It’s no secret that Drake plays Fortnite.
Ninja and Drake broke the Twitch record for highest views by an independent broadcaster earlier this month when they streamed the game together. Drake said that he was a fan of the Twitch streamer well in advance, having followed him on Instagram a week prior. With the ease of a guest on a daytime talk show, Drake spoke openly about how Fortnite was often a break during long studio sessions, which he said can last around 20 hours.
Soon, fellow artist Travis Scott and NFL rookie turned FaZe partner “JuJu” Smith-Schuster came along for the ride. Rapper Lil Yachty made sure everyone knew he was down to play, and gamer-turned-YouTuber-turned-rapper Post Malone whined about PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds being the better game, anyway. Stepping back from the event, this banter could be easily mistaken for the way an average night with friends goes down — if those weren’t the names of international celebrities.
But this is just another game night with some good friends. It’s not like celebrities gaming is new or anything; nor is its popularity; nor is Twitch; nor well-known multiplayer experiences.
“Gamer culture” has actively resisted acknowledging that gaming is, in fact, a part of mainstream culture now. The industry and communities act like “gamer” is still a label that needs to be actively attained when that’s simply not the case.
It’s not news: Yes, a massive chunk of the world does play video games on a regular basis. The Entertainment Software Association estimated that 48 percent of households in the U.S. last year owned some type of television gaming console, and 22 percent owned handheld systems. That’s before we try to estimate how many people play on their phones and computers. Plenty of us are just people who happen to play video games.
It even feels like a cheap shot to say that everything in gaming has led to a moment like Ninja and Drake playing together because moments like this have been happening for years.
In on the action
The Ninja/Drake stream is just another cool thing in a history of pretty cool people who also happen to play trending games. High school and college basketball players are on the Fortnite train, as are plenty of professional athletes. Heck, on Saint Paddy’s day, I was loudly talking about Fortnite when a bunch of drunk guys across the street shouted “Fortnite!” and made me take the L.
Celebrities have already been making good use of their spare time by hanging out on Twitch even before the Drake/Ninja stream and Fortnite’s popularity. Deadmau5 has streamed for years, cycling between gaming and music production. He created a Dota 2 soundtrack that people could purchase and infamously dipped out while playing off The International 5, Valve’s annual Dota 2 tournament that regularly breaks its own prize pool records ($24 million this year). Post Malone has his own Twitch channel, as do T-Pain and Snoop Dogg.
Even rapper Lupe Fiasco is a massive Street Fighter fan, going as far as making an “anthem” for the game that was featured as an intro for the Street Fighter 5 event at Evo 2016. There was that time he beat a top-tier player, Daigo Umehara. Fans of hip hop know Lupe Fiasco isn’t alone in his love for Street Fighter, as hip-hop artists have been referencing the classic fighting game since the 1990s. In 1994’s “Mental Stamina,” rapper Jeru the Damaja tossed in the line: “Pugilism electrocute like Blanka.” The game’s name, fighters and special moves have been dropped by artists from Childish Gambino to Lil Wayne and Drake — the latter two even themed an entire tour around it.
Lupe isn’t the only celebrity whose work has been tapped for an official event. Imagine Dragons was commissioned by League of Legends publisher Riot Games to create the “anthem” for Riot’s annual international tournament, Worlds. The band admitted in an interview with an esports organization to being huge fans of the game, playing after some of their tour stops. “I Bet My Life,” a song off their sophomore album, was remixed by Riot a year later.
Even MTV caught drift of the musician/hip hop gamer trend more than a decade ago. The network commissioned the now-defunct Hip Hop Gaming League in 2006, with Snoop Dogg set to act as commissioner. While the league’s site itself has disappeared, an archive of the site reveals such mid-2000s artists as Method Man, Cobi Jones and B-Real as part of the roster, playing mostly Madden and NBA 2K.
Turner Sports’ Eleague took a page out of that book and featured its own Street Fighter 5 Celebrity Showdown more than 10 years later. This charity showdown pulled out not only Lupe Fiasco, but also basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal, NFL player Reggie Bush and former pro wrestler Natalie Eva Marie.
Athletes have been in on the action, too. On top of JuJu Smith-Schuster’s unique partnership with FaZe and stream with Ninja, Green Bay Packers player Blake Martinez is an avid Dota 2 fan. Jeremy Lin of Brooklyn Nets fame partnered with a Chinese organization to commission his own Dota 2 team out of passion for the MOBA, and the North American squad has its own boot camp in Brooklyn. Boston Celtics player Gordon Hayward appeared at his home stadium in September 2017 to talk about his love for League of Legends.
Perhaps most importantly, let’s not forget Christine Teigen’s scathing Twitter review of mobile game Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp:
pocket animal crossing might be okay for you AC newbies but for us tom nook loyalists it is merely a hit of the crack that is actual, real, animal crossing. It lacks the heart. The soul. It's a sandwich with no meat. A car without tires.— christine teigen (@chrissyteigen) November 26, 2017
And that’s all before we talk about the decades of video game-themed and inclusive traditional entertainment. Remember the Super Mario World cartoon, or even the short-lived shows Starcade and Nick Arcade. Tron is already a Disney classic; Ready Player One, already an internationally bestselling novel, hits theaters this week with gaming references galore.
This is all to say that gaming isn’t waiting for its “big break” — it’s already been woven into mainstream culture for decades. This makes events like the Ninja/Drake stream less like historical achievements, and more like an incredibly popular artist popping up to perform in a small dive bar. It’s exciting and fresh, sure, but it’s nothing new nor groundbreaking.
On everyone’s tongues
It’s strange that the perception of these gaming moments as singular, revolutionary happenings isn’t going away. But this shows that there’s a constant need for affirmation in this hobby, and it’s an unhealthy way of enjoying video gaming that can be broken.
Gamers have made standards for remaining the elite, edgy “underground” hobby when that’s not the case at all. Gaming’s “minutes of fame” — mainstream news articles, movie references, song lyrics — are now infinite, as gaming is a constant center of attention. Not every gaming reference is an obscure inside joke anymore, as they’re on everyone’s tongues. Millions of people are in on some of gaming’s most popular memes; they’re no longer cryptic languages meant for small, intimate families.
This is all to say that it’s odd to treat a singer, a rapper and an NFL athlete playing the most popular game in the world as unprecedented. It’s fantastic and fun, and Drake is admittedly an entertaining co-streamer, but it’s not a revolutionary moment. People with open eyes and ears can tell you that a moment like this has been coming all along.
“Gaming culture” — or whatever we perceive as such — will be better when we share gaming and the gamer label with the openness and generosity that mainstream culture has already given. We’ll have more wholesome camaraderie, more games to enjoy, and most importantly, more fun.
The struggle is over; video games are not just a thing, but the thing. Everyone is playing them, and it’s a bit strange to pretend that’s not the case.