By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Nov 05, 2021 at 6:01 PM Photography: Midwest Gaming Classic Facebook

Brace yourself for blissfully blistered fingers and thumbs once again as, after a more than two year hiatus thanks to COVID, the Midwest Gaming Classic is pressing play on its annual gaming convention.

Starting Friday night and running throughout the weekend at the Wisconsin Center, the trade show will once again fill the massive space with games upon games as well as the gamers who love them. This year’s convention features more than 250 coin-operated arcade games and pinball machines – including some cabinets of a new American Pinball game called “Legends of Valhalla” and a Godzilla Stern Pinball favorite – all on free play mode with no quarters necessary, more than 200 console games from iconic classics to new blockbusters and buried gems, a vinyl jukebox crammed with iconic video game music, more than 50 table top games, tournaments galore for all brands of games, tons of vendors with all sorts of geeky greatness on sale and even two Tesla cars that serve as their own arcades with games playing on their dashboards.

Basically, if you’re a fan of gaming – any and all kinds – there’s a section at the Midwest Gaming Classic hall waiting for you. (A complete list of vendors, events and types of games on display is available at the event’s website.)

And yet, for co-founder Dan Loosen, the most exciting part of the Midwest Gaming Classic’s return isn’t any of the hundreds of games plugged into the walls, attached to a controller or battling on a board. It’s not even an afterparty performance from the band Kung Lao and the Scorpions, fronted by Kung Lao himself (or at least the performer who played him in the “Mortal Kombat” fighting game sequels). 

It’s the return of those actually pressing start and playing the games. 

"The games are completely secondary to the rest of the show,” Loosen said. “My business partner Gary (Heil) refers to it as a social trade show more than anything else. It’s a trade show about showing you how to build a community and having a place where that community can come together.”

That attitude makes even more sense when you consider the origins of the Midwest Gaming Classic: a notorious video game flop. Back in the late ‘90s, Loosen and Heil caught wind of the Atari Jaguar Festival, a traveling tribute to the mostly forgotten video game console that only had 50 games over its short run, was shellacked in sales by just about every other major console of the time and helped nudge industry icon Atari out of making video game consoles forever. But despite its losing legacy, Loosen and Heil had love for the console – and, best of all, found others online who shared their strange Jaguar affection and wanted to hang out.

"In 1999, (the festival) was in Rochester, Minnesota. It was the first time Gary and I went on a trip together – and it was a revelation of realizing we can like something that’s niche and find people,” Loosen recalled. “There were Atari Jaguars set up and stuff like that, but there was very little playing. It was mostly just going and getting to interact with these communities in real life.”

Two years later, Loosen and Heil offered to host the Atari Jaguar Festival in Milwaukee – the first year of what would morph and evolve into the Midwest Gaming Classic. And while the event has grown monumentally – from less than 100 people in 2001 to more than 15,000 for its most recent run in 2019 – that attitude still fuels the show: that it’s less about the consoles and cabinets themselves than the human communities that form around them. That’s why the convention’s evolved from one disappointing ‘90s console (64-bit though!) to dozens of video game systems to board games and beyond.

"There’s an arcade game called ‘Killer Queen’ that is super popular, and they’re hosting their global gathering at our show,” Loosen pointed out. “There’s a hundred-ish people coming in for that – and some people might be like, ‘Oh, a hundred people; that’s really not that many.’ But it’s not just the people playing; it’s seeing into this window of this world of a new community that’s open and welcoming. Suddenly you go from not knowing that was a thing to looking for things like that.

"We try to be the forum for that for all these different communities – whether it’s video games or tabletop or arcade or pinball.”

The Midwest Gaming Classic continues to add to that list each year. One group Loosen particularly loves is the air hockey community, which has been regularly bringing several of some of the country’s best players to the show to show off their skills but also to teach their strategies and how folks can begin getting involved with competitions. This year’s edition will also expand its Dungeons & Dragons footprint as well as putting a greater emphasis on its Magic the Gathering tournaments with impressive prizes with no entry fee. And that’s all in addition to the Classic’s hefty number of game collectors, vendors, developers and just general gaming fanatics, all geeking out together under one roof.

With all these groups and all this activity spanning thousands upon thousands of square feet, this year’s Midwest Gaming Classic is both a long ways from its small Jaguar-loving origins as well as exactly the communal spirit that fueled that first event two decades ago. 

“I never thought we’d have twenty years of this,” Loosen said. “It’s exciting and amazing, and I love the fact that other people have pushed us to keep doing this.”

The Midwest Gaming Classic takes place at the Wisconsin Center on Friday, Nov. 5 from 6 p.m. until midnight; Saturday, Nov. 6 from 10 a.m. until 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Nov. 7 from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. For more information on tickets and a full list of events, vendors and games expected, click here.

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.