Hi everyone, I’ve received a lot of questions on Big House this year and I want to provide a status update. I have a lot of thoughts to share, and my only request is that you read this completely to the end and do not passĀ along any tldr; summary version. A lot of it is personal and multi-layered, and I really struggled to find the right balance of sharing my honest internal dialogue while also keeping it concise enough for the general public.

For context, I’m Robin Harn, and I’ve been the head organizer of Big House since its inception in 2011. The event has taken place in October for each installment, minus the two covid years. Ever since I started hosting Big House, my reasons for doing it have largely remained the same:

  • I want to challenge myself as a project manager who has visibility on every part of an org chart: logistics, marketing, finances, people management, etc.
  • I have an entrepreneurial itch to host a large-scale event and find a way to put all the necessary pieces together
  • I want to fulfill a creative vision for how an event can look, feel, and be experienced, and have the resources to achieve that vision
  • I feel a duty to raise and sustain the quality of events to empower future generations of attendees to enjoy a great experience at them
These reasons have always been in harmony with the following assumptions in my ability to host events:
  • I have enough time over the summer and fall to dedicate towards planning a Big House in October
  • I feel I can give 100% of my energy and effort towards making the current year’s event the best possible product it can be
  • I have the financial stability in my personal life to be able to cover any potential losses if they come up at the end of the event
  • I feel the desire and hunger from the community, sponsors, and partners to support the event with the resources it needs

Over the past year, some of these assumptions have shifted. I’ll go through them one by one.

Time, energy, effort: I’ve recently been hired as varsity volleyball head coach at a high school near and dear to me in Michigan. I absolutely love doing it, and it satisfies a lot of the challenges I enjoy — if you replaced the word “event” with “volleyball program” in my original list of reasons I host Big House, you’ll find that my motivation and fulfillment are similar for each. This role not only involves coaching a varsity team, but also managing the entire high school program in all aspects such as hiring the JV/freshman/assistant coaches, budgeting, fundraising, coordinating gear, running youth camps, TOing, and networking. Previously I had only coached club volleyball, which runs from December through June and conveniently allowed me to focus on Big House in the summer and fall. But now I’ve stepped into managing an entire high school program, and the volleyball school season runs from August through October. Given that overlap with what is the traditional peak of Big House planning season, I won’t be able to give another project 100% of my energy during those months. If you know anything about me, you know I approach every project I take on with the intent to make it the absolute best thing possible, which requires all my energy and effort. This year, that means putting it towards my new role leading a volleyball program.

Financial stability: As much as I love my new role leading a high school program, it’s not a full-time job at the end of the day, and I currently don’t have the financial stability of a full-time job as a buffer. My last full-time job ended in extremely disappointing fashion, and I honestly lost faith in certain industries and positions of leadership in that process. So I’ve been living off personal savings and random gigs for the past few months in an effort to find inspiration with a possible career pivot, but I want that to be organic and not force myself into a new opportunity if it isn’t the right fit for me. I don’t know how much time this will take, but I feel very strongly that I have to let it naturally play out. Without this buffer in my personal life, I don’t feel it’s responsible to take on hosting a large-scale event that has almost always cut it close in terms of breaking even financially.

Community and partner support: With each recent installment of Big House, it’s become increasingly difficult to find sponsors and partners willing to financially back the event, and our general attendance has hit a plateau of around 3000 people. The combination of these factors makes it increasingly difficult to host a large-scale event at the creative level I want. When organizations like Panda, Beyond the Summit, and Golden Guardians go away, it has unfortunate ripple effects on events like Big House. The past two years, my staff and I dug deep to put in extra hours during planning season to still find a way to make it work, and against all odds we produced what we believe are the two best Big House events ever, creatively and logistically. But when the effort and stress level of making it work keep increasing while the big picture financial feasibility keeps decreasing, eventually it reaches a breaking point where we can’t keep pace with these two trends drifting in different directions.

All this is to say, as of right now, Big House is on indefinite hiatus. The door is open for the event to come back in future years, but it would require a shifting of several reasons and/or assumptions I listed above. That could mean it happens at a different time of year, or it’s led by a different head organizer, or it’s more financially feasible given some combination of increased partner support or shifting community expectations. I think if two of those three factors were to change, then Big House would be in a good position to return. But I just want to make it clear there are a lot of administrative and organizational questions that have to be answered before we even entertain that possibility, and personally I’m not actively working on answering those questions at the moment.

You might be asking why someone else can’t just step in and take over Big House in my absence this year. I think that’s a fair question and a possibility down the line, but I want everyone to understand it’s not simple on short notice. Venues for large-scale events require months or even years of lead time to secure them, often with tens of thousands of dollars in deposits, or multiple years of locked-in contracts for both the venue space and surrounding hotel room blocks. Someone has to take on that carried expense and risk — for example, if the head TO makes an executive decision to upgrade a part of the venue for an extra cost, then that head TO is financially responsible for any consequences of that decision. For the past eleven Big House installments, I’ve been fine taking on that risk because I’ve had the bandwidth to feel like I can control my own destiny in making the event great enough to overcome that risk. But for the reasons and shifting assumptions I laid out above, I won’t be able to do so this year, and it’s unclear who (if anyone) would be willing to step into that role at the moment.

TOing events is still a passion project. I’ve never paid myself a salary for hosting events, instead always reinvesting towards making future events as great as possible for attendees. The truth is, there are way more expenses now than even two years ago, let alone thirteen years ago when Big House first started. The community demands more, sometimes reasonably so, but certain constraints make it difficult for me to guide Big House in a direction that satisfies both my creative wishes and the community’s expectations. Streams and internet needs are the prime example — these expenses scale poorly at our venue because multiple stream broadcasts each bring their own costly additions of union labor shifts and in-house staging requirements. Internet is so obscenely expensive at Cobo Center that it infamously caused a major company, Wizards of the Coast, to cancel their stream broadcast altogether for a Magic the Gathering Grand Prix Detroit a few years ago. Growing viewer expectations (such as a “quad stream” broadcast) create massive tension on our ability to affordably spread out resources to the rest of the event.

Our aforementioned venue, Cobo Center, is quite frankly a huge pain to work with. We compete with the Detroit auto show and several other major companies for space, and often those clients have deep pockets to be able to put down deposits for multiple years, and way ahead of time. Up to this point, I’ve been careful to not lock in Big House for long periods of time with contracts, because I want to respect how quickly the gaming landscape evolves and might steer us in a different direction that would require a different venue. But sticking with one-year commitments has meant higher rental costs and more difficult scheduling, which exacerbates the issues above.

You might then be asking why Big House can’t just downscale and find a smaller venue. For me, it boils down to the creative vision of what I want to do with a large-scale event, and that still means we host it for the *entire* community at large in *one* very spacious (50,000 sq ft+) inclusive venue within walking distance of hotels and within 30 minutes of a major airport. Unfortunately, no other venues in the southeast Michigan area meet this criteria. Similar to a movie director who requires a minimum threshold of studio budget and community buzz to take on a film within his or her creative vision, I’m personally only interested in taking on the creative challenge of hosting events above a certain level of grandeur. And I can’t see myself making sacrifices to what we’ve come to expect creatively and aesthetically at a Big House by downscaling the overall scope of it.

I still love the game and the community. I’m incredibly grateful for the support from our thousands of attendees, and our amazing staff and volunteers, over the years. And I wish I could host Big House this year. I just hope everyone can understand — life happens, assumptions shift, landscapes evolve. I do this at the pleasure of the community, and if the desire and hunger is truly there for future installments of Big House, then please make that known politely and constructively. In the meantime, thank your longtime TOs, and practice gratitude for everyone behind-the-scenes who dedicates time and effort to making experiences great at any event you attend.

Best,
Robin Harn