That bit of video game inception involving VR game “Beat Saber” is just the latest sign that Riot Games’ massively popular “League of Legends” game is housed in a universe so rich in creative potential that it can effortlessly give birth to comics, gear, and now a K-Pop band.
Despite being an invention of in-game characters and digital costumes to sell for them, the band K/DA and its single “Pop/Stars” has a growing real-world fanbase sparked by their holographic appearance at the “League of Legends” championships earlier this year.
“This was the most involved music project we’ve ever done,” Toa Dunn, head of Riot’s music group told Variety. “For us, it was about building this whole experience.”
The initial pitch for the idea came together a bit more than a year ago, but Viranda Tantula, the creative lead on the project, said an idea like it had been brewing for about five years.
It was five years ago that Riot Games starting spinning out musical special projects.
“We built a lot of extra cool content around music videos,” Tantula said, adding that the team came up with a lot of ideas as well, including the notion of creating a sort of “League of Legends” version of Gorillaz — where the Gorillaz is a virtual band created by the pairing of musician Damon Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett, this dream project would be a band of characters with music provided by musicians pulled together by Riot.
“But we didn’t have the chops to do that,” Tantula said. “Now, after years of working on community projects, we finally sort of rallied together around this idea.”
The concept faced a number of daunting challenges and required every facet of Riot Game’s vast company to come together.
“This was by far the most involved and complex project,” Tantula said. “It hit most verticals in the company. There was the gamer side of things — all of the game content — the experience in the world, then we have the song, the music video, the live performance for the world championship event, and a lot of regional activations with various community groups and content creators.”
Of the work that had to be done, the most important and difficult was creating that song.
“Doing a good pop song is incredibly complex,” Tantula said. “You look at pop songs and think it’s the simplest type of music, but trying to tap the formula of what makes a good song is very difficult.”
Riot created Pentakill last summer. The fictional metal band also became a chart-topper, but it wasn’t as hard to build as K/DA, Tantula said.
“The time it took us to make a seven to eight-track EP for them was how long it took us to develop this one song,” he said.
Once the song was written, the team had to figure out which real-world artists should give voice to it, and ultimately, the characters in the music video.
“We wanted to find artists with the right voices and attitudes to fit the song,” he said. “Not only that element, but you’re now taking that creative person and attaching the performance to the real world. Is the artist a good fit and are we a good fit?
“All of these things have to kind of brood together.”
Over the following months, the team locked in the voices for the song and characters.
“We had been talking to Madison (Beer) for a year about other projects,” Tantula said. “Our first visit with her felt great. She was ad-libbing little parts. Jaira (Burns) was brought on pretty early, too.”
For the other two, the Riot team turned to South Korea and its massive K-Pop scene.
“I started taking trips to Korea,” Tantula said. “We started meeting with all of the Korean entertainment groups. One of the first ones we met with was (G)I-DLE.”
He said many at Riot had been fans of the group for a while and they liked the attitude they brought to the song, especially the rap section. So after some back and forth, they brought on Miyeon and Soyeon of (G)I-DLE.
While the work on the song was progressing, the other facets of the project continued to come together.
“You had performance developing parallel to that, characters in-game being designed,” Tantula said.
A major part of the live show was putting together an augmented reality performance of the in-game characters that could happen live on stage alongside the real-world actors. Riot Games experimented with similar technology in the 2017 world championships, bringing a massive dragon to the stage.
“It was tech we wanted to keep playing with,” Tantula said. “We wanted to see how far we could push it.”
Where dragons had some room for error, creating human performers had to be spot on, everything, he said, had to feel very real.
When the day came, the live performers took to the stage in front of a massive live audience, and an even bigger one viewing from around the globe. They performed the song live as massive monitors showed what the at-home audience saw, the in-game characters up on stage with the performers, singing the song together, and pulling off some amazing, magical moves.
“The merging of the two was really amazing,” Tantula said. “Hundreds of people have worked on this project, there was a lot of blood, sweat, and tears.”
“We learned some much doing this. Hopefully, we can do this far more efficiently in the future if we ever explore something like this again.”
Perhaps most impressive, though, was that the live performance wasn’t the culmination of the work the team put into the creation, it was the kicking off point.
More than 23,000 fans watched that live performance at the Incheon Munhak Stadium in South Korea, and another 99.6 million watched the performance at the League of Legends World Championship.
Following the event, the song topped the Billboard music charts, was number one on Google Play for top songs, number one on iTunes for K-Pop, number two on iTunes for all pop, and has had more than 242.8 million music streams.
Dunn said the success has the company exploring “all types of opportunities” for K/DA.
“Just seeing the reaction and the new audience we’ve reached, the value is very obvious to us,” he said. “When we talk about doing another song or new music we’re going to continue to explore other things. It’s obvious that our fans and others enjoy these activations.”
The first sign of that leap beyond “League of Legends” for K/DA came Friday with news of the song’s crossover into the virtual reality game “Beat Saber.”
The song will be a free track in the game, which is playable on HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR, and Windows Mixed Reality headsets, starting on Dec. 21.
“The moment we listened to ‘POP/STARS’ we knew for sure this is going to be a hit in ‘Beat Saber,’” said Beat Games CEO Jaroslav Beck. “The track is so pulsing and the video is just epic — it matches our game perfectly. We are so excited that with Beat Saber, players finally get a chance to experience ‘POP/STARS’ on a whole new level and literally feel every beat.”