How To Entertain Thousands With Simple Things

A PAX East weekend is known for many things. Lots of shiny games to play is one of them; piles of interesting and varied panels to attend is another. The conventions are popular, and every year they seem to get a little bigger and a little grander, attracting thousands to Boston to celebrate.

Of course, there are downsides to popularity. Lots of people means lots of logistics, and for the most part, the PAX organization and their army of incredibly helpful enforcers do a great job of helping with this situation. Whether its setting up the AFK room or making sure there are handy maps available, they try their best. Its honestly mind-boggling that such a feat is handled as smoothly as it is year after year.

There’s nothing that can be done for the lines, however. If you’ve ever been to PAX on a Friday or Saturday morning, you know exactly what I’m talking about: people begin to line up hours before the outside doors to the convention center open at 8 AM. While the show floor doesn’t open until 10 AM, that doesn’t dissuade many. The queue-line begins to fill, as thousands of people cram in close, waiting eagerly for the gates to open in the hope to rush to the booth of their choice before others can.

pax_east_katamari.jpg
For years, the Katamari cosplayer looked down on us like the ants we were, mocking us as we waited for 10 AM.

It can be a bleak, exhausting experience. Standing on concrete for over an hour, your feet can begin to ache even before the show really begins. Surrounded by humanity on all sides, claustrophobia can settle in, a morning of rushing an anxiety occurring before what is supposed to be a day all about celebrating good times and good games. While devices like the Nintendo Switch can help stave off some of that unease, that sense of anxious waiting is hard to let go of, as you constantly look back to your phone to see how close it is now to 10 AM.

There are unlikely champions against boring mornings such as these however; people who work hard to make the start of a day a little lighter and a little happier, to help warm up the crowd to be ready to celebrate when the gates open.  One of these people is simply known as the PAX Beach Baller.

How It All Began

By PAX East 2012, it was obvious the queue lines were something of a beast of their own. Herded into large barely-contained lines, mobs of convention goers can wait for two hours in an area that looks like it could be an airport hanger. It was just getting more chaotic as PAX became more popular. That’s when Ted saw it: some unnamed hero had blown up a giant beach ball and tossed it into the crowd.

“It was just such a good idea,” he told me while we were both waiting in line this year. “You could hear people cheering and looking up for the ball, as it got tossed back and forth. It distracted everyone”. Packing everyone into such a small space can raise tempers whether you are at PAX or on the subway train, after all. But people didn’t seem to care as much now. The mood had been lifted. Even waiting for a game convention had become a game.

pax_beachballer.jpg

The next year before PAX East, Ted got the idea to log online to a discount party supply store. “You can find really beach balls that way,” he explained. He was able to get a whole box for a lower cost than expected. After starting to pass out packs of them uninflated and opening a twitter account, the phenomenon began.

Going to a PAX East queue line can be an interesting experience of its own volition. This year, there were a good dozen in balls in the air at once, as well as a deer/llama and a massive inflatable donut. Chants rose from the crowd as the inflated pastry was tossed from line to line, while many convention attendees tried their best to toss the various beech balls through the middle as it moved.

Can It Go Too Far?

Ted hates the killer whales. With a shake of his head, we talked about years in the past, where I distinctly remembered five-foot long orca toys ending up in the air, with the crowd cheering for it to get closer. Ted does this for fun and to let others have an enjoyable experience while waiting, but there’s a worry that it can go a little too far. While the bigger props certainly grab a lot of attention, he was never the one to supply them. “They’re heavier,” he explained. “not everyone is looking out for what’s above them the whole time, and there are kids there. The last thing I want is to see someone get hurt.”

On that note, I had to ask if the PAX organization had anything to say about his volunteer efforts. He had reached out to them in the past, and while he was told they couldn’t support the effort, they weren’t banning it either. It’s a stance that makes sense, but it’s a reason to be frustrated when he sees the larger inflatables come out, or when people begin to draw inappropriate things on the sides of them.

Inevitably, some of the beach balls end up getting knocked out of line. The ever present PAX enforcers go to pick them up, and inspect them to make sure nothing terrible has been scribbled onto the side – it’s a tradition by now to write on a beach ball if one ends up near you. More often than not however, the ball is back up in the air soon enough. “I’ve had enforcers give me the high five walking around PAX,” Ted went on. “I don’t know about everyone, but I’m glad some of them appreciate it.”

Why Do The Beach Balls Matter, Anyway?

It’s a small gesture, at the end of things. I found out Ted spends about $100 a year on this little set up, going to discount online retailers to try and get a package that will last all weekend. It was a higher amount than I was expecting honestly, since from what I could tell he gets no financial compensation. Then again, he’s not doing it for the money, but the smiles and laughs.

pax_east_beach_balls.jpg

“Last year, I had some 8 year old girl come up to me and wanted me to sign her PAX pass,” he laughed. A moment of someone reaching out and thanking him directly, even though its not something he asks for. To him, he went on to explain, its just about having fun. About lightening the mood, and making a fantastic weekend put on by PAX into something just a little more special.

So thank you, PAX Beach Baller. As silly as it sounds, such an act of strange generosity can matter. For me, seeing the beach balls being flung back and forth is almost a reminder that I’m back at PAX East. When I go to rush a booth at least once every convention weekend, I look forward to hearing the shouts of laughter as chaos ensues, and people decide to look up at brightly colored objects instead of anxiously down at their phones.