Major League Hacking (MLH) is committed to empowering hackers during the COVID-19 outbreak and working with organizers to support their local communities digitally. We will continue to maintain our official guidance for hackers, organizers, and sponsors in our always up-to-date COVID-19 recommendations post.

Major League Hacking (MLH) is now requiring every MLH Member Event to migrate to a digital format to maintain MLH support. If you are not an MLH affiliated event we still strongly recommend migrating your hackathon to a digital event. This post acts as a logistics guide for converting to a digital event, we have a further post that expands on hacker experience.

If you choose to go digital and want data to back up your decision, we now have a great example for a hackathon blowing away expectations after going digital. Recently, HackTech opted to become an entirely digital event, resulting in a huge success for hackers, organizers, and sponsors!

HackTech made the decision to go digital five days before their event, and worked tirelessly to make the online hacking experience as similar to an in-person one as they could. Some highlights from their event were: 

  • They received 73 projects submissions, which is on track for the number we would expect from an in-person event of their size. Hackers built everything including hacks to help you declutter your life, browse extensions to measure your carbon footprint, and apps to evaluate the risk of COVID-19 in specific locations.  
  • Hackers participated in activities such as a virtual Security Challenge, sponsor workshops, and a chess tournament. 
  • Hackers who demoed are receiving swag boxes filled with t-shirts, stickers, and prizes. 

To make converting your event to a digital event as straightforward as possible, we’ve outlined some of the biggest things to consider when going digital.

Communication

Pick a communication platform and ensure your hackers join it. Slack and Discord are two of the most popular. We recommend Discord for your virtual events because of their free voice chat capabilities.

Before joining and once on the platform, make hackers know that their behavior and actions are still subject to MLH Code of Conduct, and to be respectful. Digital spaces can increase harassment as people are hidden behind a computer, so it is key to make sure your attendees know you still take this seriously.

Create a Hacker Guide for your event. Things to include are: 

  • Schedule (don’t forget timezone!)
  • Prizes that hackers can win
  • Link to join your Slack/Discord 
  • Info on Mentorship 
  • Relevant contact info
  • How to check-in to the event 
  • How to submit your project 
  • How demos work

It’s easy for hackers to get distracted and disengaged from the event when they’re not in-person. Create periodic activities for hackers to engage with during your event, whether they be live streams, Slack/Discord chat topics, or workshops.

Structure

Having a very regimented schedule helps hackers understand what everyone else is doing. Make sure to keep hackers updated about where you are in the event — particularly around opening and closing. Ensure you make announcements of each event on the schedule in your communication platform as they happen.

Twitch or YouTube are viable options for running your opening and closing to hackers. Ask if anyone on your team has experience with it — you can also seek out an A/V person to hire for the event if you have the budget. 

Opening

We strongly recommend pre-recording your opening ceremony rather than doing it live. It lets you be in full control of the ceremony, removes a lot of hardware/bandwidth problems, and, in general, is significantly more consistent. 

Make sure you cover:

  • General Slack/Discord etiquette
  • The event schedule
  • Prize categories
  • How to reach out to the organizers on Slack/Discord if they have questions
  • Any sponsor content
  • Your MLH Coach’s pre-recorded video

Your designated MLH Coach will also send you a pre-recorded video making sure to explain the Code of Conduct, our prize categories, and what mini-events we will be running digitally.

You can edit these videos together on YouTube or iMovie (Mac) or just play them sequentially on the stream. If you pre-record your video, we’ve found music and video can make it much more engaging.

Workshops

If your workshop material isn’t interactive, consider pre-recording it, streaming it, and answering questions live. For more interactive material, you can have presenters run it for small groups on Zoom or Twitch. If it’s more of a working session, doing it entirely in text is also an option.

Judging 

Structurally, we recommend having hackers submit 3 minute videos on your submission platform for the judges to review. Make sure they put a lot of love and care into the video and the rest of their submission, and have them focus on what they learned.

If you’re looking to use Devpost as your submission platform, reach out to [email protected]. Hosting a virtual event is typically a paid service on Devpost, but they’re making an exception for college hackathons forced to go digital as a result of the outbreak.

To avoid confusion, the key is to make sure hackers know exactly where you are in the schedule for judging. Tell them you’re advancing to the next stage of judging when you do, or if judging is taking longer than expected, tell them how far along you are. Giving quick updates like “Our judges have reviewed about 50% of the projects!” goes a long way in keeping hackers engaged.

For judging structure, assign judges out as you would at a regular hackathon. Consult our general judging guide for pointers on judging strategy. We always recommend you moderate judges to ensure they don’t take too much time to review each project, so getting them into a Google Hangout or voice chat to timekeep them is strongly encouraged. They should watch their demo video and review their submission within 5 minutes and move on to the next project.

If you wish to do second round judging with their top picks, doing so is relatively easy. Get the hackers on the team of the project to hop on a call with the judges for further questions — this is the time for the judge to get more in-depth with the project, and fill in any ambiguity that might have existed in their submission.

Closing

For digital hackathons, closing is arguably harder than opening. Once you’ve selected your winners for the event, make another announcement saying that closing will be starting soon. Select your most charismatic organizer, and have them start streaming your closing ceremony. Talking over slides is the best format for this. In advance, ask your sponsors to give you a list of their prize winners. Announce these live on the same platform you used for opening, making sure to inject a lot of energy and excitement into your announcements! This is a big moment for your event, and ending strong is super important — people tend to remember the beginning and the end of an event afterward for years to come. Make sure you celebrate all the hackers were able to build and what that means.

Working with Partners

Sponsors

Sponsors can get much of the same value from a digital event as they can an in-person one. Prize categories and workshops can both be run much the same, though sponsors should practice running their workshop through streaming or pre-recorded video. Give them their own channel on Slack/Discord to talk to hackers, and have them introduce themselves so everyone knows who they are. As long as they’re online answering questions from hackers about their company/prize category/workshop/anything else they’re doing that weekend, they’ll have a lot of great interactions with hackers. We also strongly recommend doing office hours with sponsors.

As many companies are recommending their employees do not travel to events right now, we don’t anticipate much pushback from sponsors. However, be diligent to communicate with your sponsors at every step of the process. Explain to them the reasons for making your event digital, outline how you will support them throughout the event, and let them know about the success at HackTech. Here’s an email template we’ve created that you can use for your communications with sponsors:

Hey NAME,
I wanted to reach out with some updates about [Hackathon], scheduled for [Date], in response to the COVID-19 situation. We are working off of official recommendations by the World Health Organization and our local authorities. As experts make additional recommendations, we have decided to change our event to be fully digital. 

Ultimately, we were forced to pick one of three options: cancellation, postponement, or conversion to a digital event. Given the amount of work our team has done thus far and the number of hackers eagerly looking forward to the event, we think that becoming digital is the best option for us, for our attendees, and for you.

On March 6th, Major League Hacking worked with its first all-digital hackathon, Hacktech. It was a huge success. All attendees logged on from home over the course of the weekend and built awesome projects. The event targeted around 500 in-person attendees. They ended up with more than 70 projects submitted in their digital format, which is around the number they’d expect for an in-person event.

We’re going to be following Major League Hacking’s guidance for how to run a successful digital hackathon in order to capture that same level of success with our event.

In order to make your sponsorship successful, we ask your teammates to join the event chat platform as mentors, be ready to do live streaming workshops, and chat with hackers about their projects or career goals via video, phone calls, or text messages in Slack/Discord.

I know that this is not what either of us expected when you signed on to sponsor, and I would like to make sure we hop on the phone to discuss the ways to make sure you still have the greatest impact possible at our event.

If you have any questions or concerns, feel free to ask us.

Looking forward to seeing you digitally!

Vendors

For any and all vendors that required some form of upfront payment, explain the situation to them and request the fees be refunded. Some fees might not be refundable, if the vendor states they have already begun production, started work, etc., ask for a partial refund based on how far along in the process they are. If they cannot offer a full or partial refund, ask if you can receive company credit for future use. You don’t want to burn any bridges here — try to maintain a good relationship with your vendors throughout this process.

Fun

There’s a lot of room for fun games and engagement during your event. Hosting an online game tournament or online mini games (Rocket League, Type Racer, Dota, Chess, and League of Legends being great examples) can be a great way to build a sense of community among your hackers. You can also consider watching a movie together or listening to the same Spotify playlist/stream. There are a billion fun things you can do If you have ideas for making your online event fun, please share with the community on our MLH Community Forum Thread so other events can follow suit. 

Prizes and swag.

When it comes to prizes and swag, you should do what your budget allows. If you have a significant budget surplus, consider sending swag bags to everyone who submitted a project at your event, this can be as low cost as $5 per participant. It’s a great way to encourage them to demo, and helps you make the event more memorable.

If you plan to do this, remember to collect t-shirt sizes and shipping addresses.

If you don’t have the budget to ship everyone something, you can send a package to each university club that participated and have them handle the distribution when it is once again safe to gather. That should keep shipping (and labor) low, while letting you allocate your budget toward something high-impact. 

Keep in mind however you’re shipping, this doesn’t need to happen directly after your online event. We encourage you to take a few days off to rest and recover before you start the shipping process. 

Contact your Hackathon Community Manager ([email protected]) for help on shipping, as we can ship for you MLH has tons of experience with getting swag packed and sent. 

MLH is here to help.

We’re working closely with all our Member Event organizers to make sure we provide you the support you need to make a positive event.

As with any MLH Member Event, we’ll have one of our Coaches help you the entire weekend to make your hackathon a success. They’ll be online throughout the weekend to help moderate your communication platform, run MLH mini-events and fun activities, and answer any questions that come up.

One of the best parts of an in-person hackathon is showing off what you built. As a way to continue to celebrate the projects your hackers will make, we’ll send an I Demoed (customized for your event!) sticker to all hackers who submit a project.  We can also help you send swag to your attendees.

Want more help? Reach out to your Community Manager ([email protected]) and come to our Peer Groups (online discussions with other hackathon organizers) on how to host a digital hackathon.