With the music video released on November 3rd, hitting a total of 89,000,000 views and 2,180,000 Likes, Riot Games' K/DA- POP/STARS has become a global sensation in less than a month. Using four of their LoL characters: Ahri, Akali, Kai'Sa, and Evelynn, they debuted their own virtual idol group named K/DA.
Of course, the collaboration between cultural contents in reality and video games is not something unusual. It can be seen in all the countless numbers of on/offline merchandise, music, and concerts that were made in the past. However, the creation of K/DA's POP/STARS, which is a collaboration between a real-life idol group and in-game characters, was something that was unheard of.
K/DA and their song, POP/STARS, displayed the trifecta for music. It excelled musically, visually, and had great characters to boot. One can say it could be considered a real life "Trinity Force". Recently, we finally got the chance to interview the main creators of this masterpiece: Patrick Morales [Creative Lead on POP/STARS music video], Janelle Jimenez [Skins Lead on K/DA], and Toa Dunn [Head of Riot Music Group].
The following is the interview with Patrick Morales, Janelle Jimenez, and Toa Dunn.
Could you give us a brief introduction about yourself and your role at Riot Games?
Patrick: Hello, my name is Patrick Morales and I am the creative lead for the POP/STARS music video.
Janelle: Hello, I’m Janelle “Riot Stellari” Jimenez and I was the product lead for the K/DA Skins.
Toa: Hello, I’m Toa, I lead Riot’s Music Group.
K/DA and its debut song POP/STARS went off the charts globally. Did you expect to receive all this love? Also, how do you feel about this giant success as the lead artist?
Patrick: We're amazed and humbled by the reception that it's getting. I've been a part of many different campaigns and projects for Riot in the past, but the one thing that seems to be special about POP/STARS is that it has a unique reach that extends past our playerbase.
One recurring comment that I tend to see on YouTube and social media about the music video is that they're "normally not into League/K-pop/gaming, but K/DA is the exception" - and that's when you know that you've achieved something unique. It feels like we've been able to tap into something broad and authentic that all kinds of people could love, which is the best possible reaction you could hope for.
Janelle: I think we believed that pop star skins could be popular and resonant with players, but I believe the song and the video really made the skins come to life. It was so cool to see them in the video!
The music video is receiving enormous acclaim, with critics saying that it’s a masterpiece that excels both musically and visually while having great characters to boot – a true ‘Trinity Force’, so to speak. The quality of the visuals “wildly exceeds expectations.” All the rave reviews aside, how did you decide on the concept and overall theme of the product?
Patrick: In terms of the music video, one of the key themes that I wanted to establish early on is that K/DA exists somewhere between fantasy and reality. It's a similar premise to what many other virtual bands in music do, but the unique opportunity here was that it allowed us to creatively reinterpret our League characters and IP in an unexpected way.
We could do things like having a punk ninja like Akali tagging up a subway that wouldn't normally happen in League, but it makes total sense in the way that we're reimagining them for this theme. I think by bending the expectations of what players would expect from these characters while still remaining true to the core of who they are as champions, we were able to surprise players with something that felt fresh while also doing something that felt authentic to a broader audience as a flashy and fun music video.
Visually, this also meant that we could communicate that between-worlds motif through things like the artistic direction of the CG - which juxtaposes a cartoony, almost 2D illustrative look for the characters and VFX against a more realistically rendered background. The artists at Fortiche are world-class talents at this, and we were very fortunate to collaborate with them once again on this project. It was a big collaborative effort to find the right visual language that felt good for League, as well as the genre of music we were channeling. In the end, we're pretty happy with the result.
It should be noted that creating an idol pop group based on game characters is a unique attempt for the gaming content industry. It must have been quite a difficult endeavor considering the level of expectations from game fans, not to mention the scarcity of examples to benchmark. What were some hurdles you had to overcome worth mentioning?
Janelle: One of the biggest hurdles was that there are many different kinds of pop. Did we want something a little more cute and idol group based, such as Pop Star Ahri from before? Or did we want something edgier? After hearing the music, we settled on something modern and edgy. A bit of street style with a handcrafted feel. Picking the champions were also challenging too because you had to believe these women would actually be 'Pop Stars'. The artists also had to invent what an “edgy” sound and visual effects would look like in the game, which was hard to do as well.
Patrick: Creatively, there was also the challenge of audience and authenticity: who were we speaking to, and would they consider what we're doing good? Would this be seen as a genuine effort or a shallow gimmick? For the music video, we swung for the fences - we knew that one of our key goals was appealing not only to League fans but music enthusiasts as well, so we had to create something that could stand up to the production values of the best out there.
We wouldn't just be satisfied with creating a "music video for a video game company", the concept and execution had to pass the sniff test of a video that someone really invested in music would find legitimate. It was a risky venture for something that hadn’t really been done at this scale before, but it also gave us an opportunity to show up and be the first to do it well.
Each member of K/DA is receiving A lot of love. The general consensus is that Ahri, Akali, Kai'Sa, and Evelynn are all equally charming. How did you decide on those champions to be the members of K/DA?
Patrick: With K/DA being so closely tied to music, the initial proposal for the team comp came from Riot Records as well the folks on our side working on the music video. We knew that Ahri would be locked in as a continuation of Pop Star Ahri from 2013, so it was a balancing act of finding the magic number for a group that could let each champion be featured equally in the song, as well as finding the right personalities to match the direction of the music.
With Ahri as this sort of beautiful, charming leader, I think a lot of people latched onto the idea of Eve as a direct contrast to that by being the wild and provocative diva of the group. Akali was undergoing her rework at the time of K/DA’s inception and I loved the characterization of her as this young upstart trying to buck the trend in the Kinkou Order, so it felt like an easy win to take that rebellious spirit and turn her into a rap kid trying to mix things up.
Kai'Sa came as a recommendation from Janelle and the skins team, and from that, we got this strong but silent loner who expressed herself on stage through her movements. One of the things people love about pop groups is that the well-defined archetypes make it easy for people to find a favorite, so hopefully, we achieved that and created a similar feeling with our choice of champions.
Janelle: Pop groups tend to have a formula where each member has their own unique personality and style. I approached this like looking at classic anime team where you have the leader, the shy one, the feisty one, etc. We focused on Ahri first because we saw this as an evolution of her story--plus, we knew 2018 Worlds would be in Korea and we couldn’t possibly do a pop star performance without The original Pop Star and the Champion that the Korean community had so much involvement in.
Akali was the second choice for me, I just saw her as this cool hip-hop champion. I actually wondered if it would fit at first--but then someone showed me some K-pop videos and they all featured rapping and I thought that it was just perfect. From a product perspective, we also really wanted to make sure that each Champion filled a distinct role. We didn’t want to have multiple mid laners, for example.
We also considered adding a support, for a time there was even an idea for a DJ Sona remix. In the end, we chose Ahri, Akali, Kai’Sa, and Evelynn. I kind of love that they were all assassins, too. I joked that it was “Ahri and the New Girls” since all of the others were either recently reworked or new.
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Among the K/DA members, Akali is enjoying the hottest attention. What inspired you to design her stunning fluorescent body paint?
Patrick: Yeah, the response to that from people has been absolutely insane. I'm a big fan of music videos that go for crazy and unexpected imagery since it makes them memorable - so I wanted to make sure we had something like that in mind. Early on in the development of the music video, our director Arnaud pitched the idea of having gimmicks for each champion as a way to give each scene a unique visual signature.
At first, Akali's gimmick started off as just neon spray paint and graffiti as a nod to her identity as a hip-hop artist in the group - but the idea evolved into also giving her a completely unique appearance to match her tagged up environment. Parallel to that, I pitched the idea of giving Akali a black cough mask as an homage to her base design (she was originally designed without a mask) and K-pop airport fashion. Since we were viewing the environmental transformations as magical in nature, I also toyed around with the idea of making all of the art under blacklight seem "alive" - which led to the rapping teeth idea. Sadly, we didn't get around to making the environmental graffiti move too (I originally wanted the dragons and cloud to have a subtle animation, like a Las Vegas-style marquee light display), but I'm glad we were able to pull off the mask since it definitely stole the show.
How did you divide the song’s parts to each member?
Toa: It was a pretty fun process as we initially wrote the song with the individual K/DA members in mind. Akali was our rapper, so we create a rap section for her, and Ahri was the vocalist we envisioned for the pre-chorus. We wanted to make sure all members were represented in a way that fit their personalities and role in the band. I think we landed in a great spot with the song.
As the lead artist, who’s your favorite?
Patrick: That's hard, I like them all for different reasons. I spent a lot of time developing Akali since she was done first and had such a clear direction on her character - one of my favorite moments on the project was cutting together a reel of different female rappers as the reference for her movements in the train sequence. But I'd say that my personal bias is Evelynn; I just love how she's so powerful, classy, and cool. She's the 'hypewoman' of the video for me.
Janelle: It’s been Akali and always Akali. She’s just too cool.
In Korea, (G)I-DLE’s Soyeon and Miyeon are known to have taken part in covering the vocals and motion capture for Akali and Ahri. Were there any specific reasons why you chose Soyeon and Miyeon for the parts?
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Toa: A bunch of us here at Riot are big (G)I-DLE fans. Soyeon is a super talented rapper and singer and was a natural fit for K/DA Akali. Miyeon has an incredible voice that really fit how we envisioned the vocals for K/DA Ahri. They also took the time to play League of Legends and learn more about the champions. It was amazing to see how well they were able to embody the champions when they performed.
This must have been a very special experience for the actual musicians who provided the vocals for the song. Do you have any behind-the-scenes episodes to share?
Toa: (G)I-DLE, Madison Beer and Jaira Burns have all expressed how much they enjoyed this project. There are some really cool behind the scenes photos and videos on our social media channels. I personally love the video footage of all the artists practicing the dance choreography in the mo-cap suits. You get an idea of how involved all the artist were in the overall project.
There are nods to Korean culture embedded in the music video, including Korean letters and Faker-related Easter Eggs. A lot of fans are considering POP/STARS as K-POP/STARS – Did you look up any K-Pop stars during production?
Patrick: I've been keeping track of the English discussion online about the easter eggs, and there are a couple that people haven't gotten yet - mostly, I think because they're very Korean in nature. The pink seats on the train are one example, which we got as a recommendation from our Korean office. The teeth on Akali's mask are inspired by 'dokkaebi'. They're hard to see in the final video, but there are a couple advertisements in Hangul (Korean characters) on the train (one with a fast food takeout for Pizza Delivery Sivir, a lost dog flier featuring Pug'maw, Worlds 2018, and a skincare line featuring Lux). Ahri doing the heart sign with her fingers, the laundromat - all references to K-pop music tropes. Ultimately, we were aiming for something that felt global in appeal, but you can certainly detect the Korean inspirations as a wink to fans paying close attention.
Janelle: A lot of the skins team, including me, wasn’t very familiar with K-Pop. I hadn’t watched or listened to any K-pop since 2001! It was so different than what I remembered….so we watched a lot of it. Everything popular, basically. A lot of the team became k-pop fans from watching so many videos.
A lot of fans are eagerly waiting for K/DA’s next music video. Could you give us a sneak peek of K/DA’s plans for a next album? Also are there any plans to make a boy band?
TOA: The excitement around K/DA has been truly amazing, and we are blown away by the amount of fan engagement. Our team is super passionate about K/DA and we will continue to explore possible music opportunities.
Janelle: No spoilers! But to be honest, I’m not sure we anticipated this level of excitement for K/DA. We’ll have to talk about it as a team!
A team of five made up of the four K/DA members and Taric is the new meta. This is partly thanks to the solid roles the K/DA members have in-game – is this something you planned for? Also, will there be any K/DA-themed game modes in the future?
Janelle: This is something amazing that the players came up with themselves! To be honest, we always thought DJ Sona was their backup DJ or something. I was so delighted to see all the funny examples of Taric as their manager, he even fits the visual scheme.
Lastly, a word for your fans in Korea.
Patrick: I'm extremely grateful that people around the world received POP/STARS with the kind of love it has. The fan response blew away all of our expectations, and I couldn't be happier. Thanks for continuing to show enthusiasm and support for our work, and I hope that K/DA makes it #1 on the charts soon!
Janelle: We wanted to make a love letter to pop music and create something that would resonate deeply with Korean players and players globally. About 100 people worked on the full experience (skins, music video, song, publishing, minions dancing, etc) and we’re so deeply happy that people are so enthusiastic about it.