- Great community
- Small, intimate panels
- Free parties
- Best offsite panel setup & lineup
- Cost of panels can add up
- Frequent venue changes, logistical challenges
- Not as wide a variety of activities as Nerdist
- Must wear RFID wristband
Founded in 2011, Nerd HQ is a San Diego Comic-Con offsite event featuring panels (“Conversations for a Cause”), evening dance parties, daily photo sessions with celebrity guests (“Smiles for Smiles”), and a lounge to hang out in during the day that features displays, samples, and demos from sponsoring companies. They’ve also had smaller activations at other conventions, like New York Comic Con.
It’s run by The Nerd Machine, a company founded by Zachary Levi (still best known as Chuck from NBC’s “Chuck”) and his business partner David Coleman. The event has had several homes throughout the years but is currently housed at the New Children’s Museum, at Front & Island in the Gaslamp. Prior to that, it spent a few years in the Petco Park space now occupied by the Nerdist family of digital networks.
Charity & Community
Nerd HQ supports the charity Operation Smile with profits from the event going to the charity. (Hence naming their events “for a Cause” or “for Smiles.”) Operation Smile doesn’t have the greatest track record, having been ranked the 10th least efficient large US charity by Forbes in 2011, but Levi is a longtime celebrity ambassador of the charity. Regardless, we admire Levi & Coleman’s commitment to making Nerd HQ socially responsible.
The Nerd Machine and Nerd HQ have had their share of financial struggles through the years, making it difficult to put the event on. Increasing overhead expenses have led Nerd HQ through several venue changes and one rather misguided crowdfunding campaign in 2014. It also means Nerd HQ relies heavily on corporate sponsors to foot the bill.
Nerd HQ is big, big, big on community. They utilize a team of volunteers to put the event on, and put a big emphasis on the fans contributing to the event. Their panels have limited moderation: usually a moderator is there to help direct questions and keep things moving, but probably 90% of questions at Conversations come from the audience. Video game demos are hands-on trials, not presentations. Even the parties (or at least two of them) are open to the public. No one has a stronger “for-the-fans” mentality than Nerd HQ.
The activities at Nerd HQ have varied over the years, but usually have an emphasis on video game demos, lounges, and some photo opportunities.
Many of these activities are dependent on who the corporate sponsors are. In recent years, Microsoft has had a large presence, with exclusive demos of Xbox games available. As Nerd HQ has integrated their app and RFID technology, they’re now able to allow fans to reserve a demo time – saving you valuable time in line waiting for change at the game. Nerd HQ embraced this kind of fan-first tech long before most others (including Comic-Con itself) did. (You’ll have to wear the wristband all weekend if you want to go in & out, so don’t do what I did and make it too tight. It’s a drawback to the wristband feature.)
During the day, lounges in Nerd HQ serve mostly as recharging stations for weary fans (yes, that usually includes a phone recharge, too). At night, the lounges are packed while people chat up other fans at the evening parties.
In addition, celebrity photo ops dubbed “Smiles for Smiles” cost a nominal fee with proceeds going to Operation Smile. The schedule is usually announced last-minute, with many “surprise” sessions popping up throughout the weekend. The Nerd HQ app and their Twitter are the best spots to watch for these announcements.
There’s also plenty of Nerd Machine merch for sale.
When most people mention “going to Nerd HQ,” they are usually referring to the “Conversations for a Cause.” These function much like the same panels you’ll see across the street inside the convention center, but with a few major differences: all seats are individually ticketed, the room is much smaller (and more intimate), and all the discussions are live streamed.
Our “Should You Do Nerd HQ?” article can help you figure out if you should buy tickets to the Conversations for a Cause.
Nerd HQ has set the bar for offsite panels. With a room that seats only 200 fans and a top-notch guest lineup, it’s easy to see why Conversations sell out within seconds. For about $20, you get a guaranteed seat and don’t need to wait hours in line to get in. It’s also much easier to ask panelists a question, since panels here are almost all audience Q&A and the audience is so much smaller.
The move in 2015 to the New Children’s Museum was a downgrade from the previous digs at Petco Park. At Petco, the seats were (literal) stadium seats. At the New Children’s Museum, the stage isn’t elevated enough and the seats are flat like they are in Comic-Con panel rooms. There were also widespread complaints about the temperatures in the room – it often seemed like the air conditioning had given out. Organizers have promised that 2016 will see these problems fixed, assuring fans they’re cranking up extra air conditioning, adding a bank of monitors above the stage, and installing tiered seating.
Changing venues means a complete change in logistics of an event, and it takes time to really master a venue. Having to move every few years has not benefitted Nerd HQ, which usually takes a year to sort out logistical troubles at their location.
Nerd HQ hosts parties on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night. Friday night is a private, invite-only party for VIP (read: celebrity) guests. Thursday and Saturday are wide open to any members of the public. All you’ll need is a free Nerd HQ RFID wristband, which you can pick up out front.
The parties center around a DJ’d dance floor, but also feature cash bars and open exhibits (like gaming demos). A celebrity or two might show up to these public parties, but no promises; you are guaranteed to meet lots of other fans, though!
Nerd HQ started the “mini-con” offsite trend, picking up the runoff of celebrities after their convention panels are done and giving fans another chance to see them. There’s a lot of competition now, but for the ticketed panels, Nerd HQ remains unbeatable.