How Sports Video Games Became A New Music Hub And Where It Goes From Here

Fire up FIFA and there’s a decent chance you’ll hear one of your favorite songs (or something you’ve never heard before but admittedly slaps). Music from some of today’s biggest artists plays a significant role in sports video games, increasingly so as the music and game industries continue to evolve. The relationship between sports games and music is so strong, in fact, that musicians are actually using them to debut new music now: 2 Chainz previewed a new album in NBA 2K21 and Madden NFL 23 featured new songs from artists like Killer Mike and Cordae.

That’s where we’re at these days, but how did we get here, and where do we go from here? Let’s start exploring those questions by rewinding a bit.

Recently, I was reminiscing about the main menu music from 1995’s Frank Thomas Big Hurt Baseball on the Super Nintendo, specifically about how hard it goes. Show me somebody who’s heard a better video game soundtrack synth solo from the mid-’90s and I’ll show you a liar. At that point, sports games were soundtracked by bespoke music created specifically for the game by in-house composers, not commercially available songs you could hear on the radio or buy at your local record shop.

Nearly a decade after Big Hurt, EA Sports pivoted from its long-running Triple Play MLB games and launched the short-lived MVP Baseball series with the 2003 installment. I grew up playing MVP Baseball 2004 and 2005 on the original Xbox, and what I remember about those games more than anything (aside from maybe the Jacob Paterson cheat) is the soundtracks.

Instead of newly composed music, these games (and many of their contemporaries) compiled soundtracks from songs of the day. Both games had carefully curated and relatively limited tracklists (2004 had 13 songs, 2005 had just nine), which meant I got intimately familiar with those songs. As I browsed in-game menus, tracks like Steriogram’s “Walkie Talkie Man,” Chronic Future’s “Time And Time Again,” The Donots’ “We Got The Noise,” and Hot Hot Heat’s “You Owe Me An IOU” became ingrained in the deepest wrinkles of my still-forming brain. The games and their soundtracks made each other better; those songs make me think about the games, the games make me think about those songs.

Yay, good for me and my childhood fun, but what does this mean in terms of a musician’s relationship with sports games today? Well, for a musician now, playing a role in a sports game is not only possible, but actually a desirable goal, and an attainable one at that.

Here’s an example: a 25-year-old (to choose an easy-to-work-with young-adult age) playing MVP Baseball 2005 didn’t necessarily grow up with sports games. In 1990, that fictitious person was 10 years old and home video game consoles were a relatively emerging market in terms of widespread adoption. There’s no guarantee they and a majority of their peers had strong childhood memories of playing games like Jordan Vs. Bird: One On One for the original Nintendo Entertainment System. Furthermore, games like that had original, relatively minimal, composed music, not songs pulled from the contemporary music industry.

Over time, video games became more widespread, sports titles became more robust, and the music in those games played a larger and larger role. Today, a 25-year-old here in 2023 was 10 in 2008, when games featured memorable compilation soundtracks. So, for a modern 25-year-old, there’s a far stronger chance sports video games and their soundtracks — comprised of regular, non-video-game music — were at the center of core childhood nostalgia. A young-adult 2005 musician didn’t grow up with the idea that their songs could be in sports video games, but a young-adult artist today did.

There’s also some level of two-way professional envy between athletes and musicians. As Lil Wayne succinctly summarized it in 2014, “Athletes wanna be rappers, rappers wanna be athletes.” While most musicians will never be able to fulfill their dreams of becoming a professional athlete (props to J. Cole, though), there’s still a way for them to be involved: through sports video games and their soundtracks. While video games once had a reputation of being “nerdy” fare, they’re now a fully mainstream and accepted pastime. Sports video games are cool, so for a musician, having their song in the latest Madden is something to brag about. Having their song debut in the latest Madden, to have a part of their career narrative significantly intertwined with a gaming franchise they’ve perhaps loved for decades, is extra special.

(There are other reasons, of course, why an artist might want their music in a sports game. NBA 2K22, for example, sold over 10 million copies, making it a sizable platform for a musician to promote their work.)

So that’s my take on how we got to where we are now, but what’s next? Trying to predict the future of games and music is like trying to predict what Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons will be up to next week (I’d probably be wrong), but let’s take a crack at it.

One theory is that we’ll see an artist make an original sports game soundtrack. In a way, it’s not completely unprecedented: Japanese Breakfast created the soundtrack of 2021’s Sable. Stewart Copeland of The Police composed the excellent music for the beloved original Spyro The Dragon trilogy on Playstation 1. There are other examples, but to my knowledge, we haven’t seen anything like that in a sports game yet. Perhaps the closest thing is Jay-Z curating the soundtrack and serving as executive producer on NBA 2K13. So maybe that’s something we’ll see next: A major artist going all-in on a big sports game, creating an original soundtrack that both serves the game and stands on its own as an appealing collection of music. Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor has pivoted to pumping out successful movie scores, so why not video games next?

Beyond that, who knows. Maybe we get something between that idea and the current reality: a game soundtrack composed of all-new music from various artists? Perhaps something else I can’t yet envision? Whatever the future of the relationship between sports games and music looks like, it wouldn’t be surprising to see it become more involved and bright than it already is. Good luck topping the Frank Thomas Big Hurt Baseball menu music, though.