Bittersweet ending for 'virtual' Dragon Con 2020 with hope to be back in person in 2021

When the organizers of the annual Dragon Con, the Southeast’s largest multi-media and pop culture convention, made the decision that moving forward with this year’s in-person events in Downtown Atlanta was too risky due to the on-going coronavirus pandemic, they scrambled to find a way to still hold the show in some form or fashion.

Organizers traded the Sheraton-Atlanta Hotel, Hilton Atlanta, Atlanta Marriott Marquis, the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, the Westin Peachtree, AmericasMart, the Peachtree Center, and SunTrust Plaza for Discord, Vimeo, Roku, Eventeny, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the DragonCon website.

Some of the infrastructures to go virtual were already in place. The 34-year-old old inclusive con dedicated to all things science fiction, fantasy, and gaming has had an “in-house” fan-run television broadcast since 2002. It usually airs on the in-house cable channels of the five host hotels and offers a year-round subscription for $10.

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In a typical year, DragonConTV would run two channels. The first is a mix of live events such as the parade, large-draw celebrity panels, and some of the after-hours gatherings intermixed with produced segments reporting on con events, parody music videos, skits, and a bevy of bumps. The second is a classic station that shows events from previous years. Occasionally, you’ll hear a station identification stating "You're watching DragonConTV. Which is what happens when a con lets fans run a TV station. Hopefully, others will learn from their mistake."

But it was the con itself that learned from its own past that helped them be able to put on this year's show. For this year, dubbed “DragonCon Goes Virtual”, they added a third streaming channel that aired the best newly produced content from each of the more than 30 specialized programming fan tracks, scaled-down on the bumps and skits, and made the five-day event free to everyone.

More than 650 hours of live and pre-recorded programming were streamed to viewers in 49 different countries from Canada to New Zealand and from Argentina to Japan, not to mention all across the country, organizers said.

The various fan tracks also produced original content on their various social media platforms as they typically would do during a regular convention, adding to the experience.

But it wasn’t just the panels that went viral, it was the vendor halls and the Art Show, Comics and Pop Artist Alley, many of whom rely on the convention as a major source of income. What usually fills at least four floors of AmericasMart Building 2 and an exhibit hall at the Hyatt, filled the DragonCon website. More than $200,000 in merchandise was sold during the extended weekend, organizers said.

Gaming, which usually takes up about two levels in AmericasMart Building 1, took to several places online including using Discord, a social media site similar to Slack the convention utilized for the first time this year and acted as a virtual infrastructure in place of the host locations. Organizers even set up voice chat rooms for the various bars, lobbies, and skywalks just to keep it fun.

More than 1,400 unique gamers participated in events including Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games, video games, Werewolf and other social deception games, and interactive Jackbox games, organizers said.

The virtual events made Downtown Atlanta feel empty this past Labor Day weekend, especially Saturday morning when thousands of people typically line the street to see the world-famous parade. It would have been the 19th years the con took over Peachtree Street to showcase its fans’ cosplay. Typically, the streets would be filled by characters and creatures from every medium. But this year, following guidance from the Centers from Disease Control and Prevention and the city, they asked participants to submit short video clips instead of actually assembling together to march.

The end result was an entertaining hour-long mix of past parade clips interspliced between mostly new fan submissions, topped off with a delightfully well-produced and acted sketch introducing the parade and parodying the FX’s “What We Do in the Shadows.” The parade commentators didn't view any of the material beforehand, as they would on a typical parade day, to help keep the normal spontaneity of the event.

Organizers declared the sprawling online convention a total success on Tuesday touting the virtual event was accesses more than 600,000 sparking more than 40,000 conversations on Discord alone.

“The response of our fans to Dragon Con Goes Virtual has been out-of-this-world,” said Dragon Con co-chair Rachel Reeves. “We knew there was a real hunger for the chance to come together as a community, a place where everybody is not only welcomed, but celebrated, and just take a break from the real-world events happening around us.”

The distraction was well needed in a con community known for its many memes, such as a hilariously (un)healthy obsession with the former carpet pattern in the Marriott or the googly-eyed FedEx John. Spawned memes usually fall under the category of “if you have to ask...” This year was no different with the advent of "36 dozens of hard-boiled eggs" or why the new greeting is "May Chad comfort your soles" being among the many.

But the fun turned bittersweet on Monday afternoon as organizers gathered online for a closing ceremony of sorts. The sendoff turned into a love letter to the con that is known to many as one of the most inclusive cons in the country, accepting all fans and fandoms as their own. Many called the con “home” during a conversation that at times that drew tears.

They signed off giving thanks to all who participated from the vendors to volunteers to every single member.

“We are especially grateful to the small army of passionate and insanely creative Dragon Con volunteers who developed the programming, put it into the ether, and fueled the entire weekend,” Reeves said.

Organizers hope the con can proceed at their typical host hotels and locations on Labor Day weekend in 2021, especially given the economic impact it has on the downtown area each year. Most hotel reservations have been rolled over already as well as memberships. But they also said they learned a lot by going virtual, some of which they hope to include in the future, in particular the use of Discord. Organizers said going virtual might just have helped change the con for the better in the future. Fans will hopefully see in 359 days.