Fortnite’s “Astronomical” event was inevitable. The cultures of gaming, social interconnectivity, and live music were cultivated for years prior to the event, and it should have surprised no one.
Travis Scott’s virtual concert event has amassed a huge influx of users as 27.7 million players watched a giant Travis Scott stomp around in-game to snippets of his most popular tracks, including his new single “THE SCOTTS.” Many discussions about the intersection of online games and live music events have begun circulating online due to the hype that Epic Games created with this event. Overall, whether or not Fortnite’s event can be seen as a good or bad thing for online games, user experiences, and in-game marketing is up to individual preference, but what Epic Games achieved with their “Astronomical” event was built on the back of TF2 mic spammers, and it shouldn’t have surprised anyone.
Valve’s Team Fortress 2 spawned dozens of the internet’s most relevant memes in the late-2000s and is responsible for popularizing cartoony aesthetics, in-game cosmetics, and ease of access gameplay models that so many games (including Fortnite) utilize and capitalize on. What makes TF2 relevant to events like Fortnite’s “Astronomical” is the existence of mods such as Jukebox for Source or 2fort2furious’ Karaoke mode. These mods allowed server owners to broadcast music over server voice chat, as well as allow players to access commands in-game that would allow them to browse music by genre and vote for the next track in the playlist. Plugins such as HLDJ or Virtual Audio Cable would allow users to broadcast audio feeds from their computers as in-game voice chat, which would lead to micspamming on many public servers. Music spam in TF2 was a method of socialization in the game. 2f2f’s Karaoke mode brought players together to sing rather than silently accumulate frags or capture intelligence, and helped foster a sense of community amongst players. Custom maps like WHOAAAA or mario_kart didn’t have particular objectives or were meant to be explored and interacted with, so players would usually kill each other while arguing, micspamming, or simply conversing.
TF2 became an engine for genuine social experiences and music helped facilitate that. Listening to music made people feel more connected to one another as users would get into discussions over favorite bands, genres, whether a song sucks or not, or their personal history with particular songs. In comparison, Epic released a set of guidelines for content creators to help them “have the best possible experience while showcasing the event with [their] communities.” While the degree of player agency during the “Astronomical” pales in comparison to the frontier days of TF2, Epic definitely understands the importance of fostering community with these kinds of events.
“Astronomical” feels spectacular. It’s hard to imagine Travis Scott and his music having the same level of impact in a game like League of Legends or Madden, which included his Huncho Jack collaborator Quavo as a part of the game’s Superstar KO mode. Fortnite’s constant conversation with youth culture helps enable this feeling, as the game constantly interacts with the hip-hop industry and draws influence from it to create in-game content. The game, at times, feels like a phenomenon that can only be exclusively understood by its young player base. As hip-hop dweeb/video game coward Charles Holmes succinctly writes, “kids really love this game.” The Travis Scott event can be seen as something that uniquely positions its player community in opposition to those who balk at the idea of installing a game to experience a Travis Scott concert (“normies,” “boomers,” etc), and rewards them for their participation with exclusive, time-locked skins. The event rewards players for exercising the mentality that Epic has cultivated in their community, and helps them feel special for merely spectating while also excluding participants who the core player base may see as irrelevant. Players feel ‘understood’ by Epic because the event included their favorite recording artist and made Travis Scott a prominent, unavoidable, and awe-inducing feature of the game during the event’s duration. Players also felt like this decision ‘made sense’ for the game’s community, and didn’t feel out of place like collaborations between Wizards101 and Selena Gomez.
A lot of the people expressing surprise and dislike towards the event tend to skew older than a majority of Fortnite’s player base. While I can understand their skepticism, I can’t understand their surprise. If you were micspamming Rick Astley back in the day, the success of this event should not go over your head. Regardless of whether you like Travis’ music or not, music and online gaming have always intersected in ways that leave players feeling more connected to a game than before. Events like this are going to become more common, and what Epic has achieved with the “Astronomical” event is proof that collaborative events don’t need to stop at the mere inclusion of cosmetic items. Developers should look at how collaborators can fit into the unique cosmology of their games and how event content can encompass features like unique modes, unique encounters, and memorable experiences for players. When it comes to music, developers should utilize music as a tool to better understand their player base, or help them feel more connected to in-game events as they occur. Good examples of both of these outcomes can be seen in Arknights’ Obsidian Festival event and Riot Games’ KDA and True Damage.
The next time a music event happens in a game, try to experience it with friends. Hop on discord, queue in together, and enjoy the experience socially. These events are rooted in the memory of smaller, more intimate moments that TF2 created, and participating in them with friends is a good way of keeping that spirit alive. You may not be a big fan of the performer, the music, or the game, but that shouldn’t dissuade you from having fun with friends.