Fandom businesses thrive in St. Louis

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From conventions to small businesses that celebrate hobbies like games and anime, St. Louis is becoming a hot destination for fandom.

St. Louis has always had fandoms, though their presence was previously limited. Conventions as general as sci-fi or games and as niche as “My Little Pony” (that is to say, niche before “Friendship is Magic”) have all called St. Louis their home. Over time, smaller conventions disbanded and left bigger ones like Anime St. Louis as the main local options, but even these were small compared to big cities like Los Angeles.

Graphic by Kenzie Akins.

Fandoms often associate the most well-known events and businesses with the East and West coasts – home to events like New York Comic Con and California’s Anime Expo – as well as Texas, where companies like anime licenser Funimation are stationed. However, corporations behind major franchises are taking notice of St. Louis, including two California- based game companies, “League of Legends” developer Riot Games and “Pokemon GO” developer Niantic.

According to Amir Kurtovic of the St. Louis Business Journal, Riot Games opened its St. Louis office – the second of three North American offices – at 7777 Bonhomme Ave. in Clayton in June 2012. Scalability architect Scott Delap, who wanted to work closer to his roots in St. Louis, started with a team of 20 local employees that doubled by March 2013.

“The great thing about running a video game company in St. Louis, Beemer said, is there isn’t a lot of local competition for top talent like there would be in California,” Kurtovic wrote. “Riot Games hires seasoned engineers and developers and also attracts interns and top graduates from Washington University and the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla.”

The Clayton office has expanded to more than 50 employees across multiple teams, from Developer Experience to Cloud Technology. Riot continues to scout talent from local universities, participate in events like Code Day and take advantage of the growing local tech scene.

Niantic planned to host Safari Zone St. Louis, one of several ticketed events featuring rare Pokemon in specific cities, at Tower Grove Park from March 27 to 29, 2020. However, Safari Zone St. Louis became the first “Pokemon GO” event to be delayed indefinitely due to COVID-19. Ticket holders were offered a bonus event that could be played remotely from anywhere during their ticket date, plus the postponed in-person event.

Key art for “Pokemon Go” Safari Zone St. Louis showcasing rare wild Pokemon featured during the event. Graphic contributed by Niantic.

Safari Zone St. Louis eventually happened in November 2021, featuring Teddiursa’s newly introduced Shiny form, Unown letters spelling “STLOUIS” and region-exclusive spawns like Chatot. Niantic stated that players walked over 218,000 km and caught over 3 million Pokemon during the event. Tower Grove Park remains Niantic’s choice for official events in St. Louis, including an in-person meetup during Stufful Community Day on April 23.

Pokemon-themed events captured St. Louis even before “Pokemon GO.” The St. Louis Symphony performed “Pokemon: Symphonic Evolutions,” a concert of music from Generations I-VI, in May 2016. The St. Louis Science Center’s Pokemon First Friday event in September 2019 included science lessons about Morpeko’s Hunger Switch ability, a screening of “Mewtwo Strikes Back” and a panel by Eric Stuart, who voiced Brock and James in “Pokemon: Indigo League.”

Industry support is essential for fandom growth in the Midwest, and although many companies primarily target coastal markets, St. Louis has proven lucrative for them. However, as vital as major companies are, small businesses – which St. Louis has in spades – are fandom’s lifeblood.

The local dining industry has recently seen a boom in niche restaurants that often incorporate games. At “barcades” like Up-Down, visitors can grab pizza both in real life and in “TMNT: Turtles in Time.” Brentwood’s Localhost gaming cafe provides consoles and high-end PCs that may be too expensive for customers to own. Besides video games, board game enthusiasts are welcome in tabletop cafes like Pieces.

Customers at local businesses are often surprised by the rising amount of retailers that sell fandom merchandise, especially if they’re used to nationwide chains. Compared to the dystopian walls of Funko Pops at GameStop and Target, Missouri-based chains like Vintage Stock and Slackers offer better used media selections at better prices. However, beyond local chains, independent stores like Animeggroll benefit from specialty knowledge and diverse interests that bigger retailers ignore.

“Where larger stores will algorithmically chase trends and carry only the most popular products, small businesses provide a much more comprehensive shopping experience for their particular niche, which for us at least, has probably been the biggest part of what makes our business work,” Animeggroll employee Camille Vogt-Spencer said.

Located at 11435 Dorsett Road in Maryland Heights, Animeggroll is an anime-themed store owned by Elaine Vogt and Andy Spencer, who run the business with their children, Camille and Luther Vogt-Spencer. The family has been heavily involved with the St. Louis fandom scene for over a decade; their first convention visit in 2007 inspired them to volunteer at local fandom events, including Anime St. Louis 2008 and KawaKon 2009.

Shelves of anime figures at Animeggroll in Maryland Heights. Photo contributed by Luther Vogt-Spencer.

Camille and Luther described the family having “all kinds of entrepreneurial dreams” when they acquired a locking glass display case. After seeing a family friend open a trading card shop in the Crestwood Mall, which attracted independent businesses with cheap rent, they opened Animeggroll in the Crestwood Mall in 2010. Animeggroll moved to three different locations once the Crestwood Mall closed, finally moving to Maryland Heights in May.

“When we first opened, a lot of people seemed to have had one main fandom they would be into, whereas now, it feels like there are less people who are diehard into a particular fandom,” Luther said. “Rather than having a lot of people who love anime and that’s all they are into, we get a lot of people who like anime but also like video games, D&D, Comics, K-Pop and many other fandoms.”

The Vogt-Spencers credit two events as positive impacts on their business and St. Louis’ fandom scene. The rise of legal streaming platforms in the mid-2010s made anime more accessible to mass audiences. Additionally, while the pandemic made community interaction challenging, sales rose in 2020 when people ex- plored indoor hobbies like model kits, gaming and streaming anime.

Camille noted that anime in particular has grown in the 2010s, largely due to how many different ways people can interact with the same shows.

“There’s a part of the community that’s really into the cosplay side, another part that’s into the model kits … there’s those who are really into collecting the shows and manga in their physical formats, and many who collect the figurines. There’s now more ways to interact with the fandom than ever here in the U.S., and that’s really helped people find a place to really express their enjoyment of anime,” Camille said.

The family is optimistic that St. Louis will continue to see more fandom businesses open. Despite the difficult investment of time and money, Luther explains that millennials and Gen Z, who grew up in St. Louis’ budding fandom scene during their mid-teens and early 20s, are now mature enough to pursue entrepreneurship and share their passions with fellow fans in local communities.

St. Louis has room for growth compared to the wider industry support of nearby cities like Chicago, but its strong infrastructure upholds fan communities. From convention halls and companies to small businesses and gatherings, the long-standing fandom scene in St. Louis grows every year and shows immense potential.

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Managing Editor | + posts

Sean Mullins (she/they) is the managing editor and webmaster for the Journal, formerly the opinions editor during the 2021/2022 school year. She is a media studies major and professional writing minor at Webster University, but she's participated in student journalism since high school, having previously been a games columnist, blogger and cartoonist for the Webster Groves Echo at Webster Groves High School. Her passion is writing and editing stories about video games and other entertainment mediums. Outside of writing, Sean is also the treasurer for Webster Literature Club. She enjoys playing games, spending time with friends, LGBTQ+ and disability advocacy, streaming, making terrible puns and listening to music.