Last Thursday, at a West Hollywood mansion-turned-content house owned by social-media app Triller, Swae Lee contemplated his business strategy while eating buffalo chicken bites.
Lee spent the evening alternating between snacking on the microwavable bites (catered by Frank’s Red Hot), livestreaming on Twitch (with several influencers and esports competitors surrounding him) and getting trounced 43-0 in a game of Madden on the as-yet-unreleased PS5 — essentially, living a standard gamer night, if the gamer in question happened to be a rich and famous hip-hop artist.
“I want to make a video game,” Lee told Rolling Stone, while chain-smoking joints fresh off his game of Madden, neck and wrists adorned with shimmering diamond jewelry bright enough to pull attention away from his neon-green Nikes. “A human version of Grand Theft Auto, breaking car windows with crowbars, drug deals. Gangbangers and everything.”
Those aspirations are far off — but also closer now than they used to be. Lee, like an increasingly significant segment of the music industry, says there’s a lot of money to be made through melding music and gaming culture, and he’s cashing in now. The Rae Sremmurd rapper is the first musician to join esports organization XSET, in which he invested an undisclosed amount of money to create content and help grow XSET’s brand. (Lee said he made an eight-figure investment, but later walked back that statement to say “big figures.” Reached for comment in the days afterward, XSET said his buy-in wasn’t eight figures but declined to give the actual number.)
He has several ideas for potential content — from joining gamers online to debut new music to giving more immersive digital experiences that allow fans to control Swae’s hairstyles or outfits for concerts. This isn’t Lee’s first gaming push: He was previously an investor in fast-growing esports organization FaZe Clan, which also courted artists like Offset and Pitbull along with music industry executives including Jimmy Iovine and Sylvia Rhone.
“I always wanted to be on what’s next. There’s a network of people like myself who want to bring simple access for fans,” Lee says, explaining his rationale for putting cash into the new company. “XSET, FaZe, they have fans who like to to the same things I like to do, sit at home on a game and be lazy. I want to help make a huge network for all the kids to enjoy gaming, talk about life, talk smack to each other, get merch and have first-person access to rappers.”
Well before the pandemic, video games had already proven one of the most promising yet under-the-radar revenue and marketing spaces for musicians — but the Covid era has highlighted their sky-high potential. Following the success of Travis Scott’s livestream on Fortnite, Epic Games doubled down on animated concerts in recent months, and Justin Bieber, J Balvin and the Weeknd made up a recent star-studded investment round for Wave, an animated concert producer that’s aired shows for John Legend and Tinashe. Lee lauds Scott’s show in particular, saying he wants to make a similar experience.
Record producer and entrepreneur Clinton Sparks, previously director of business development at FaZe, was a key figure in bringing Swae and the other music figures to his former company and will be doing the same for XSET as the new company’s chief business development officer. Seeing a marriage between hip hop and gaming culture, he looked to rappers to join gaming leagues. Getting Offset to join FaZe in 2019 accounted for much of FaZe’s press for the year, he says.
“When you go to the studio, there’s always some sort of gaming machine, rappers will reference it or sample sound effects from games in songs,” Sparks says. “It was a space no one seemed to talk about right away.”
“We can start plugging in other industries and other worlds and cultures into this space. There’s no better combination than music and gaming.”
Sparks left FaZe earlier in the Summer along with two other FaZe executives (president Greg Selkoe and apparel and special projects head Wil Eddins) to start XSET with fourth co-founder Marco Mereu. The four want XSET to be forward-thinking about bringing pop culture to gaming, and vice versa. Selkoe told the New York Times in July that the executives wanted to start a more diverse esports organization free of the “frat house culture” that’s more common in esports organizations, which is not “reflective of the racial and gender diversity in the gaming world.” Sparks echoed those sentiments. XSET’s roster is still mainly male, but involves several people of color.
With Swae Lee now in the fold, Sparks says he and XSET are working on closing several more deals with artists, music companies and athletes as well, although he declined to give specific names. Those deals will surface in the coming months, he said.
“It made total sense that gamers were this new space — hip-hop didn’t know what was happening there, and esports didn’t know what was happening with hip-hop, but they admired it,” Sparks says. “We can start plugging in other industries and other worlds and cultures into this space. There’s no better combination than music and gaming. They’d always sort of had a relationship, but they never really committed to one another until more recently. You could say they were loosely dating, but not anymore.”