Here’s Why That’s a Big Deal
Riot Games recently signed a deal allowing the digital music distribution service FUGA to stream its League of Legends music.
Normally, it may not be big news to announce that a streaming service will now feature video game music. But when one of those songs, the recently released “POP/STARS,” reached number one on the U.S. K-Pop charts for Apple Music and number five for pop music while also topping the Billboard World Digital Song Sales for the week of Nov. 17 (it still remains near the top), it’s a big deal.
It all started at the opening ceremony for the 2018 League of Legends World Championship in Incheon, South Korea. The first song was performed by the K-Pop group K/DA, a newly formed group whose four members are actually in-game League of Legends heroes: Ahri, Akali, Evelynn, and Kai’Sa (the name K/DA is an anagram for “Kills, Deaths, and Assists,” which is a reference to the game’s scoring system). The digital avatars were even part of the live performance thanks to augmented reality (although the crowd could only see them on the video screens, to anyone streaming at home they were integrated into the performance).
The virtual performers appeared onstage in front of their real-world voices. Madison Beer, Jaira Burns, Soyeon, and Miyeon (the latter two are members of the K-Pop group (G)I-DLE) lend their voices to Evelynn, Kai’Sa, Akali, and Ahri respectively. The avatars were even given new backstories that explain their roles as a musical group. For example, Ahri and Evelynn are the lead vocalists, Kai’Sa is the principal dancer, and Akali is the rapper (and also a total beast).
“We went into this really wanting to make a dope ‘League’ moment for players – albeit one where the fantasy of the champs being in the real world played out in an authentic manner that could live alongside others in their verticals (i.e., song had to be able to stand up to other pop songs, performance had to stand up to other performances, etc.),” Viranda Tantula, creative lead on the Worlds Opening Ceremony and Music, told Variety. “We really went into it wanting to make the singular moment as dope a possible and intentionally weren’t thinking much further into the future than that.”
Well, the moment was a hit, as was the song. Within 48 hours, the video had racked up 13 million views. A quick perusal through the comments shows that the song’s fans extend beyond League of Legends players (perhaps even more impressive is the number of people who say they like it, but watch the video expecting to hate it). Even for an event as popular as the League World Championship, being able to transition from a singular moment into a pop culture phenomenon is significant.
However, that Riot can create great music should not come as a surprise to anyone. This is not even the first time that Riot has produced a hit song. The metal band Pentakill is a collaboration between Riot’s in-house songwriters, composers, and producers and a variety of metal musicians (including Tommy Lee of Mötley Crüe, Danny Lohner of Nine Inch Nails [and several other bands], and Noora Louhimo, of the Finnish metal band Battle Beast). The group has released a couple of albums, most notably, “Grasp of the Undying,” which made it onto the Billboard Top 40 and reached number one on the iTunes metal chart.
image credit: The Verge
Also, four years ago for the 2014 League of Legends World Championship, Riot Games and the band Imagine Dragons worked together to create the song “Warriors.” One year later, Riot remixed “I Bet My Life,” another of the band’s song.
“Riot has been engaging in musical collaborations with great artists for years. A lot of gamers are also music fans, but it is exciting to see that a lot of talented musicians are also gamers, with whom we can create tailored music experiences within our game universe,” said Johnson Yeh, managing director of Riot Games for Greater China and Southeast Asia.
In addition to creating its own metal band and K-Pop super group, Riot recently hosted a hybrid music festival and esports event in partnership with MTV titled Hyperplay. The two-day event took place at the Singapore Indoor Stadium in August 2018 and featured musical performances by international, regional, and local artists. This musical portion was edited into a 60-minute special that premiered on MTV in Southeast Asia.
So, while the K/DA song was intended to be a one-off event that was a fun way to kick off the World Championship and sell a few in-game skins, Riot spent the time to craft a worthwhile song and produce an entertaining video that gave it the legs to live on. It’s a level of authenticity that separates crass commercialism from effective commercialism. And that’s what FUGA purchased the rights to stream.
The new partnership gives FUGA the rights to digitally distribute all League of Legends music worldwide, with the only exceptions being the countries of China and South Korea.
“Working with FUGA allows us to focus on production and creativity,” said Toa Dunn, head of Riot Music Group. “They really understand how important our players and talent are to us, and we’re looking forward to working together in the future.”
This partnership only hints at the burgeoning trend of tying esports and music together. For example, in addition to working with Riot, FUGA has also inked a deal with the Canadian label Monstercat, which releases soundtracks for the popular video game Rocket League as compilation mixtapes.
“We’re very excited to be partnering with two of the most innovative companies in the field of esports, a rapidly growing area for music promotion and consumption, alongside signing more deals with respected rights holders across the globe,” said Pieter van Rijn, CEO of FUGA.
These FUGA collaborations are not the only ones occurring between esports companies (or esports adjacent players) and the music industry. In August, esports organizer and production company ESL agreed on a deal with Universal Music Group to create Enter Records, a label devoted to esports. The tagline of the new label will be “soundtracking the gaming experience.”
Also, Tyler Blevins, the popular Twitch streamer more commonly known as Ninja, recently announced a record deal with the label Astralwerks. Ninja announced that the new album will be called “Ninjawerks.” It will feature content from electronic artists and be available on vinyl, CD, and digital.
Although he may have a fight on his hands when it comes to the tagline.
“I think this is another big step towards bridging the gap between music artists and gamers,” said Ninja. “Our worlds keep getting more and more connected, and this feels like the next step — hopefully, this can become the soundtrack to gaming.”
Music has been an essential component of esports events since the earliest days of the industry. Yet, it is only recently that the collaboration between the two industries is expanding beyond the confines of exhibitions. While the success of most of these ventures remains to be seen, in the case of Riot specifically, it’s an excellent example of brand building that was successful because it was done thoughtfully and authentically.
Illustration by Jai Kamat