Level Up Your Playlist: The Growing Popularity of Video Game Music

Original video game soundtracks are getting millions of streams and earning awards, proving that game music is a blooming industry.

Level Up Your Playlist: The Growing Popularity of Video Game Music
Alejandra Arevalo
Alejandra Arevalo
April 11, 20239 min read
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The power of the gaming industry is undeniable, and we can only expect it to keep growing. Gen Z, a generation born into an interconnected digital world, sees gaming as a core part of their lives beyond just a source of entertainment. A survey by Deloitte found that more than 90% of Gen Zers in the US, UK, Germany, Brazil, and Japan play video games for an average of 11.5 hours per week. Respondents shared how gaming helps them relax and express themselves, but they also revealed that video games have a big influence on their music consumption. More and more, the gaming and music industry are forming a strong relationship that is giving rise to new trends and ways to experience music.

After the pandemic shattered down in-person concerts, artists scrambled to find creative ways to connect with their audiences which included dipping their toes into video game performances. Superstars like Travis Scott and Ariana Grande made their Fornite debut, showing the importance of virtual experiences as a way to reach fans where they are at. But the relationship between music and gaming predates the metaverse, and we can trace it back to the very beginning of virtual games.

The first game with what is considered a true sound effect is called “Pong” (1972) and gets its name from the “pong” sound the ball makes when bouncing from side to side of the screen. Since then, video game soundscapes have become increasingly more complex as more composers are taking interest in creating this type of music. We have gone from simple sound effects to dynamic multi-instrument compositions that enhance the visual experience. Not only has video game music become commercialized, but video game sounds have also become part of the music canon and inspired new art.

Nowadays, many video game companies are taking the role of record labels to release original music for their games and achieve commercial success along the way. League of Legends is the highest-ranked video game artist on Chartmetric with a Spotify popularity of 81–the same as established artists like Bob Marley & The Wailers and Deftones. The game features multiple official virtual bands that release music under Riot Games and have garnered millions of followers off the game ecosystem.

“League of Legends” keeps building momentum for its gaming music empire by creating offline experiences that combine the virtual and real worlds, including concerts where real-life artists sing along with holographic projections of the virtual artists. The stats show us that these strategies are successful as gamers are flocking to streaming platforms to listen to their favorite tunes, including “POP/STARS” and “MORE.” League of Legends currently has 19.45M Spotify monthly listeners, 1.58M Spotify followers, and 7B YouTube channel views.

“While we definitely want the music to be marketed at the best in class level, a lot of [its success] comes from the players and the fans,” Evan Lipschutz, Global Label Manager consultant at Riot Games, told Chartmetric. Lipschutz thinks that gamers are the best music promoters because their investment in the games translates to investment in the music releases. He also considers that music made for video games tends to perform well because it’s fresh and creative without the pressure of becoming the next big hit.

“Personally coming from a label background where you're always chasing this elusive hit… the lens in which we make the music at Riot is to serve the moment and if it becomes a hit, that's great [but its purpose] is to tell a story or draw a deeper connection with a character or make the event more exciting,” Lipschutz said.

Spotify currently has more than 8K playlists that include the words “gamer” and/or “gaming” in their titles and descriptions, showing the popularity of this music category. Some of the most followed video game-specific playlists include Top Gaming Tracks, Power Gaming and Gaming Music 2023, all with more than 1M followers. Beyond streaming success, gaming music is also being recognized by longstanding awards like the Grammys. This year, the Grammys added the category Best Score Soundtrack for Video Games and Other Interactive Media, finally giving its own space to a music category that has been historically sidelined.

The 2023 nominees were Austin Wintory for “Aliens: Fireteam Elite,” Stephanie Economou for “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla: Dawn of Ragnarok,” Bear McCreary for “Call of Duty: Vanguard,” Richard Jacques for “Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy” and Christopher Tin for “Old World.”

Alkis Argyriadis, Head of Music at Ubisoft (the makers of Assassin’s Creed), told Chartmetric that creating an award-worthy soundtrack requires staying true to the DNA of the brand but also bringing in unexpected playful elements. In the case of “Dawn of Ragnarok,” the team chose to combine Nordic sounds with post-rock and black metal to create a unique sound. Argyriadis recognizes the importance of soundtracks, so his team is now devoting more effort to specific marketing and distribution practices to promote the franchise’s music. They have a certified artist page for Assassin’s Creed and have been encouraging remixes to increase the reach of the tracks.

“We took risks and I think that paid back in the end. There was a lot of positive energy to bring in a band playing live in the sessions and it was the first time we put saturated electric guitars within an Assassin’s Creed soundtrack. It worked super well,” Argyriadis said.

Economou and Ubisoft's music team claimed the Grammy this year, but this was still a historic night for all video game composers who can now aspire to be recognized by the Grammys.“It's a huge moment for the industry. It signals that, on the artistic side, what game composers and what the game industry is doing is equivalent to what the other more established media formats like film and TV are doing,” composer Christopher Tin told Chartmetric. “We're cranking out a lot of great music and great IPs, great performances, and great technology in the gaming industry. It's about time that the excellence that's been going on the craftsmanship side of the game industry is recognized.”

Tin made history in 2011 after his track “Baba Yetu,” which he made for the video game Civilization IV, was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s) category. However, the track was recognized after Tin released it as part of an album independent from the video game. “Baba Yetu” is Tin’s most popular track to date with more than 18M Spotify streams, 23M YouTube views and 97K Shazams.

The Grammy-winning composer has 405K Spotify monthly listeners, recently reached 100K subscribers on YouTube, and is experiencing significant growth as an artist based on Chartmetric’s career trend metric. While Tin has scored credits in major TV shows and films like “Crazy Rich Asians” and “X2: X-Men United,” his passion lies in creating soundtracks for video games.

“I find film and TV composing a lot more restrictive creatively than video game composing. With film or TV, the music that you write for a scene in that movie or a show is always gonna be attached to that particular scene or show. If there's dialogue, for example, you need to be conscientious of not drowning out that dialogue,” Tin said. “But with gaming music, it's very different because there's no telling what a gamer will be doing when your music comes out. They could be wandering around in a tranquil setting, or they can be engaged in combat with a boss.”

Video game composer Cris Velasco agrees with this sentiment and adds that it’s exactly thanks to this creative freedom that scoring games can be very hard. “There's no video to go off, maybe screenshots or concept art. I feel like it's just pure creativity. It's not really being able to be inspired by the scene, and for me, writing in a vacuum like that is hard because there's nothing dictating what you should or shouldn't do, so every possibility is open to you,” Velasco told Chartmetric. The California-based musician is behind the soundtracks of major video games like “God of War” and “Mass Effect 3,” and several of his tracks have thousands of streams. In January of this year, Velasco reached a new milestone, 100K Spotify monthly listeners, proving that his game tunes are finding success in the streaming platforms.

Velasco thinks that video game music performs well because of the emotional investment that players have in the game and, therefore, the compositions.

“People play games for so many hours and it becomes a big part of their life so they get attached to the characters and storylines. I think the music becomes nostalgic almost, and helps you remember what a cool time it was when you were playing,” he said. “But I just think there's also great music being written for games. You can enhance the game and also write like a killer piece of music that people just wanna listen to.”

Another notable video game music success is American composer and game developer Toby Fox. Fox developed and scored the role-playing game “Undertale” (2015), which soon became a pop-culture sensation. Music guides the narrative as each of the tracks relates to different aspects of the game, such as characters, locations, and emotions. Beyond his personal work, Fox has composed music for major video game franchises like Pokémon and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Gamers are actively streaming Fox’s music, propelling him to become a mainstream artist with steady career growth.

In the week of March 13, 2023, Fox had 93 Apple music chart events across the world thanks to the soundtracks of “Undertale” and “Deltarune”–another video game developed and scored by him. Most of his currently popular songs were released in 2015 as part of “Undertale,” but as his video games get new players, the music gets new active listeners as well, which allows him to continue in the charts for years.

Why artists should make music for video games

Beyond the popularity of original gaming scores, artists of all genres are seeking features on video games and seeing impressive results. American pop artists Madison Beer and Bea Miller are two examples of this phenomenon. The Gen Z singers have been the voice for Evelynn of K/DA, one of the official League of Legends virtual bands. Both artists have Riot Games songs in their top 10 tracks and saw spikes in their metrics following game music releases.

For example, Beer saw her biggest spike in YouTube daily views in the past three years right after the release of “MORE” by K/DA. In the case of Miller, she also saw a spike in her YouTube daily views following the release of “Playground (from the series Arcane League of Legends),” a track that made it to one of the most followed gaming music playlists, Now Loading, curated by Spotify.

Lipschutz also mentioned that video game syncs are valuable for artists that want to expand their global fanbases. While it’s hard to narrow down the extent of League of Legends' influence on Miller and Beer’s reach, the artists have thousands of Spotify monthly listeners in countries such as Brazil, Turkey, and Germany, which are countries that have strong League of Legends fanbases.

“In a world where radio and editorial is hard to come by, it's a way to infiltrate this whole new region that you may never have the opportunity to get into in the traditional methods,” Lipschutz said.

Licensed music is also an important part of the gaming industry. For example, the dance competition franchise “Just Dance” has been built around curated playlists of popular hits and undiscovered gems and has served as an international scenario for artists in all career stages from all corners of the world. The franchise is under Ubisoft, and Argyriadis previously served as its Creative Director. Argyriadis told Chartmetric that his days included looking at streaming metrics to find the year’s most popular tracks, following the social media presence of artists, and even listening to unreleased tracks that would land in his inbox. Lipschutz and Argyriadis both agree on one thing: you don’t have to be a famous artist to be featured on a video game, you just have to care about making good music–and if you’re a gamer, even better.

"It doesn't matter to us, and certainly not our players necessarily, how big the artist is. Are they dope and do they represent my character? Or do they represent the theme of what's going on? Does it feel good? For them it could be an emerging artist or it could be Harry Styles. It doesn't matter as long as it's right," Lipschutz said.

Based on the metrics of video game composers and artists who are featured on gaming soundtracks, we can see that the game fanbases are driving streams and contributing to artists’ growth. If you are an artist considering working in the gaming industry, Tin highly recommends diving into this field because beyond the exposure, it's very rewarding work.

“What I love about [the video game industry] is that it’s creative. It's technical but there's also much less ego and personality involved," Tin said. "I just like to work with good people who are doing great things and making great artistic products. And for me, the video game industry supplies a lot of that.”