Reece Rogers tracks celebrity musicians’ references to video game culture and the ways that gaming is generating its own pop stars: two huge culture industries that can make even more money together.
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In the summer of 2016, as Pokémon Go mania swept the globe, an independent artist from Puerto Rico grew obsessed with Nintendo’s mobile augmented reality game. When not recording tracks for SoundCloud, he traversed the island hunting for the rarest of creatures with his friends until the crack of dawn. Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, aka Bad Bunny, reflected on why this experience was so sentimental for him during an interview with Twitter, “I wasn’t famous at that time, it was one of the last few days I had liberty, where I was able to get out of the car barefoot looking for Pikachu.”
Now an international pop star with a Grammy and an appearance on WWE under his belt, much is different for Bad Bunny, yet his affection for video games lingers. The video for his latest single, "Yonaguni", dropped last week and features a scene of Bad Bunny getting a Pokémon Go tattoo on his upper thigh.
The Rise of the Gamer Pop Star
For years, artists have been able to license their music for in-game use and perform original songs for video game soundtracks. Artists like Michael Jackson and Snoop Dogg have even released branded video games. Further blurring the line between the two industries, the development studio behind Grand Theft Auto, Rockstar Games, recently launched its own record label for underground dance music.
Fully embracing video game culture as a pop star in 2021 opens the door for integrating with a billion dollar cultural force and increased audience engagement. Which metaverse do you want to choose for your virtual concerts: Fortnite or Roblox? Trailblazer and gay icon Lil Nas X did both. I was caught off-guard when Nintendo selected Post Malone to perform a virtual concert in celebration of Pokémon’s 25th anniversary, yet he has increasingly embedded himself in gamer culture. Malone is a co-owner of Overwatch and Call of Duty esports teams from his home state of Texas.
Music Videos with Gamer Product Placement
The Pokémon Go tattoo was not the only reference to video game culture in Bad Bunny’s video for "Yonaguni.” About a minute into the video, he sits in a gaming chair surrounded by monitors as he plays. What stuck in my memory was not the moment when Bad Bunny smashes a television with his controller but the multiple FaZe Clan logos that appear in frame. FaZe Clan is a popular, albeit controversial, esports organization with a list of owners that includes Offset (husband of Cardi B and one-third of Migos) and Jimmy Iovine (co-founder of Interscope Records).
Doja Cat is another pop star embracing gaming related product placement. In the music video for “Kiss Me More” featuring SZA, there is an extended sequence of Doja using the PlayStation 5 controller with multiple, close-up shots of the product. Lil Nas X got in on the PS5 action last year when a robot playing the still-hard-get console appeared in his music video for “Holiday.”
I am very excited to see what will happen when these brand integrations are taken to further extremes. Are we getting Olivia Rodrigo as the new character in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate? Likely not, although I wouldn’t be surprised if savvy musicians collaborate more frequently with game developers. BTS, a Korean boy band, already made millions in revenue from their mobile gaming apps. Keeping my eye out for a heartfelt, albeit spooky, indie game released next year on Steam in partnership with Phoebe Bridgers.
Enter the Pop Star Gamer
The era of the gamer pop star is approaching an interesting inflection point. On platforms like TikTok, YouTube, and Twitch, content creators are building brands around gaming related content and releasing music after finding their audience. Corpse Husband, a creator known for telling scary stories on YouTube with a deep voice, hiding his face, and appearing on the iconic Among Us Twitch stream alongside AOC, released a debut single in 2020, the expletive-laden, nihilistic bop "MISS YOU!". More recently, he appeared on "DAYWALKER!", a screamo track from Machine Gun Kelly that features Valkyrae, co-owner of esports organization and merch machine 100 Thieves, in the music video. Other notable co-owners of 100 Thieves include Scooter Braun and Drake.
On TikTok, Bella Poarch quickly amassed an audience with her adorable aesthetic and video game memes. Poarch’s lip sync to British artist Millie B’s “M to the B” is considered to be the most liked post on the platform. This May, she released a debut single, “Build a B*tch”, and numerous influencers appear in the video (including Valkyrae), which has over 150 million views on YouTube.
Certain privileges are afforded to these pop star gamers. Epic Games, the developer behind Fortnite, faced litigation in the past for allegedly using dances without permission from multiple people including Fresh Prince of Bel-Air star Alfonso Ribeiro and Terrence “2 Milly” Ferguson, but the game developer officially teamed up with Bella Poarch to promote her single with a Fortnite emote. (Dua Lipa, Megan Thee Stallion, and BTS also got the Fortnite emote treatment earlier this year during the Grammys.) While the gaming pop star currently reigns supreme, the pop-star gamer is beginning to nip at their heels. — By Reece Rogers