NEW YORK — Video games were once dominated by teenage geeks — nerds who lived in the arcade, playing games so much their thumbs hurt.
But over the past decade, the hip-hop generation has taken over.
50 Cent has his own video game. Marc Ecko, a fashion designer, has a graffiti game featuring the voice of rapper Talib Kweli. Even filmmaker John Singleton has directed a game, starring Snoop Dogg, in which a gang member is released from prison and forced back into the life.
Maybe it was only a matter of time before hip-hop rivalries would hit the pixilated screen. A new online Hip-Hop Gaming League will allow viewers to watch hip-hop stars, such as Method Man and Twista, battle it out in a video game. The season begins in a couple of weeks and features 16 well-known stars, including NBA Star Jalen Rose and model and actor Tyrese Gibson.
The winner will be crowned in May. The league’s commissioner? Snoop Dogg.
Camera crews will film the stars while they play Madden NFL 2006 and NBA 2K6 online via Xbox Live for the Xbox 360. Both games are ultra-competitive and pretty much define hip-hop culture, says Craig Howe, president of Rocket XL Entertainment in Burbank, Calif., the company marketing the tournament. Three- to five-minute clips will then be placed online so fans can watch for free.
Hip-Hop and Video games
Along with tricked-out cars and heavy jewelry, video games have become part of rap culture.
“Video games are so prominent in the hip-hop community,” said Howe. “When hip-hop artists meet for the first time in a recording studio, they play video games kind of like an ice breaker. Online gaming is huge. We’re looking at making this a new destination for people who love hip-hop and video games.”
Howe expects the public will care more about how the players act during the match than who’s winning. Are they talking trash? Are they slamming the control down when they get angry? Are they jumping up and hollering when they score? Or are they low key, like Just Blaze?
“I am pretty quiet,” said Just Blaze, a music producer and columnist for hip-hop magazine XXL who will play in the tournament. “I am very focused. I may destroy you, but I won’t even talk about it. There are some people who like to gloat. My style is more laid back, more calculated.”
Thanks to the Xbox360, PlayStation 2 and the GameCube, online gaming has exploded in popularity in recent years, says Brian O’Rourke, senior analyst for In-Stat in Scottsdale, Ariz. The number of online console subscribers grew 73 percent from 2004 to 2005, according to In-Stat. Most were men between 18 and 34.
“You can play with people across the street, across the country, across the world,” said O’Rourke. “Some allow you to chat while you are gaming. So there is this socialization aspect. There’s a competitive aspect to it as well, and it can get very competitive.”
A new rap war?
David Grant, CEO of the Global Gaming League, dismissed associations of video games with violence. The stars will be playing wholesome sports games, not the more violent fare in Snoop’s or 50 Cent’s games.
“I don’t believe playing video games in a competitive setting is about violence,” said Grant, whose company organizes live and online video game competitions around the world. “It’s about getting good at something. It takes a lot of skill. People really practice at this. This is a healthy outlet for competition. It’s like playing a sport.”
But the commissioner is no saint. Snoop used to rap about violence. He was a pot smoker. (He said he was giving it up in 2002.) And he was charged with being an accomplice to murder in the 1990s, though he was later cleared.
Playing the game
Snoop also has a personal interest in seeing the league take off. A substantial donation will be made to the Snoop Youth Football League, the one that created controversy last year when he was accused of using his star power to lure talented athletes from other leagues.
Snoop could not be reached for comment. But at a press conference last month, he said, “Hip-hop loves video gaming, and I’ve been watching this develop into the next big sport. The HHGL is my way of taking it to the next level.”
Eventually, the Hip-Hop Gaming League will be open to non-celebrities. But for now, Howe and Grant hope the fans get a kick out of watching the matches, listening to trash talk from the players, tracking the results and stats and sharing their comments on a message board.