In a time when broadband connection could have been at best a famous sci-fi author’s wet dream, and one of the most popular pastimes included listening to a sport-related audition, the sight of a middle-aged man sitting on his chair, reading the news and hearing the baseball commentator’s voice was nothing uncommon. These times are back; all we need to do is recalculate the variables. Not radio anymore, but the internet (in South Korea also television), Counter-Strike and DotA 2 instead of baseball, and instead of fathers and grandfathers – teenagers switching from football fields to battle royale arenas. We are not interested in home-grown sociology, though, but in the role the music plays in esport. Is there even such a thing that we can call „esport music”?
Before we send our Marines against Zerglings and decide who is going to be the healer in the team, it must be stressed that the eponymous term can be understood in many ways. There are many people that could contribute their two cents to the discussion: marketing specialists responsible for the intro materials, TV crew, composers… Such distinction serves as a way to clarify what this article is going to be about: it won’t focus on one of the aforementioned aspects. Rather than that, I will try to describe the phenomenon as a whole – describe the phenomenon of the music, which although technically is part of the video game music family, it does not necessarily have to flow from the same bloodstream.
In esport, the music is closer to film music than to video games.
The starting point of our ponderings should be the observation that the music in esport events differs greatly, depending on the discipline (the video game/genre). It’s not a simple distinction through instrumentation, how the instruments are used or different views on the structure of a piece, but most importantly it’s about what the concept of the music is in the game design – because it doesn’t always have to be a soundtrack written specifically for the title. Let’s take a look at Rocket League, the football/racing game mix. Its tracklist consists of (excluding two tracks) songs that are genre-wise scattered through many different flavors of EDM. Even though the soundtrack does not play during the match, it’s still a curious lead. Because we can ask ourselves whether this musical decision had been dictated by what the target playerbase likes, or maybe it was just a feeling that the licensed EDM fits well with the game.
But Rocket League is, in terms of the soundtrack, more of an unusual phenomenon (along with FIFA or PES). Watching the pros battle against each other in StarCraft, League of Legends or Counter-Strike, it’s easy to see that the musical landscape serves first and foremost the audience, not the players. Pro gamers, unless they suffer from tinnitus, will probably mute the music, and the „ambience”, which plays during and in between games is pretty much snippets from the soundtrack, which are used to amplify our emotions. Therefore, knowing that the esport music is a term referring to passive entertainment rather than the active one, we could say that it’s closer to film music than video game soundtracks.
The case is not that simple, though, because the composers do not write soundtracks for „cyber-hits” only with Twitch-streamed tournaments in mind. It’s still, first and foremost, music for the games – and that is why it works so well. This seeming lack of soundtrack’s adjustment to what is happening on the screen (and before the matches, there is very little going on) stops us from feeling heavier emotions, which we would if we were playing the game. And at the same time, for obvious reasons, putting part of the OST as the musical background naturally anchors us in the game’s experience (I’m not using the term ‘immersion’ on purpose here).
What about the music, that is being used in the event, but it does not belong to the game or even its soundtrack? Is it „esport music” as well? Or maybe tailored, flexible ambient? Maybe this is what we are trying to describe? This and nothing more? Before we sink into the reverie for good, it’s worth it to take a peek at one more „branch” of our show business attractions – musical stingers connected to certain tournaments (let’s watch three short materials: until the seventh, fifth and ninth second, consecutively). It should be no surprise for anybody that the drum beat is very safe, the strings play out catchy ostinatos and there is no room for any long-term tension building, as it strikes right away. Those aren’t, of course, the characteristics of cyber-entertainment only, but, as they are armed to the teeth with „universal” solutions and aimed at teenagers carrying around Beats headphones, those tracks open for us another important matter, which is…
There, they don’t have much room for creativity, because such music is not about „complimenting the developer’s vision”.
…the musical targeting of the playerbase. What do young people listen to? Of course it would be easy to say: everything. But if we narrowed down our search to the most popular artists, and the demographic to only the male population (esport still remains popular mostly among men), we would probably mention artists such as Drake, Post Malone or Twenty One Pilots. Now, if we were to take a listen at the soundtracks of DotA 2, CS:GO or StarCraft, would we be able to find similarities? Are the composers of such games aware of what their playerbase likes? And do they use this knowledge in the creative process?
Most likely – not too much. Here is where the creators of tracks strictly tailored to such events take the lead. There, they don’t have much room for creativity, because such music is not about „complimenting the developer’s vision”, but about supplying the audience with dopamine, the atmosphere of rivalry, of playing at high stakes. As for high stakes – in the next article I’m going to focus on the second StarCraft game. What are your experiences with esport?