Riot Games' Loud Impact on Mainstream Music
In the last decade, the 'League of Legends' developer discreetly produced almost 1000 songs, including major hits.
Hey everyone! It’s Jacob. Apologies for the slow turnout of late. I took a few days off last week to peruse the Kentucky Bourbon Trail for my Bachelor Party. Unfortunately, I also caught an upper respiratory infection that’s sidelined me most of this week (not fun!).
That said, our very own Cecilia Ciocchetti, who you may know from the Visionaries end credits, recently got a chance to speak with producers Mako and Sebastien Najand from Riot Games Music, who recently teamed up with K-pop idol girl group NewJeans. So I’m handing over the reigns today to Cecilia. Enjoy!
As the capacity crowd poured into their seats at the Chase Center in east San Francisco, the lights began to dim. A countdown began to run across the NBA's biggest jumbotron, a whopping seven stories tall, as the atmosphere became electric and the air filled with the noise of crescendoing percussion.
In short order, a set of three musical acts performed back-to-back-to-back—concluded by none other than Lil Nas X. As he appeared on the stage, clad in a blonde wig and dripped in gold, the Grammy Award-winning pop sensation elicited an uproar of cheers. Another sold-out night for the “Old Town Road” singer wasn’t new, but on this night, not a single person bought a ticket to see him.
No, on that November night, Lil Nas X was just the opening act.
With fans from China, South Korea, North America and Europe in attendance, more than 18,000 were present to see the finale of the 12th annual League of Legends World Championship. Lil Nas X's "Star Walkin'," released one month earlier, served as the event's made-for anthem.
Over the past decade, the developer of two of the most-played video games in the world transformed their business from a gaming-centered powerhouse to a cultural phenomenon that rivals the biggest entertainment projects in the world. Part of that success comes from its one-of-a-kind music catalog of more than 750 songs that has seen the Los Angeles-based game developer collaborate with some of pop music's most successful artists, from American favorites like Lil Nas X and Imagine Dragons to international superstars like G-IDLE.
In a long line of cheesy and cliché video game music collaborations, Riot has seemingly found the opposite—co-producing and publishing a handful of chart-toppers and platinum records. Lil Nas X's "Star Walkin'" peaked at No. 32 on Billboard's Hot 100, while "POP/STARS," made by a Riot-assembled, virtual K-pop group of American and South Korean singer-songwriters, went platinum in 2022.
Nowadays, Riot Games stands at the crossroads of gaming and music, nurturing partnerships with artists who elevate the players’ experience through songs, soundtracks and IP expansion.
Nine years ago, at the Seoul World Cup Stadium, Imagine Dragons performed Riot's first Worlds' anthem: "Warriors." Like many others, this event marked my introduction to the world of esports. Now, nearly a decade later, I had the opportunity to sit down with Riot's principal composer, Sebastien Najand, and producer Alex Seaver, known professionally as Mako.
Like that awe-inspiring Imagine Dragons performance in 2014, Riot is gearing up for another massive performance in South Korea three weeks from now, this time in a 25,000-seat baseball stadium. Najand and Seaver are two of the minds behind the Riot's latest Worlds anthem, "GODS," performed by K-pop girl group NewJeans.
If you're enjoying this article and want to see more like it, think about subscribing to our Patreon. You'll get exclusive content from both all of our team. Cheers!
Within 24 hours of its release on Oct. 3, "GODS" racked up 7.8 million views on YouTube (it now has more than 25 million).
The song received positive and negative critiques, the latter mostly due to fitting NewJeans, an upbeat girl group, into the more epic theme that Riot aims for in its anthems.
"Modern music is amazing," Mako said in our interview. "It's becoming progressively less epic-feeling. Less-stadium-sounding things are at the top of the charts."
Juxtaposing what modern pop music sounds like, versus the draw to have a grand stadium performance, presented a new challenge for the group.
"We've tried in the past to make things that are more contemporary [and we've received poor reception,]" Mako said. "Are we just making something that sounds like it's 10 years old, or how can we make something that kind of feels like a modern twist of something that's still stadium-sized? And I feel as lost as ever with that stuff."
Despite some critiques, "GODS" is on pace to surpass its predecessors. It has 26 million Spotify streams already, soon to earn itself a platinum certification. Through its difficulties in the ever-changing world of music, Riot figured out a formula that sticks. But what makes these anthems so successful?
Musical performances at esports events haven't always been a hit.
Following the conclusion of the Street Fighter V final and before the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive final at ESL One New York at the Brooklyn Nets' Barclays Center in October 2016, female DJ duo Krewella performed—much to the chagrin of the thousands in attendance. Their performance further delayed a behind-schedule event, running the Counter-Strike event past midnight.
Two years later, that same venue hosted the inaugural Overwatch League Finals, with an opening performance from DJ Khaled. That performance saw the questionably talented MC chant over his fully-fledged tracks before breaking down into a short but highly memeable dance during the playthrough of his Rihanna collaboration, "Wild Thoughts."
What makes the League of Legends World Championship special is that it's not just a tournament. It's an annual colossal celebration of League itself, akin to the Super Bowl's place in pro football. The anthems have become an integral part of the identity of the event. Najand described Riot Games Music's task for Worlds as channeling the experience of the unique emotions in the world of esports into music—an intricate fusion of two distinct, yet intrinsically linked universes.
"You have to experience esports a few times to get it," Najand told me. "You have to go to the opening ceremonies and see the scale of what it's like to be a fan of esports."
The World Championship anthems have grown a life of their own. "Star Walkin'" is a common feature on sports broadcasts such as ESPN's "College GameDay," among others. But Riot Games Music's impact isn't solely confined to its once-a-year home runs.
Riot has experimented over the past decade in other genres, for other projects. Its soundtrack for "Arcane," the critically acclaimed Netflix animated show that expands on some of the League universe's lore, is impressive. The lead track from that album, "Enemy," again by Imagine Dragons, has more than 1 billion streams on Spotify.
Riot has dived into virtual experiences, too. At the 2018 World Championship, the members behind K/DA, including Madison Beer and G-IDLE, performed along with their in-game augmented-reality characters. "POP/STARS" made history as the most successful debut for a K-pop group on YouTube, amassing more than 560 million views to date.
Riot's first foray into virtual artists came with Pentakill, a metal band themed around some of the League champions, with the likes of performers such as Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee and former DragonForce lead singer ZP Theart. Pentakill has released three albums since their debut in 2014. After Pentakill and K/DA's success, Riot formed True Damage and more recently HEARTSTEEL, all in the same vein.
Najand and Mako see a bright future for the studio's musical ambitions. The two are now focused on the second season of "Arcane," projected to be released in winter 2024. But after it concludes, they'll look to elevate more artists and further build a home for them to unlock their passions and build new music in and around video games.
"It's very surreal to be able to get in touch with all these wonderful people and have them take our calls and listen to the thing," Mako said. "And not everyone wants to work with us, but a lot of times people will at least be like, 'All right, yeah, this sounds kind of interesting. Let's try it.'"
Thanks for reading The Jacob Wolf Report! If you want to support the work we do, you can subscribe to us on Patreon for more bonus content from both myself and my partner, former Washington Post games journalist Mikhail Klimentov.