From actor to avatar: Why more stars than ever are taking roles in videogames

Idris Elba is the latest Hollywood name to dive into the gaming industry, but he won’t be the last to do so

Idris Elba is the latest star to lend his likeness to a videogame, starring in 'NBA 2K20'. Courtesy
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From roles on The Wire and Luther to playing the supervillain in this year's blockbuster Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, Idris Elba has cemented himself as one of the biggest stars on the planet. Such is the actor's popularity, he's been lauded as the perfect choice to fill the well-tailored suits of James Bond once Daniel Craig exits the role.

Elba is in demand and surely has his pick of any role in Holly­wood, so he caught us all off-guard when it was announced his next outing of the year would be in a basketball videogame. He will play a tough-talking coach in NBA 2K20's story mode.

Not only will the character sound like Elba, but he will look like the British actor, too. This means Elba took time out of his busy schedule to wear a motion-­capture suit and spend hours in front of a green screen. That was likely a far cry from the movie and TV sets to which he's accustomed.

But the videogame series is no stranger to casting A-list celebrities, with Creed star Michael B Jordan featuring as an in-game player in NBA 2K17. While some people may question why Elba agreed to be in a videogame, such moves are becoming more common as the lines between Hollywood and the gaming industry continue to blur.

From Rami Malek to Willem Dafoe: the men behind the games

There was a time when a voice acting gig in a videogame was a great way for actors to make some extra cash. But because on-screen characters would rarely look like the person speaking the lines, some actors considered such work to be a step down in their careers.

But as videogames evolve, so do the scripts. Better writing can lead to critical acclaim and videogame appearances are now far more appealing to high-profile actors.

Creed star Michael B Jordan features as an in-game player in 'NBA 2K17'.  Courtesy
Creed star Michael B Jordan features as an in-game player in 'NBA 2K17'.  Courtesy

Elba is the latest to lend his image to a videogame and he ­certainly won't be the last. Four-time Oscar nominee Willem Dafoe featured in Beyond Two Souls (2013), while Bafta winner Ricky Gervais was digitally recreated for a stand-up set in Grand Theft Auto 4 (2008).

Even Rami Malek had a star turn in horror title Until Dawn (2015) before his Oscar-winning portrayal of Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018). Kit Harington (Game of Thrones: A Telltale Games Series and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare), Martin Sheen (Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3) and even Holly­wood royalty Jeff Goldblum (Goosebumps: Escape from Horrorland, Independence Day, Jurassic Park: Chaos Island, Call of Duty: Black Ops III and Jurassic World Evolution) took roles in videogames.

Willem Dafoe in 'Beyond Two Souls' (2013).  Courtesy of PlayStation.Blog
Willem Dafoe in 'Beyond Two Souls' (2013).  Courtesy of PlayStation.Blog

The trend shows no sign of slowing down, as Norman Reedus of The Walking Dead and Hannibal star Mads Mikkelsen will also lend their likenesses and voices to PS4 and PC title Death Stranding, to be released in November.

Why do actors take roles in video games?

There are plenty of reasons for videogame creators and actors to work together. By securing high-profile names to appear in their games, publishers are able to further legitimise the medium, while also tapping into the fan bases of superstars to secure more sales. In return, actors gain access to an enormous industry and millions of videogame fans, furthering the actor's brand as they diversify their portfolio. It's a win-win.

As actors continue to take roles in big-budget video­games, it seems it's only a matter of time before the rest of the movie industry becomes involved. Oscar-­winning director Spike Lee worked on NBA 2K16, so it's not difficult to envision a future in which other acclaimed film directors and producers bring their talents to gaming. Can you imagine the buzz around a game that features the phrase "presented by Quentin Tarantino"? The industry already has its own Oscars in the shape of The Game Awards, which contains categories for Best Narrative, Best Art Direction and Best Actor.

How Hollywood got involved in the gaming industry

Hollywood has always had an interest in bringing video­games to life on the big screen, but with limited success. Angelina Jolie's 2001 film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and Dwayne Johnson's 2018 movie Rampage are average at best as they fail to capture the magic of the digital universes on which they're based.

But studios still want a piece of the gaming industry, however they can get it. Disney dabbled with its own gaming division in the early 2000s but was unprepared for how challenging it can be to make such a venture a success. In an earnings call in February this year, Disney chief executive Bob Iger admitted the company "never managed to demonstrate much skill on the publishing side of games".

While this may seem like the end of the conversation, movie companies such as Disney won't simply walk away from such a lucrative industry without at least having another shot at it. They only need to look to Warner Bros for an example of how it can be done successfully. 

The US company launched its own gaming division in 2004 and, after a rocky start, it is now a highly profitable part of the overall business. This is largely down to the incredible successes of its Lego games and the gritty Batman series that features Star Wars actor Mark Hamill as the Joker. 

All this leads us back to Elba's decision to take a role in a basketball game. He's not the only star name in the cast either, as he's joined by Rosario Dawson from Clerks, Silicon Valley's Thomas Middleditch and Ernie Hudson, who played Winston Zeddemore in 1984's Ghostbusters.

Videogames are no longer viewed as a specialist hobby of anti-­social basement dwellers. They're incredibly popular and can attract the same sort of praise as the latest cinema hit or unmissable TV show. Perhaps Elba's decision to appear in NBA 2K20 really shouldn't be much of a surprise at all.