In the 90s and 00s, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and Guitar Hero were prime outlets for music discovery. In 2022, it’s League of Legends and Fifa that are shaping taste
I would love to tell you that I was first introduced to dance music in underground Berlin clubs, where mysterious resident DJs blew my teenage mind performing indescribable magic with beats and synth lines. But that would be a lie. My first introduction to dance music came in the form of a futuristic 90s racing game called WipEout. Playing obsessively at a friend’s house, I was introduced to the Chemical Brothers and Orbital, who both graced the soundtrack; not long after, the admirably chaotic sim Crazy Taxi introduced me to the Offspring, and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater had me grinding around to Bad Religion. I first heard Garbage on the soundtrack of an obscure PlayStation 2 DJ game, 2003’s Amplitude, made by a Boston developer called Harmonix – the same developer that would later go on to create the insanely popular Guitar Hero series. Those games sold 25m copies, and I know I wasn’t the only student who unearthed a previously undiscovered love for cheesy dad-rock while tilting a plastic guitar to the heavens during Boston’s More Than a Feeling.
Although I may be showing my age with these piping hot cultural references, video games are still a primary outlet for discovering music – especially among kids and teens, a full 90% of whom game regularly. In many ways, we’re in a golden era for gaming as a discovery tool. You might find a new favourite band in CHVRCHES after hearing their moody theme for expensive arthouse game Death Stranding, or discover Lil Nas X from his anthem for the League of Legends 2022 world championships.
Artists premiere music through Minecraft and Roblox, and DJs play sets in Grand Theft Auto Online. It’s hard to imagine that anybody discovered Ariana Grande through her Fortnite concert series last year, given that she was already one of the world’s biggest pop stars – but given that more than 27 million people attended, it’s certainly not impossible that some of them were new to the music. Video games’ influence over music discovery is only growing; depending on which study you look at, between 25% and 30% of people now encounter new music through games – and the proportion is higher among gen Z.
Most video game soundtracks are composed specifically for the game in question. In the 1980s and 90s, this involved talented musicians trying to wring characterful and evocative music from machines with three or four sound channels and negligible memory, a creative challenge that resulted in some of the most persistent earworms in pop culture history: think Pac-Man, early Mario, or Pokémon’s Game Boy themes.
Nowadays, game scores are more like film scores, performed by full orchestras and unrestrained by technical limitations. (Video game soundtracks are some of the most-streamed albums on Spotify and have experienced their own vinyl boom.) But games that use licensed music for their soundtracks – from racing game Forza to the annual Fifa football games – introduce millions of people around to the artists featured on them.
EA, the developer behind Fifa, likes to see itself as a career-maker for musicians. The soundtracks usually feature both established stars such as Bad Bunny and Gorillaz, both featured on the Fifa 2023 soundtrack, and newer artists such as Peggy Gou, who featured on Fifa 2019. Often, these newer artists are the ones you can expect to hear in adverts a couple of years down the line.
Steve Schnur, head of music for EA, is bullish about the influence that the soundtrack holds over the music industry: “We knew that video games could become what MTV and commercial radio had once been in the 80s and 90s. Any given song in Fifa – whether it’s a new track by an established act or the debut of an unknown artist – will be heard around the world nearly 1bn times,” he told the Guardian in 2018. “Clearly, no medium in the history of recorded music can deliver such massive and instantaneous global exposure.”
Fifa’s soundtrack has morphed as tastes have changed – although it predominantly featured mainstream rock in the mid-00s, it now also includes grime, EDM and pop – but it also shapes taste. It has given rise to the concept of “Fifa songs” – the kind of tracks you’d hear on repeat when you were a football-obsessed 11-year-old, the musical background to your generation. This hints at why video games are a particularly powerful avenue of music discovery: because game soundtracks find their audience at the exact age where music has the most profound impact on developing taste, and for ever link that music with indelible, iconic images.
I first heard Flying Lotus in GTA5; a couple of summers later I saw him live, and felt strangely transported back to those fictional California streets. Streaming music can feel disposable – Spotify feeds you so many new tracks all the time that few of them really sink in. When you’re playing a game the music that you’re hearing settles deep in your emotional memory. That’s why, every time I’m reaching for the lasers at a Chemical Brothers set, I remember being 10 years old – hearing their music for the first time as I hurtled, wide-eyed, down the track in a PlayStation racing game.