British gaming festival Insomnia is moving on up…the road, as it relocates future events from Coventry’s Ricoh Arena to the National Exhibition Centre (NEC) in Birmingham. The move comes as demand and attendance for the homegrown event, which merges elements of LAN parties, esports and a convention, has exceeded the capacity of its current home, making it one of the country’s biggest gaming showcases.
More than 36,000 gamers attended the most recent event, Insomnia55. The event, which gets its name from the non-stop gaming sessions it runs over the course of each four-day festival, has signed a multi-year deal with the NEC, the UK’s biggest expo space. Three festivals will take place there each year until 2018.
Insomnia has grown significantly since its inception 16 years ago. Founded by Craig Fletcher in 1999, what was once “merely” a sizable LAN party is now a thrice-annual celebration of all things PC gaming. “For many years, there were no exhibitors. It was just a LAN party, that and tournaments,” Fletcher tells WIRED.co.uk. “We didn’t even have a way to watch our tournament finals, so it’s come a long way.”
Asked why the event is staying in the Midlands, rather than making a predictable move to London, Fletcher says the location is ideal. “It’s very central in the UK, so it’s got a huge population [base]. You tend to find events in London, inside the M25, tend to be different to events at places like the Ricoh or NEC. It terms of attendance, London shows tend to attract predominantly London consumers, because they’ll just jump on the tube, whereas you get a much wider catchment area for something based in the Midlands.”
The NEC is also situated directly on a major train line, an airport, and multiple motorway connections, so it’s easy to get to from London, or even internationally.
Walking around the most recent event, it’s clear the presence of esports has grown significantly. Insomnia now plays host to tournaments for games such as Mortal Kombat, Hearthstone and League of Legends, and smaller friendly competitions for the likes of Rocket League.
A greater focus on streaming those championships will also result as part of the move. “I think we will be focusing more on — for the top tier of our tournaments — going ‘right, what do we think we’ve got the best chance of getting the most views, so we can get more people to see our content, more people exposed to the show’,” Fletcher says. “That will start to have an impact, picking the top games.”
There are also plans to fill the NEC’s Genting Arena — capacity 16,000 — with an esports event, though further details are being kept secret for now. Fletcher is also open about wanting to set a record for the world’s biggest pub quiz at a future Insomnia.
There’s also a moderate but growing cosplay focus, both in terms of attendees decked out as their favourite characters, and in booths recruiting for cosplay groups and offering advice on armour making or corsetry. Minecraft is everywhere, proof positive of its status as cultural phenomenon, while there are considerable queues to meet celebrity gaming YouTubers such as the Yogscast crew.
Tabletop gaming is also a growing focus, with an entire convention hall-sized tent given over to the distinctly non-digital gaming form. Many are set up so newcomers can try their hand. Fancy conquering the Caribbean in Black Fleet, fighting as the Marvel superheroes in Legendary, or getting a look at the rebooted Warhammer fantasy game, Age of Sigmar? All and more are available.
About the only thing not on show to any relevant degree is console games, beyond mid-floor booths from Nintendo and Microsoft, and a smattering of retro curiosities sharing floor space in the tabletop tent. However, that’s set to change as Insomnia moves to the NEC.
“Console is big in terms of attendance. When you look at the two audiences you have here, you tend to have the resident hardcore PC gamers who lug their kit from all over the country to be in the LAN halls, and then you’ve got the “daylisters” — mums, dads, kids, and they tend to be more console skewed,” Fletcher says.
“There’s a lot of PC activity, because that’s ultimately where we come from, but we’re adding more and more console content moving forward. Most exhibitors on the publisher side also focus on console, so that’s good. And we also have a dedicated console LAN, which is growing.”
The growth also heralds a shift for owner GAME, which bought Insomnia organiser Multiplay for £20m in March. Tickets for the next, and future, events will be sold in advance at physical stores, as well as on the Insomnia website. It’s a new area for the retail chain, and one that could conceivably extend to ticketing other events.
Insomnia56 will be the first in its new home, set to take place from 11-14 December 2016.