From Sting to Lil Nas X: how musicians have found a home in ‘League of Legends’

Riot Games Music's Bob DeBelina explains why some of the world's biggest musicians have made tracks for 'League of Legends'

“We have about 80-90 people sitting in front of us right now,” boasts a commentator at the first League of Legends World Championship Finals, all the way back in 2011. At the time, an audience nearing 100 viewers was an achievement for the fledgling multiplayer strategy game – but over a decade later, League‘s annual Worlds tournament has become a very different affair.

The change hasn’t just been in viewership, but also in scope. While developer Riot Games is yet to release any official stats, this year’s Worlds concluded with a peak viewership of at least 5.15million viewers – though expect that to jump up to the tens of millions, once global stats come in (last year pulled in over 70million viewers). If you were one of those viewers, Worlds 2022 was a thrill: from Lil Nas X‘s hologram-fueled live rendition of ‘STAR WALKIN” to Jackson Wang turning up to perform last week’s surprise release ‘Fire to the Fuse’, it was a testament to how far Riot Games has expanded its musical endeavours over the years.

Bob DeBelina, the creative & artist partnerships lead at Riot Games Music, tells NME that Riot started exploring its musical side in the early days of League of Legends, back when champions in the game were released every two weeks and debuted with their own login screen and music. A highlight being this one for 2012’s egotistical executioner Draven, whose indulgent theme consists of adoring fans chanting his name.

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DeBelina points out that these champion themes led to Riot creating animated music videos, which in turn led the studio to Worlds anthems and opening ceremonies with virtual groups – like this all-time great with K/DA, a K-pop group whose members include (G)I-DLE‘s Soyeon and Madison Beer.

“The team had to grow and scale to support these efforts,” explains DeBelina, who adds that 2021 was an “inflection point for Riot Music,” pointing to the fact that on top of that year’s Worlds offerings, they also had to create a star-studded album for League‘s Netflix adaptation Arcane and make music for Valorant, Riot’s first-person competitive shooter.

“I’m constantly talking to artists, managers, labels, agents, and lawyers to try to find good fits for upcoming creative efforts,” he says, hinting as a busy day to day job, adding that he’s “always trying to figure out what kind of music partnerships will surprise and delight players.”

Jackson Wang performing at Worlds 2022. Credit: Lance Skundrich.
Jackson Wang performing at Worlds 2022. Credit: Lance Skundrich.

“I love to be paired early with a Riot creative director with a strong vision to help build out that concept into a music strategy,” DeBelina continues, claiming that he is “always talking” to Riot’s composers, producers and songwriters to gather feedback and new ideas for partnerships with artists.

As for how Riot chooses the musicians it works with, DeBelina explains that originally the team looked for fans of the studio’s games.

“A good amount of our early collaborations came from working with artists who play and are passionate about our games.” shares DeBelina. “Imagine Dragons have played League for over 10 years now. In 2013, they’d bring their PCs on tour with them to play backstage. Zedd is Immortal in Valorant. Chrissy Costanza from Against The Current has streamed League for years.”

However, DeBelina notes that playing one of Riot’s games “isn’t a requirement,” and says Arcane was “a major step in opening up potential future collaborations.”

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“Oftentimes our creative might call for an artist who doesn’t necessarily know our world that well just yet,” he continues. “We’ve found that by bringing artists to campus and showing them that Riot is full of passionate people trying to build worlds, and not just games, really helps show the bigger picture. We’ve had multiple artists really get into the lore and champion backstories which motivated them to collab with us.”

Imagine Dragons' Dan Reynolds at Worlds 2021. Credit: Colin Young-Wolff
Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds at Worlds 2021. Credit: Colin Young-Wolff

Enter Lil Nas X. Months after fans spotted the star visiting Riot Games, Lil Nas X announced that he would be collaborating on “the biggest, coolest, sexiest Worlds” to date, starting with this sketch painting him as the “President of League of Legends.” Shortly after, he released ‘STAR WALKIN’, a poppy ballad that has racked up 96million plays on Spotify.

“Riot Games Music has wanted to work with Lil Nas X since Panini dropped in 2019,” recalls DeBelina. “The entire team loves him. He has so many fans across Riot.”

However, the real draw was that Riot’s data revealed there was a major “crossover between his fanbase and the League community” – and so, the company’s biggest collaboration was born.

Reflecting on the creation process, DeBelina says it was “super collaborative” and involved plenty of back-and-forth between Riot and Lil Nas X.

“From day one we had the event and anthem brief with the theme being ‘One & Only.’ We were working with Nas and his creative team, management, and label to develop a full partnership plan that included the anthem, the animated video, the skits with Nas as the “President of League of Legends,” the K’Sante prestige skin co-design, social media tactics, and the opening ceremony performance,” outlines DeBelina. “Nas went through a number of iterations of the chorus lyrics before landing on the ‘STAR WALKIN” theme which included the line “don’t ever say it’s over if I’m breathing” which felt so on brand for Worlds.”

DeBelina acknowledges that Riot asks for “a good amount of trust and collaboration” from musical partners: “As an artist these days, It’s increasingly difficult to find and maintain an audience, so we strive to be extremely respectful when working with established artists to try to find ways to best serve both audiences.”

He adds that “successful partnerships require a good amount of an artist’s time,” and admits that collaborating can require musicians being “open-minded about stepping somewhat out of their normal world and into ours.”

Lil Nas X performing at Worlds 2022. Credit: Christian Betancourt.
Lil Nas X performing at Worlds 2022. Credit: Christian Betancourt.

Part of stepping into the unknown involves each song’s music video – Worlds anthems are big-budget animated videos that are released ahead of the tournament itself. Highly popular with League fans and filled with Easter eggs related to prior tournaments, the videos rarely have any visual connection to the artist. Additionally, DeBelina says that the song itself is “absolutely” created with a live performance at Worlds in mind.

“The live show really adds a whole new layer of energy and meaning to the anthem,” he explains, adding that it is “the first time our audience gets to see the actual artist deliver the anthem surrounded by all the visuals, lights, dancers, etc.”

“Our creative teams will play the song over and over to build out the best way to bring the song to life at Worlds Finals,” continues DeBelina. “Ultimately we know that the anthem will need to serve the energy peak of the live show when the trophy is revealed and the pro players walk out on stage. The anthem definitely takes on meaning from the first listen with the animated music video all the way to the live show at finals where it cements itself as part of Worlds history.”

As 2022 closes out, Riot’s list of collaborators is longer than ever. Lil Nas X stands on that list with names like Denzel Curry, Sting, Pusha T, and tens of other artists that have carved out their own slice of League of Legends history. As for Riot, the studio has a number of new games in development – including a fighting game and a mysterious multiplayer online game (MMO) set in the world of League. It’s all very exciting, but 13 years after Riot entered the scene with League of Legends, the prospect of another star-studded bop from the studio manages to feel just as thrilling.

You can check out Riot’s growing discography, including ‘STAR WALKIN”, on Spotify and all major streaming platforms. 

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