For the first time in a month, I had somewhere to be on a Saturday night. It was a mini-music festival where emo fans and electronic music aficionados gathered, staring up at a handcrafted house that loomed over a massive stage. But first, I had to stand in a lengthy queue with a bunch of strangers wearing concert T-shirts that all read the same phrase: “I literally went to the American Football house in Minecraft.”
The classic emo band American Football headlined a lengthy concert on April 11th, appearing alongside popular musicians like Baths and Anamanaguchi — but something was off. There was no jumping around onstage. There weren’t any dudes standing at the back of the venue nursing tallboys and nodding their heads while American Football played “Never Meant.” Bathroom lines didn’t exist, and coat check wasn’t a concern. That’s because the entire event took place online across Minecraft, which hosted the “physical” show, and Discord, where bands and DJs came to talk with fans.
Doors (in this case, servers) opened at 6PM ET, and like any show, there was a mad dash of people rushing to get in. Trying to get into the venue turned out to be a tedious affair. The servers kept bumping players off, and that was only if people managed to connect in the first place. Many couldn’t.
Those stuck outside were left to commiserate in a Twitch live stream where the show’s organizer, OpenPit, was streaming from the main concert hall floor. Tiny blockheads jumped around as musicians like Bean Boy and Drive 65 played their sets. It felt like being stuck in the coatcheck line, hearing the opening act play their set and feeling the vibrations pulsating the floor under your feet, but not being able to actually see the show.
Like many of my new American Football-stanning friends, I was left to spam the “Join Server” button in Minecraft while watching OpenPit’s Twitch stream. It got me thinking about something former Amazon Studios strategist and analyst Matthew Ball wrote in a lengthy piece about a future “metaverse.” Ball noted that “the technology simply does not yet exist for there to be hundreds, let alone millions of people participating in a shared, synchronous experience.” Even a Marshmello concert in Fortnite, which drew 11 million viewers, making it the biggest Fortnite event at the time, didn’t consecutively serve 11 million people.
“In truth, there were more than 100,000 instances of the Marshmello concert, all of which were slightly out of sync and capped at 100 players per instance,” Ball wrote. “Epic can probably do more than this today, but not into several hundred, let alone millions.”
In the rare moments when I could get on the server, the scene was cooler than I expected. It’s hard to replicate the minutia of a real-life concert in Minecraft, but that’s what organizers OpenPit tried to do — down to exclusive concert tees, a quintessential pit area, and restricting stage access.
I made my way toward a lounge area upstairs that was limited to VIP concertgoers who had bought passes, with the proceeds going to charity. I was jealous of the VIP attendees. They received in-game band tees and were allowed to roam around the venue without worry. Anytime I tried to go upstairs into the lounge, behind the stage, or into mysterious rooms in which I could see other people entering and exiting throughout the night, it was like an invisible bouncer stopped me, as if he took one look at my normal green shirt — the one that new Minecraft players wear — and knew I wasn’t part of the cool crowd.
Still, I spent an embarrassing amount of time trying to hop over the translucent barrier so I could get a better view of the concert hall. I couldn’t stop thinking about how goofy I must have looked to other blocks in the room and the thousands of people watching at home as my Minecraft character just jumped up and down for minutes on end.
By 7:30PM, the servers were better but not perfect. OpenPit swore it was going to fix the ongoing issues as people demanded refunds in a chaotic and rapidly moving Twitch chat. The venue lobby inside Minecraft repopulated over and over again while the servers disconnected and reconnected, but I was just divorced from it enough, sitting on my couch with a glass of wine, that it wasn’t overly aggravating.
“I literally went to the American Football house in Minecraft”
One of the biggest disadvantages of virtual concerts is also their most obvious: you’re not actually there. That makes answering the phone, reading an email, or checking TikTok much more appealing, especially when the video is choppy, audio is laggy, and intermittent server problems make it hard to get too absorbed in the show. Eventually, I decided to mute the in-game audio and rely on OpenPit’s Twitch live stream, which seemed to come from a direct feed and wasn’t as choppy.
When everything was working, the show went from being something happening on a screen to an actual immersive event. By 9:30PM, when Six Impala and Baths went on, the room moved to a cohesive energy. Minecraft players would spam “Jump! Jump!” when it was time to mosh, and everyone did. The room became a sea of digital avatars jumping around, many wearing concert tees celebrating the show, decked out in white-and-black checkered vans. Sure, there weren’t any deafening screams coming from the pit or beer spilling from excited fans, but it felt like attending an actual concert.
Digital concerts have been growing in popularity. OpenPit has thrown a number of shows, including plays on popular festivals like Coachella (Coalchella), infamous events like Fyre Fest (Firefest), and lavish affairs like the Met Gala (Mine Gala).
Concerts have been held in other games, too. Fortnite threw a huge event with DJ Marshmello, while smaller artists like Soccer Mommy tried to connect with fans in Club Penguin Rewritten. Even Second Life, one of the earliest MMO games, has welcomed artists for virtual shows. The easier it got for large swaths of people to gather in one space, without a devastating amount of lag, the better virtual concerts got.
It was like the forum page of an emo site was being projected on the wall while the band played
Virtual concerts used to feel like a gimmick, an event for current players to check out, and a reason for possible new players to sign up. They were a chance for artists to garner some additional attention and find a new way to play a set for fans. When Fortnite hosted Marshmello’s concert in February 2019, it was the biggest in-game event at the time, with 10.7 million people attending, according to publisher Epic Games.
Things are different now. Like some weird Footloose world, gathering in public spaces to see a band play isn’t going to happen. Amid the pandemic, there are two ways for bands to play shows for fans: live-stream a show from their homes on YouTube, Twitch, or Instagram, or host a virtual event in a game like Minecraft.
I’m not someone who spends a lot of time in Minecraft or Fortnite, nor am I someone who spends a lot of time at shows. On any other night, in any other version of our lives right now, this isn’t something I would have attended. I suspect it’s the same for some other people who showed up Saturday night to stand in front of a handcrafted version of the house that appeared on American Football’s 1999 album cover. Attending the show was just something to do — a newfound luxury in a moment where minutes, hours, days, and weeks seem to blend together.
“It’s so special to be here with my friends,” Anamanaguchi singer Peter Berkman said over Discord, his voice seemingly ringing out throughout the venue. “Take care of yourselves, listen to a lot of music, play a lot of video games.”
Something special happened when American Football went on at 11:20PM, though. The venue chilled. Minecraft avatars stopped jumping around as the pluck of guitar strings from “Stay Home” started playing. People in Minecraft started spamming the chat tool, thanking American Football for their music. Some wrote messages about American Football saving their lives; others spoke about heartbreak. It was like the forum page of an emo site was being projected on the wall while the band played. And, just like that, the moment of clarity that comes from being in a sea of people when your favorite band takes the stage arrived.
American Football played their set, the little Minecraft avatars for each band member moving around the stage. A clap track would play after some of the songs, simulating what it might sound like if we were all in the same room physically instead of just pixelated dots. Getting to this point wasn’t without its issues. Minecraft concerts aren’t going to replace being able to actually jump, dance, scream, and cry as your favorite band or musician plays onstage. Even without tech problems like lag and server overload, there are some physical experiences that can’t be translated into code.
But what I needed, what a lot of people seemed to need on Saturday, Minecraft accomplished: it became a place to gather. By the time “Never Meant” come on, I was surprised at how emotional the show made me, and based on the Twitch chat I checked in on, it was the same for more than 10,000 people watching. Maybe it was because we were all experiencing this moment together, the first big communal event I’ve been to since self-quarantining about a month ago, or maybe it was the fact that emo’s original poster boys were onstage trying to bring some comfort into a world that desperately needs it.
Before American Football started playing, guitarist and singer Mike Kinsella quipped about the situation we’re all in. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.
“So this is the future, huh,” he joked. “Honestly, I thought there’d be more pixels.”