I've personally been to a multitude of hackathons, and I'm going to preface this by saying that, although online events have the potential to be awesome, most haven't come close to an in-person one yet; feel free to interpret this as a wake-up call for virtual organizers!
My very first hackathon experience was in-person at Los Altos Hacks III, way back in 2018 when Corona was only the name of a beer. I had absolutely no idea what occurred in a hackathon, what the environment was like, or anything like that – I just heard that there was free food. However, 24 hours and a lot of pizza later, my sleep-deprived self walked out of the venue with a great deal of stickers (foreshadowing my collection obsession), new friends I couldn't have met anywhere else, a complete project under my belt, and a dream.
Now, although virtual events cannot match that level of immersive experience, they can certainly try. I've attended quite a lot of events since Los Altos Hacks III, with the more recent ones being virtual, and even organized one myself.
You might be thinking "you're biased, you organized a virtual event!", which is partly true, but hear me out.
What makes an in-person event so immersive? The hackerspace, for one (carpets and bean bags 👌). The catering. The themed minigames, speakers, and workshops. Spending half the event goofing off with friends, newfound or not. All these things and more contribute to a truly unique experience that varies from event to event. How would these things translate over to a virtual hackathon? Usually, the hackerspace is the comfort of one's own home. The catering, again, one's own home. But the two things that can stay relatively the same are the mini-events and the fun of meeting new people – if done right, it can leave your attendees with a great experience they'll likely never forget.
It takes both sides to build a bridge. -Fredrik Nael
The way my team and I approached the problem of attendee engagement at ThetaHacks was that we figured everyone loved swag, which we had plenty of (in the form of stickers, shirts, and digital merch); instead of giving it out to everyone, we gave it to people who attended two mini-events. Note that this isn't a very difficult requirement to complete; we just wanted people to have fun outside of their designated team. The events could be workshops on 3D design, panelist sessions on entrepreneurship, or even Minecraft/Among Us game nights! Speaking of game nights, they're a great way to hype everyone up. We hosted an Among Us Hype Night a day before the event, and it was like blowing a ceremonial horn to signal the start of the hacking (not to mention Among Us is great for team mixing).
By incentivizing swag, we were able to draw people out of their shells and give them a taste of the true hackathon experience – needless to say, they all loved it! We counted a record-breaking 50 or more attendees for every single workshop or speaker, some of which even connected with each other through Zoom chat or our community Discord. We had close to 200 people attend our closing ceremony, and it really felt like the morning of an in-person event where everyone both gets hyped and prepares to say goodbye. I can definitely say I'd gotten quite attached to that community and that I made quite a few friends from all around the world that weekend, and so can many others.
The main takeaway from this isn't to force people to attend events to socialize, it's to foster an active, awesome, and friendly community (like Hack Club) from the get-go. Don't let your Slack workspace or Discord server die out after the event; continue hosting game nights and troubleshooting code!
An online hackathon only sucks if there's no work put in to make it better – so don't lower the goal. Increase the effort.