I did it for the screenshots: Are virtual concerts the real deal?

With the rise of live-streaming concerts, one subcategory of virtual shows caught my attention. Are in-game concerts a passing phase or here to stay?

By Anabelle Vo

 

A few weeks ago, I was looking through our live stream calendar on the VHS homepage when something piqued my interest–a virtual festival called Nether Meant that would take place inside of Minecraft. The fest was headlined by indie band American Football with more than a dozen other artists set to perform. 

For more than six hours, the fest drew thousands of attendees on Minecraft and viewers on Twitch. Minecraft participants could also purchase VIP status and access to special areas. Viewers on Twitch interacted through the streaming platform’s chat function. Everyone seemed to have a great time, and the event raised eight thousand dollars in donations for the nonprofit Good360. Before this, I had only heard of one other in-game concert, and that was Marshmello’s Fortnite show in 2019. The concept struck a chord with me this time because the COVID-19 situation has required an embrace of virtual spaces like never before. 

So when I saw that two more Minecraft festivals–Square Garden Fest and Block by Blockwest–and another Fortnite show–Travis Scott’s Astronomical–were set to take place on the same weekend, I decided to check them all out. First up was Astronomical, Travis Scott’s first-ever Fortnite show. To make the concert accessible to as many users as possible, Astronomical was scheduled at five different times throughout the weekend of April 23-25.

An Out Of This World Gathering

As someone who has only watched other people play Fortnite, I was afraid that it might prove challenging, especially given the game’s reputation as being particularly punishing for beginners. Fortunately, the game is free to play. To make up for the potential learning curve, I logged into my Epic Games Launcher the night before Travis Scott’s first performance was set to take place. For those who don’t know, The Launcher is a necessary app/storefront if you want  to buy and play games from developer Epic Games. I’d previously downloaded the Launcher for another free Epic offering, the monster-hunting MMO Dauntless. 

I was weary of potential technical issues, so I wanted to get into it a bit earlier. Once Fortnite was done downloading, I logged in using my Epic credentials and was immediately taken to a screen where I could choose my game mode–Save the World, Battle Royale, or Creative.

To attend the show, I had to choose Battle Royale.

As I’d never actually played the game before, my in-game character would be a generic, randomized one. I decided to go into settings and look over in-game controls before remapping a few to my own personal preference. After all, if I’m going to be spending time in this game, I can’t look too much like a noob. For this special event, all attendees were gifted with an “Astroworld Cyclone” glider that you could equip from your “Locker.” (The glider part comes in handy later on.)  With that taken care of, I clicked the “PLAY!” button and took my hapless, randomly-generated virtual self into the fray. 

After a bit of waiting for enough players to join, I took a ride on the Battle Bus, a flying bus that took you to the battle areas. I waited for a bit before skydiving out of there. At one point a prompt popped up telling me to press a button to deploy the glider. As promised, my Astroworld Cyclone came rolling in and I rode it all the way down. You could see the stage from the sky, lit up in purple with a clock counting down the time until the scheduled concert.

Immediately upon touching ground I tried out a few controls before taking fire from other players. They don’t call this the Battle Royale mode for nothing. Annoyed at my impending doom when all I wanted was to see the show, I ran to hide in a bush. This lasted a few seconds before another player found me and decided to shoot me point blank. I quickly departed my hiding spot, and attempted to go into build mode. I wanted to create a barrier between me and the danger so I could sort myself out. Unfortunately I got out of the frying pan and into the fire. I was soon eliminated by a foe of unknown origins.

This happened a couple more times, so I decided to actually participate. I returned fire, got eliminated, then managed to eliminate other people.  Scattered throughout the landscape were the giant golden Travis Scott heads from the Astroworld album cover. Then I heard it, the faraway notes of music emanating from the stage. The pre-show was starting, and other players were leaving the firefight to swim towards the stage as well. I decided to join them.

To make the viewing experience more active, players were given 3 pre-programmed dances–Rage, Head Bang, and Intensity. Players who have other “Emotes” equipped could use those to dance along as well. The stage setup looked simple enough, with speakers, lights, and a round screen. That was about to change, quickly. 

As the opening of “Sicko Mode” began playing, an ominous globe-like spaceship appeared and Travis himself crash-landed on the screen. Except, in lieu of a regular-sized avatar hopping around on the stage, this Travis towered over the entire landscape, and seemed to have the power of teleportation. Suddenly, the floor disappeared and I was falling out of the sky, as Travis the giant continued to dance and ham it up.

As the music slowed, Travis picked a couple of stars right out of the sky and smashed them together causing an explosion of fireworks and falling stars. Naturally, “Stargazing” began playing. The entire game was transformed into a world of fire and electricity. I felt compelled to join in with the Rage dance.

Next on the setlist was “Goosebumps,” and this time the world transformed into a trippy neon circus. The hypnotizing light show went on for a few minutes before I was dropped into an underwater world with “Highest In the Room” playing. “Sicko Mode” came back, and I seemed to have been teleported into some vaporwave nightmare where the floor was constantly shifting before disappearing completely.

I was once again falling through space, and then Travis Scott hit us with the debut of “The Scotts,” his new collaboration with Kid Cudi. The song continued for a few minutes and I watched giant Travis walking around on top of his glowing globe/spaceship, which has been ominously floating in the background the entire time.

The glow increased in intensity before exploding into smithereens and players were once again hurtling towards the ground to continue their gameplay. And that was it. The show was over. 

It lasted less than 10 minutes, but the production went above and beyond expectations. Most notably, the creativity of the visuals really gave this show an edge over other virtual offerings. The decision to debut a new song during the show was also brilliant, as “The Scotts” is now vying for number one on Billboard’s Hot 100. The show seems to have also boosted the numbers of Scott’s entire catalog.

Overall, the relative ease to get in and the flow of the production made my first Fortnite concert a very enjoyable one. With this otherworldly show check off the list, I headed into Saturday with much more excitement for Square Garden, the Minecraft concert hosted by experimental duo 100 Gecs and featuring artists like Charli XCX and Cashmere Cat.

Block Parties

One of my favorite parts in any game is customizing my character. For Minecraft, the approach was a bit more DIY than your typical RPG or Sims character creation. To make a skin for Minecraft you’d need to either download the Edit tool, use an image editing tool like Photoshop, or use one of many freely available third party websites. For mine, I used the Skin Editor of the Skindex. 

Vaguely unsettling name aside, the site is useful, both as a database of free Minecraft skins from other players and as a tool to make your own. I knew I wanted to recreate Wolverine’s classic yellow costume from the comics. The tool is quite intuitive, and once I got the skin to where I wanted, it was time to get in the game. 

The Square Garden website included very clear instructions on how to get into the server for the virtual show. The only way to listen to the music sets would be externally, either on the website or by viewing the stream on Twitch. Attendees also needed to download the chat app Discord in order to receive communications about the event.

The event was organized by Open Pit, the same team behind Nether Meant. Donations benefited Feeding America, a nonprofit network of food banks throughout the United States. The Discord server was moderated by a small team of dedicated volunteers. 

With everything downloaded, and my blocky avatar set to go, I attempted to log into the Square Garden Minecraft server an hour before showtime, just to be safe. 

The virtual festival grounds were very well crafted, and I took a quick stroll around the gardens. It was decorated with hanging lamps, giant mushrooms, and colorful sculptures. I got a bit turned around at some point and had no idea where the actual stage was. So, I turned to the Discord chat to see other people asking the same question to no avail. I also looked in the help and FAQ channel but couldn’t find the answer. Eventually, another user chimed in that the stage was inside a large tree at the end of the “red brick road.” I’d walked past it but missed the coyly placed entrance.

I finally found the stage! Certain VIP areas were unavailable to me, like the merch store. There was also a bar where you could obtain a beverage. By the time I got there, 99 Jakes, Alice Gas, and Parry Gripp were all on stage. I hopped around for a bit, standing next to someone who appeared to be Shrek in a pink bikini. Everyone was loudly sipping their pink beverage.

Everything was going quite smoothly until my internet ran into issues and I was disconnected from the server. That’s when the trouble started. I attempted to log back on to the server but got an error message instead. Other users in the Discord seemed to be running into server issues as well, and the chat was bombarded with complaints. The mods tried reassuring everyone that they were working on resolving issues and to keep trying to get in.

When I got back in, the next artist, Count Baldor, was on stage. This would not be the last time I’d encounter this problem. The server issues increased in frequency, and so did the amount of impatient, frustrated messages in Discord. Some users complained of not being able to get in at all and demanded money back. Others stepped in to remind them that donations went to charity and to treat the mods with respect.

It would seem the organizers vastly underestimated the number of people that would show up, especially after Nether Meant played out relatively smoothly. I believe the draw of the bigger names like Charli XCX and Cashmere Cat brought many more people to Square Garden, and their servers were completely overwhelmed. 

I managed to get back in a few more times, but the server issues persisted. At certain points, users noticed that the artist on their stage was different from the one on the Twitch stream. The show was being run on multiple server instances, and some of them were lagging. 

With each passing set, the chats got increasingly more frenetic as people continued to be locked out of the show. By the time Charli XCX was announced, it felt like a lost cause. I went over to the official Twitch channel and watched the rest of the fest from the official stream. Ironically, they were also kicked off the server a few times.

The Discord continued to ping with complaints and mods who were clearly as overwhelmed as the server. On the user side, I was disappointed, but the silver lining was that they met the $8000 fundraising goal, and money will be going to a great cause. I could only hope that Block by Blockwest would go much more smoothly the next day. 

With a line up that included Pussy Riot, Massive Attack and dozens of other artists, it was going to be promising. Unfortunately, it might have been a little too promising and within an hour or so, the servers were swallowed up by a tidal wave of users logging in for the show. 

The Block by Blockwest Discord channels were also inundated with messages of people unable to log in. I half-heartedly attempted to log in, but I knew that, realistically, my chances were slim to nil. At this point, the server error message screen and I were old friends. 

Within the hour, it became apparent that no one else was going to make it in, and the Discord announcements channel posted that the fest had to be postponed for a few weeks. Though, like Square Garden, Blockwest also hit its fundraising goal. All proceeds went to the CDC COVID-19 Response Fund.

Perhaps all of this chaos should have been expected. In the age of COVID, virtual concerts have seen a meteoric rise in popularity from sheer necessity. The bigger names and increased interest would prove particularly challenging for those hosting concerts in Minecraft. Unlike the Fortnite collaborations, organizers of Minecraft shows were left to their own devices–they weren’t official partners. The pro of this is that organizers get to customize their virtual festival grounds however they wanted and set up their own engagement rules. The con is, well, they had to set everything up themselves. 

Without the official capacity and support of a game developer, it truly felt like a house party that got way out of hand. In a way, this is poetic. The goal of minecraft is DIY world-building from the ground up, with minimal assistance or guidance in any official capacity, and it makes sense that a concert in the game would eventually give in to entropy.

My vastly different experiences in Fortnite and Minecraft left me wondering about the future of in-game concerts, especially now that the quarantine has dramatically altered the landscape of live entertainment. I dug a bit into the history of virtual concerts in order to get a clearer picture of the future.

From the Naughts…

Back in 2006, when Hugh Jackman was in every movie and Justin Timberlake was in every song, there was a little thing called Second Life. A massive multiplayer online (MMO) platform, it was less of a traditional video game and more of an open hang out space for people 16 and over. Players, aka residents, of Second Life could participate in all kinds of virtual activities, interact with one another, and even earn in-game money. Users built their own environments and set their own goals–think Sims but without the gibberish language and the constantly draining mood bars.

As the platform reached its peak of popularity in the mid-2000s, indie and big-name artists alike saw its utility as a promotional space for their work. Suzanne Vega, Duran Duran, and Regina Spektor were among a few artists who held “live” shows and hung out with fans in Second Life. At the time, these in-game shows did garner coverage from major publications, and Second Life became entrenched in popular culture–even The Office made references to it. Companies also tapped into its commerce side for marketing opportunities. At the time, it was touted by users and developers alike as a new internet, a virtual existence for the masses.

It’s unclear why Second Life declined in popularity. Reasons range from the overly ambitious goals of the developers and users to inadequate technology at the time. The platform still boasts hundreds of thousands of users, but the world has mostly moved on from Second Life. Yet, it would be impossible to trace the timeline of modern social media trends and gaming culture without taking note of the significance it once held in the public zeitgeist. The legacy of virtual platforms like Second Life, which allowed you to build your own world, is apparent when you consider a game like Minecraft.

To The Now

In 2016, five years after the launch of Minecraft, the first-ever concert took place in the game. Electro-pop duo AlunaGeorge headlined an event at the real-life Hamar Olympic Hall in Norway, and, simultaneously, a team of volunteers managed their in-game avatars on the virtual stage.

Minecraft once again served as the chosen venue for a virtual festival in 2018, with Coalchella, a play on the real-life Coachella festival. 100 Gecs, the duo behind Square Garden was also featured. This festival apparently also faced technical difficulties as the guest count was double what the organizers expected. The team behind a much more robust server, Hypixel, stepped in to help, and the event was moved over to there.

Then came the rise of Fortnite. In 2019, when the term “quarantine” evoked abstract horror movie imagery and less lived reality for most of us, superstar DJ Marshmello had an ostensibly novel idea–stage a virtual concert within the wildly popular video game Fortnite. While we know this was not even close to being the first-ever in-game concert, it was a combination of Marshmello’s star power and Fortnite’s dominance over the gaming landscape that drew the media coverage and public attention. Marshmello is one of Fortnite’s biggest celebrity fans, alongside artists like Drake and Diplo, so the idea of him performing in the game was perfectly fitting. 

The show took place in one area of the Fortnite battle arena, and a virtual stage was set up much like in real life. A virtual Marshmello took center stage, surrounded by attendees and some larger than life graphics. More than 10 million people attended the event, a blowout success for Fortnite.

What’s Next?

The Marshmello concert broke new grounds for the modern age of virtual shows and set the stage for our current situation. When quarantines were put in place and IRL concerts became physically impossible, more and more artists took to live streaming their music. As everyone, from artists to attendees, became acclimated to the virtual concert experience, organizers were seeking ways to innovate shows and enhance the viewing experience. 

What better way to participate in a virtual show than having a visual representation of yourself dance along and run around the stage? A version of yourself that can dress up in ridiculous outfits and perform outrageous stunts without repercussions. While I was gliding above the earth’s surface to the soundtrack of Travis Scott’s new single, I found it quite nice for a Friday night in. You could be at the show without being there, which might be a nice solution for the more introverted music fans among us. It’s also a potential way to expand the accessibility of live shows, whether it’s a matter of price or physical barriers.

We’re all hoping that life will soon resume as normal so we can rock out at shows with our friends. Yet as the general public has grown more comfortable with the idea of virtual spaces, and video games are now a mainstream activity, it does seem like the in-game concert will continue to solidify as a pop culture staple, not as a replacement for live shows, but as a bonus. Imagine seeing a Fortnite version of Beyoncé assert her godlike powers over her environment while the real superstar was simultaneously blowing away her real life fans at O2 arena. I’d be interested in seeing if the Beyhive would finally manage to crash the mighty Fortnite servers.

If you’re a fan of in-game concerts, check out our list of dream Fortnite concerts.