At the start of 2020, South Africans seemed to be looking forward to a jam-packed calendar of gaming, comic and pop culture events. Then COVID-19 happened. Some conventions and expos immediately canceled; others made lengthy postponement announcements. A couple, like FanCon, Comic Con Africa, and, most recently, rAge, made the proactive and pioneering move to take their 2020 events online.
Now that all these digital pop culture experiences are done for the year, it’s time to assess if they were worth it – for the fans, for the exhibitors, and for the event organisers.
This isn’t simply a question applicable to South Africa. Internationally, online events were trialled as well, with mixed results. While San Diego Comic-Con@Home was a dud, DC Fandome (admittedly with more preparation time) got it right, drawing in 22 million viewers globally, and even spawning a sequel event.
When digital conventions kicked off, the argument was that this could be the future. Even if online versions don’t become wholesale replacements for physical gatherings, the digital component of real-life events could be bumped up in coming years.
After all, going online removes geographic and financial limitations. It’s a lot more inclusive, as people worldwide can participate, watching panel streams, browsing the dedicated pages of exhibitors, and so on. Without physical travel requirements, it also becomes easier to invite and involve busy international guests, which benefits a far-flung destination with a weak currency, like South Africa.
A few technical glitches aside, organisers have clearly worked hard this year to create online experiences that, at least in spirit, replicate their real-world offering, while extending reach. Case in point was a rAge Digital Edition stream on career opportunities in gaming and esports, which at one point peaked at 1000+ viewers. It’s highly unlikely there would have been that many bums in seats in front of the rAge main stage at the Dome.
One of the biggest learnings with online events this year is that there must be a very good reason to tune in. You’d think that with people largely staying at home, they’d be hungry for anything to break their monotonous routine. However, lethargy feeds off unchanging habits. Prospective digital event attendees need a really strong incentive to register, and devote large chunks of their weekend to what is pretty much a string of Zoom meetings.
Successful drawcards aren’t really a surprise: fresh, interesting panels; opportunities to win; as well as exclusive content like special guest interviews and reveals (which Warner Bros. could deliver in spades at FanDome). Giving attendees the opportunity to engage with guests, and during panels, is even better, transforming them from passive viewers to active participants.
That really is the greatest hurdle to overcome. With online events, it’s much harder to stoke a sense of investment in anything beyond a diehard core group of supporters, and influencers.
Speaking from a cosplay perspective, it’s wonderful to see cosplay contests and activities continuing via social channels during digital conventions. It celebrates the ongoing efforts of the local community. However, submitting a photo or video clip is just not the same as navigating a convention floor and seeing the excitement on people’s faces as they spot you in costume. All that talk about the dopamine effects of likes and comments, but online just doesn’t provide the same buzz as real-life recognition.
It’ll be interesting to see what happens in 2021 on the back of this year’s experimentation with digital event formats, and continued uncertainties around COVID-19. Clearly investing the effort in online versions worked out better for some cons and expos than others.
How do you feel about online events? Did you “attend” any this year? What was your experience?
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Critical Hit as an organisation.
Last Updated: November 13, 2020