When the pandemic hit, some of the world’s biggest pop stars, including Billie Eilish, BTS, David Guetta and Kiss, rushed to programme elaborate livestream concerts in order to reach fans while they were stuck at home. Some of these boasted impressive pyrotechnics, but for the most part their staging felt stale — not much of an evolution on a sleepy Royal Variety Performance.

At the same time, a second group of artists with grittier sounds and Gen Z audiences reached their quarantining audiences through a more novel platform — video games. Over the past year, musicians including Lil Nas X, Stormzy, Charli XCX, Post Malone and Travis Scott have been reincarnated as digital avatars and performed to crowds attending via consoles, computers and smartphones. In doing so, these trendsetting musicians have staked out the intersection of music and gaming as one of the most exciting, flexible and lucrative spaces in 21st-century global culture.

These new virtual performances reflect a growing awareness of the size of the gaming market, rendered particularly attractive following the pandemic which halted the live music business but turbocharged the games industry. By some counts, more than 3bn people in the world are gamers, almost 40 per cent of the global population. The global gaming industry is estimated to be worth $159bn, leaving the music industry about $60bn in the shade.

One artist who presciently targeted the gaming audience even before the pandemic is electronic megastar Alan Walker, whose soaring dance hit “Faded”, written when he was 17, hit number one in 20 countries in 2015 and is currently the 19th most-viewed video on YouTube with more than 3bn views. He has consistently played to the gaming audience since 2017, whether that’s through his dark, baggy hoodies and face masks, which reference movie hackers; his distribution tactics, which permit gaming live streamers to use his first single in their content without infringing copyright; or his partnerships, which include a collaboration in 2019 with online shooter PUBG.

This approach has earned Walker a massive audience: he is currently Sony’s most-subscribed artist on YouTube (with more followers than Rihanna and Adele) and has collaborations with Coldplay, Bruno Mars and Miley Cyrus under his belt. His latest move is to create his own video game, Walker Excavations, which expands on the dense fictional mythology built around his music videos, pored over by obsessive fans, or “Walkers”.

“It was definitely the right move to combine the universes of gaming and music,” he tells me. “It helped me define myself as an artist and as a person. Engaging with gamers has probably been the best choice I’ve ever made.”

Video game hardware has not always been sophisticated enough to incorporate complex musical compositions. The technical limitations of early consoles forced composers to reduce their soundtracks to simple, elegant arrangements that have proved remarkably enduring. Yet as the technology developed in the late 1990s, music labels sought to capitalise on the strong emotional associations gamers forge with the songs that soundtrack their exploits in the game world. In sports titles such as Fifa and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, real songs were licensed and used in-game, proving instrumental in shaping the music tastes of young players.

The use of music in the Grand Theft Auto series shows how music’s integration into games has evolved over time. Early titles such as Vice City and San Andreas were adored for their radio stations — expert selections of genres ranging from ’80s power ballads to salsa to gangsta rap. In 2017 the game’s creators handed curation over to artists, asking Frank Ocean to create a radio station for GTA V. The next year they launched the After Hours update to GTA Online, featuring missions in which players could run a nightclub and meet digital versions of DJs such as Dixon and The Blessed Madonna.

As gaming cemented its artistic legitimacy, developers realised they held the cultural capital to entice major musicians to collaborate, with artists attracted by the audience reach and cool-factor bestowed by a feature spot in a game such as GTA. The past year has seen Stormzy become a digital avatar in the dystopian London of Watch Dogs: Legion, and Post Malone perform alongside Pikachu and Charizard for Pokémon’s 25th anniversary celebrations.

Beyond expanding audiences, the virtual worlds of games can also present musicians with a fresh creative canvas. Last November, Lil Nas X held a virtual show in popular online game platform Roblox, with the scenery shifting kaleidoscopically along with each song. Players organised virtual festivals in Minecraft, some including dozens of acts and digital roadies who rush around fixing technical problems.

No game has pursued the music industry as relentlessly as Fortnite, which hosted electronic artist Marshmello on its cartoonish island in 2019, followed by a banner performance from a Godzilla-sized Travis Scott in 2020, watched by 27m unique viewers. While these complex virtual concerts take time to create, Fortnite has since programmed smaller shows featuring Dominic Fike and a Halloween performance from reggaeton star J Balvin.

For non-gamers, it may seem that a concert’s most vital elements are lost when played out in virtual space — no experience of dissolving in the emotions of the crowd, no thump of the drums in your chest — but for gamers the idea is perfectly intuitive. For them, in-game avatars are not characters they play but extensions of themselves, and the virtual landscapes of Roblox and Fortnite are their digital homes where they hang out and meet friends. If anything, an artist performing in a player’s preferred online game is more intimate than seeing them live at an arena.

Meanwhile the virtual space allows artists to break the laws of reality: Travis Scott turned into a robot, caught fire and flew into space during his nine-minute performance. Nate Nanzer, head of global partnerships at Fortnite creator Epic Games, also highlights the importance of player agency in the game space, which makes these events feel more personal and meaningful than simply watching a live stream. “People drop into an artist’s concert inside Fortnite to experience it live with their friends while interacting with the world around them, not just to watch a video,” he says.

Epic’s latest show was a virtual concert from electronic artist Kaskade, broadcast in Fortnite and another Epic-owned title, Rocket League. This came at the end of a promotional campaign in which Kaskade had debuted every track from a new EP in-game, conducted in partnership with music label Monstercat, which, like Alan Walker, saw the potential of game-music crossovers earlier than most. Founders Mike Darlington and Ari Paunonen got their label off the ground by offering a subscription service that legally allowed creators to use Monstercat’s musical catalogue in the background of gaming video content posted on YouTube and Twitch.

Monstercat then began to actively court game companies to license their music for use in-game, placing about 400 songs in titles across 2020. They report that their tracks featured in Rocket League were streamed on Spotify approximately 700 per cent more than those that were not. These numbers speak for themselves, and today the pair understandably spend as much time thinking about how to get their music into games as they do positioning songs on streaming platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music.

They bet on games early and won big. As Darlington puts it: “Games are a totally new model for artists to get paid and reach fans they never would have been able to reach before.” The musicians who get into this space first stand to gain the most, as well as the opportunity to define this uncharted digital terrain.