Imagine Dragons may be one of the biggest bands around – just based on their 2018 album ‘Origins’, they topped the Billboard chart for duo/group, beating out BTS – but at heart, they’re also just huge geeks, or as frontman Dan Reynolds says with a laugh, “we’re very reclusive, introverted people.”
Along with band guitarist Wayne Sermon, one of their mutual lifelong passions – besides music – has been gaming, going as far back as the days of the Commodore 64. Reynolds, who grew up with eight brothers, calls the N64 “God’s greatest gift to humanity”.
“Playing Goldeneye 007, slappers only, proximity mines, playing Command and Conquer: Red Alert, nuking someone’s base with my friends, playing WarCraft and WarCraft 2, just when LAN started to happen… those memories are like the greatest memories of my youth,” he tells NME.
Rather than having outgrown it, gaming has only become more important to Reynolds, probably only matched by his recently taking up jiu-jitsu. “I’m always looking to do things that just take my mind off life,” he continues. “Jiu-jitsu, it’s like, ‘I’m gonna die to this person unless I’m thinking about what I’m doing here’. Gaming, it’s ‘oh my gosh, I’m gonna lose this and I’m not gonna get gold’, and then I’m not worrying about other things in life that worry me, like death, disease, politics, religion – horrible things I don’t want to think about.”
So it’s apt then, as the band has released its new album ‘Mercury – Act 1’, they also have a song featured in new Netflix series Arcane, an animation based on League Of Legends. The show actually features a number of songs (so far one for each episode), but Imagine Dragons’ song ‘Enemy’ isn’t simply a contribution, but rather the theme song. And the collaboration between the band and the game goes back many years.
As timing would have it, Reynolds first discovered the popular free-to-play MOBA around 2013, shortly after the band was beginning to blow up following the release of their 2012 debut album ‘Night Visions’.
“When you’re playing festivals and clubs, you have some downtime after you go to a venue, soundcheck, and do some press, so it’s the perfect time to either read a book or play a game,” says Reynolds. “I think it was my brother [and manager] Mac who told me about this free game, so I played it, it was really frustratingly hard, I was terrible at it, and the learning curve was super hard!”
While that might put off some people, stressful, challenging competitive games are precisely the type of games Reynolds enjoys to “decompress”, so he also introduced the game to Sermon, who also relishes the challenge, and the two admit they spent a good few months just playing the now-defunct Twisted Treeline mode before braving the main Summoner’s Rift.
“League Of Legends definitely struck me as something that was very challenging,” says Sermon. “You’re playing against other people but it’s also not like Call Of Duty where some 12-year-old with a sniper rifle is gonna dominate you every time – there’s meta thinking and macro strategy, the most mechanically gifted team isn’t always going to be one that wins, which is good as I’m 37 so my twitch muscles aren’t what they used to be.”
Suffice to say, the game became a new obsession for them. “We’ve definitely been on stage late due to League Of Legends games,” Reynolds confesses with a laugh, probably not something most people would imagine when wondering why rockstar divas take so long to get on stage, though he adds, “I can’t get banned!”
It was shortly after this that one of Reynolds’ brothers met someone at church who also happened to work at League Of Legends studio Riot Games. With the conversation naturally going from ‘my brother plays that game’ to ‘isn’t your brother the singer for Imagine Dragons?’, the studio soon reached out to the band, and they ended up visiting the headquarters and becoming firm friends with co-creators Marc Merrill and Brandon Beck, as well as other key figures like head of franchise development Thomas Vu and creative director Christian Linke.
“We played League Of Legends together, went to their houses and talked about Dungeons and Dragons, and looked at their collections, and just really nerded out together, and found ourselves to be kindred spirits,” says Reynolds. “I remember the first time walking away from their headquarters with Wayne, and we were like, ‘those are our people.’”
He says collaborating with Riot just came about organically, with Imagine Dragons writing and recording the song ‘Warriors’ for the League Of Legends 2014 World Championship while the band also performed at the event live in Seoul. “Nothing was forced, it was just fun. Playing Worlds was some of my favourite memories.”
But while ‘Warriors’ has the vibe of a tournament anthem, ‘Enemy’ cuts a different tone – as you might expect from Arcane. The show is one of many ways Riot celebrated the tenth anniversary of League Of Legends in 2019, and the announcement of the show was part of the developer’s attempts at expanding its world and storytelling. Reynolds says that Linke, the show’s creator and executive producer, had shared the premise and early renderings with the band even earlier. The series revolves around sisters Jinx and Vi, and – being set before the events of the game itself – it explores the origins of two champions and how their lives take them on different opposing paths. It’s all about external and internal conflict; very fitting for Imagine Dragons.
Despite the differences between the two songs the band has created for the League of Legends universe to date, Reynolds says that his approach for writing them is the same. “I’ve never written a song about League Of Legends or Arcane,” he explains. “I’m given these themes, I understand it, and then I find my truth in it and write lyrically for myself – I can’t write for anybody else, I’ve just never been able to do that. That’s kind of how it all came together, and when I showed Christian ‘Enemy’, he was like, ‘This is the song.’”
Incidentally, the beginning of Imagine Dragons’ collaboration with Riot wasn’t the band’s only gaming-related activity in 2014, as they also performed live alongside legendary Nintendo composer Koji Kindo at Geoff Keighley’s inaugural Game Awards. It’s now arguably the biggest event in the gaming calendar, but back then the first awards were held in Las Vegas, the band’s hometown.
“We just got up off a tour and had a little break when our manager was like, ‘Guys! We have this opportunity but it’s gonna go quick – we gotta say yes or no,’” Sermon recalls. “We freaked out, we tried to learn the songs quickly enough to not make a fool of ourselves, and I think the next day is when we ended up doing it.”
Reynolds says it’s a similar predicament they had that year when they were asked to play in a tribute concert for The Beatles. “It was like, ‘Hey, tomorrow, do you want to play in front of The Beatles and do one of their songs in front of Paul McCartney and Ringo?’ And you’re like, no? Yes? I don’t know? What? Yes?! Then the next day, we’re just doing ‘Revolution’,” he laughs. “Like, what am I doing? If I had two weeks to think about this, I probably would have had a bunch of panic attacks. So [the Game Awards] was a similar thing where it just happened so fast, a day or two before, then you’re just on stage and you’re doing it and then when it’s over you’re like, whoa, that was incredible!”
Besides a love of gaming and musical collaborations, Reynolds is in fact getting into game development himself, having decided to learn C# programming in Unity during the band’s time off following the release and tour of their 2018 album ‘Origins’.
“I always dreamt about doing it as a kid but then I don’t do it, and then I’m like, well, I’m a musician, I should only do musician things,” he explains. “But then as I get older I’m like, ‘but then I’m going to die and not do these things that I always wanted to do’. So I got online and just started taking courses.”
Reynolds started making a bunch of mini-games that he claims were terrible (although Sermon got to play some of them and says he’s just being self-deprecating) but eventually had an idea and put together a small team of about a dozen people. “I can’t really talk about what it is or else my brother, who’s been doing it with me this whole time, would kill me because we’ve kind of kept it under wraps. But we’ve been working on it for over two years, and this month we’re finally getting it to a place where we’re gonna start bringing in a couple of family and friends to start playing it.”
Whether this mystery game will give Reynolds a career as a fully-fledged game developer as well as a rockstar is anybody’s guess, although Sermon, ever supportive, believes it could lead to big things. Regardless, he says it won’t be his last game.
“It’s pretty incredible what you can do with a small team of people at this point, especially with the Asset Store, whether it’s free or cheap assets. We’ve really been utilising that with our team for two years and just been working on a project that’s been so much fun – the process of making a game, to play it with just my friends and test it, that has been priceless.”