How virtual band K/DA launched an EP in a pandemic

Nick Summers
·Senior Editor
·14-min read

For thousands if not millions of people, All Out is the most anticipated music release of the year. The five-track EP, which launches today on most major streaming platforms, including Spotify and Apple Music, hasn’t been made by a conventional band or singer-songwriter, though. Instead, it’s the work of a fictional band called K/DA, which is comprised of ‘champions’ from the popular MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) game League of Legends.

K/DA’s music career started back in 2018, though. The virtual supergroup, which reimagines Ahri, Akali, Evelynn and Kai’Sa as singers and rappers, debuted with Pop/Stars, a single that blended K-pop and Western pop. It was hugely successful, peaking at number one in the iTunes K-pop chart and number two in the all-encompassing pop chart. The track also rose to the top of Billboard’s World Digital Song Sales chart. At the time of writing, the music video has close to 390 million views on YouTube. For comparison, the music video for Gorillaz’ Feel Good Inc. has 438 million views but was posted on YouTube more than two years’ prior.

“We had no idea how our audience would take it,” Patrick Morales, the creative director on the Pop/Stars music video said. The song’s appeal extended to people who had never played a League of Legends match. Some were encouraged to pick up the game, while others were content just being fans of the virtual supergroup. The track also exposed the game’s global player base to a genre of music they might not have tried before.

The success of Pop/Stars was shocking but not surprising for anyone that had been following Riot Games, the video game developer behind League of Legends. The company had written plenty of orchestral tracks for its free-to-play MOBA and anthems such as Warriors and Ignite for the annual World Championship. K/DA wasn’t even the first virtual band born from the League of Legends universe, either. Riot Games had already made Pentakill, a fictional metal band with two albums, and a DJ version of League champion Sona.

In 2019, though, K/DA was mysteriously absent. That’s partly because Riot Games was busy working on True Damage, another League-inspired group that released its debut single in November and performed using a holo-projection effect at the opening ceremony for the World Championship final in Paris. The company was also caught off guard by the public’s reaction to Pop/Stars. “When we set out on it, we never had any expectations outside of maybe just doing this one thing at the time,” Morales recalled. A follow-up was inevitable, but Riot would need many months to put it together. “We always want to make sure that we put in the right time and effort to make [each song] just as special,” Toa Dunn, the head of Riot Music Group explained.

The company started discussing the comeback in earnest last December. Another single was the obvious choice, but the team was keen to do something larger and a little different. That’s when the conversation shifted toward multiple tracks and the concept behind a potential album. Dunn, Morales and their colleagues were mindful of the World Championship, though — an obvious time to promote the project — and the time required to write and record songs that could match Pop/Stars’ quality. That’s why the company eventually settled on a five-track EP and not a longer album like Pentakill’s 2017 follow-up Grasp of the Undying.

The music

K/DA is known as a K-pop band, which is understandable given that two of the band members, Ahri and Akali, are voiced by (G)I-dle members Miyeon and Soyeon. American singers Madison Beer and Jaira Burns embodied the other champions for PopStars, though. “You wouldn’t think of that group together on a song,” Dunn said. “And yet, that’s what that was.” Riot also used EDM (electronic dance music) elements to give the track a “very distinct” Western sound, according to Morales. “It feels like pop to me,” he added.

Riot Games wanted to explore that genre blend further in All Out. It would have been easy to lean into the band’s K-pop reputation — the genre’s appeal has only grown in the last two years, fuelled by acts like BTS that have cracked the US charts. Copying the latest K-pop trends could have been disastrous, though. For one, that section of the music industry moves phenomenally quickly. For another, it would have wasted the pop-meets-K-pop formula that made K/DA so special. “It’s less of, ‘what is so-and-so doing’ and trying to do exactly what they’re doing, and more about ‘what are we passionate about doing, and let’s try to do that to the best of our abilities,’” Dunn explained.

With Pop/Stars, Riot wanted to establish the four champions as a singular group. But the company noticed that fans were writing comments and connecting with specific band members. Some like Akali’s rapping and rebellious attitude, while others praised Ahri’s more traditional singing and ‘Queen’ demeanor. With the EP, the team has tried to expand the “spectrum of K/DA,” according to Morales, with songs that explore each member’s personality and aspirations. It’s still pop music, but there should be a mixture of bombastic anthems and slightly more scaled back tunes.

Another key difference between Pop/Stars and All Out is the vocal talent. For The Baddest, a single released on August 27th, Beer and Burns were replaced by Bea Miller, an American artist and former X factor contestant, and Wolftyla, a singer-songwriter that first rose to fame by posting funny videos on Vine. Beer and Burns reprised their roles for More, a second pre-release single that debuted on October 28th, however, Riot has also confirmed that Kim Petras, Aluna, Annika Wells and multiple members of K-pop group Twice will feature on the EP, though it’s not clear if they’ll be guest stars or temporarily performing as one of the group’s four champions.

K/DA
K/DA

Regardless, it’s an approach that’s unique to virtual bands. Real-life groups will occasionally rotate and replace their members, but it’s nearly impossible to pretend that multiple people are the same person. (Not without some creative miming, anyway.) Fictional groups like Gorillaz have long experimented with the idea, though, because it allows them to seamlessly move between genres — often without their younger fans realizing that a change has occurred behind the scenes. K/DA won’t be moving into experimental jazz anytime soon, but the strategy gives Riot a similar level of flexibility.

“It makes K/DA feel more like a concept than an actual band,” Morales explained, “where we can mold it in whatever ways we think are appropriate for the story or experience we wish to tell that year.”

The social media campaigns

Originally, Riot Games was going to promote the EP with some kind of “real-world presence,” according to Morales, that included music festivals such as SXSW in Austin, Texas. The coronavirus outbreak derailed those plans, though. At the same time, the team was aware that a music-based champion for League of Legends, called Seraphine, was currently in development. That led to a social media campaign that combined her reveal with K/DA’s comeback EP. “It not only allowed us to have our players participate in things like these challenges, but it also allowed us to put a voice and a sort of persona behind some of the things that we were making,” Morales explained.

The multi-part campaign started with a Twitter and Instagram account — both with the handle @seradotwav — for Seraphine. “Hello world,” the musician shared on June 26th alongside a few selfies. She quickly followed up with a tweet that said “starting this account to share music and hopefully connect with people.” Riot Games continued to post without publicizing the accounts or confirming that Seraphine was an upcoming League champion. Notably, the team crafted this fictional content around her alternate universe identity — the one that resides on Earth, just like K/DA — rather than the in-game version, which lives in the mythical world of Runeterra.

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hello world ☀️

A post shared by Seraphine (@seradotwav) on

Through these posts, the team slowly built out her backstory as a young but talented musician waiting for her big break in the industry. “For a number of weeks it went pretty undetected,” Morales said. But eventually, the world found her accounts and started speculating about her origins and connection to League of Legends. Then, on August 20th, Riot Games launched a similar set of social media accounts for K/DA, which simultaneously announced that their next song, The Baddest, would be released later that month. The very next day, the Seraphine posted a brief video of an acoustic Pop/Stars cover on her Instagram and Twitter accounts.

“People made all these theories breaking down the little things that we put in her social media posts. We really encourage and want to see more of that behavior. And I think it led to this really interesting experience where it almost felt an ARG [alternate reality game],” Morales explained.

Riot used the release of The Baddest to reinforce Seraphine's love for K/DA. "AAAAAAAAAAAAAA," she wrote in a quote tweet that referenced the track's launch on YouTube, Spotify and Apple Music. Then, on September 4th, the group announced via social media that Seraphine had been invited to collaborate on one of their tracks. The implication was that K/DA had ‘discovered’ her talent on social media just like the public did. “We intended for her to be this real-life Easter egg, and we’re glad that people found her,” Morales added.

“We intended for her to be this real-life Easter egg.”

That song ended up being More. Seraphine’s part was sung by Chinese singer, rapper and songwriter Lexie Liu. At the time of writing, the official music video has over 25 million views on YouTube. The CG animation was handled by Axis Studios, a company that has worked on multiple League projects, as well as Chernobyl and Gears 5’s campaign.

The performance

Fans have praised both tracks. One YouTube user called More a “certified banger.” Another said “don’t mind me. I’m just here to watch this as my daily religious routine.” The pre-release singles also raised the excitement around the band's performance at the League of Legends World Championship in Shanghai. Riot Games has slowly built a reputation for delivering concerts that combine virtual and physical performances. Expectations, therefore, were understandably high for K/DA's real-world comeback.

But this year was different. The coronavirus pandemic has decimated the live events industry and forced many competitions, including Riot’s own League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) in Los Angeles, to abandon face-to-face matches. For months, no-one was sure if a traditional World Championship, which requires teams from different continents to gather in a single place, was even possible. Riot Games pulled it off, though, with a series of measures designed to stop the spread of COVID-19. The games were initially held in an ‘XR’ studio that combined LED surfaces with 360-degree virtual environments that extended beyond the stage. The final, meanwhile, was held in the Pudong Football Stadium with a small number of fans.

Riot came up with a number of back-up plans in case the grand final format was altered at the last minute. “Plan A, B, C, D, E, F and G, you can go through the whole alphabet” Justin Restaino, a creative technology producer at Riot Games said. He pointed to the XR studio, which used real-life performers to introduce the stage’s different looks, as an alternative way to showcase the band. With a virtual act, at least, the company didn’t have to worry about temporary Visas and quarantine periods. “There was really no concern about getting them into the show in one way or another,” Restaino added.

In the end, the company was able to pull off its intended ceremony, which included an AR-powered K/DA performance. The champions were accompanied by a dance troupe on stage but, unlike 2018, none of their real-life vocalists. “We wanted them to be the Beyonce on stage,” Restaino said. “We wanted them to be the focal point.” To make the show more engaging, Riot increased the number of camera feeds that could be blended with AR from three to 12. “It’s almost an overwhelming amount to work with and get prepared with on-site,” Restaino said. But the team was up for the challenge and wanted to create something truly memorable.

Unfortunately, K/DA’s performance was mostly seen as a disappointment. Some felt that the models weren’t lifelike enough, and in some ways a regression from the 2018 ceremony.

“The graphics like CS 1.6,” one YouTube user commented, referring to a version of Counter-Strike released in 2000. “This was really poorly executed,” another wrote. “I’m really disappointed because this was what I really looked forward to when they first announced it.” Others weren’t so harsh. It was impressive, they argued, that Riot was able to put on something, anything, in the middle of a pandemic, never mind one that took place in a physical venue. “Let’s cut them some slack,“ one YouTube user wrote.

“Everyone’s thoughts are valid,” Restaino said. “Here at Riot, we were excited to have the opportunity, this year, to even attempt the live show that we did.” The creative technology producer added: “Ultimately, where things may potentially fall short in some areas, we’re always going to work to improve those in the coming years.”

The future

Despite this setback, the excitement around K/DA is larger than ever. And for Riot, that’s always been the goal. “Our main target isn’t revenue right now,” Dunn explained. “That’s not what we’re really focused on. It’s really about the impact we can create.” Like PopStars, it’s possible that All Out’s popularity will encourage new people to try Riot’s video games. That’s why the company has prepared special K/DA-themed events for League of Legends, its autocross spin-off Teamfight Tactics, and Hearthstone rival Legends of Runeterra. Alternatively, the album could simply grow the audience that’s only interested in Riot as a music label.

For now, the company is staying hush-hush about its future plans. Dunn has confirmed that the team is working on some other musical projects, though, and that future releases won’t be confined to K/DA. Riot’s ambition is to create a “thriving music universe,” he said, that provides new entry points into the overarching League brand. “Take this year as a look at our commitment towards our passion for creating music and where that could go in the future,” Morales added. “This is definitely the first stop in what will ultimately be a long road of future releases to come.”

“Our main target isn’t revenue right now.”

A music universe would help Riot achieve its ambition of becoming a broader entertainment company. One that doesn’t just make video games, but TV shows, board games and albums too. “It’s not just about games, but the experiences that we aim to give our audience,” Morales said. These divisions could subtly update League’s image, ensuring it never feels ‘dated’ to the next generation of gamers. They could also become successful businesses in their own right, reducing the company’s reliance on microtransactions and esports sponsorships to make money.

“[Will music] become an established revenue stream? Potentially, if we do it well,” Dunn hinted. “But we have to keep our eyes on the prize, and it’s really about establishing K/DA. Who are they? And then starting to tell those stories, and finding those unique ways to do that.”