“A LAN party by gamers, for gamers” – PDXLAN 11

Posted by Humphrey Cheung

Portland (OR) – Getting smacked in the head with a ball usually is a bad thing, but for hundreds of PDXLAN attendees over President’s Day Weekend it was a chance to have fun and win gigabytes of RAM sticks.  For four days, more than five hundred avid gamers descended upon Portland Oregon to virtually kill each other and win thousands of dollars in prizes in wacky contests – like vegemite eating, chair holding and yes, even dodgeball.  I’ve attended other LAN parties, but my first visit to PDXLAN showed me how a large party can still be fun and “homey”.

Gamers from across the country and Canada streamed into the Holiday Inn convention hall on Friday February 15th and turned PDXLAN into one of the most awesome displays of computing and graphics power that I’ve ever seen.  Almost every machine was water-cooled and I don’t think there was a stock case to be seen (well outside of the ones brought by one of the sponsors Antec).  The sheer amount of glowing screens and LEDs gave the hall an eerie glow that was easily captured in our picture gallery.

PDXLAN founder Matt "Vector" Conwell throws out prizes 

Several attendees already had working Skulltrail machines while others showed off their unique cases.  Kerry Mraz or “Bug” as his friends call him showed me his “Keg O’ Rum” case mod which actually was a barrel of rum (used of course).  “I drank it and had to use the barrel for something,” he told me.  Working as a freelance computer networking technician during the day, Mraz spent two years making his case and cedar wood keyboard.  But while the case may purposely look “old”, Mraz did win some new memory to make the insides feel like new.

"Keg O' Rum" case mod by Kerry Mraz 

And winning prizes is a big part of PDXLAN because attendees are literally showered expensive computer hardware like Palit 8800 GT graphics cards, Intel Core 2 Extreme processors and gigabytes of RAM from Lexar Media.  The grand prize was a thousand+ dollar Core 2 Extreme processor, Palit graphics card, water cooling system, Antec case, hard drive, RAM and power supply – basically a completely new system.  Not bad for the lucky attendee who paid the measly $60 entry fee.

Incoming!! 

Many of the prizes were for winning your typical LAN party tournaments like besting opponents in strategy and first person shooter games, but attendees could subject themselves to torture for loot.  Lexar Media gave away gigabytes of speedy RAM for winners of a massive dodgeball game.  Judging by the speed at which people were throwing at each other (and aiming for the head nonetheless), I’m surprised no ambulances were called to cart off the wounded.

One attendee volunteered, yes the crazy guy volunteered to eat an entire jar of vegemite for a pair of Palit 8800 GT 1 GB cards.  He almost finished the jar before throwing up in front of the audience.  Yes we have video of this and yes you probably shouldn’t watch it.  Oh, his neighbor also won an 8800 GT card just for sitting next to him and surviving the stench.  YUCK!

PDXLAN 11 video of attendee eating vegemite - WARNING GRAPHIC

Crazy events like these give PDXLAN a unique, sort of homegrown flavor that continuously attracts hundreds of people.  The event is the brainchild of Matt Conwell.  At first glance, he looks like a typical geek, but to many attendees he’s a gaming icon who has rejected critics to form one of the most successful gaming events in the United States.  Wearing glasses and sporting a black T-shirt, Conwell – or better know by his handle “Vector” – recalls how a major gaming tournament organizer refused to help in the early years.

“Back in 2002 the CPL [Cyberathelete Professional League] told me that Portland couldn’t sustain a 500 player LAN party,” Conwell told me.
Now PDXLAN is a jam-packed event with more than 500 attendees.  In fact, organizers often have to turn away people from the venue just because there aren’t enough seats for all the computer gear.  The secret to Conwell’s success is concentrating on the gaming community rather than the games themselves.  He adds that most attendees would probably skip the gaming tournaments to show off gear and chat with old friends.

By my observations while attending PDXLAN 11, Conwell is absolutely right.  Intel graciously provided beefy gaming desktops and laptop systems for the tournaments, but most of the time those machines sat unused.  The real action happened on the floor where people gave impromptu lessons on water cooling and quietly gamed away themselves.  Sure there were FPS players who fired up Call of Duty 4 and strategy nuts that gazed at Supreme Commander, but many attendees seemed happy to sneak in a few hours of World of Warcraft and even Bejeweled.

The community atmosphere even attracts children as many parents feel quite comfortable in bringing their young ones for some family fragging.  James Crooker, managing partner of game server provider Primary Target, said that he loves bringing his 4 and 6-year-old sons and 8-year-old daughter.  “At home they just play in front of the screen, here they get to see what daddy does,” Crooker told me.

I often see LAN parties fade into obscurity because organizers couldn’t understand business aspects of the event.  After all, a top score in Unreal Tournament doesn’t guarantee that you can actually make money, but Conwell seems to at least the sponsorships down pat.  He’s teamed up with big name companies like Intel, Nvidia, AMD and dozens of others to offer prizes, money and advice.  In fact, hardware makers come to PDXLAN to understand the enthusiast market from both Conwell and attendees.

David Makin from Palti gave away 35 8800 GT graphic cards and was also brave enough to display his real email address and cell phone number on the big screen.  “Give me your ideas and we just might use them,” he said.  Apparently this was a huge success because he had to rip out the phone battery from the deluge of calls.  “This is not the parking lot of Best Buy and I don’t have to explain the technology.  These guys already know it and can give us good tips on how to make our cards better,” Makin added.

As PDXLAN 11 went into its final hours, I sat down with Conwell who told me in a serious tone, “After CPL sent me that email, I really had my doubts about running this.”  But Conwell seems to have the last laugh and after a few seconds of typing, he smiled and pointed to the PDXLAN website, “We already have 200 people signed up for the next one that’s more than a hundred days away!”