Riot Games makes one of the most popular games in the world, League of Legends. They’re pretty well-known for their strong art department that puts out a lot of companion materials to the game, be it art for different characters, stills for stories and lore, or full-length power metal albums. This time, they outdid themselves by making a full blown k-pop debut.
For context, Riot releases cosmetic improvements (called skins) for characters in League of Legends. Recently, they made a line of popstar line of skins in heavy k-pop style. It’s fairly normal for Riot to market their skins, though usually through more conventional means like a short animated teaser or a gameplay video.
This time they debuted a sort-of imaginary band called K/DA, short for kills, deaths, and assists (some basic in-game metrics for success). Right off the bat, Riot showed they had a good read on k-pop tropes with a name like K/DA. It’s got everything you want in a k-pop name: all capital letters, an unexplained abbreviation, and random punctuation. KDA is normally abbreviated K/D/A, but Riot knew K/DA was better because if the punctuation isn’t nonsense, it isn’t k-pop.
Then they worked with recently a debuted k-pop girl group (G)I-dle and two up and coming pop singers Madison Beer and Jaira Burns to put a sound behind the name. The collaboration worked very well as each vocalist fits different pop niches.
(G)I-dle has one of the better rappers in a girl group right now in Jeon Soyeon, an accomplished soloist and a finalist in a Korean rap talent show. (G)I-dle also has a good classic k-pop singer with a good range in Miyeon. Burns is an English equivalent of Miyeon, a capable pop singer with a cleaner, clearer style. Beer rounds out the group with a thicker, more accented vocal style that fits a pop-trap or west coast style.
Together, they’re a good blend of different styles inside the same genre. They don’t grate against each other, but they do provide a nice contrast. They all have the talent to make Riot’s imaginary band come to life and become strong, fully realized, real-world pop.
Riot’s music team also did a great job writing and creating a beat and lyrics that fit the k-pop aesthetic. To do this well they got some help from Harloe, a lesser-known singer who has been writing and co-writing pop songs for big pop acts for a little while. If that sounds a bit like art-by-committee, that’s because at some level it is. Pop as a genre is very collaborative, to its benefit and detriment.
Riot put together a good committee and created a convincing, sharp pop song in “POP/STARS.” It’s catchy, it has very clean, pleasant lows and implements some classic pop vocal effects (echo, auto-tuning) pretty well. The chorus is fun, simple, and upbeat. The rap segment shows off Soyeon’s talents pretty well, having a lot of energy and speed to it. There are tons of k-pop tropes included too, like some scratchy drum rattles and claps borrowed from trap music or the super distorted “hey!” in the background.
All of that can sound easy enough, but practiced pop artists fail to do it all the time. Good art can be simple, but it’s rarely easy.
To make it truly k-pop, Riot would now need to make a strong music video. No k-pop debut is effective without a music video. Riot’s art department knocked this out of the park, creating compelling visuals based around their characters and their new skins. The animation is often so fluid that the uncanny valley seems very far away and it reads like the characters are accurately saying every word, Korean or English.
K-pop feels well-represented in the music video, with a dance number that gets a good k-pop feel by using dynamic hip and arm movements meant to frame expressive faces and beautiful popstars. There’s also k-pop’s trendy fashion, superb video editing, and even an effort to give every character similar screentime, as though they were k-pop members. The animated format also gave them the opportunity to give characters visuals that artists can only dream of having – like a demonic bandana that mimics the mouth movements of the rapper.
Riot clearly knocked it out of the park. Why did they put so much effort into making this work? The obvious answer is to sell skins. The better answer is to shout out to their massive Asian market. Riot’s game, League of Legends, took off in no small part due to Korea and China. Some of the most famous and talented League of Legends players are Korean, and China has the largest player base for the game in the world. Both countries love k-pop so it was a great way for Riot to recognize their big contributing regions.
Also, 2018 is the year of k-pop. Boy bands are topping charts, girl groups are working with big names in the west, k-pop has gone global. For Riot, it’s a perfect time to do something like this, especially since they’ve also just hosted their biggest competitive event (the League of Legends World Championships) in South Korea as well. For Riot, this was a great opportunity.