Mainstream: The Future of Medieval Combat is Now

This article was originally found on Electric Samurai, the Amtgard’s opinion magazine. It represents some of the best market-research to date on the burgeoning Live Action Role Playing industry.


Medieval Combat Sports (MCS) have existed in recognizable form since the 1970’s and since that time existed primarily on the fringes of society. It attracted nerds, geeks, and social outsiders. It shunned the bright light of public attention as the sport itself had a similar social outlook to that of its members who often avoided attention. This was seen as a positive to many members who specifically wanted to be identified with a counter-culture or rebellious, niche activity. Indeed most people participating MCS still view it as a niche activity. That view, however, is incorrect.

In a recent survey of 3300 people (representing a statistical cross-section of America) 33.6 percent of them were aware of Medieval Combat Sports. Surprisingly, one out of every three people sampled not only were aware of it, but were able to identify it based on the terms ‘Medieval Combat Sport’ or ‘Live Action Role Play’. Awareness was highest among males aged 16-20, with a remarkable 51.6 percent of the population sampled being aware. Awareness was lowest among the under 16 age group with 18.2 percent being cognizant of the sport. Males tended to be more aware of the sport than females at 42.8 percent awareness to 30.8 percent awareness. Culture demographics were remarkably surprising with only a 7.1 point spread between the most aware culture (Amerindian 38.5 percent) and the least aware culture (African American 31.4 percent). This is incredibly surprising given that non-Caucasians have a very low representation in MCS. In fact, Caucasians have the lowest awareness rating of any culture other than African American at 33.6 percent.

Looking at the question of how people become aware of MCS yields more interesting data. The largest single contributor to awareness was television at 25.6 percent. Furthermore it is interesting to note that a mid-sized MCS group, Dagorhir, had a spot on the Discovery Channel’s ‘Wreckreation Nation’. This looked like a correlation event, but further research discovered that only 10 percent of the people who were aware of MCS were viewers of the Discovery Channel, and that almost everybody who reported ‘television’ as their method of awareness had seen a local news piece done on a local group. Either people didn’t associate from the ‘Wreackreation Nation’ spot or they didn’t remember something not local to themselves. The second largest contributor was word of mouth from friends at 21 percent, and word of mouth from family at 9.1 percent. Combined word of mouth was 30.1 percent, edging out television for awareness efficacy. Internet awareness was a surprisingly low 9.4 percent with live demonstrations, print articles, movies, and radio making up the difference of awareness with an even spread.

Participation is where the niche appearance begins to reassert itself. Only 2.8 percent of the population sampled had participated in MCS or LARP activities. Over the course of the thirty years the activities have been active, and the numerous groups available to choose from, this does not seem like an impossible number when extrapolated out into the general population. Most of these are likely people who participated only at a large convention such as DragonCon or participated for a brief while and then never returned. Clearly there are not currently 8.4 million (2.8 percent of 300 million Americans) active MCS/LARP participants. On the other hand, 42.6 percent of the people sampled have an acquaintance who participates in MCS or LARP activities. This is instructive as it suggests that those people who play do so openly, which is a large break from the fringe, secretive behavior seen in the past.

Taken together, this data yields insightful analysis. First, MCS is no longer a fringe activity. With 33 percent market awareness it is beginning to compete on a stage similar to that of other extreme sports. It isn’t there yet, but it is inevitably moving in that direction. Second, MCS is not reaching anywhere near the full potential of recruitment and retention available. With 3 percent of the population already having shown itself willing to participate in the activity it is clear that there exists sufficient interest to grow into the tens of millions of participants. With low barriers of entry and a diverse group of activities within the category there is no reason that MCS/LARP couldn’t achieve 27 million participants in the US alone once 100 percent market awareness is reached. What is made clear right now is that MCS/LARP is doing a poor job retaining and appealing to interested parties. With an estimated 40 thousand active participants, MCS is currently retaining only .5 percent of total participants. If retention and involvement was raised to a mere ten percent the sport as a whole would break one hundred thousand active members in two years. With corresponding improvements in market awareness the million member mark could be reached in as little as ten years. Further, reaching out to minorities is a must. MCS has the highest recruitment base among almost the lowest awareness group. Hispanic, Asian, and African American outreach programs need to be developed and implemented with a quickness. That alone could double the size of all MCS groups with no further improvements in awareness or retention. Minority outreach programs, local media involvement, and word of mouth campaigns combined with modest gains in retention can yield immediate and impressive results in growth. Groups should utilize those programs to direct potential new participants to social networking tools such as, Facebook, and Twitter in order to create an open and appealing appearance to recruits.

Clearly MCS/LARP is at a turning point. It has come out from the shadows and moved into the limelight of public awareness. It is time to walk forward bravely into the light of day and welcome all people to join us in our pastime with open arms and encouragement.

  1. #1 by Daniel Burke on March 13, 2011 - 7:34 pm

    Its interesting how much ‘role playing’ has come into the main stream, both as entertainment and as a teaching tool. Security and Sales forces use role playing scenarios (the type without orcs) constantly as a means to affect simulation. Main stream media has been producing more films, shows and tv spots, usually with LARP the butt of bad nerd jokes but still giving it attention.

    Its seems like LARP (the type with orcs) related activities are turning up in more local parks and moving outside of the ‘word of mouth on campus’ realm of expansion. The question is, how do games take this organic motion and give it a boost before it slides back?

  2. #2 by phiend on March 14, 2011 - 7:08 pm

    This can only be done with a dedicated reality show, as nothing in America can be popular without a reality show. Kidding mostly, but not entirely. LARP is a niche, and most likely always will be. What would help with its acceptance (but probably not its quality) would be if a large brand name came out with a LARP in a box type system targeted at young adults. Acceptance comes with exposure, so the more it’s exposed, through various media and journalistic outlets as well as children, the better. Also it probably would be helpful if someone figured out a way to use LARP to teach something, a sort of hands on way of learning either history or something else. Not just the vague, social and character building stuff, but specifics. Not sure how that would work in a classroom, but just a thought I had.

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