Home Lifestyle Friday Debate: Are online conventions a welcome stand-in or lacklustre substitute?

Friday Debate: Are online conventions a welcome stand-in or lacklustre substitute?

3 min read

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 FanConComic 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


  1. justlikemo

    November 13, 2020 at 11:06

    It’s a dud. Poke it and it won’t move. It’s boring. Attended a lot of online events, from major corporates, but its dull, it lacks the people appeal, yeh you see the talkers and interact with them, a few stars come online sing a song or 2 and that’s as exciting as it gets. The problem is bandwidth, if everyone connected live via their phones or pc’s and you could interact with the world like a giant video call, yeh, now your talking, but again the serves will probably crash if more than a thousand ppl video called at the same time, let alone 10000, we don’t have technology to host such fun video calling events, not yet any way.


  2. Gavin Mannion

    November 13, 2020 at 12:11

    I thought they were generally entirely pointless. It makes sense for companies who are creating their own unique IP’s like DC or Blizzard etc, but regional shows that just repeat existing content and charge people for the pleasure? GITFS

    If virtual conferences became a thing it wouldn’t take more than a year for all the smaller regional ones to be destroyed by the big guys in the rich countries.


  3. Tracy Benson

    November 13, 2020 at 13:15

    It’s a miss for me personally. I just can’t gather up the same amount of enthusiasm sitting in front of a laptop screen.


  4. For the Emperor!

    November 13, 2020 at 13:15

    I haven’t gone to a conventions since rAge 2018, and online just won’t be the same. Unless I go in person, I’ll just ask CH to give me the summary 🙂


  5. Caveshen Rajman

    November 13, 2020 at 13:15

    I’m 50/50 on it.

    I think adults with jobs are going to say it’s a miss, and anyone else is going to say it’s a win.

    Many people don’t take the cost of flights + accommodation into account (and the compulsory flu afterwards lol).

    For rAge, I had to save up for half the year to afford the flights + accommodation when I was at uni, often resorting to asking favours from friends just so I could attend. When I was there, of course the human interaction was excellent and just being at the Dome felt like a gamer pilgrimage of sorts.

    For any international conference, I just didn’t have the cash nor the means, even if I was able to get a ticket to the convention. So that’s a hard nope.

    When it’s online, like for rAge this past weekend, I’m able to attend from the comfort of my home. I loved that. I spent most of my day watching streams and the general camaraderie was excellent (it also helped me find new streamers to follow).

    Of course you miss the human element and the overwhelming feeling when you walk into the Dome, but there ARE pros:
    * Cheap
    * Can wear pajamas
    * No sweat smell unless you smell of sweat (please shower if you do)
    * You get to attend EVERYTHING without queues
    * Avoid gross consumerism (small marketing budget, small sales, evens out)

    So yeah, 50/50. I obviously CAN afford things now, which helps. But I didn’t mind the online version.


  6. Pieter Kruger

    November 13, 2020 at 15:11

    Everyone was happily shouting “E3 is dead, E3 is dead” last year(nice one cancel culture!), but I think we all felt it’s absence this year!


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