t the 2018 League of Legends World Championship, Riot Games unveiled a virtual girl group by the name of “K/DA”. An augmented reality performance defined the group’s launch, paired with their first ever song release: POP/STARS.
The live performance blended four new characters built off K-pop archetypes (Ahri, Akali, Evelynn and Kai'Sa) with their numerous human surrogates (Miyeon, Soyeon, Madison Beer, Kim Petras, Jaira Burns, and more). The entire performance underlines the potential of the augmented reality medium when executed well in an appropriate context, coming in contrast to the sea of otherwise gimmicky AR projects currently saturating the space.
As for the track? This month, POP/STARS achieved 500k Units, officially going Gold:
K/DA’s Gold achievement follows closely on the heels of even bigger news out of the gaming company this summer: Riot just launched a new-age record label, aptly named “Riot Games Music”.
Riot Games Music won’t be your traditional music label. This “label” handles everything from designing the virtual artists, writing the songs, sourcing the human talent, publishing the music, creating the social content, crafting the virtual music videos and album art, funding everything, and more.
In other words, Riot Games, a collective creation, is the artist—and any artist they create. Riot Games Music has figured out how to own the entire music microcosm, from idea, to fan touchpoint as an in-game character, to going Gold, and beyond.
While K/DA (Kills, Deaths, Assists) was the most involved music project Riot has ever brought to life according to Riot’s Head of Music Toa Dunn, the entertainment company is no stranger to music innovation. Music has been core to Riot fandom and culture since the company’s launch over a decade ago.
In May 2013, on the League of Legends YouTube channel (the same place Riot houses K/DA’s music drops today), Riot uploaded “The Making of Freljord Music”, one of the first public-facing documentations of the importance of music to the League of Legends experience.
In this piece, then-Composer and now Creative Director at Riot Games, Christian “Praeco” Linke reveals how Riot values music as a powerful tool to capture the identity, history, and feel of the game. He explains how inspirational the halls of Riot Games’ art department are to his composition, giving him a desire to create something that picks you up and compels you as much as the visuals.
The marriage of music and art at Riot has origins dating back as far as the League of Legends launch trailer.
The role of music in the early days of Riot goes beyond YouTube trailers, though, making more regular and impactful appearances as the backdrop to the games’ splash screens where various characters’ artful likeness can be enjoyed alongside a strategically-composed soundtrack, ushering you to enter Riot’s Universe. Once in-game, the music experience continues with various background tracks enhancing the gameplay. Now, imagine what it would mean for both the music and character experiences to carry forward to fans' every day lives?
In all, wherever there’s a Riot Games experience, there’s a soundtrack close by. There always has been.
In a public interview at the League Season 2 finals, Praeco samples the creative adventure Riot follows in developing music, with his team oftentimes calling on random Rioters via email to participate in the creative process, further showcasing how independent, embedded, and experimental the music journey has been for Riot even since the earliest days of the company.
Praeco, while working as a Composer at Riot, built and directed Riot's music team. He was responsible for creating and directing login screens, music videos, cinematics, music albums, in-game music, eSports opening ceremonies, artist collaborations, and more at the “gaming” company.
Riot may have defined themselves as a gaming company from the start with music enhancing the digital experience, but now that’s totally subject to change...
The company’s long history of leveraging music to enhance the game experience is slated to flip entirely, should Riot’s last 4 years of original media launches serve as any indication of the Universe's future.
In 2014, Riot launched a virtual heavy metal band called Pentakill, composed of six League of Legends champions attracting hundreds of millions of streams across the internet:
In 2019, a the World Championship Finals, Riot Games actually “did it again”, you could say, with the introduction of True Damage. Formed by K/DA’s rapper Akali (Soyeon), True Damage is a virtual hip-hop group that fuses the raw vocal talents of Ekko (Thutmose, Duckwrth), Senna (Keke Palmer), and Qiyana (Becky G) with Yasuo’s cutting-edge production. See the group’s introductory performance of GIANTS here, which has since garnered 100M+ song streams across platforms:
In 2020, Riot Games launched virtual influencer and League champion Seraphine to fast fame. Without even actively promoting her online presence, Riot sat back and watched as Seraphine quickly attract hundreds of thousands of fans on Instagram with unheard-of engagement rates north of 40% on certain posts.
During her brief stint on social media, she caught the attention of many, garnering tens of millions of streams on her music on Spotify while furthering messaging of mental health awareness, partnering with K/DA in multiple posts, and ultimately launching as a League of Legends champion.
Now, in 2021, with this summer’s announcement of Riot Games Music comes the interesting launch of Sessions: Vi, a character-driven, collective lofi experience. Sessions is an assembly of tracks in partnership with a number of talented musicians, songs which anyone can use without concern of copyright strikes.
Riot knows what long-term value can be created when you give, give, give. This lofi collection further reflects that insight.
According to Head of Music Toa Dunn, Sessions: Vi “starts out with music to help Vi decompress and relax as soon as she gets home from work. Then, it transitions to music she can work to while she’s doing a project or fixing equipment. Finally, it ends with some extra chill music as she reads and gets ready for bed.”
A possible next stage in the life of Vi could be to open-source the character herself, allowing any artist to create and publish in her likeness, allowing fandom to take her success where they deem fit while furthering the Riot brand all the way.
Despite Vi’s path, let’s talk potential—it’s not uncommon for video-centric characters to convert their image and fandom into meaningful careers as music icons. Consider one of today’s most iconic artists, Joji:
In Joji’s prior life he built up immense fandom on YouTube flexing his edgy, creative genius as Filthy Frank, showcasing characters such as Pink Guy, in full form here:
In a transitional moment, George Miller released an album through his Pink Guy persona, which garnered hundreds of millions of streams, before going all-in on the more serious and globally respected Joji persona.
In today’s latest example, and with streams coming in at a much faster clip, pseudonymous YouTube character Corpse Husband has also converted his hard-earned video presence into hundreds of millions of streams with the launch of music:
Video game characters are pseudonymous video characters in game worlds. As we opt to spend more time in worlds that are virtual and gamified, the virtual beings we interact with become more and more equivalent to the human beings we encounter in the physical world.
Where we spend our time and what we consume is a reflection of our values. Now, assume the world’s ongoing virtualization as a never-ending inevitability, and the value we place in a virtual world with video or human-acting video characters will usurp the value we place in the real world. The success of K/DA hints at this future, with fans regarding the girl group as fulfilling the same role a human music artist and role model previously filled for them—a new obsession in a virtual medium.
Riot has an opportunity so much bigger than video games at their feet. After spending north of a decade building up a stable of well-loved character IP, Riot Games Music represents the first step in a long journey to convert character love into lifelong fandom by bringing their characters to life in new mediums and new, magical ways.
Riot’s story doesn’t end here, not in the slightest. This Fall 2021, Riot Games is leveraging their expert creative team to bring a full animated series to Netflix titled “Arcane”. Riot’s team describes this series as “a love letter to [fans].” As for the Creative Director and Showrunner on the Arcane launch?
None other than Christian “Praeco” Linke.
Based on everything at play and the opportunities ahead, Riot Games very well may rebrand to just “Riot” someday, reflecting their maturation into the character-driven entertainment empire this gaming company is slated to become.