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  • Ben Avison

Has coronavirus turned live events digital for good?

The coronavirus outbreak has impacted society in so many ways. Tragically, thousands are dying worldwide on a daily basis; many are risking their lives to treat the ill, tend to the needy and keep society functioning. We owe these key workers our lives and cannot thank them enough.

In this context, the effect of the coronavirus on my world might seem trivial, but there might be something in here for you to relate to.

My main area of activity is live events. When not doing my day job, I am a semi-professional musician. The coronavirus spells big trouble for the live entertainment sector, particularly for artists who increasingly rely on live shows for their income as revenues from physical sales continue to dwindle. I was fortunate to release my new album, Lovers Leap, with a live sold-out CD launch just before the coronavirus outbreak hit the UK, but since then everything has changed.

The good news from the audience’s perspective is that many shows are going online. Last night I watched Roddy Woomble perform a great set of songs from his home in the Hebrides, via the Royal Albert Hall website. Bruce Springsteen is livestreaming from his E Street Radio show.

There are so many more. My home city of Oxford’s annual Folk Weekend has migrated online, taking place this weekend. I’m on at 6PM on Friday 17th April, livestreaming from my living room via the Folk Weekend Oxford Facebook page. It would be great if you could join me there.

I’ve also just launched a new video single, Carry You, out today on YouTube. The track is also available for free download via Bandcamp, SoundCloud and to stream from all the usual providers (Spotify. iTunes etc). Carry You is about how we may all at times be supported, and at other times need that support. I hope you like it – please let me know what you think.

“Take the medium for what it is”

The rest of the time I organise Host City, the largest international meeting of cities and sports business and cultural events. This year’s event takes place in Glasgow on 9-10 December 2020, and we are on track for another fantastic gathering of hundreds of major event organisers. Our community has of course been knocked sideways, with so many events being cancelled and postponed until next year, but we look forward to providing a platform for recovery and future opportunities.

Like festivals, many conferences are pivoting to digital, but there is a big challenge for the online space to fulfil all the functions of a conference – particularly networking, which is the main reason people attend business events.

Speaking on a webinar organised by the Hague Convention Bureau, Mathias Posch, President of the International Association of Professional Conference Organisers (IAPCO) said: “Live and online are two different things. You have to take the medium for what it is.

“Online offers immediate exchange of knowledge. A live meeting doesn’t have as much opportunity for this. But technology cannot replace live meetings. Live meetings have their place for networking and personal interaction.”

Sports, on the other hand, have huge audiences who are seemingly happy to experience a digital substitute. This year’s virtual Grand National recently attracted a TV audience of 4.8 million – and no animals were harmed.

“Blurring the lines between real and virtual”

There is one particular area of the events sector that very much alive and kicking in these strange times. Esports is multiplayer videogaming in a competitive format, usually taking place in arenas. The biggest such event is League of Legends, the Spring Finals of which was due to take place in Budapest but was instead transitioned to a completely remote setup.

The ESL One series is also going online for the time being. Speaking on a recent webinar hosted by European Sponsorship Association, Charlie Allen of ESL said: “Live arena tournaments are a significant driver. We have had to adapt – the show must go on and its completely going online.”

While esports is open to everybody, just 17% of professional players are women. “Women make up 47% of the gaming industry,” says Claire Richie, cofounder of Init esports and CEO of SQN. “At an amateur level it’s an even mix. Women are very much into casual gaming. But when you get into esports leagues its very male-dominated.”

The coronavirus outbreak has also cast an interesting perspective on the world of F1, which has existed for 70 years as a live sport event and for just three years as an esports series, open to anyone with an Xbox.

“The competition has the benefit of having all 10 F1 teams involved,” says Will Symon, Global Partnerships Manager at F1. “It is one of the best examples of traditional world translating to esports. If you put Cristiano Ronaldo on Xbox to play FIFA he gets beaten by professional esporters. But the transition from esports to real F1 is seamless; they are having battles as equals. You can see that there is a blurring of the lines between real and virtual.”

The question is: will people continue to #StayHome when the outbreak is over, or will they be booking their flights to the Tokyo Olympics?

Claire Ritchie-Tomkins suggests digital events are here to stay. “Esports will maintain that audience once real sports comes back,” she said. Charlie Allen added: “It’s going to surprise a lot of people. If it’s exciting content, people will stick around and watch it.”

One thing that is certain is that COVID-19 has brought about a massive surge in people connecting with each other from their homes. I hope you stick around and connect with my show at Folk Weekend Oxford on Friday 17th at 6PM. It’s gonna be electric. Thanks for listening and stay safe.


Photo: Roddy Woomble's gig from home for the Royal Albert Hall.

This article was written in a personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect the views of Host City

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