By the standards of outdoor EDM performances, Marshmello's DJ set on Saturday came up a little short. Ten minutes isn't usually enough time for festival-goers to congregate in front of a stage, let alone build up to a good crescendo—but the Pleasant Park crowd had been waiting for the gig for days, and so everyone nobly held up their end of the party transaction.
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Attendees danced, many doing the Marsh Walk in homage to the headliner; behind his turntables and flanked by enormous dancing cats, Marshmello exhorted and fist-pumped and bass-dropped and otherwise wrung every possible bit of energy out of the occasion that he could. He had to. Because by the standards of outdoor EDM performances, Marshmello's DJ set on Saturday was also completely unprecedented: It happened inside Fortnite .
People have gathered in virtual worlds for decades. People have attended virtual concerts for years. Yet the Fortnite event represented something different by many orders of magnitude. By one (unsubstantiated) estimate , 10 million concurrent users attended the show in the game's "Showtime" mode. In other words, this was something much more than a concert. It was a peek, albeit a short one, at what an AR- and VR-suffused future looks like: connected congregations of embodied avatars, in mass-scale events that still manage to feel personal.
Social VR application Altspace has been holding live events in virtual reality since 2015; by now, the Microsoft-owned platform regularly hosts improv shows, podcast tapings, dance parties, and performances from the likes of Reggie Watts. But when its employees heard about the Fortnite concert, they saw it as a mass-scale validation. "I said, 'This is it,'" says Katie Kelly, program owner at AltspaceVR. "It"s the biggest version of what we've been trying to do—in this game, with millions of people."
In this case, "millions" undersells the game's popularity. Last November, publisher Epic Games announced that Fortnite had surpassed 200 million players around the world—a quintupling of its size in January 2018. And throughout that growth, Epic has turned Fortnite into something more akin to a medium than a game, blocking it out like television seasons, each with its own narrative arc and payoff. In June 2018, an in-game rocket launch became a mass-attended event, with players cooperating to build enormous towers and platforms to give them the best view of the proceedings.
The Marshmello concert, though, represents a shift in that programming. Promoted in the game via fliers and a set of special challenges—not to mention a performance area that took shape over the course of a week, appearing as though it was being constructed a bit at a time—players began to think of it not just as a mysterious reveal ( What happens when the rocket launches? ), but a specific thing. The activity was the draw.
"I was talking to a woman last week, and she said, 'My son is raving about how he can't be anywhere else on Saturday because he has to be at his first concert … in Fortnite ,'" Kelly says. "People keep saying people watched that show, but if you ask those kids, they'd probably say 'I was there.'" Marshmello leaned into that, listing Pleasant Park —a suburban town in the northwest of the game's map —on his official tour itinerary. All of that went a long way toward establishing a sense of presence, of truly being there , at a concert, with Marshmello yelling "Let me see everybody moving!"
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That word, "presence," has long been used to describe the game-changing conceptual phenomenon of VR, but according to Mikael Jakobsson, a research scientist at MIT Game Lab, immersion comes in all kinds of shapes. "The Fortnite phenomenon shows it doesn't take that much technological connection for people to feel that they are together in a virtual place—to make friends, and to start caring about what happens to their characters," he says. He credits the game's widespread availability: "You can play it with any decent PC or console or tablet—that's what creates the opportunity to get the numbers to where it becomes this kind of cultural phenomenon."
Granted, in reality, the experience wasn't quite what one might expect when hearing about a 10-million-person concert. Fortnite parcels its gameplay into 100-player "battle royales," so even if millions of people are playing at a given moment, you'd only see 99 other participants joining you during Marshmello's set—and you'd only be able to hear the three other players in your party.
But despite not having the usual hallmarks of a mass-participation event, those who attended reported a palpable sense of belonging and excitement. "The show was so hilarious, so strange and joyful in the way that Fortnite is, with goofily-dressed people doing their goofy moves and building towers into the sky," wrote Riley MacLeod at Kotaku . "The music, God help me, was catchy as hell, and I even emote-danced along of my own volition."
And really, it's that liberation—that sense of giving oneself over to the moment—that every technological-mediated experience seeks. Something as ecstatic and singular as the real thing. "There honestly weren't a lot of differences between the Marshmello concert and VR," Altspace's Kelly says. "You had pre-canned animations that substituted for people being able to move and dance—there's something amazing about seeing people dancing in VR—but other than that, the recipe for an awesome virtual event isn't really complicated. We know what brings us joy, whether it's virtually or on a screen: How do you boil down those moments of enjoyment?"
Epic and Fortnite , to their credit, managed something special: a particularly VR phenomenon, no headset required. "That's what happens when people are brought together," Jakobsson says. "They will themselves be the draw for other people to join. It's not just about the game anymore—it's about the friends you make there."
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