ANAHEIM, Calif. — Without as many traditional Internet A-listers as years past, VidCon, an annual social media conference for creators and their fans, seemed unusually quieter this year.
That is, unless you were at the Dream SMP panel on Thursday.
Two hours before the group, made up of Minecraft players, was expected to show up, screams had already broken out from the packed audience of about 2,000 fans. That doesn’t include the 135,000 people who livestreamed the panel from their homes.
“Honestly, there’s a lot of people here,” said creator Jack Manifold, who moderated the panel. “I don’t know this to be a fact, but all the people backstage have been telling us this is, I think, the biggest show VidCon has ever had.”
Created by two friends who go by Dream and GeorgeNotFound online, Dream SMP, which is played on Minecraft, “is famous for being a roleplay themed server with a mostly improvisational plot and a long history of alliances, wars, factions, eras, and characters,” according to its Wiki Fan page. SMP stands for survival multi-player, which is the default multi-player mode of Minecraft. Each player streams their perspective on Twitch, and many players have also seen success streaming on their YouTube channels.
The VidCon panel — which both Dream SMP founders skipped — marked the first time many of the players were able to see the growth of the community in-person since Dream SMP launched in early 2020. The popularity of the panel, which was attended by mostly women, girls and nonbinary people, also signaled that Dream SMP has become more than a Minecraft storytelling medium or a streaming phenomenon. Its players and fans say Dream SMP has given rise to a new subculture for girls in gaming.
“To see that many women who love Minecraft? Ten years ago, that was completely different,” said Dream SMP player Hannah Rose, 22, who joined the server in early 2021 after Dream invited her. “I wish I had that back when I was 12, 13, when I first got the game.”
Like Dream and GeorgeNotFound, Hannah Rose and several others within the group of players do not disclose their real names to the public. In the gaming community, aliases are most commonly used instead of real names, as both creators and fans prefer partial anonymity.
Many within the community say Dream SMP is the first Twitch gaming fandom to cater to this audience, which has made the community meaningful beyond its popularity. But it’s also opened it up to more scrutiny from outsiders.
“People are so hateful toward the Dream SMP community sometimes,” Hannah Rose said. “They make a lot of jokes about having ‘girl fans.’ Well, you have ‘boy fans,’ what’s wrong with ‘girl fans?’”
Cultivating a diverse fanbase
Minecraft, which was released in 2009, has become one of the best-selling games of all time. It’s a sandbox game, designed in the style of old 8-bit video games, where players can mine, fight, build and do just about anything.
While its players are mostly white men, the community is still considered more diverse than many of its gaming community counterparts. That’s largely due to the huge female fan base, many who admire Hannah Rose and other female players within the community.
For many within the community, including its players, Dream SMP is considered the perfect medium for storytelling.
“Imagine ‘Dungeons and Dragons,’ but put it into Minecraft,” Kaegan, 20, a fan and attendee of the VidCon panel, said of Dream SMP.
Kaegan, who asked that NBC withhold their last name for their privacy, trekked to Anaheim with two of their friends in the Dream SMP fandom. One came from the Bay Area, one from Las Vegas, and another from Florida. They wore bright wigs, face paint, animal ears, and homemade cosplay in the style of their favorite characters.
It’s thanks to Kaegan and the thousands of other passionate fans that Dream SMP has seen its popularity surge in just two years.
Dream, who also has never revealed his identity online, now has 30 million YouTube subscribers to his personal channel. Every player who has since joined Dream SMP has seen their following skyrocket, too.
Tubbo, whose real name is Toby Smith, has 5 million Twitch followers. Smith joined Dream SMP with his friend, Tom Simons, who has close to 12 million YouTube subscribers as TommyInnit.
“It was kind of like the perfect storm, everyone being inside with Covid, Twitch suddenly gained a lot of popularity,” Smith, 18, said of Dream SMP’s rise in popularity. “It was a lot of blind luck if I’m totally honest.”
Some fans have also gravitated to Dream SMP because they see themselves in the players.
“It’s a place where LGBT people can find other people like them and just have a place to go ‘I’m this,’” Eret, one of the Dream SMP players who participated in the panel, said of their Twitch community. Eret, 23, identifies as bisexual and genderqueer. They use any pronouns.
I’m endlessly proud of everyone involved that we managed to cultivate something that was an audience completely untapped on Twitch.
-creator Jack Manifold
“Especially if you’re in a household which doesn’t accept you, having a place where you can go ‘I am this’ and get that weight off your chest is literally life-changing.”
Manifold, 19, said during the panel that he agreed teenage girls make up a large part of the demographic.
“That’s sort of the demographic, which is wonderful, in my opinion, because I don’t think Twitch had a lot of appeal to that audience before Dream SMP,” Manifold said. “I’m endlessly proud of everyone involved that we managed to cultivate something that was an audience completely untapped on Twitch.”
Dream SMP panel ‘unprepared’ for such a passionate crowd
The VidCon gathering of Dream SMP fans was mostly celebratory. But the fandom, like many others that emerge online, has had its own drama.
The Dream SMP community is known for being a part of cringe culture, a fandom that is widely mocked online. It has a lot of “antis,” people who openly dislike the creators and their fans. Some of the creators have been subjected to wider controversies beyond the fandom, such as when Dream was stricken from Minecraft leaderboards for using a “disallowed modification” during a record-breaking win.
In the lead-up to the panel, some Dream SMP fans on Twitter created a list of rules of what not to do at the panel, many of which revolved around not acting out.
Other fans created a panel bingo card, which listed outlandish things could happen at the panel because of Dream SMP's passionate fanbase (such as “security throws someone out”). One of the bingo list items — “the fire alarm gets pulled” — was rumored to have happened at some point during the panel, with some tweeting that they heard about it and others joking about doing it themselves. (NBC News did not witness this occurring).
Some warned each other not to ask embarrassing or invasive questions about “shipping” the male players during the panel. “Shipping” refers to when fans romantically pair characters or people in fictional relationships that can be the subject of fanart and fanfiction, both of which have been embraced in the Dream SMP fandom.
The players have appreciated and even adopted some of the fandom creations, but the shipping can get “awkward,” since the players are real-life friends. Their Dream SMP characters are a mash-up of their real personalities and radically different fictional attributes, including evil ones.
Overall, Manifold said the Dream SMP players who attended VidCon were “completely unprepared” for the size and passion of the crowd awaiting them.
“It really opened our eyes to how big everything was and how much it meant to people, us playing Minecraft,” Manifold said. “I almost welled up, I was so emotional about it. Two years down the line, to be able to see all these people, it’s just wonderful.”
NBC News was a sponsor of VidCon.