Live experiences as we know them aren’t going to be around for a while. From the Olympics to the Euros to Glastonbury to Love Island, events are being cancelled and postponed worldwide. Even when the pandemic has passed, the public will be plagued with a residual fear of crowds, commuting, and cities for many months to come.
We’ve been seeking entertainment elsewhere, namely through streaming. Netflix has been one of the few to benefit from the crisis – its share price rising so sharply it’s now worth more than Disney. However even the digital giants are facing issues, production of eagerly awaited shows like Sex Education have been put on standby, and whilst YouTube has seen a surge in viewers, creators are experiencing a fall in ad revenue.
But there’s been an indication of growth elsewhere. Live experiences are being reimagined for digital spaces. Talk show hosts like Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert record from their homes, instead of in front of live studio audiences, and Saturday Night Live is performing skits over Zoom. And yet it doesn’t feel quite right.
Performers are trying to be creative and comical whilst socially distancing, and the results aren’t always successful. The formats that work so well on the big screen can’t be so easily translated online. The best of virtual experiences haven’t been direct replications, but something else entirely. It’s a third space and arguably, one that’s more creative.
A winning example is Animal Talking, a live late-night-style talk show that takes place entirely in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Creator and host, Star Wars writer Gary Whitta’s set comes complete with a mic for all the “topical humor” in his opening monologues, a drum set for his virtual sidekick, and a couch for his guests, the latest being T-Pain.
The “show” has been wildly successful: major record labels are trying (and failing) to get their artists featured and Whitta has declined all offers from corporate sponsors. The show aims simply to bring people (or rather, their avatars) together from across the world for an hour of silly escapism.
It shows that brands’ involvement in new digital realms won’t be as simple as they once were. Part of the magic is the purity of virtual socialisation, as a frontier less saturated by brands. There’s magic too in being whoever you want to be. For those who normally dread the crowd, there’s a liberating freedom in socialising online. Indeed, nightly queer rave Club Quarantine is for some a safer outlet for self-expression. It’s a space that will require brands to think more creatively of how they can integrate, without invading.
For example, Fortnite recently launched a brand new space called Party Royale. It’s a separate island with a movie theatre, club, race courses and football fields, where you can hang out with friends, instead of shooting them. Fortnite has increasingly felt like the next generation of social networking, but the non-stop combat has got in the way. Party Royale could offer the solution.
As it’s an island that semi-mimics reality (like Animal Crossing) it’s not hard to imagine brands integrating. The challenge will be keeping partnerships feeling fresh and broadening its community appeal, challenging pre-conceptions of a world of pre-teens furiously flossing. More Party Royale headline acts to follow up on Marshmello and Travis Scott are slated to continue changing people’s minds on what Fortnite is, and could be.
For many, the cancellation of major sporting events was the moment that made the current pandemic feel real. Formula 1 were quick off the mark to launch a Virtual Bahrain Grand Prix to motorsport fans itching to get their racing fix. The visuals of the digital environment created by F1 licensees Codemasters were so authentic it took a second look to distinguish the racing from the real thing.
Innovation came from inviting non-F1 drivers including celeb fans such as Real Madrid’s goalkeeper Thibault Courtois to compete with existing and former F1 drivers and top eSports athletes. At the same time, capitalising on the lack of physical limitations allowed the pundits to informally chat to ‘drivers’ whilst they were sat on their couch rather than experiencing the realities of neck breaking G-Forces.
The current environment could provide some stimulus for investment in the sector if it continues to innovate outside of the physical in this way. Alternative e-sport formats promise to hook in a new community as we wait for the rest of the world to return, and provides a later opportunity for the real deal to run in parallel.
Virtual entertainment is a whole new industry, with new revenue streams and new audiences. We’ll see how normal sectors adapt, starting with live football’s return with BT Sport. However, the Guardian has reported that British TV advertising is down 40% between March and June. We won’t be snapping back to reality, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
It’s telling that the founders of app Houseparty have said they want to be less like the ad-supported social networks and more like Fortnite. The entertainment world is re-examining its relationship with advertisers, and it seems the future is integration. As the virtual world becomes a social substitute, there’s no reason why brands’ roles shouldn’t be equally engaging.