Last month, I published an article on Forbes diving into why the intersection of music and esports is one of 2018's fastest-moving business trends in entertainment.
tl;dr — Esports leagues and game developers are blooming into full-fledged media brands, and are looking to the music business to solidify their cultural capital. Artists and music companies, riding a streaming high, are looking to diversify their newfound revenue, experiment with new audiovisual technologies and tap into the power of highly engaged subcultures and captive household audiences.
As a result, some of the world’s biggest artists (Imagine Dragons, Drake, Scooter Braun, TheFatRat) and music corporations (Universal Music Group, Insomniac Events, iHeartMedia, MTV, Creative Artists Agency) are striking deals with some of the world’s biggest esports brands (Riot Games, ESL, Luminosity Gaming, Vision Esports) at an unprecedented rate.
My Forbes article dives deeper into the motivations behind music and esports companies investing more in each other, featuring one-on-one interviews with execs from Universal Music Group and Riot Games. As a supplement to the article, I wanted to write a separate post here that lays out a timeline of every major music and esports deal that has happened so far this year, just to illustrate how much momentum this space has gained over the last ten months.
It’s important to note that the connection between music and esports is not unique to 2018. Riot Games began partnering with full-time musicians on partnerships in 2013, and Steve Aoki was one of the first artists to invest directly in the esports scene in 2016, when he bought a majority stake in Las Vegas-based e-sports team Rogue. Twitch, one of the most popular gaming live-streaming platforms in the world, has had close affiliations and direct collaborations with the music industry for years.
Nonetheless, I strongly believe 2018 has been a watershed year for the merging of music and esports, based on the number of publicly announced deals among companies that control a significant amount of IP and capital in those respective spaces.
Below is a short summary and takeaway from each major music/esports announcement so far this year. While not all of them may be sustainable or successful, each of them offers a distinct insight into the current entertainment climate, and how music and esports are on the bleeding edge of next-gen live experiences, business and fan-engagement models, tourism and economic development.
February 22, 2018: Creative Artists Agency (CAA) and their investment and advisory arm Evolution Media led a $38 million investment in esports media conglomerate Vision Esports, which owns properties like Echo Fox and Twin Galaxies. Many of the other participating investors hail from the traditional sports world, including but not limited to New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team and the Durant Company (co-founded by basketball star Kevin Durant).
Main takeaways: From the vantage points of professionalization, branding, advertising and sponsorship, media and entertainment companies will likely play a significant role in how the boundary between the signifiers of “esports” and “pro sports” continues to blur with each day. In addition, esports companies seem like a natural extension of Evolution Media’s previous portfolio—which includes properties like ATTN:, The Athletic, Mass Appeal and TuneIn—in terms of their status as larger media platforms that can break culture.
May 1, 2018: Chart-topping rock band Imagine Dragons announced an investment in esports company ReKTGlobal, and subsequent co-ownership of esports league Rogue (alongside Steve Aoki). Imagine Dragons previously wrote and performed “Warriors,” the official anthem for the 2014 League of Legends (LoL) World Championship in Seoul.
Main takeaways: As I discuss in my Forbes article, there are two primary ways that musicians and music companies are breaking into esports nowadays: 1) creating musical content catering to esports communities, and 2) investing directly in esports leagues and event infrastructure. Imagine Dragons is a early mover in both categories—the latter of which (leagues & venues) has proven to eat up a majority of esports revenue to date, thanks to sponsorship, advertising and ticket sales.
July 13, 2018: Spotify partnered with Activision Blizzard’s Overwatch League to launch a new playlist titled “Party on the Payload,” in commemoration of the League’s playoffs and Grand Finals. Members of esports teams including the Philadelphia Fusion, L.A. Gladiators and New York Excelsior (NYXL) contributed to the playlist, which contains just 12 songs as of publishing this post.
Main takeaways: There is a common misconception that “esports music” is limited only to hard-hitting hip-hop and EDM, but the Party on the Payload playlist—which features artists as far-ranging as Taylor Swift, Luis Fonsi, Queen and The Offspring—suggests that that myth could not be further from the truth. It also carries a valuable lesson that what counts as “good” music in esports contexts depends heavily on players’ individual, organic passions and tastes, which are likely to diversify as esports becomes more global and more mainstream.
July 13, 2018: Universal Music Canada and Luminosity Gaming announced an exclusive partnership, allowing artists signed to Universal Music to advertise their music through Luminosity Gaming’s various social and digital platforms, including but not limited to livestreams and new content series from Luminosity Gaming’s streamers and competitors. Luminosity’s followers will also get access to exclusive contests, sneak previews and events related to select Universal artists. Upon announcing the partnership, Universal’s owned-and-operated Spotify playlisting service Digster.fm also launched a new “GAMING HIP HOP” playlist, featuring a regularly-updated selection of mainstream hip-hop tracks.
Main takeaways: This is one of several examples on this timeline of how major labels want to use esports leagues not just to break new talent, but also to promote and revive existing catalog (e.g. Kendrick Lamar’s “DNA.” or Uzi’s “XO TOUR Llif3”). As with nearly everything else in the already-crowded landscape of influencer marketing for music—thriving on platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube and Tik Tok—major labels are drawn to esports because they’re constantly looking to break hits in strong, niche communities that are visually-driven. But at its worst, this type of partnership could become too one-directional, in that Universal’s artists need Luminosity’s exposure much more than the other way around.
August 2–4, 2018: Wacken Open Air, an annual heavy-metal music festival in Wacken, Germany, hosted its first-ever esports village this year in partnership with German esports company ESL. Festivalgoers could enter the ESL arena throughout the three days and play games like LoL and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) for free, as well as participate in daily training sessions and amateur tournaments. The Wacken Open Air website has already announced plans to expand its esports offerings in 2019, under the banner “Full Metal Gaming.”
Main takeaways: Perhaps the most organic and lucrative exchange between music and esports lies in live events: both esports tournaments and music festivals have the potential to gather up to tens of thousands of people to spectate and cheer for great performances and talent onstage in a highly visual, social environment. As of today, the exchange is thriving in both directions: many esports tournaments are featuring live musical performances during “opening ceremonies,” while music festival promoters like Wacken Open Air are increasingly including pop-up esports experiences in their regularly scheduled programming. Heavy metal has also had a storied relationship with the gaming world for decades, and it makes sense for ESL to target more niche festivals accordingly in its expansion.
August 4–5, 2018: LoL developer Riot Games partnered with MTV to host the esports and music festival Hyperplay at the Singapore Indoor Stadium. Esports teams from Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines competed in the finals for the first-ever pan-ASEAN LoL tournament, interspersed with performances by “MTV Spotlight” artists including Alessia Cara, Nick Jonas, Slot Machine, The Sam Willows, Afgan and CL (pictured above).
Main takeaways: To my knowledge, Hyperplay is the only esports event to take place this year whose featured music is not just hip-hop, not just electronic, but unabashed, multifaceted pop. Alessia Cara and Nick Jonas may be the last names on your mind when you think of ideal “esports artists”—but, as we also saw with the Spotify x Activision Blizzard playlist, the best music for esports is not just about what creates the best environment for focusing during a tournament, but also about what esports enthusiasts are passionate about as all-around human beings and cultural fans.
The fact that such an international musical lineup convened in Singapore also points to how esports is a global phenomenon, and how it is imperative that music and esports companies think as globally as possible about their collaborative programming. Southeast Asia in particular boasts the fastest-growing esports audience in the world, according to recent research by Newzoo.
August 24–26, 2018: The second annual ICBC e-Sports & Music Festival Hong Kong, hosted by the Hong Kong Tourism Board, took place at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. The event featured three separate tournaments for LoL, Counter Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) and PUBG among an international slate of teams, live performances by Asian artists DJ SODA and Gin Lee as well as an expo-style Computer and Communications Festival showcasing emerging tech and gaming products.
Main takeaways: To my knowledge, this is the only major esports event on this list with direct governmental funding and programming involvement. Given the number of bespoke esports arenas popping up all over the world—and the fact that esports will be an official medal sport at the 2022 Asian Games—it makes sense that government officials are looking more into collaborating with the esports ecosystem to drive tourism, travel and overall economic development, particularly in Asia.
September 13, 2018: German electronic producer TheFatRat made a “music pack” (the equivalent of an EP) available for download in the Dota 2 store, for the price of 4.4 euros each. Even though the pack, titled Warrior Songs, was released two months after it was made available for streaming on Spotify and YouTube, it still sold 25,000 downloads through the Dota 2 store in just the first three days.
Main takeaways: The wider music-industry discourse (of which I am a member, and in which I am sometimes complicit) tends to treat music streaming platforms as the only form of music technology that matters, while professing the ongoing (and empirically convincing) death of CDs and downloads. The handful of artists and music companies actively exploring “alternative” revenue streams beyond streaming are embracing trends like VR/AR, blockchain, shortform video and, yes, gaming, with the expectation that historical business models will no longer apply to emerging platforms.
The irony in the esports and gaming world is that downloads still matter! Online game marketplaces like Steam still run primarily on a download model, and many esports games, including LoL and Dota 2, are free-to-play and make the majority of their revenue from in-game downloads of skins, weapons and other virtual items.
September 21–22, 2018: Pennsylvania’s Harrisburg University partnered with iHeartMedia and Alt 99.3 to host the first-ever Harrisburg University Esports (HUE) Festival. 21 collegiate teams competed live in LoL and Overwatch tournaments over the course of two days at Harrisburg University’s Whitaker Center, with Columbia College ultimately winning the grand prize of $50,000. The second day of the festival featured a full music lineup that was free to the public, with bands like Atlas Genius, Alien Ant Farm and The Great Enough.
Main takeaways: Given that the majority of esports players and fans are ages 18–35, it makes sense for esports tournament producers and musicians alike to target collegiate audiences. Harrisburg University notably made esports its first and only varsity sport in fall 2018, welcoming its inaugural team of 16 players to campus shortly before hosting the HUE Festival. Notably, the festival also reportedly boosted local business,
October 12, 2018: Insomniac Events, the electronic music promoter behind festivals like Electric Daisy Carnival and HARD Summer, announced a brand-new music and esports festival called PLAY, in partnership with artist-manager Paul Campbell (founder of Nû Management). Set to launch in 2019 at an undisclosed location, the festival will feature performances by hip-hop and electronic artists as well as curated exhibition matches between top esports teams, with non-gaming artists and celebrities potentially also getting involved in the competitions. Ingeniously, the press release refers to attendees of the festival as “Players,” taking advantage of a common nomenclature between the music and gaming worlds.
Main takeaways: Insomniac is around 50% owned by Live Nation, the world’s biggest concert promoter, which will likely provide a gargantuan and invaluable marketing infrastructure for the PLAY Festival. For instance, according to its Facebook page, PLAY recently hosted and livestreamed its own branded DJ event at another Insomniac-owned festival called Escape: Psycho Circus, with other electronic and hip-hop-focused events likely to come. On a more conceptual level, the designation of “Players” for the festival’s attendees perhaps points to the rising importance of interactivity in artist-fan engagement, both on- and offline—for which the user experience behind gaming and esports could provide a valuable template.
October 23, 2018: Drake and Scooter Braun both become co-owners in 100 Thieves, which is ranked as one of Forbes’ most valuable e-sports companies. What reportedly differentiated 100 thieves from other esports companies to investors was that it thought of itself as a lifestyle brand from the outset, instead of waiting to pivot to lifestyle verticals further down the line. For instance, 100 Thieves does all of its merchandise design and production in-house, and will be using part of its $25 million in total funding to expand its apparel line as well as hire 10 new people for its content team.
Main takeaways: The investors involved here are no surprise at all. Drake has close ties with Twitch streamer Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, and their joint stream of Fortnite: Battle Royale broke the previous record for most concurrent viewers on a non-tournament Twitch stream, breaking 635,000 viewers at its peak. Through his company SB Projects, Scooter Braun has also invested actively in tech startups and digital/new media projects, in addition to managing some of the world’s most successful musicians.
As the Forbes article that broke the news suggests, this partnership is betting as much on the lifestyle and cultural influence of esports players themselves as into the commercial value of the wider games and tournaments. One potentially slippery slope, however, is homogenizing the definition of an “esports lifestyle” in its marketing. As we saw with several of the above deals, there’s a wide range of musical and cultural preferences any given esports player could hold: they could be a full-on metalhead, a diehard K-pop fan or a casual, lean-back listener who only listens to the latest rap playing on Top-40 radio. Each of these personas correlates to a vastly different suite of lifestyle choices that a “one-size-fits-all” marketing approach simply won’t do justice. The “esports lifestyle” that Imagine Dragons imagined when they invested in ReKTGlobal is likely quite different from the lifestyle Drake is investing in with 100 Thieves, and hopefully future media coverage will reflect this diversity.
October 26, 2018: Ninja, the Twitch streamer who broke viewing records on the platform in part thanks to Drake, announced a new compilation of gaming music called Ninjawerks that will be released through Astralwerks, a subsidiary of Universal Music Group’s Capitol Records (preview cover art pictured above).
Main takeaways: This deal underscores how one of the primary motivations behind a music/esports merger is a mutual diversification of revenue. With Ninjawerks in particular, recorded music can become an ancillary revenue stream not just for esports game developers (e.g. Riot Games), but also for individual esports players and personalities like Ninja. I‘m also intrigued by Astralwerks’ decision to jump back into the branded compilation business, given the wider perception that dynamic playlists have essentially made static compilation albums obsolete.
It will be interesting to see how well Ninjawerks performs commercially with streams versus with download sales, as well as which artists will ultimately be featured. Given that Astralwerks just relaunched in September 2018 with a slate of big EDM names like Illenium and Axwell & Ingrosso, there will likely be a significant electronic bent in the compilation’s final makeup.
November 1, 2018: South Korean game developer Actoz Soft launches the esports girl group AQUA, featuring a total of six members “who will promote both as idols and as gamers,” according to a press release. The majority of AQUA’s members are former contestants on South Korean music-themed reality TV shows like Produce 101, Produce 48, K-pop Star and MIXNINE, while the group’s manager Sora Park is allegedly both a singer and pro-gamer.
Main takeaways: To some, this may seem like too much of a cash grab, of trying to seizing commercial opportunity just by gluing together two highly corporate and commercialized and machinized industries (i.e. K-pop and esports). Interestingly, there’s also little information online about how experienced AQUA’s members actually are at playing any esports game, and how members with no previous experience are going to receive proper training on such short notice. Nonetheless, the fact that most of these stars have previous experience as reality TV contestants will likely be a significant asset in the esports-media ecosystem, as they have been carefully groomed as live entertainers.
November 5, 2018: Universal Music Group’s new esports label Enter Records, which soft-launched in early October as a joint venture with ESL, announced that their first signee would be TheFatRat—the same guy who made six figures selling an EP in Dota 2.
Main takeaways: What stands out the most to me about Enter Records is how they approach their A&R and artist development. During a panel at the Reeperbahn Festival in Hamburg, Universal Music’s Head of Gaming Partnerships Gustav Käll suggested that part of his talent-scouting strategy would include sourcing emerging musical talent directly from the esports community—given that many gamers may also be avid or amateur music producers, and vice versa. The label had a channel on SubmitHub where anyone could submit tracks for consideration, and received over 700 submissions over the course of just over two months.
It’s also important to note that TheFatRat previously recorded the official song for ESL One Cologne in 2017, and demonstrated a lot of organic involvement with esports fans prior to being signed to Enter Records. Hopefully this will set a precedent for future signees, in the sense of prioritizing artists who have already fostered genuine connection and empathy for the esports community on their own terms.
November 3, 2018: During the latest LoL World Championship Opening Ceremony in Incheon, South Korea, Riot Games announced a new “mixed-reality,” bilingual K-pop group called K/DA—formed in part to promote new in-game cosmetics for LoL champions Ahri, Akali, Evelynn and Kai’Sa. The group features real-life artists Madison Beer, Jaira Burns and (G)I-dle members Soyeon and Miyeon, all of whom performed live onstage in Incheon alongside their augmented-reality character alter-egos. K/DA’s first single “POP/STARS” made it to No. 1 on Billboard’s World Digital Song Sales chart and the top 10 on the Pop Digital Song Sales chart, selling 9,000 copies in the week ending November 8.
Main takeaways: At first glance, K/DA might seem like a tackier, more extreme version of AQUA (the esports girl group mentioned earlier in this post), but there’s a crucial difference in the approach: with K/DA, the human musicians are standing in as game characters, rather than as gamers themselves. From the artists’ perspective, it could potentially be akin to how Black Eyed Peas or Metallica can reimagine themselves as comic book characters—using a visual medium adjacent to music to extend the storytelling potential around their own mythology.
Nonetheless, this is still first and foremost a promotional vehicle for LoL’s champions, which borrows from already-existing music stardom in an attempt to “mainstream its content,” to paraphrase a recent Billboard article about the news. Plus, assuming a continued embrace of K-pop, recorded music could become even more meaningful of a revenue stream for Riot Games, given that the company is listed on streaming services as the record label behind K/DA’s songs (with distribution help from Fuga).
If you got all the way here… Thank you so much for reading! :)
I would love to hear your thoughts on the burgeoning intersection of music and esports—do you think it’s just another hype bubble, or is there really something there in terms of long-term cultural transformation? Please reply in the comments below, I’d love to hear from you!