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How NYCC’s Metaverse delivered a classic con community experience with a twist in the age of COVID

By Josh Weiss
Virtual Championships of Cosplay

What a time these last six months have been. Virtually overnight, the virus known as COVID-19 reshaped our world. It precipitated an incalculable loss of lives, made us afraid to hug our loved ones, cost people their jobs, shut down businesses, turned face masks into a life-saving necessity, and canceled or delayed the year's biggest events — including the Olympics, film festivals, and conventions.

Society will forever be changed by the novel coronavirus pandemic, but once it's finally in the rearview mirror (and that day can't come soon enough), it'll serve as a prime example of humanity's penchant for resilience and adaptation. The world of fandom is no exception. For instance, once fans could no longer socialize at massive convention centers in San Diego or New York, comic-con organizers began to get creative and look to the only place of refuge: the internet. Most, if not all, of our "face-to-face" interactions with other people since late March have been done through Zoom, Webex, and other similar web-based conferencing platforms.

San Diego Comic-Con was the first try a virtual, multi-day event on a large scale with Comic-Con@Home's pre-recorded panels, which dropped at specific times. Sure, the canned events couldn't capture the pure, unadulterated excitement of sitting in Hall H with thousands of other fans eagerly waiting to hear about the MCU's next phase, but Comic-Con@Home did something unique: It made SDCC accessible to everyone in the world for the very first time. It was the first sign that a digital convention had the potential to reach the dizzying heights of bumping shoulders with cosplayers as you peruse Artist Alley.

Artist Alley

Comic-Con@Home was the rock upon which the rest of the virtual pop-culture gatherings — DC FanDome, Justice Con, Forbidden Planet 42, Star Wars May the 4th con — would build their churches. And then came ReedPOP's New York Comic Con, the biggest nerd event on the East Coast, which was sadly unable to return to Manhattan's Javits Center this year.

There was a time, six months ago, when we optimistically (and perhaps a little naively) thought the show could go on in the fall, that the health crisis would be over by October. No such luck, as we now know, but ReedPOP didn't throw in the towel and cancel the event outright. The organizer decided to make NYCC virtual, but with a twist: a bevy of interactive components.

It was a small, yet crucial, plan of attack that makes a convention ... a convention. From live Q&As, to cosplay competitions, to one-on-one meet-and-greets with celebrities, NYCC Metaverse 2020 delivered a sense of community that so many of us have been craving for months, and that has always been the bedrock of the comic-con experience.

The only upside, perhaps, is that you don't have to pay for travel, hotel, food, and the eventual "Con Crud."

New York Comic Con 2019

"I do love the amount of free panel content that is available on YouTube. It's great to be able to watch all the panels you want to see without having to run from one to the other," one con-goer by the name of Miriam tells SYFY WIRE. "I miss being able to get together with my friends, promote my small business, and be at a con. I personally have backed a few of my favorite artists on Patreon since I can't support their art in person. I think that's the hardest part: not being able to support the creators who make it exciting every year."

"I enjoy this new wave of digital conventions," says Terrance Pryor. "As expected, it's not the same, but it certainly fills the void. Plus, everyone can have a chance to see some big panels. The struggle to get into the main stage was always real, and with a ton of other things going on at once, many people would often do something else instead."

The biggest innovation at NYCC Metaverse, however, is ReedPOP's Discord server, which allowed for real-time interaction between fans. Since Thursday, NYCC-ites have been able to share pictures of their cosplay, swap cosplay tips, browse through a virtual Artist Alley, and discuss panels (or a range of other topics) across a number of different chat feeds. On the Metaverse home page, the Retailer Zone and a separate Artist Alley hub stood in for the sea of booths you'd see at an in-person con.

Different events like "From Trash to Treasure" (where attendees discussed turning discarded objects into costume materials) or "Disneybounding Cosplay Showcase" (where people were encouraged to dress as their favorite Disney character by only using items in their closet) offered some variety and kept up the momentum of the digital dialogue. (SYFY WIRE was also a presenting sponsor of Cosplay Central’s Virtual Championships of Cosplay, the con’s centerpiece cosplay event that showcased the most eye-popping homemade costumes from around the world.)

NYCC 2020 Discord server

At the livestreamed panels for shows like American Gods, viewers could submit questions in the YouTube chat stream and have them answered by members of the cast in real time. On Saturday evening, a "Jackbox Play Along" feature allowed audience members to interact with one another via games from The Jackbox Party Pack 7.

"It is doing an admirable job. The panels are cool and I especially love the Discord and ability to chat with other NYCC goers. Hoping the discord will remain whenever NYCC happens again," says JessiCoral. "Still hurts to miss out on the convention but the virtual experience helps some."

NYCC 2020 Discord
NYCC 2020 Discord cosplay
NYCC Discord cosplay

"The online experience is still fun because you have a chance to actually speak with a broader range of people. And you can curate your experience," says Discord user OlDirtyDennis. "Hang out with the cosplayers, the film buffs, anime fans. It's just a matter of visiting that room and introducing yourself. I also appreciate the fact that brands noticed we do love visiting booths. Tamashii Nations for example, offered a virtual tour which I thought was dope. I collect a lot of their figures and would normally circle around to take pics of the ones I liked. This was a nice middle ground until we can go back to in-person visits. Overall, I'm enjoying the experience."

"Discord is kind of an awesome experiment to engage people," adds Koveezy. "If we do more of this in the future, we need a gentle way to nudge folks together in something more interactive and constructive. Live polls would be an attainable start."

This was Bridget Walton's first time on Discord, but she found the experience rather enjoyable. "Everyone has been full of compliments," she says. "I usually only get to experience two of the four days and I cosplay, so they can be hectic. Today, I got to watch The Boys panel with my boss at work. I'll definitely be catching a different side of the con than what I'm used to."

Comic Con hasn't gone extinct, it's just evolved ... at least for now.

Click here for SYFY WIRE's full coverage of New York Comic Con 2020.