During the pandemic, video games and esports have become the new concert venues
More and more musicians and fans are finding ways to experience live music via their controllers.
You can hang out in a park, go shopping and, soon, have a drink on a patio – but it’s going to be a long time before you can catch a concert again. At least not in person.
Livestream concerts have exploded in the age of COVID-19, but as people get tired of one-way acoustic guitar performances in living rooms, more and more musicians and their fans are finding ways to attend live music via their controllers.
Video games are becoming the pandemic’s new concert venues. They’re also hot spots for raves, after-parties and meet-and-greets.
“People are finding all sorts of stuff [for concerts]. There will be ways,” says Laura Les of the hyperpop duo 100 gecs. “People will be entertained in some way or another.”
100 gecs were ready for this moment. In April, they put on their own music festival within Minecraft called Square Garden. They collaborated with other artists to build their own venue within the game and invited their fans, as well as a stacked bill of other acts, to come party with them. Unlike drive-in concerts and six-feet-apart country shows, it didn’t feel like a victim of its circumstances—it felt natural and right.
That’s because it wasn’t the gecs’ first Minecraft rodeo. Their first gig was actually at a Minecraft festival long before the pandemic. Square Garden was the first they threw themselves, but in total it was the fourth one they’d played.
The event followed a massive, record-setting “performance” by rapper Travis Scott within the battle royale game Fortnite. The show, Astronomical, was an expensive psychedelic spectacle created in collaboration with developer Epic Games, and it opened many people’s eyes to the possibilities of video game concerts – and their moneymaking possibilities.
But the experience felt one-way—you showed up within the game and, for nine minutes or so, you were a passive, if very engaged, spectator.
Since then, artists like Japanese Breakfast and Phoebe Bridgers have welcomed visitors to their islands in Animal Crossing for virtual meet-and-greets or virtual hang-outs akin to MTV Cribs. Soccer Mommy, who went on an 8-bit “tour” of a handful of different cities, including Toronto, also gave a virtual performance within the online kids’ game Club Penguin.
But Minecraft is the ultimate sandbox game—its retro-futuristic, procedurally generated design and adjustable gameplay is endlessly customizable, which makes it a great DIY venue. 100 gecs weren’t the only group to play within that game during this pandemic—bands like Modern Football, Massive Attack, and Pussy Riot have also performed as blocky avatars on virtual stages.
Even if 100 gecs is bummed they couldn’t play Coachella as its 2020 poster advertised, Minecraft is the perfect stage for the group, whose everything-coming-at-you mix of pop-punk, chipmunk pop and dubstep feels like it could only exist on the internet.
Les and her bandmate Dylan Brady are used to social distancing—Brady lives in L.A. and Les lives in Chicago, and they’ve never lived in the same city. Aesthetically, they seem right at home in Minecraft. And they have a close, playful connection with their community that feels like it goes both ways—their upcoming remix album, 1000 gecs & the Tree of Clues, even features a couple of remixes by their fans. The festival, too, felt like a collaboration between everyone who managed to log into the server or who watched on YouTube or Twitch.
“You try to make it as much of an analog for real life as possible,” says Brady.
“But better, because there’s extremely big rats,” deadpans Les. “And a large mushroom.”
Our brave new virtual world
The gecs are quick to point out video game parties long predate the pandemic. People have been putting on raves within gaming or virtual reality platforms like IMVU, Second Life and Roblox for ages, and they will likely continue even when shows return. They’re more accessible than IRL concerts in a lot of ways – they’re open to people with disabilities, to people in cities that tours often skip, to folks who can’t afford $1,000 tickets for a festival in a desert.
In Toronto, arts organization Planet Fabulon threw a party called Level Up in May that combined Zoom dancing and 8-bit choose-your-own adventure adventure, with interactive stories, DJs, playable characters and digital art. And, in an emailed statement, the Fabulon Bridge Crew says it was successful enough that they plan to both remount it and develop a sequel.
“People are looking for opportunities for genuine escape, and our parties have always aimed to immerse them in an experience beyond the realities of our current planet,” they say. “When in-person events were put on hold, screens became the only way to continue socializing. [That] inspired us to lean into the differences and use them to our advantage to create something new: an event that fully embraces the use of screens, and that can only happen in an online context.”
A new soundtrack for esports
Music is also seeping into the world of esports, and vice-versa. Drake has been investing in esports brands, while Players Ntwrk has launched a team of celebrity and influencer gamers including Mississauga rapper PartyNextDoor and Canadian hip-hop producer Murda Beatz. Professional athletes have also been getting into gaming while they wait for their sports to return, often showing off new sides of their personality (including controller-smashing tantrums) that you can’t get from a cliche-filled locker-room interview.
OverActive Media, an esports company owned by Abel Tesfaye (aka the Weeknd), partnered with Universal Music Canada at the beginning of 2020 and launched with a performance by local rapper Nav.
OverActive owns the professional Overwatch teams Toronto Defiant and Montreal Rebellion and had sold out an Overwatch League event at Roy Thomson Hall before it was cancelled by COVID-19. The company’s CEO Chris Overholt says the teams had a big musical performance planned for the event, though it hadn’t been announced yet.
Overholt doesn’t look at the gaming, esports, or music worlds as separate—he’s in the live events business, and he says fans of one type of live entertainment are likely to be interested in others, even if they don’t know it yet. (According to their research, strangely, Toronto Raptors basketball fans are especially likely to be fans of Call of Duty).
“The mashable culture we live in is not new,” Overholt says. “The collision of sport and entertainment has been going on all of my adult life and yours, but there’s a bit more of a lens on it in these times.
“Music connects passionate people globally and so does gaming. It’s not a reach.”