What should the music industry learn from the world of video games and e-Sports?

Welcome to the latest Music Business Worldwide Podcast. The MBW Podcast is supported by Voly Music.

On this ‘cast Tim Ingham, founder of Music Business Worldwide, is joined by Maria Egan, the Global Head of Music – as well as events – at Riot Games.

Riot is home to a number of extremely popular online games, including League of Legends and Valorant. But it’s also a TV and movie producer: Riot made the award-winning Netflix animated series, Arcane.

Today, Riot Games is owned by Chinese technology giant Tencent, which paid $400 million to buy a 93% stake in the company in 2011.

Maria Egan joined Riot last year from music-making platform Splice, where she was Chief Music Officer.

Prior to that, Egan was a highly successful President and Head of Creative at PULSE Music Group.

Her career has seen her work with talent including Kehlani, Tiesto, Run The Jewels, and more.

Egan is also an alumnus of Columbia Records, where she was once Vice President of A&R.

In addition to its work in games, TV, and film, Riot Games is taking music very seriously: It has previously worked with Imagine Dragons on the hit single from the Arcane soundtrack, Enemy, which has over 2 billion streams to date.

Each year, for the League of Legends World Championship, a different track is chosen as the official anthem of the tournament.

In previous years, this honor has fallen to the likes of Imagine Dragons and Lil Nas X.

For this year’s tournament, the anthem comes from fast-rising Korean act New Jeans, who are signed to HYBE, with a track called GODS.

(The knockout stages of the 2023 LoL World Championship begin next month.)

Listen to Maria Egan’s appearance on the MBW Podcast above, or read an edited/abridged Q&A of her interview below…

New Jeans
We’re recording this shortly after the announcement of the Riot Games tie-up with New Jeans for the League of Legends Worlds Anthem. Can you explain what’s going on there? What’s the story here? 

Worlds – which is our massive League of Legends eSports tournament – is the biggest sporting event in gaming in Korea this year, which is really the home and birthplace of eSports. So we wanted to do something with the anthem, which is an annual tradition for Riot. This is actually the tenth anniversary, so we’re doing a celebration of that as well, but we wanted to do something that really celebrates Korean culture.

New Jeans [are] obviously such a huge breakthrough story this year, and we’ve made very good friends with [New Jeans’ label] HYBE, who deeply understand the power of the Riot platform.

It’s interesting sometimes dealing with labels in Asia, especially Korea and China, [where] League [of Legends] is such a mainstream part of their culture. Maybe in the US it’s sort of seen as more of a niche part of the gaming industry, but there it’s incredibly mainstream.

So HYBE were thrilled to give us an opportunity to work with New Jeans. The song [was] actually composed by our in-house composers – who’ve done several of the ‘Worlds’ anthems – before we brought the song to [HYBE and New Jeans]. They loved it. It’s been a perfect fit. [It’s] a love letter to our Korean players and celebrate[s] Korea, which is our second biggest market.

Riot Games does a lot more than just eSports, but I do want to talk about eSports itself, to try and get across to people who are listening or reading this the scale of eSports today, and the potential for music amongst its audience. How do you see the scale of eSports, and how it fits with music?

You can think about eSports like any other sport. It’s now [in the] Olympics. When you [look at] Gen Z, 87% of Gen Z kids consider themselves gamers.

[W]hat we see with our broadcasts… is these are just massive fandoms. It’s no different to any other kind of sporting event. I always talk about [League of Legends] Worlds as the Super Bowl of gaming. If you [look at the numbers] globally, we see more viewers than the NBA finals and Super Bowl combined.

So it’s… a massive opportunity to have a global audience. We saw that with Worlds last year, we brought Lil Nas X onto a stage that has such a mainstream viewership in China and Korea. Maybe he never would have had an opportunity of that scale before in those territories.

“The way the music business can think about eSports is the way they think [about] the Super Bowl. It’s ultimately a platform to get in front of a mass audience and a mass fandom that’s particularly interested in music.”

You’ve got to understand the [audience] segments. Different regions have different interests. Different generations of players have different interests. But the thing that overindexes across the board, with all of our players, is music fandom – it’s much higher than in what we call the general population.

They buy more merch, they go to more shows, they stream more music. They’re more likely to be premium music subscribers, they’re more likely to be big fans of music of any kind. So we know that we have this incredibly captive audience that really loves music, and Riot has particularly built a huge expectation around music.

The way the music business can think about eSports is the way they think [about] the Super Bowl. It’s ultimately a platform to get in front of a mass audience and a mass fandom that’s particularly interested in music.

What do you think the biggest missed opportunity is for music and how it combines with interactive entertainment, how it combines with gaming right now?

The fandom experience. I come from the perspective of, I’m a fan of music first and then… I compare that to the Riot ethos, which is player experience first. That’s the whole mission of the company. This idea is that everything we do is in service of the players that are engaging with the games and love the IP in the community.

I would say that that focus, I’m starting to hear about it more now in the music business. But it [was] a very rare meeting that I would have sat in, in a traditional label, where it was like, ‘What’s the fan experience? What’s the fandom strategy?’ It was always ‘What’s our gatekeeper strategy? What’s our editorial strategy, what’s our PR strategy, what’s the radio strategy?’

There was this incredible focus on gatekeepers and building relationships with gatekeepers, [but] there are no gatekeepers, really, now…  So you [need] a fan strategy.

I went through the Taylor Swift phenomenon this year with my daughter. It was so fun to be a Taylor Swift fan this year. [There] was so much to do. There was so much community around it, there were so many quests and content drops and it never got boring. It never stood still. It kept moving…

She had basically made an alternative reality game out of her fandom. So there was always this sense of mission and quest and progression, and my daughter is comparing with her friends which vinyl she’s got and what piece of collectible she’s got, and which piece of the puzzle that she’s solving. And it tracks so perfectly to what the progression systems are in gaming. If artists can unlock that sort of gamification of fandom, and just make it more fun…

“I would make the fandom experience a lot more centralized at the DSPs.”

[With streaming services] you have this lean-back experience. At Spotify there’s nothing really else there to do than to go somewhere else to watch the video. You have to go somewhere else to have a conversation with the artists. There’s no central place to have that dialogue with an artist. [This is something] the music business can learn from gaming.

I would make the fandom experience a lot more centralized at the DSPs. [There is] all [this] fragmentation of all the businesses [at DSPs]. The ticketing is over here and has a different incentive structure to the recorded music structure, which is different to the fan experience and merchandising structure. I would try and make the fan experience holistic in one place.

That’s such a great point. To a degree, the music industry is straying into uncomfortable or uncharted territory. So it’s encouraging that people in music – artists and teams around them – are starting to learn lessons and taking influence from the gaming world.

Part of it is this fragmentation of rights. [I think this is] why K-pop is so successful in many ways – because there aren’t these four or five different stakeholders in an artist’s career. There’s a centralized strategy and a centralized pool of vision that can drive a project forward.

Obviously, the K-pop system is very different to the way we develop artists in the Western world. But it’s a very interesting case study of what happens when you can really centralize name and likeness, publishing, recording rights, and really do interesting things because you control those things.

“The complexity that the gaming industry has to face to deal with an artist or song – even the smallest artist with the smallest song – is a barrier to entry.”

The complexity that the gaming industry has to face to deal with an artist or song, even the smallest artist with the smallest song, is a barrier to entry. Solving that and figuring out how to unlock some of these new opportunities – whether it’s gaming, metaverse, whatever it is – that’s where rights really are going to be the blocker.

But I see people trying to solve that problem. It’s a bit of a long road, but everybody’s seeing the opportunity, and it’s just a slow progress to get to the other side of the way the music business was built.

A screencap from K/DA's video POP/STARS.
I wanted to speak to you specifically about Riot’s virtual group K/DA. They have over a billion streams. Could you just explain to people listening or reading who may not know what K/DA is, and do you think there’s going to be more of that type of project coming from Riot in the future? 

K/DA are a virtual girl group, K-pop influenced. It was created for the 2018 ‘Worlds’ championship in Korea. It was at a time when K-pop was really just crossing globally. And [Riot’s] internal composers were just very inspired by the genre. They’re unbelievably talented, the folks working on music at Riot, and they came up with this idea that they take five of the most popular champions within League, these female champions, and make a pop group.

In some ways, it was a marketing stunt. It was a one-off thing that was supposed to be a big surprise reveal for Worlds on the stage in Korea. And the song just blew up. It was called Pop/Stars. It was this incredibly innovative moment both in League’s history and just gaming in general. It got a lot of attention and K/DA themselves became known, particularly in Korea.

They really are the biggest virtual band in the world. For a lot of our fans… it’s fueled by this love of the characters that many of our players have been engaged with… for thousands and thousands of hours. So there’s this built-up love and affinity for the characters.

“There’s a way to monetize all of that investment in [virtual bands, but] if you’re just dealing with streaming economics, you can’t really spend millions and millions of dollars on [computer generation] and artwork. you have to kind of work within the music industry economics.”

There are hundreds of millions of people who love these characters already. And then when you put them together, it’s like a supergroup. And [with K/DA] it was the right moment in time. We just caught that wave and it was a magical moment. They put out more music a few years later, in 2020, which again, fans loved.

The players want more, in terms of more virtual groups. That’s one of the things we hear most from our players. There was another [virtual] group called True Damage that was more hip-hop-influenced. There was a heavy metal group called Pentakill.

There’s a way to monetize all of that investment in [virtual bands, but] if you’re just dealing with streaming economics, you can’t really spend millions and millions of dollars on [computer generation] and artwork. You have to work within the music industry economics. It’s hard to do things that are [at] a really, really high level of execution. But because we [at Riot] have a whole other ecosystem that music is powering, we can do things at a level that just blows people’s minds. For me, that’s one of the funnest things about it – you can dream really big.

What about the intersection of music and technology excites you the most today?

Music creation tools. It’s really obvious now that BandLab [type] tools and generative AI tools are going to completely change the definition of what a music creator is. The labels are all scared of it, obviously, because of this concern [about] noise and the glut of music that’s going to come out. But somewhere in there are [also] really powerful, inspiring creatives who would never otherwise have been able to make music.

I was a volunteer for this organization that works with foster kids. We had a hike last weekend. And there’s a kid in the foster system, who comes on the hike. She’s walking with headphones on. I went over to her and I was like. ‘What were you listening to?’ And she’s like, ‘Oh, I was listening to some of my tracks.’ And I was like, ‘What do you mean your tracks?’ She’s like, ‘I produce music.’ I was like, ‘How do you produce music? She’s like, ‘BandLab.’

This is a reason why this has been so exciting to me, because this kid who has no means and no privilege, and no access to music education and no tools and no door [to the industry], can sit on her phone and make drum and bass tracks on BandLab, or whatever she’s [using]. Who knows what story she has to tell? Who knows what she has to contribute?

“BandLab [type] tools and generative tools are going to completely change the definition of [who] a music creator is.”

I don’t know why, as a culture, we’ve decided there are musicians and non-musicians. Everyone has a voice. Everyone has rhythm. Everybody has a love and appreciation for music. If you unlock that [and] create places that people can go and share, the community will tell you what’s great.

[In] the days when I first went to Columbia, it was 2005, there was no independent distribution, scale distribution. To get a record deal, to get in the studio, you had to have an A&R person and a recording budget, and a label saying that you were good enough. And yeah, of course, through that process, maybe you can do artist development and there were things that were really good about that system, but then it also left a ton of people out in the cold.

And also, you had whole countries out in the cold, whole parts of the world had no access to [the] music [business], which the DSPs have really enabled. Now you look at the charts and it’s like Middle Eastern rap and Argentinian trap and that’s because of technology. It’s because [of the ability to] have this scale distribution access for creators all over the world, that have no access to the traditional structures.

And with that comes noise and with that comes a glut and with that comes oversaturation, but … I wouldn’t go backwards. I think that the attempts to control the flow are understandable.

The tragedy of it is we will never know. The Paul McCartneys or the Dr. Dres or Aretha Franklins or Joni Mitchells that we never heard, whether it’s because they came from the wrong geographic territory or because the wrong A&R person at the wrong label at the wrong time told them they weren’t good enough.

There was a moment when I was at Pulse where I was traveling a lot in Latin America, in 2015. And I came back from one particular trip going, “OK, Latin Music, that is the next thing that I’m interested in personally, and that I think is going to have roots all over the world.”

We came back to LA, we started signing Latin writers. We had a piece of Despacito. Right before that happened, right before the Despacito song broke worldwide, I was told by majors: “You’ll never hear Spanish language music on the radio in America.”

“I was told by majors, ‘You’ll never hear Spanish language music on the radio in America’.”

I was told that in 2016. “It’s only a novelty hit, you’ll never hear Spanish language in the Midwest on radio in America. This has to go through the Latin labels.” And I was like, “You’re wrong.” And it felt really wrong, And then obviously Despacito happens and look where we are now.

It was this idea – not through anything malicious, but there was just this belief system – [that] this is what it takes to have hits in America. You have to sing in English, you have to alter your culture and assimilate into English language culture in order to break through. And if you’re not doing that, you don’t get the platform.

It took Bad Bunny and all of these artists to say, “No, we’re just going to sing in our native language. We’re not going to cut English songs and we’re going to have hits.”

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