Video Games
PAX Scalpers Aren't the Villains You Think They Are

Joshua Vanderwall | 5 Sep 2014 16:00
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Scalping PAX 3x3

Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) has grown every year since its inception in 2004, when it hosted a meager 3,300 attendees. By 2011, PAX boasted over 70,000 attendees. In 2013, 4-day passes sold out within 23 minutes of going on sale, and the show was sold out entirely in less than six hours. PAX 2014 reportedly sold out even faster, with 4-day passes going in under 20 minutes, and full sellout in under two hours. In this world, when that much demand exists, a secondary market will inevitably appear, and at PAX, that comes in the form of scalpers.

To be clear, I'm not talking about people listing PAX badges for 1000% markup on Ebay or Craigslist. I'm talking about the half dozen or so folks standing outside of the convention center for up to 12 hours a day, buying and selling badges like Exxon stock after Valdez. They work tirelessly for hours, starting in the dawn hours, and going all day until the show is about to close. They somehow maintain an amiable demeanor, despite being frequently reviled, and sometimes even verbally abused by con-goers, as well as having to deal with rejection literally thousands of times a day. They're not heroes, but they're not exactly villains either. They're hard-working citizens, just looking to make a buck the best way they know how.

There's a lot of hatred towards scalpers in general, based largely on misconceptions of what they do and the frustration of having hundreds of thousands of people all vying for only tens of thousands of available badges. PAX has established a 4-ticket-set limit for each individual buyer, which it began enforcing more rigorously when PAX 2013 sold out in record time. How, then, do scalpers end up with giant stacks of badges to peddle outside the convention center? It's basically a commodities game.

According to PAX, in 2013, only 2.1% of people ordered the maximum number of badges. Many of these are groups of friends or co-workers attending together, leaving an even tinier percentage of first-run ticket sales going to scalpers. In fact, though I only spoke to four of the dozen or so scalpers I saw over the weekend, not a single one of them ordered badges online. Instead, when an attendee leaves for the day - assuming it's early enough - the scalpers try to buy their badge and resell it to a would-be attendee for a small profit. While mass-purchasing tickets online and selling them for 100% markup might be frowned upon, this kind of scalping can be argued to actually have a beneficial effect on the show. One fan gets a slight refund on their ticket price, and another fan, who missed the online sales, gets to see the show. Win-win, right?

The business itself, as with anything on the gray market, is a little shady. There are scammers. There are counterfeit badges. Some are aggressive, bordering on harassment. But the legitimate scalpers who are there to reasonably and legally buy and sell real badges are not them. They're entrepreneurs and businessmen. You may not like what they do, but the 12-year olds that got to live their dream on the show floor because one guy took it upon himself to buy a pass from someone leaving the convention? To them, they're heroes.

After seeing the scalpers hard at work all day Friday, I decided to dedicate an hour to really watching how they operate late Saturday morning, during the rush of people leaving for lunch. On the corner by the tunnel, I saw three men all very clearly plying their trade. "Buying and selling!" and variations thereof were uttered incessantly by the lot of them. There was one man, though, who wasn't in the thick of the crowd, and wasn't shouting at passersby. The onlooker was fashionably dressed, wearing nice jeans and a shiny white Starter-style jacket. After surveying the scene, I decided to approach one of the men, who we'll call John, on the sidewalk with a speaker badge in hand. Despite stating clearly that I wasn't looking to sell, on seeing the blue Special Guest badge, John got visibly excited and pulled a small wad of bills out of his pocket, consisting of a couple twenties and a couple singles. "I'll give you $40 for that right now," he said, critically failing his bluff check. This is when I noticed the well-dressed onlooker, who we'll call Pete, stand up from his perch, and start walking towards the two of us with a very large roll of 20-dollar bills in hand. I reiterated that I wasn't looking to sell the badge, just inquiring about the market, at which point John, looking severely disappointed, approached Pete and said something indistinctly. Pete motioned to my Media Badge, said something quietly to John, and went back to his perch. That was the last that John spoke to me that day.

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