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Puppet Tiers

MTV’s new Video Music Awards category is opening the gate for virtual stars

Justin Bieber's avatar performs for fans on Wave's metaverse platform.
An award-worthy performance?
  • Adario Strange
By Adario Strange

Media & entertainment reporter based in New York

Published Last updated

A new part of MTV’s annual feting of the music industry’s visual excellence is a future many didn’t see coming: the era of virtual celebrities. Now, in addition to voting for Best Artist and Best Song for MTV’s Music Video Awards, fans can now also vote for Best Metaverse Performance.

Some of the leading music acts in pop music were nominated, including Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, BTS, Charli XCX, Blackpink, and Twenty One Pilots. All the nominees were selected have presented virtual versions of themselves performing in virtual environments online that generally allowed real-time fan interaction on platforms like Roblox, Fortnite, and Minecraft.

In Bieber’s performance, a full 30-minute concert spanning multiple digital environments, the virtual version of the singer delivered his latest repertoire to well over a million fans on the Wave virtual music concert platform (which counts Bieber as an investor) and on YouTube. In recent years, Wave has also facilitated virtual performances from The Weeknd, Imogen Heap, and John Legend.

These kinds of performances have been trickling into the metaverse since before the pandemic, but the first major attention paid to the dynamic happened in 2020 when Travis Scott performed in Fortnite. Since then, virtual performances have rapidly become accepted as an additional way to reach and perform for fans.

How a budding virtual space hit the mainstream

The term metaverse has been around for about 30 years, coined in Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash. Though, the word only became common in 2021, when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg began using it to describe his company’s immersive internet efforts. Prior to 2021, tech insiders generally framed the crosscurrents of AR, and VR as occurring in various iterations of the “AR cloud” or “mixed reality cloud” with blockchain as a linchpin technology for virtual objects and transactions.

But “metaverse,” and a global business leader’s endorsement of it, took hold as a catch-all way of describing the entire space. MTV knew that its fans would understand what they were voting for in “Best Metaverse Performance,” just a year after the term’s popularization. That’s how swift the move to virtual entertainment has been.

In the metaverse, virtual artists are immortal, but who controls the avatars?

And while virtual celebrities like Japan’s Hatsune Miku have been on the rise for years now, it’s in the gaming industry where virtual characters have evolved to become influencers alongside their humans counterparts on social media. These characters, and the new-age puppeteers behind them, are guiding how human pop stars like Grande (who also used Fortnite as her virtual stage) are entering the metaverse.

“Gaming is at the forefront of the metaverse,” said Jason Chung, a professor of esports and gaming at New York University. “Now, the question becomes, how much [of a celebrity’s] personality gets imbued into that avatar?”

Likewise, as major acts increasingly sell off their music catalogs, in coming years, the metaverse versions of these musicians will become valuable assets too.

The MTV Music Video Awards will air Sunday, Aug. 28 at 8pm US eastern time.

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