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The MTV VMAs debut category for best virtual and video game concerts

(Washington Post illustration; Evan Agostini/Invision/AP; iStock)
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A new kind of concert has been making waves in the music industry — one that trades the tour bus for “Fortnite’s” Battle Bus. MTV announced a new award category Tuesday for the growing number of headlining musicians who have been staging interactive concerts inside video games: best metaverse performance.

The 2022 MTV Video Music Awards will be the first show in the company’s history to feature the category. The six nominees are Ariana Grande, Blackpink, BTS, Charli XCX, Justin Bieber and Twenty One Pilots, all of whom have done virtual concerts in the past year.

While some music lovers might write off virtual concerts as a fad, their popularity is undeniable. Over 12.3 million concurrent players attended Travis Scott’s Astronomical tour in “Fortnite.” (The YouTube recording of the concert has over 190 million views). Experts say this new wave of virtual performances won’t usurp in-person concerts any time soon but will still reshape the future of touring in some way.

“I don’t believe in-person concerts will ever be replaced,” wrote Matthew Ball, author of “The Metaverse,” a new book on the nascent tech, in an email to The Washington Post. “But virtual ones will continue to grow in popularity, capability and creativity. And eventually we will see the two blend into something altogether new.”

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The metaverse is still a vague concept, with several competing definitions championed by the companies attempting to implement the technology. One common point of reference is the idea of the metaverse as a 3D version of the internet, or a comprehensively virtual version of real life. Some technologists envision the tech as heralding a future where real-life and virtual experiences are integrated seamlessly.

Bits and pieces of this vision exist already in the form of video games. Think “Pokémon Go,” the augmented reality game which uses real-life as a backdrop for its virtual world. There are also massively multiplayer games such as “World of Warcraft,” where players constantly communicate with each other, barter for goods, exchange money for services and own items.

MTV’s latest VMA category appears to define a metaverse performance as any concert set in a digital space (sometimes interactive) that is “performed” by digital artists and attended by a digital audience. (Most virtual concerts feature unique mixes of recorded — not live — music.) “Interactive” and “space” are the keywords here, because without either of those things, the result would simply be a pre-rendered CGI concert akin to an animated movie.

If this is sounding a lot like a video game to you, then you’re right on the money. Five of the six 2022 Best Metaverse Performance nominees staged their concerts in wildly popular video games. BTS held their nominated performance in “Minecraft,” where the phenomenally successful boy band “sang” and “danced” as blocky avatars. Ariana Grande’s Rift Tour in “Fortnite,” which players attended live in the popular battle royale game, was a surreal roller coaster that had concertgoers fighting a giant demon on biplanes, dancing alongside a digital Ariana Grande on a bubbly ocean and dashing up the logic-defying stairs of a Grecian Escher dreamscape.

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The appeal of virtual concerts is in convenience and merchandising. For example, Travis Scott’s “Fortnite” concert was free, so all players had to do was show up on time (the game itself is also free to play). Even still, for him and “Fortnite” developer Epic Games, the event was a lucrative merchandising opportunity to sell in-game items such as character skins, emotes and more.

Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney, who has been investing heavily in the metaverse, has described the technology as the internet’s great salvation from users being barraged with ads and content creators being caged by social media companies. Sweeney is not alone in that view. As more video game companies make investments in the metaverse and adjacent technologies, expect to see more virtual concerts in the future.

The 2022 MTV Video Music Awards will take place on Aug. 28 at 8 p.m. Eastern time at the Prudential Center in Newark.

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