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  • Writer's pictureAlexandra Richey

Riot Games Music: Abbreviated Case Study (2021)

Introduction

In the summer of 2021, American gaming company Riot Games– most known for the worldwide game phenomenon League of Legends– launched a new record label division called Riot Games Music. It represents all of Riot’s past, present, and future music projects. They handle everything from virtual artist and album cover design, songwriting, virtual music video production, budget planning, and more (Travers 2018).


Music at Riot Games

Since its creation in 2006, music has been a central pillar of Riot Games’ fandom and culture. From background tracks to character themes to entire band discographies, Riot’s music heavily eclipses traditional soundscapes in video games. Riot has transformed the art form into a powerful medium for storytelling and worldbuilding, using music as the foundation for its metaverse. What started as a coveted in-house music team seamlessly evolved into an influential music division spearheaded by Toa Dunn.


Up until 2020, with the release of Riot’s second gaming franchise, Valorant, the music team focused solely on building and expanding the League universe, which currently boasts 162 unique "champions." Dunn, who has been on the music team at Riot since 2013, describes music as an expression of the team itself, a leading tool for virtual artistry rather than a complement (Lupasco 2021). The same year he joined, the company uploaded an intimate behind-the-scenes look into “The Making of Freljord Music” onto YouTube-- Freljord being one of the 13 fictional nations comprising Runeterra, the home of all League's universe. As an extension of the League universe, the document underscores the emotional power and presence of music as a “powerful tool to capture the identity, history, and feel of the game” (Travers 2018). “The Making of Freljord Music” was the first of many public-facing music projects to connect Riot fans to the Riot metaverse.


Music supports every facet of Riot’s ever-expanding intellectual property (IP), with LEC play-by-play caster Drakos describing the music as “always [feeling] pretty natural” in the League universe (Brown 2021). Riot Games Music produces compelling and engaging audial-visual experiences that deepen players’ understanding of the virtual world they occupy. Riot established itself as a gaming company with music enhancing the virtual experience, but now its Universe is subject to change even further.


Key Projects

Over a decade of creative work has wielded a robust and flourishing music universe where League characters embody alter-egos to become “musicians instead of fighters,” separating them from their original lore and placing them in parallel universes (Lupasco 2021). Riot Games Music has captured the entire music microcosm.


Worlds Anthem

In 2014, Riot Games introduced an anthem to its annual League of Legends World Championship (commonly known as “Worlds”). Riot collaborated with Imagine Dragons to bring the first-ever anthem, “Warriors,” to life. To this day, it remains the most popular Worlds song both in terms of numbers– its music video has over 336 million views on YouTube– and fan sentiment. (Ciocchetti 2021).


Worlds Anthem was the first large-scale music project to demonstrate the music team’s power to birth traditions. Riot Games Music handles theme selection, song production, and talent sourcing, ensuring that every Worlds song delivers the “perfect dramatic gaming anthem” through hard-hitting beats, a heavy bassline, and lyrical imagery (Mullen 2020). Riot Games Music, however, had grander ambitions than just an annual anthem.


Pentakill

Riot Games built its music universe upon existing League IP. In gameplay, a “pentakill” refers to one player dealing all five killing blows to the 5-person enemy team. In the lore, Pentakill is a virtual heavy metal band whose name reflects the power and domination of its namesake achievement. Champions Mordekaiser, Karthus, Yorick, Sona, Olaf, and Kayle compose the group. While Riot’s in-house music team primarily composed and performed Pentakill’s music, several renowned metal musicians made cameos, such as Jørn Lande, Tommy Lee, and Danny Lohner.


Pentakill demonstrated early on that a music universe for a video game was entirely viable. Their debut EP album, Smite & Ignite (2014), not only cracked the Billboard Top 40 but hit number one on iTunes Metal and Rock charts (Summers 2019). Following their second album and chart-topper, Grasp of the Undying (2017), Riot partnered with virtual-concert startup WaveXR to immerse fans in an interactive virtual concert titled Lost Chapter: An Interactive Album Experience (2021) to promote Pentakill’s third album of the same name.


K/DA

For their next virtual music sensation, Riot Games Music was looking for something “hard-hitting and fun,” said principal creative director Patrick Morales, and K-pop was there to lend its energy (Lupasco 2021). In 2017, K-pop had well-entered music mainstream. Additionally, South Korea was a significant country for Riot. It was home to one of the largest League player bases and the most successful team in the game’s professional history (IGN 2021). K-pop also presented a valuable opportunity to develop a range of character personas and styles.


At Worlds 2018, Riot unveiled the virtual girl group “K/DA” (short for Kills, Deaths, Assists) through an augmented reality performance. Built off K-pop archetypes, it features Ahri, Akali, Evelynn, and Kai’Sa represented by (G)-IDLE’s Miyeon and Soyeon, Madison Beer, and Jaira Burns, respectively. K/DA’s debut song, “POP/STARS,” hit gold certification with over 500K units, and its accompanying music video has over 545 million views on YouTube. K/DA songs have amassed over 900 million views on Riot’s YouTube channel and over 620 million streams on Spotify.


Dunn revealed that K/DA was the “most involved music project Riot has ever brought to life” (Travers 2018). It is a paragon of Riot’s musical success, growing past the domain of gamers and reaching the general public.


True Damage

True Damage is the latest band created under the company’s label. The hip-hop group took the 2019 Worlds’ stage with a “live holo projection” performance that seamlessly meshed virtuality and reality. League-based bandmates Akali, Ekko, Senna, and Qiyanna and their DJ, Yasuo, performed with their human counterparts– (G)-IDLE’s Soyeon, Thutmose and Duckwrth, Keke Palmer, and Becky G, respectively. Like Pentakill and K/DA, Riot released a set of in-game skins for True Damage that matched the style and vibe of the group. However, they are the first artists to have a brand partnership. Louis Vuitton collaborated with Riot to release “Prestige” skins for Qiyana and Senna, designed by Nicolas Ghesquiè, LV’s artistic director of women’s collections (Samples 2019).


Riot worked closely with The Line Animation studio to create the music video for True Damage’s breakout song, GIANTS, making it authentic to the game and musical genre while weaving fantastical and real elements into the visual (The Line 2019). It currently sits at 195 million views.


The Future

Riot Games Music nurtures a robust metaverse mentality, where players can interact with IP beyond core gameplay. Music is an accessible entry point for newcomers but does its purpose symbolize mere promotion? The idea of “brand-controlled” artists is unsettling and confusing for some, but most Riot fans do not care (Summers 2019). Record numbers of views and streams reflect this enthusiasm for having bands based on and championing the game. By blurring the lines between “real music” and “digital fantasy,” Riot Games Music has become a compelling platform for expanding League’s metaverse (Lawson 2018 & Lupasco 2021).


With over 200 songs, League is “one of the most musically diverse worlds in the gaming industry,” all for the sake of IP sustainability (Ciochetti 2021). Riot Games Music actualizes this long-term mission, bringing well-loved characters to life in new mediums and new, innovative ways. The team’s latest successful project, a Fall 2021 animated Netflix series titled “Arcane,” is an intimate audial-visual experience already slated for a second season. Based on all the creative opportunities ahead, a rebranding strategy from Riot Games to just “Riot” does not seem beyond belief. It would signal its “maturation into the character-driven entertainment empire,” which has already been set in motion (Travers 2018).



References

Brown, Andy. “Riot Games Announce New Album from 'League of Legends' Band Pentakill.” NME, August 31, 2021. https://www.nme.com/news/gaming-news/riot-games-announce-new-album-from-league-of-legends-band-pentakill-3026810.


Ciocchetti, Cecilia. “Head of Riot Music on Building Worlds Anthems: '[Music] Is More than Just What You Hear'.” Dot Esports, November 17, 2021. https://dotesports.com/league-of-legends/news/head-of-riot-music-on-building-worlds-anthems-music-is-more-than-just-what-you-hear.


“Giants by True Damage - League of Legends.” The Line Animation, 2019. https://www.thelineanimation.com/work/league-of-legends-giants.


IGN, " From League of Legends to K-Pop Sensations: The K/DA Story | IGN Inside Stories," YouTube Video, 27:45, August 15, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=de-xgNEsE3I&ab_channel=IGN.


Lawson, Dom. “Pentakill: How a Metal Band That Doesn't Exist Made It to No 1.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, August 6, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/music/shortcuts/2017/aug/06/pentakill-how-a-metal-band-that-doesnt-exist-made-it-to-no-1.


Lupasco, Cristian. “Riot Shares Insights about k/Da's Birth, Why It's a K-Pop Group, and the Future of Its Music Universe.” Dot Esports. Dot Esports, August 15, 2021. https://dotesports.com/league-of-legends/news/riot-shares-insights-about-k-das-birth-why-its-a-k-pop-group-and-the-future-of-its-music-universe.


Mullen, Livvy. “The 'League of Legends' Soundtrack Is Changing the Way Gaming and Music Intersect.” The Aggie, November 3, 2020. https://theaggie.org/2020/11/03/the-league-of-legends-soundtrack-is-changing-the-way-gaming-and-music-intersect/.


“Music.” League of Legends Wiki. Accessed December 13, 2021. https://leagueoflegends.fandom.com/wiki/Music.


Samples, Rachel. “Everything We Know about League's True Damage Skins: Release Date, Prices, and More.” Dot Esports. Dot Esports, October 29, 2019. https://dotesports.com/news/everything-we-know-about-leagues-true-damage-skins.


Summers, Nick. “Why Does Riot Games Keep Making Virtual Bands?” Engadget, May 13, 2021. https://www.engadget.com/2019-11-12-league-legends-true-damage-virtual-bands.html?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAD9JHQNEBDokV4mz53dOIeYyQDx8a1J7LLVR58867dB_YYH94ytDKuDI4YDHN9r3SyRC896jzbVoGCXlU2SmY2q3Vp02eQSV5LJHvmcxowBrXKsYU9v0UKKBBvU0zTvwF7FzQ6RY-fcMLgySSYQlw3BYB1ARLdUzvYzcIor0ZV2e.


Travers, Christopher. “Riot Games Launches Virtual Record Label, Expands the Riot Universe.” Virtual Humans, August 18, 2021. https://www.virtualhumans.org/article/riot-games-launches-virtual-record-label-riot-games-music.


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