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PLANET NERD & THE RINGS OF GEEKDOM:  Our correspondent takes a wondrous journey through the videogame universe at LVL Up Expo

Forget the postwar despondency of Lost Generation literature or the Kerouacian meditations that foresaw legions of peripatetic Boomers. The single most prescient piece of American art in the 200-and-some-odd years of this great nation is Revenge of the Nerds.

No one in the ‘80s heyday of jocks-vs.-geeks war footing would have seen it coming, but the Great Pop-Cultural Revolution swept through the land, and the winners were in their glory at the LVL Up Expo at the Las Vegas Convention Center Feb. 21-23, 2020.

A crush of anime fans and artists mixed in with booths hawking old video games next to a wrestling ring overlooking old arcade machines on one side, and a makeshift eSports arena on the other. Throngs of fans swarmed every which way — Mandalorians and Purgers and Fortniters and Harleys Quinn by the bucketful.

If it sounds like high-velocity geek-a-riffic sensory overload, there’s a reason for that. Let’s take a spin around the floor.

1) Something important must be happening on the eSports stage because a mob of people gather to watch two men hunch into monitors, competing in some kind of Pokémon fighting game, which is streamed to a giant screen behind the contestants. At least I think it’s Pokémon-related. The arena floor in the game has the red-and-white Pokémon ball, but I wouldn’t swear to anything. It was all so after my time that I’m considering pricing calcium supplements on Amazon. One competitor wears a letterman jacket for the Northwest Career and Technical Academy Hawks, and several teammates in matching gear are in the crowd. The nerds didn’t just beat the jocks. They beat the jocks and stole all their stuff. It’s got to be humiliating.

2) Nearby, tables full of vintage game systems spanning decades are hooked to a bunch of old, bulky tube TVs that you figure someone’s mother was grateful just to get out of the basement. A father who no doubt grew up with the game is playing against his son in NES’ Tecmo Bowl. The father has chosen the Raiders and the son, the Dolphins. The kid has no idea what Bo Jackson-fueled hell he’s in for.

3) Kevin Hayden, a 35-year-old, is dressed in Hunter S. Thompson’s trademark Hawaiian shirt/bucket hat/yellow Ray-Ban Shooters. He sits at his booth for Critical Hit Collectibles, selling clever gaming-related merch, including one of the character Kirby in a top hat and monocle, carrying a Molotov cocktail next to the words “Eat the rich.” It’s the same day Bernie Sanders is about to win the Nevada Democratic Caucus. “I’m a big Bernie supporter,” Hayden says. “That’s the most popular thing I designed in the last couple of years. I did a con in D.C. and brought a big bag of magnets of that and they were all gone by Saturday afternoon at lunch. You can tell the mood in the country. It’s fun to see.”

Hayden travels to about 20 conventions a year to sell his wares, like pins that represent energy bars in games, but for “caffeine” and “sleep”; plus wooden wall decorations, and game-related jewelry.

When I ask Hayden where he’s from and he says Kalamazoo, Mich., he adds: “Yeah, that is a real city.”

“Hey, it’s the home of Derek Jeter!” I cheerfully volunteer.

Hayden gives me a blank look back. My fault for not reading the room. I like him anyway.

4) A group of Batman villains pose for photos in front of the table for the Las Vegas Cause-players Alliance. The group goes to events, makes hospital visits, does what they can to help raise money for children’s charities. At LVL Up they’re holding a raffle for various gamer and comic-book memorabilia they plan to donate.

“We did an event for a kid at the Avengers Station (at Treasure Island),” Anthony Ramos says after he pauses to take his Scarecrow mask off. “We have one coming up with him again. He wants us to do a big skit where we’re going to have the Red Skull there chasing him ‘round. We’re going to have Tony Stark, Hawkeye, Black Widow escorting him through with little Nerf guns. We have to make it fun for a special kid.”

They’re not the only group that does charity work at the expo. The 501st Legion — a nationwide collective of Star Wars cosplayers — is represented by the Neon City Garrison (the Nevada chapter) at the convention. There are about 45 members in the local chapter, and they’re collecting money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

 “We’re not allowed to advertise because we do work with Lucasfilm and they’re very strict about what we can do,” Clay Anderson says while he works a sewing machine emblazoned with the Galactic Empire insignia. He’s hard at work on his own Mandalorian costume. “Usually around the time when new releases come out they have that moratorium lift. We did a Make-A-Wish at the Palms (during Rise of Skywalker). We had a kid with a disorder where he had fluid in the lungs. We had a private event for the family afterward. We had a lot of fun.”

5) In the twisted, lightsaber-choked alleys of the Moorish bazaar that dominates one corner of the convention space, one booth is selling leather goods. Harnesses holding bottles with Legend of Zelda ephemera embossed on them, full leather doublets, etc. The usual. For reasons I’m unable and unwilling to ascertain, they also sell brightly colored, faux-fur clip-on animal tails that two convention-goers are looking over.

“You’d have to be a professional (bleep!) idiot,” muses one fellow dressed like a Fallout Vault-dweller.

“Yeah, at that point, it’s just wasting money,” a witch agrees.

 Who am I to argue?

To offer feedback on this story or suggestions for future stories on Las Vegas Newswire, contact Managing Editor Steve Bornfeld at SBornfeld@lvcva.com.


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