Every time Epic Games head of global partnerships Nate Nanzer defeats an opponent in the company’s popular video game Fortnite, his player avatar breaks out the “Gangnam Style” dance.
The 10-second dance sequence, soundtracked by a clip of the 2012 hit from PSY, is just one of the hundreds of “emotes” that Fortnite‘s 350 million players globally can purchase for between 200 and 800 “V-bucks” (roughly $2-$8) each at the game’s Item Shop, allowing them to perform different actions and expressions through their avatars.
“It’s really fun,” Nanzer says. “I can dance when I’m in the lobby getting ready to hop on the battle bus, doing everything from ‘Gangnam Style’ to some of the biggest tracks of the year.”
Over the past year, Nanzer and his team have been working directly with artists, labels, publishers and TikTok creators in an effort to create more emotes based around popular music and viral dances, presenting a new revenue and exposure opportunity for the music industry in a hugely popular game. Six of the songs commemorated by Fortnite emotes over the past year went on to earn Grammy nominations, and starting today (March 12), Fortnite is celebrating the artists by re-featuring their emotes in its Item Shop, ahead of the awards show on March 14.
The list includes emotes inspired by DaBaby‘s “Rockstar,” Doja Cat‘s “Say So,” Dua Lipa‘s “Don’t Start Now” and Megan Thee Stallion‘s “Savage,” all of which were nominated for record of the year, among other individual nods. (While Megan Thee Stallion’s official nomination stems from the Beyoncé “Savage” remix, the Fortnite emote features the original version.) Also in the shop: An emote for BTS‘ “Dynamite,” nominated for best pop duo/group performance, and two emotes featuring different dances for DaBaby‘s “BOP,” nominated for best rap performance. The Item Shop celebration also comes ahead of season six of Fortnite‘s second chapter, which launches March 16.
Classy. Sassy. Savage.
Get the Savage Emote with moves by Keara Wilson in the Item Shop now! pic.twitter.com/DEDWr5k0dg
— Fortnite (@FortniteGame) December 26, 2020
“These songs have been really celebrated in 2020, and we wanted to again highlight these awesome dances,” Nanzer says. The recent push into music and dance emotes is part Nanzer’s overall strategy to make music a bigger part of the game, which launched in 2017. Last year, Fortnite hosted in-game performances from artists like Travis Scott and J Balvin, launched the Party Royale mode for entertainment experiences and even created Fortnite Radio to let players listen to licensed music while in vehicles during the game.
“We were looking at, ‘What are other cool ways that we can bring music into the game?’” Nanzer says. “Dancing is an obvious one, and combined with the emergence of TikTok and Dubsmash and these platforms where dancing was the focus, we [realized we] can start to bring some of these things that are trending in culture into our game.”
One of the earliest examples is an emote for Drake‘s “Toosie Slide,” which was added to the Item Shop last May. All of the dance- and music-focused emotes are part of Fortnite‘s “Icon Series,” made for virtual items which depict real-life people and pop culture moments.
You got to keep focused on @yodelinghaley and her smooth moves.
Grab the Say So Emote, available in the Item Shop now! pic.twitter.com/N3khhn387Y
— Fortnite (@FortniteGame) September 5, 2020
For each of these emotes, Epic Games secures music licenses from rights holders giving Fortnite the right to synch a clip of the song with the visual dance move in perpetuity — since although the Item Shop rotates emotes in and out (creating scarcity to build demand), players who purchase emotes have them forever. Marrying a recording with video requires at least a synchronization license and master license. At the moment, synch licenses for games are usually given on a one-off basis and negotiated case-by-case, so fees vary widely depending on the song, according to a music lawyer familiar with the matter.
Epic also pays a direct fee to the creator of each TikTok dance used in an emote, and credits that person in the emote’s Item Shop listing. Epic has faced criticism over its use of uncredited dance moves before: In 2018, a slew of people including rapper Terrence “2 Milly” Ferguson and Russell Horning, the teenager behind “The Floss,” filed lawsuits against Epic, accusing the game publisher of copying their dance moves in Fortnite emotes, but the suits were dropped or placed on hold because the defendants’ registrations with the U.S. Copyright Office had not yet been approved.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a choice we’re making to correct a past mistake,” Nanzer clarifies about the impetus to pay choreographers. “When we were thinking about this program, honestly, it wasn’t even a question. We were like, ‘Of course we need to compensate the creators.’ We wanted to make sure that we could tag them in the posts [and] work with these folks from a marketing perspective as well, and make sure that we’re giving them proper credit.”
Tracking down the original creator of a viral dance isn’t always easy, and Nanzer has to move fast to license viral tracks before the internet moves on. “When we brought [the] ‘Renegade’ [dance] into the game, that was easy because New York Times did a big article on [choreographer] Jalaiah Harmon,” Nanzer says. “But some of these other dances are a bit more difficult.”
That’s why Nanzer’s team is constantly tracking dance trends as they take off, and updating a running list of songs and dances to build emotes around. The team even mobilized to debut a “Shanty For The Squad” emote on March 4, with an original parody of the “Wellerman” sea shanty that overtook TikTok earlier this year. “That was trending on TikTok just a couple of weeks ago, [we] very quickly pulled it into the game, and fans really, really liked it,” Nanzer adds.
So far, emotes have mostly focused on songs that are already hits. Next, Nanzer says he’s working with artists and choreographers to create original dances tied to new music releases — as well as helping revive old tracks, as they did with the “Gangnam Style” emote, which hit the Item Shop in January.
“We have other iconic dances from the past that we want to bring into the game,” Nanzer adds. “The possibility space here is huge.”
The Grammys-related emotes hit the Item Shop today at 7 p.m. ET. and range between 500 and 800 V-bucks (roughly $5-$8).