When was the last time you went to a party? For most, the answer would date back to February or perhaps even earlier for those across Asia, before the coronavirus pandemic sent cities around the world into lockdown.

In cities that have tried to get the party started again, the shadow of COVID-19 left nightclubs more resembling an episode of Black Mirror than what we know as a night out; as in one club in the Netherlands, which saw partygoers sat socially-distanced on chairs in the middle of a dancefloor1.

Others found that attempting a return to normality was impossible. Back in May when most of Asia had already moved out of its quarantine phase, nightclubs in Seoul became epicentres in Korea for multiple coronavirus infection cases2.

Seven months since this virus was declared a global pandemic, the nights are still relatively silent; even in the cities that never sleep from New York to London, Amsterdam to Hamburg, Tel Aviv to Tokyo.

For these cities, such as Berlin and its more than 250 nightclubs employing over 9000 people, nightlife may only thrive again after the COVID-19 vaccine becomes available on the market3.

But in the midst of this, virtual partying has reached the mainstream. No longer viewed as an ‘online nerd party’, in quarantine people have gathered online to enjoy good times together in a virtual space, without the limits of physical locations and social distancing.

The original virtual parties – Virtual partying in gaming

While for many this is a fresh concept, virtual partying in fact goes back almost a quarter of a century. The first virtual nightclub can date back to the 1997 video game VNC: The Virtual Nightclub. The revolutionary point-and-click video game integrated ’90s techno rave elements of more than 150 artists, offering gamers a futuristic taste of partying, but in fact did not reach a wide audience upon release4.

Three years later, in 2000, Habbo Hotel – a social game designed for teenagers – became the earliest well-known online nightclub. With nine million monthly active users at Habbo Hotel’s peak time, gamers would gather at one of its many community nightclubs, texting and dancing with simple dance moves and background music looping. As a result of COVID-19, the empty nightclub found itself populated once again 20 years on.

In the 2003 game Second Life, users could enjoy more activities in another 3D nightclub; from dancing contests, mini-games and even DJ-ing. This led to a later trend of Second Life DJs receiving invitations from prestigious, real-life clubs, or even leading to successful businesses by converting user tips in-game to real money5.

Teens hang out virtually and party in games

It took till 2015 however, enabled by new games with improved graphics and sound, for creators and users to find new opportunities to express themselves, not through a second life avatar – in the form of virtual partying.

Unlocking the immersive power of virtual

Immersive technology has taken virtual partying to the next level. In 2018, a Virtual Reality (VR) nightclub, Void Club, was created in the social game VR Chat. The club later became one of the most popular spaces for VR players to hang out, order a drink and dance.

Immersive concerts in VR also attracted interest from the creative industry, with Wave XR, founded in 2016, creating interactive concerts by capturing performers’ real-life motions, then recreating the show in a VR environment, releasing VR concerts from big name artists including John Legend and The Weeknd.

At the 2019 E3, the VR music experience from Redpill VR allowed users to dance on a live stage in the form of a virtual avatar, interacting with the crowd and experiencing the dazzling 360 world of virtual concerts.

Virtual Reality unlocks the immersive virtual party experience

Curated live concerts in-game

Fortnite has pushed the in-game party experience to the next level. In February 2019, DJ Marshmello took to the virtual Fortnite stage and created the largest live concert in history, with almost 11 million people attending the event6, which was followed this April, by a nine-minute concert with Travis Scott, attracting an audience of 12 million watching live. The event also set the highest concurrent player peak in Fortnite7.

With this success, Epic Games is expected to create more live events in the future, though likely more of a marketing instrument than an integral part of Epic´s product strategy.

The Game FortNite has created the largest live concert in the world

Fortnite is not the only interactive game offering virtual nightlife experiences. In July 2019, a virtual nightclub in Minecraft called Club Matryoshka was created by musicians in Manila. This exclusive Minecraft dance club provided a live concert and dance stage within the game.

Fast forward one year, the Minecraft Club hosts monthly programmes featuring musicians from all around the globe, who can explore new forms of performance in the game and engage with the Minecraft players. These new communities eventually enrich the Minecraft game by converting artists and music fans into game players.

Live streaming – a new normal for artists

With the spread of coronavirus, lockdown measures were implemented in most European countries and the US. As Berlin’s famous nightclub scene quietened with the quarantine, an initiative #unitedwestream emerged days after the lockdown, broadcasting live DJ-ing from the world’s largest digital club. The project later attracted over 1800 artists performing, 40 million viewers and €1.5 million in crowdfunded donations8.

Meanwhile, as physical live shows were cancelled, artists turned to social media live streaming to inspire and engage their audience. In March 2020, DJ D-Nice streamed live on Instagram for the first time, with an audience of more than 100,000 turning in. Later in May, DJ Martin Garrix streamed live for King’s Day from a moving boat.

These streamed events have led to questions over music rights. Just this month, Facebook released a new policy discouraging live music streaming on its products including Instagram, especially large-scale music performances9. This may see artists needing to seek new platforms to stream legally to their audience.

DJs stream their show live to the audience during quarantine

The future of music festivals

After most of the world’s music festivals announced the cancellations of their 2020 events, Tomorrowland produced its first digital festival in July. It is reported to have utilised four video studios to produce shows on eight 3D stages. Online tickets were priced at €12.50 per person for one day’s entry, instead of the usual €281 general access pass for its physical event. With no limits on audience capacity, over one million viewers tuned in during the live stream – more than double the expected number for the physical event.

Spectaculous stage at Tomorrowland 2019

Elsewhere, Woov, one of M-Venture’s portfolio companies, hosted part of the King’s Day festival programme live on its app. On Woov, users can interact with the crowd by sharing images, using the ‘vibing’ function to show their music taste, and connect with others who love the same music. While streaming, artists can receive live feedback during their performance, and engage with the crowd by cutting the stream to show the audience tuning in at home.

Virtual partying, Chinese style

Chinese e-commerce platforms including Taobao and JD also deployed virtual festivals, inviting musicians to perform alongside influencers who would sell their products live. On Valentine’s Day this year, Taobao Live invited top video shopping influencer Weiya and Chinese musicians to put on a concert, offering live performance while advocating donations and purchases to go towards farmers suffering from the economic impact of COVID-19. The live stream reached four million viewers and sold over 380 tonnes of agri-products.

The success of live streaming on short video platforms also inspired nightclub owners to reach out to bored, young audences during quarantine. In February 2020, big name nightclubs in China, such as TAXX and OneThird, streamed their DJs performing live on TikTok, with a generous audience at home donating almost 2 million RMB (€250k)10. Later, TikTok released its own live streaming series called #SOLO Style #Cloud Clubbing, inviting more nightclubs and DJs to perform.

From social distancing to social dancing on Zoom

As Zoom became the must-have for remote working, people also got creative with the platform after work. Zoom parties turned out to be a popular way of connecting and dancing with friends or strangers. Club Quarantine has established itself on Instagram as the queer dancing community, organising Zoom parties online every Friday. Their party has caught so much attention that Lady Gaga once offered a surprise Zoom visit. Co-Reality Collective also organised bi-monthly virtual parties with a festival app, offering multiple shows simultaneously while the hosts deploy the Zoom break room function.

Zoom becomes the place to work, connect and party in 2020

The future of partying – questions to be answered

So many formats of virtual partying have emerged in the last months, yet few can survive with the tests of time and market. This leaves two main questions for virtual partying organisers at the point we return to normality:

  1. Product-market fit: The power of offline party will not cease. Is your virtual party a replication, replacement, or enhancement of offline party experiences? What is the appeal of your offering that will make people still attend your virtual party over a physical experience?
  2. Economics: Most virtual parties are created with a lot of effort and yet do not charge money. To build a sustainable business, party organisers must be able to find a way to create and distribute the experiences efficiently, and make audiences willing to pay for them amongst a sea of free online content.

As COVID-19 brought distance to the world, tech pulled us together. The virus forced the nightlife industry to go through a mass revolution, and we want to support those who embrace the challenge to create the future of partying experiences.

M-Venture invests in the future of Best Nights. Have you attended any virtual partying online? Let us know how you think technologies might change your best nights experience!