of the major YouTubers or the largest games, I barely needed to queue or wait during the weekend, which meant I had plenty of time to see everything I wanted to. Despite my criticisms about the prevalence of repeated merchandise, and the over-abundance of Battle Royale setups, I found the overall experience of Insomnia entertaining. I enjoyed being able to try games and equipment that I wouldn’t have been able to access otherwise, as well as being able to drop in to new games at-will. Finally, being able to share new experiences such as tournaments with people in the same space was probably my favourite aspect of the festival.

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