By Matt Foley March 7, 2019 OZY
It was a simple session of Fortnite: Battle Royale, but the players were anything but normal. Hip-hop biggies Drake and Travis Scott were on esports megastar Tyler “Ninja” Blevins’ Twitch stream. Their March 2018 session broke records on the Amazon-owned platform, with over 600,000 concurrent viewers watching. That famous stream was also the start of still bigger things for Ninja. In September, he became the first esports star featured on the cover of ESPN The Magazine and, by year’s end, he declared nearly $10 million in earnings thanks to millions of subscribers across YouTube and Twitch.
If it seems like esports is turning into a regular water cooler topic at the intersection of business, tech and pop culture, that’s because it is. Boasting the fastest-growing audience in sports, esports is moving from a niche interest to an exercise of the masses. And nothing signals mainstream acceptance quite like an invasion of pop culture — and in particular hip-hop. With the emergence of megastars like Ninja, or Nike-endorsed RNG League of Legends star Jian “Uzi” Zihao, entertainers are joining investors and brands in scrambling to align with major players.
Even a year ago, there was no sign of an esports-rap convergence. Today, artists like Drake, Soulja Boy and Meek Mill, and entertainment executives like Scooter Braun, are planting their stakes in the ground, on Twitch streams and through esports-themed music festivals, marketing deals and apparel collaborations. In 2018, at least four festivals — PLAY Festival by Insomniac, the ICBC e-Sports & Music Festival by the Hong Kong Tourism Board, Hyperplay by Riot Games and MTV and the Harrisburg University Esports Festival by the university and iHeartMedia — married esports and music.
YOU’RE STARTING TO SEE A GENERATION OF ARTISTS AND FANS THAT GREW UP IMMERSED IN VIDEO GAME CULTURE.
CHRIS WEBBY, RAPPER
In October, Drake and Braun became co-owners of one of esports hottest brands, 100 Thieves, which also has a successful apparel business of which Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert is an investor. Drake’s clothing line, October’s Very Own, is a favorite at esports tournaments. Diddy recently invested in American high school esports tournament organizer PlayVS; Lil Yachty was brought on as brand ambassador and entertainment consultant for esports organization FaZe Clan; and both Soulja Boy and Meek Mill are recruiting gamers to form their own esports team. And Lil Yachty, 21 Savage and Lil Pump have made their love of gaming known, entertaining fans on Twitch — much like Ninja.
“I’m a pretty heavy nerd. I’ve been gaming extensively since I was a kid,” says Chris Webby, 30, an independent rapper known for including gaming references in his songs. “I don’t think that was always the case for many rappers, but you’re starting to see a generation of artists and fans that grew up immersed in video game culture.”
The upside of this intersection is clear, both for esports and for hip-hop. No company would scoff at an investor. “Our top priority is to win world championships, but our ambitions go far beyond competitive gaming,” said Matthew “Nadeshot” Haag, a professional Call of Duty player and founder of 100 Thieves, while announcing the latest round of funding for the brand last October. “We’re going to build a lasting brand on the back of the content and apparel that our fans have come to love.”
But even more important is the influence and eyeballs that folks like Drake, Diddy and Braun can offer esports organizations. These partnerships increase esports’ cool factor while elevating brand recognition and excitement around events and apparel drops. “Clearly hip-hop is the dominant pop culture force in music today,” says New York–based marketing analyst Mike Ryan. “You see that on the Billboard charts, but also in brand campaigns like Sprite’s campaign with Rae Sremmurd.” In February, Sprite partnered with the rap duo for commercials promoting a new lemonade.
For hip-hop artists, esports offers valuable insight for artists attempting to decipher how to best commodify a young, online generation. Esports is fast approaching $1 billion in revenue, largely due to online streaming and subscriptions.
This potential for mutual benefit wasn’t always clear to the hip-hop world, even though traditional sports have for years drawn the interest of rappers. For decades, having their songs featured in major sports games and commercials has been a sign of commercial success. When NBA on TNT kicked off the 2018–19 NBA season with “100 Miles and Running” by Logic, it was clear that the rapper’s moment has arrived. For athletes, the true sign of peer-to-peer respect is being name-dropped in a verse. It’s the same in the boardroom. Twenty-five years after Ice Cube rapped about his playground triple-double on “It Was a Good Day,” the gansta rap legend founded the Big3 professional basketball league. Since 2014, Drake has served as an official brand ambassador for his hometown Toronto Raptors, while Chance the Rapper is an ambassador for MLB’s Chicago White Sox.
Traditionally, the intersection between esports and rap, by contrast, was largely with underground musicians. Webby, who burst on the scene in 2009 and has existed largely outside the mainstream, fits in here. As do nerdcore rappers MC Chris and Mega Ran, both underground forces who’ve built careers on blending hard-core personas with gamer sensibilities. Lupe Fiasco and Logic are both enthusiastic gamers who have bridged the gap between the underground beginnings and mainstream success. Logic’s YouTube gaming channel has over one million subscribers, and Lupe Fiasco famously defeated veteran Street Fighterprofessional Daigo Umehara in 2016.
With esports’ recent mainstream emergence, the entertainment industry’s interest is no longer limited to nerdcore artists. At 100 Thieves, Braun is an active fundraiser, while Drake joined on as a strategic adviser — likely working on unrevealed apparel collaborations and future events.
True, hip-hop remains ahead of esports in terms of pop cultural relevance. But esports endorsements are flowing too — and the hip-hop industry knows that others will still cash in if they ignore the sector. Nike recently signed a four-year endorsement deal with the 16-team League of Legends Pro League in China. Meanwhile, traditional sports investors like Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik are behind Team Liquid — an esports superteam of sorts. Meanwhile, one esports league (Super League Gaming) is trading publicly on the NASDAQ, while it and many others blossom into full-fledged media companies.
Of course, not all of the connections are by choice. Epic Games, creator of Fortnite, has a habit of introducing real-life viral dance moves to the game. With inherent roots in pop culture (i.e., hip hop), that can cause conflict. When Memphis rapper BlocBoy JB saw his Shoot dance copied in the game, he joined Alfonso Ribeiro, 2 Milly and Backpack Kid in suing the company. Fortnite made $8 billion in 2018, and the lawsuits are pending.
And not every partnership will be a hit. Some are likely cash grabs and publicity stunts. But massive crossover potential exists, and the arrival of this new relationship is yet one more evolving trend in the modern media landscape.
Now, who’s ready to stream?