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Sonic’s 30th anniversary concert showed what a perfect digital event looks like

The Sonic the Hedgehog franchise just celebrated its 30th birthday with no shortage of fanfare. Prior to the big day, players learned that Sonic Colors would get a rerelease, a new mainline game would be coming in 2022, and that the blue blur had teamed up with Minecraft for a left-field collaboration.

Sonic 30th Anniversary Symphony

It’s been an exciting June for Sonic fans, but the best part of the monthlong celebration wasn’t a game at all — it was a special anniversary concert livestream. The two-hour musical performance spanned the franchise’s eclectic history with a mix of orchestral arrangements and a full-on rock set from series veterans Crush 40.

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It was a nitro-fueled nostalgia trip that didn’t just show us the right way to celebrate a video game’s history; it was a shining example of how powerful digital events can be when done right.

Strike up the band

The Sonic anniversary stream started quietly in the middle of a low-key news day for gaming fans. A full orchestra took the stage, opening the show with a gorgeous rendition of the classic Green Hill Zone theme. For longtime fans, it was hard not to feel chills as the performers slowly worked their way through a suite of compositions that highlighted how strong the franchise’s soundtracks have always been. Hearing 8-bit bleeps and bloops translated to full string arrangements spoke to the lasting power of the original melodies in these games.

As the event pressed on, it slowly turned into a watercooler event for gaming fans. My Twitter timeline slowly began filling up with chatter as more people tuned in thanks to word of mouth. By the time Crush 40 took the stage, it started to feel like a real concert with fans hooting and hollering during songs like Live and Learn.

Sonic and his friends in tuxedos to promote the franchise's 30th anniversary concert.

Success on two levels

The show worked on two specific levels. On one hand, it acted as a perfect retrospective of the franchise. The Sonic series has always been eclectic (in both positive and unflattering ways). The trip down memory lane was a fun reminder of just how many forms the series has taken in its 30 years. It’s gone from a colorful Mario competitor to an edgy 3D action series filled with teen angst.

Is there anything more surreal than seeing Shadow the Hedgehog cock a gun just one hour after watching a stage full of musicians in tuxedos perform a sweeping medley of ’90s nostalgia?

Beyond the celebratory nature of the stream, it was simply a perfectly crafted digital event. For the past year and a half, we’ve been flooded with livestreams that have come in many shapes and sizes. It’s become increasingly hard for those events to feel meaningful when there’s another one seemingly every few days.

Just look at this year’s E3, which offered viewers four straight days of gaming content. The whole affair was a bit of a mess, with no consistency from stream to stream, leaving periods of dead air that took the wind out of the event’s sails. It wasn’t exactly a memorable experience.

The band Crush 40, known for its Sonic songs.

Moment of collective joy

The Sonic concert was a rare example of a digital show that truly felt special. Part of that was just the nature of a live concert like this. Orchestral video game performances like this happen all the time, but fans usually have to hope a touring show comes to a city near them and shell out some serious money to see it. This brought that somewhat exclusive experience into our homes, turning social media into an amphitheater.

It was just as much about the fans as it was about the franchise. It felt like we, as viewers, got to participate in the show rather than idly watch a two-hour marketing stunt. Fans got to share an experience that felt at once personal and communal, like a good in-person concert or sporting event.

That’s exactly what we’ve been missing during this newfound age of livestreams. We often end up watching them because we feel like we have to, not because we want to. They’re forced social moments designed to generate engagement. Noisy Twitch chats filled with emote spam just don’t replicate the warm thrill of seeing thousands of fans enjoy a moment of collective joy with one another.

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