Wizzo’s back! Or will be, when the 68th Insomnia Gaming Festival stirs up from its enforced slumber later this month. The once bi-annual event, taking place from 15-18th April at the NEC Birmingham (tickets still available, probably) has been snoring away for two years, for reasons that won’t need explaining. However, in spite of the extended period of hibernation and the fact that April’s event will be the first since Craig ‘Wizzo’ Fletcher reacquired the right to host it, Insomnia 68 is planned to be a more muted affair than most might expect. Rather than a reimagined next-level carnival of gaming fun and frivolity, the Player1 Events team just wanted to stir the beast, so to speak, to see if it had survived the winter.
“It was a resurrection” says Fletcher, who led efforts to acquire Player1 Events, and, more importantly, the Insomnia brand, from pandemic-battered retailer Game last year. “The first six months was literally getting it beating again, getting it back on its feet, getting the staff back up to full speed, getting them to stop their jobs at Tesco or wherever, because, bear in mind, some of the staff had been on furlough for over a year. We had to build them back up, bring them back in and start recruiting very quickly.”
It was perhaps inevitable that Fletcher would return to gaming events. Having established Insomnia in 1999 as a LAN party to which players would carry their bulky PCs and CRT monitors and camp out in the field outside, the event evolved to include esports and mini expos. As it outgrew the Newbury Racecourse facilities, and then the home of Coventry City FC, Insomnia moved into Birmingham’s NEC, where it has evolved to offer a little of something for everyone, whether they’re into cosplay, retro consoles, streamers, or just want to play a selection of the latest or most popular games (and camp out in the NEC rather than outside)
After selling his Multiplay business to Game in 2015 and helping to establish it’s Belong esports centres (which were spun out and sold to Vindex in July 2020), the only question for Fletcher after he left the retailer in 2017 was whether he would one day create a new event to compete with Insomnia, or would be able to find a way to get it back.
“Yeah, one way or another, Insomnia events were going to come back. It was either gonna be that I work with someone to buy back the business, or I was gonna start it again, just for the community.
“We’ve actually looked at getting the events business back a couple of times,” adds Fletcher, who recognised that Player1 Events lacked a reason for being once Game’s Belong venture was seen to be established. “It’s always a very emotional thing when you sell a business, especially one that you’ve built from the ground up, and a family business, as it was” he says, recalling all the plans that went unrealised when the events half of Multiplay was sent to live at Game’s Basingstoke HQ. (The other half keeping the name before being sold on to Unity). “I was wanting to grow it even bigger than it was, you know, there were all these things to do.” Then COVID came along, and as the shutters went down on in-person game events, Fletcher saw an opportunity for when they would inevitably come back up again.
“It was about saving the events for the community and then thinking there’s an opportunity to come out at the other end of the pandemic and rekindle the global ambitions and to take Insomnia to everyone around the world.”
FIRST WE TAKE BIRMINGHAM
Although a summer Insomnia has already been penciled in, plans for global domination will have to wait until the reports are in from April’s event, just to be sure that the demand for it is there. Fletcher is confident that it will be: “Because we didn’t bring Insomnia back to just keep it going as it was, we bought it back because we see huge potential for live events, and particularly for the games industry. Certainly the anecdotal evidence, and the statistical evidence, shows people really want to get back to live events. People have suffered a lot in the last two years, of not having that human contact, of not having the festival experiences and not going and meeting your mates and sharing your passions. It’s clear there’s a need and a demand.
“In all honesty, we need to just run it to see where the land lies, to see how it’s gonna run, who’s going to come, which industries are ready, because some still are not. There’s a lot of moratoriums on events in some cases. But we were going to run an Insomnia come hell or high water to get the community back together again, so they can come back and start getting back to normal, because going to Insomnia was a regular feature of their calendar, and, we hope, will be again.
“Is it going to come back bigger than the last one? Possibly not. But that’s not a problem, because effectively this first one’s a test. It’s a case of let’s get it done. We could do surveys and projections and hypothesise as much as we like, but nothing really tests things than just doing it. We’ll get a lot of information that will help us make the next one even better.”
Insomnia 68 won’t be the first gaming get-together organised by the newly independent Player1 Events. “We actually did an event, AWF (Afternoon With Friends), a sort of a B2B industry event back in November, which was a new thing that we launched. It had about 70-80 people, but it was really, really good. Everyone loved meeting up again and I think that gave us a lot of confidence that Insomnia was going to come back stronger and that people wanted it.”
MORE OF THE SAME
For those who may have attended one of the more recent pre-COVID Insomnia events, Fletcher says to expect more of the same. “We didn’t really aim for different on the first one back,” he says. “We aim to run all the things that we are known for.” He lists esports tournaments (for Overwatch, Valorant, CS:GO and League of Legends), the Cosplay Zone and stage show, Retro Zone, a VR gaming stand, Tabletop Zone, the appearance of more than 60 content creators and influences, and the twin beating hearts of Insomnia’s ‘world famous’ Pub Quiz and the BYOC section, which together have been a mainstay and a bastion of old school PC exclusivity ever since the very beginning.
“We are going to experiment and try some new things out,” admits Fletcher. “Particularly, I wanted to expand the indie and trade side of the event. That’s things like expanding the Indie Zone, looking at running developer tracks, running careers workshops, a careers fair, etc. It’s expanding the scope as well as the size.”
Fletcher likens Insomnia more to a platform than an event, something that can be added to and expanded as the need and opportunity arise: “The core of it is a community event, for a community of gamers, but on that platform you can bolt things on that people want to do. Like, for example, we’ve had League Fest there before, which is a separate hall just about League of Legends. We’ve had the Call of Duty World League finals in a separate hall. That’s the sort of thing we’re looking at doing and we’re having lots of conversations with people about how we bolt on additional content to the festival. As with Glastonbury you have your stages and an eclectic mix of everything in between. There’s no reason Insomnia can’t be like that.”
GO FORTH AND MULTIPLAY
Since the last Insomnia in September 2019, there have of course been a couple of new consoles released. Player1 has bought a sizable number of each and will be showcasing recent and upcoming games in its NewGen Gaming Zone. Along with fifty RTX 3080-specced PCs, the new hardware acquisitions are part of the company’s wider strategy, which is to be able to offer rentals and compete for contract events, which was a successful pillar of Multiplay’s business before Game took it over.
“We used to run Minecon. We used to run RuneFest. We used to run a number of big, big scale conferences for people and we’re going to look into bringing that back, especially with our investment in lots of new kit.”
Aside from trying to export Insomnia to other parts of the world – specifically the US, Europe and Middle East – there are plans that Player1 Events are embarking on that aren’t cribbed from Multiplay’s old blueprint for world domination. One area, for example, that Fletcher and the team are pondering, is the form and function of hybrid events, and the type of online content that might in future support in-person events.
“That’s a big piece of thinking going on at the moment” he says, “How do you create meaningful content for people at home that either can’t or won’t go to a physical event? It was stuff we were looking at before [COVID]. I remember looking at it while I was still there [at Game], but the pandemic has brought forward that thinking. People are having to force innovation in hybrid events, virtual platforms and things like that. It’s not there yet, it’s still very much a patchwork of stuff out there. We aren’t quite at the sort of Ready Player One-level immersion, but we’ll get there, probably quicker than people think. There’s a lot of thinking going on in that space.”
Away from Insomnia, Player1’s CEO admits there have been a number of challenges for events in recent years, many of them related to recent and ongoing shocks to the economy. “Unfortunately, a lot of people have left the business, for a lot of reasons, so some of the people we used to work with are no longer there.” Being mainly freelancers, they understandably had to find other more stable work and leave events behind to support themselves. “They unfortunately fell through the cracks in the government support scheme,” laments Fletcher. “I had to help guide quite a few people during the pandemic, to help them navigate that.”
Costs have also risen massively, as we are all finding out from current events, but the double whammy of Brexit plus the supply shocks of COVID have certainly made things more challenging for Insomnia’s organisers. “We’ve absorbed most of that cost,” says Fletcher, ”because we want it [Insomnia] to still be within the reach of people to attend.”
Another understandable hangover from COVID is that potential festival-goers are seemingly leaving ticket purchases as late as possible, presumably because they fear a last-minute cancellation. Despite this however, Fletcher is pleased with how sales have gone: “Our ticket sales, actually, we’re quite happy with. We’ve been encouraged by the sales we’ve done. I was expecting it to be worse, frankly, but I think the last few weeks will really tell us, because we need to know what the new normal is. Like, do you sell half the event in the last three weeks? Is that what it’s going to be back to, because that’s what it was like 15 years ago? Even on the commercial side, people have left it a lot later booking stands and things like that, which doesn’t help our blood pressure.
“But it’s all good. I see it as an opportunity,” says Fletcher, referencing the process of Ecological Succession, where, for example, a devastating forest fire will instigate new and distinct growth in its wake. “It means you get new ideas, you get new companies coming forward. It’s an opportunity for things to be revitalised. I think that’s a silver lining to the horrors that we’ve all been through the last two years. It means we can come back stronger.”