On a muggy late spring day, a group of girls sit in a circle just outside the entrance to the Georgia World Congress Center. Cross-legged and quiet, they glance down at their phones and smooth their colorful pleated skirts. A young man wearing a billowing red cape and an eye patch approaches them and cracks a sheepish grin as he asks if he can take a picture.
In a blink, their demeanor completely changes as they leap to their feet and strike a group pose—they are the spitting image of the Sailor Senshi, the protagonists of the hit Japanese anime series Sailor Moon.
It’s a scene that played out over and over throughout the weekend: From May 25 through 27, the GWCC was home to MomoCon, an all-ages convention for all things anime, gaming, cosplay, and geek culture. Now in its 14th year, the Atlanta fest began as a small event on the campus of Georgia Tech and has since blossomed into a major gathering, with attendance on par with big-name fan conventions like Atlanta’s own Dragon Con. (“Momo” means “peach” in Japanese, a punny nod to the convention’s origins.) MomoCon 2017 generated an estimated $20 million in economic activity for Atlanta, and this year’s event expected to be even bigger.
At 10 a.m. on Friday—just an hour after the start of the first full day of the convention—a dull roar already hums in the air of the GWCC, as several thousand costumed attendees throng the main hall.
The convention center is awash in technicolor, with fans decked out in detailed and eye-catching costumes. Merchants and gaming tables cram the main hall, with panels and discussion groups filling out the GWCC’s many meeting rooms. (Two of the sessions on offer on Friday were “Voice Acting for Video games” and “Functional Cosplay Design.”)
In a conference room overlooking the bustling convention floor, MomoCon founders and co-chairs Jess Merriman and Chris Stuckey break down the numbers: MomoCon is expected to draw 35,000 attendees this year (up from 30,000 in 2017). That marks a massive increase over the 8,500 visitors who attended when MomoCon rebranded as a paid event in 2012. MomoCon hails itself as one of the fastest-growing fan conventions in the country.
“We’ve had the opportunity to find a good niche, connect with an audience, and then grow with that audience,” Stuckey says. “I think those have been the keys to our success: Word-of-mouth, and filling a niche that would not be filled otherwise.”
While Merriman and Stuckey are certainly gratified to see the convention grow at such a rapid clip, they say they’re not surprised. They’ve seen so much demand for events catering to anime and gaming fandom that success of MomoCon was really a question of “when,” not “if.”
“Atlanta has an astonishingly good convention scene—and cosplay scene in particular,” Merriman explains. “And there’s definitely been a pent-up demand for this kind of event in the video games space. Having lots of gaming options and eSports, plus major developers and studios having a presence here—the response we get to gaming is always incredible.”
MomoCon formed an official partnership with Atlanta’s largest fandom convention, Dragon Con, in 2016. The two conventions share resources, hardware, and personnel, all with the aim of making the two signature events for the booming fandom scene in the Southeast.
But despite the formal partnership, Merriman and Stucky vow that MomoCon will maintain the unique identity that sets it apart from its sister convention. Where Dragon Con, which drew more than 80,000 attendees last year, favors a cross-genre and cross-fandom approach, MomoCon will continue to court the all-ages anime and gaming crowd.
“Dragon Con does a lot of things that we don’t do—puppetry, awards showcases, general pop-cultural panels—whereas we’re very very focused on animation, gaming, and comics,” Merriman says.
Which illuminates another critical distinction between the two: demographics. Where Dragon Con’s audience skews older (35+), MomoCon is nearly a decade younger, with an average age of 26 (up from 17 when it first launched in 2005).
And whereas sci-fi and fantasy (Dragon Con’s stock-in-trade) have decades of history to drawn on, anime and gaming are relatively newer fandoms, having burst into global consciousness largely in the late 80s and early 90s. (Thanks, in no small part, to the Japanese government’s ‘Cool Japan’ lobbying campaign.)
“Some of the stuff Dragon Con focuses on has a longer history and an older audience,” Stuckey says. “And that audience has stuck with Dragon Con and attended year after year, just like our audience sticks with MomoCon.”
For decades, fans who came of age with Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and DC and Marvel comics were the arbiters of geek culture. But now, a younger generation that cut its teeth on Cowboy Bebop and the Sony Playstation is making itself heard. If fantasy and sci-fi were the lingua franca of fandoms past, anime and video games might be the touchstones of this new generation.
“What we’ve created is an environment where you can be yourself, let go, and enjoy the experience of being around other people who share your passions,” Stuckey says. “If you’re a gamer or an anime fan, this is an opportunity for you to meet other people who share your interests, and make new friendships and experiences—ones that will last much longer than the convention itself.”