Originally published in Engage Magazine, download your free copy here.
What: Insomnia Gaming Festival
Who: Multiplay, GES
Where: The NEC
When: 25th - 28th August 2017
Insomnia began as a tiny event for dedicated gamers, now it’s grown into a phenomenon
Every event has its own unique logistical challenges. Few, however, compare to the challenge of providing thousands of computers with powerful and reliable internet for four days. This is the task faced by Andy Smith, events director for Insomnia, and his colleagues.
“I’ve done thousands of events in many venues and this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, by some distance,” he laughs. “There’s nothing that comes close to being as difficult as this.
“It’s the infrastructure that you need onsite; the power and the internet. If any of that goes down then your event is over. Not only have you got the challenge of running an event but you’ve also got technical challenges that you don’t have with a lot of events.”
Insomnia was launched by organiser Multiplay around 20 years ago as a relatively small LAN (local area network) event for gaming enthusiasts to meet, socialise and gain access to high-speed internet. Visitors would stay overnight and continue gaming for the duration (hence the name).
A craze kicked off and a community was born.
“It started to scale up in the mid 2000s,” continues Smith. “The numbers got really big. There is a degree of right place- right-time, but our founder Craig [Fletcher] was into gaming before it was ever cool.
“Insomnia had the right to be there when it blew up because we’d been there long before anyone else had. We’d been doing it for years so we were equipped when the boom came.”
Around ten years ago, an exhibition element was added to the event, opening up a whole world of new opportunities to expand and evolve.
“LAN is still at the heart of the event you see today,” continues Smith. “But we have this huge expo now, so there are some mainstream, well-known games and some console games as well as PC. We introduced YouTubers and streamers, which caused a big kick in the numbers.
“It’s quite diverse; we do panel shows and meet and greets. We’ve got a deal with Universal Music, so last year we had people like Years and Years and Chase & Status and this year we put Robot Wars in and the UK’s largest drone race.”
Whatever they add to the show, says Smith, the intention is always to increase value and enjoyment for its core gamer base. That’s not to say that fans always welcome everything they add to the show.
“There are times when you get it wrong,” he admits,
“We’ve sometimes added bits that have been less welcome, and you just don’t do it again. The audience can see what you were attempting to do and that it was borne out of a desire to add to the show.”
Insomnia, perhaps partly due to its 24-hour nature, has passionate and loyal fans. Members of the LAN gamer community even make up some of the organising staff, having been recruited while attending the show.
These staff members who’ve experienced the show from the visitor side are invaluable when it comes to communicating with, and appealing to, the show’s tech-savvy audience who avoid many traditional marketing channels. So how do you reach a group who don’t read print magazines and newspapers, and who don’t own a TV?
“We’ve got our own forums, which quite a lot of people are members of,” says Smith.
"We do a really heavy social media push, we use the platforms of the YouTubers and streamers who attend the event as well, and use their reach to amplify our message.
“It’s a very digitally heavy strategy; there are very few written publications or adverts. But you have to have a nod to traditional, because some of our visitors are below 16 and the parents have to know what we are and who we are.”
While Insomnia continues to grow in size and scale, its core identity and community will remain the same. For those outside the world of gaming, it can be easy to stereotype gamers as anti-social or individualist, but organisers like Smith have seen the power of live events to bring a disparate online group together.
“We give people a chance to physically experience their digital hobbies,” he concludes. “We give people a physical forum where they can meet up with like-minded individuals and have a good time.
“It’s incredibly sociable; you’ve only got to come to the event to see it.”