It’s been a year since Universal Music Group and esports giant ESL launched Enter Records with a mission to find and promote relevant music artists within the evolving esports space. We recently caught up with Gustav Käll, head of Enter Records and Head of Esports at Universal Music, to discuss the success of the label so far and the future of esports and music…
How did you first become involved in esports and then more specifically music in esports?
I’ve been involved in gaming and esports for over 20 years. I discovered StarCraft back in 1998 and started playing really hardcore and became a professional gamer. When World of Warcraft came out, I was playing that more than anyone on the planet! I decided to end my career as a professional gamer in 2008, and since then I’ve started five companies, the first of which was trying to get mainstream advertisers interested in esports.
I also ran an agency and one of our clients was Sony Music. We created the digital release campaign strategy for their artist Alan Walker and his track “Faded”, which was really successful. I think he was the most streamed artist across the Nordics in 2016. Shortly afterwards I received a call from Per Sundin, President of Universal Music’s Nordic Region. I really liked him, so I decided to leave my company and start working for UMG. I’ve been with the company for two and a half years now.
Enter Records, a joint music label created by ESL and Universal Music Group, was launched last year with TheFatRat as the first signing. How has it been working with both sides and dealing with such an incredibly engaged demographic?
It’s a double-edged sword really. When you have such an engaged audience, they tend to tell you what they think and of course music is all about taste – it’s subjective. So, if people don’t like the music that we have integrated with ESL and their tournaments they will let you know! Before Enter Records, we did work with ESL to put artists on stage, but it was more of a separate relationship at that point.
Our work with TheFatRat has been an amazing journey so far. He performed at ESL One Cologne in 2017 and it’s amazing to see the growth of his career even since then – he’s grown from 500,000 YouTube subscribers to close to 4 million and his Spotify numbers are steadily increasing. The esports community loves his music and they see that he’s a very keen gamer himself from how he communicates and engages with his audience on social media. We’re looking forward to continuing to work with him and we actually have a new track from him out this fall.
Can you tell us about any other current projects?
Yeah, we have many projects on the go. The label was announced a year ago and we had our first wave of releases in January and so far we’ve released maybe 36 or 37 tracks. Alongside TheFatRat we’ve been working with two of my personal favourites, Axollo and Levianth. I like all the music we release, but those two have a special place in my heart.
The relationship between music and esports is really gaining momentum. Are you noticing more and more people trying to get involved on each side?
Absolutely. I’ve been in esports for such a long time now so for me it’s my world, but over time more and more industries are catching on to what esports can do for them. First you saw traditional advertisers like McDonald’s discovering the space because it has this enormous reach, and now you see partnerships happening all over the place. I like to think that we pioneered the merger of esports and music and that’s exciting because I know how important music was for me when I was playing. I think we’re just getting started and scratching the surface as to what this can become.
It’s also opening up new revenue streams – for example when TheFatRat sold his music pack in the Dota 2store. Even though the pack had already been available for streaming for two months, it sold 25,000 downloads in just the first three days.
Yeah, his album was really valuable to the Dota community because it offered something new – it enabled players to change the sounds and music in the game. It was a perfect match and I think we’re going to see similar in-game sales explode really soon. Game developers are realising they can sell skins and cosmetic visual goods associated with various characters. If we can partner up with artists that already have an established fanbase then we can sell their music in the game and that’s revenue for us and a way to widen the audience for game developers. It’s a mutually beneficial partnership and also added value for the customer who plays the game, so everyone is a winner. There’s cool stuff to come for sure, I’m very excited to see where it goes.
In a recent interview you mentioned that the esports broadcast format is still in development. How do you see that developing in the future and how does music fit into that?
To give you an analogy – when I was playing professionally, we had a corporate sponsorship deal with Microsoft, Dell and all these major companies and we were being paid in computer mice, keyboards and other hardware. Just 10 years later it has evolved so much and now when you watch a tournament there are games being played up to 12 hours a day. That’s a lot of live content and you need to fill it up with something, right?
Currently there are still pause screens and still moments in the broadcast where there’s just an image and it’s not produced to the level you would expect. With a linear TV channel, for example, the budget for productions are way higher so you see something happening all the time, and now that more money is coming into esports the production for these events and broadcasts are increasing. I want to see more music being used because it’s a way to entertain the audience. We know that gamers are the heaviest consumers of music in the world – they stream music for up to 10 or 12 hours a day. We know they like music so why don’t we put it in the broadcast of the games.
Another thing that’s exploded over the last couple of years is the statistics side of the broadcast format. Data companies are providing stats on how the players performed and they’re putting segments in the broadcast to talk about stats and analysis. Three or four years ago we didn’t have that because there was no budget to produce it, but now you’re seeing all this development happening in the esports broadcast format. I don’t think it will ever be finished, but it can always be improved.
Esports tends to be associated with electronic music, do you think there will be more opportunity for other genres?
Yeah. At Enter Records we released maybe 22 or 23 tracks back in May and throughout those tracks we had 16 different genres represented. As a target group, gamers are one of the biggest communities in the world – there are 2.6 billion gamers in the world, 500 million of which are esports enthusiasts. With a community of that size not everyone is necessarily interested in electronic music, they listen to all sorts of music. For now, with what we’re doing with ESL and their tournaments electronic music fits really well, but I think anything is possible. You just need to work out what music resonates well with this gigantic community.
Women in esports is a growing and important market although there are a number of barriers. Do you have any experience with that market?
I’ve been involved in a couple of projects over the last couple of years, where we support organisations and efforts to welcome female gamers into this world. It’s a challenge because it’s very male-dominated and there is a culture of people anonymously commenting online, through platforms like the Twitch chat, which is really bad for the whole industry becoming more inclusive. I hope over time gaming and esports will become a 50:50 thing.
The music industry is hopeful that platforms like Twitch will obtain the necessary licensing deals, what are your hopes for those relationships?
It’s a really complex problem, licensing music to people broadcasting something live. How do you go about tracking what music is being played in 2 million live streams happening at the same time? It’s a lot of content to track correctly. Hopefully we will have closer partnerships with streaming platforms in the future because both the audience and the content creators would like to be able to use whatever music they like, and artists should be compensated accordingly.
We’ve seen from past examples like DJ Khaled’s Overwatch performance that authenticity is key in the esports/music space. What are your thoughts on that?
A lot of people bring up the DJ Khaled Overwatch performance example, I’ve certainly done it in the past. I think it’s important that these things happen because ultimately it helps everyone in esports and music to work together more closely and improve this relationship. We saw that and now we know what not to do! We haven’t been successful with every performance we’ve had at the ESL events either. What’s important is that we identify the mistakes and correct them, but at the same time we shouldn’t be afraid to try new things. Esports is still in its infancy, and esports, gaming and music as a topic is certainly in its infancy, so as long as we’re trying I think we’re good.
Now is the time to experiment because everything is still being set in stone.
Absolutely. And talking from the artist’s perspective I want to point out that I think all artists have something to gain from working with esports and gaming. The gaming community is young and if you want to grow your fanbase you should be looking to these communities and segments.
Is there anything you’d like to promote?
We’ve had a bit of a summer break but we’re going to be releasing new music. Our next wave is coming out on September 20thand that will be the official tracks for ESL One in New York. So keep your eyes and ears open!