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[Herald Interview] How K/DA became the ultimate music fan experience, and beyond

The debut of K/DA, the virtual girl group of four characters from online arena game League of Legends, in 2018 could have ended as just a one-time gift for loyal fans of the game.

But with the release of the group’s first single “POP/STARS” and their real-life stage performance at the 2018 World Championship Finals opening ceremony in South Korea that year, the song, along with the four members -- Ahri, Kai’Sa, Evelynn and Akali -- received acknowledgement even beyond the original players, building their own fan base. The song topped the K-pop category of Billboard’s World Digital Song Sales chart and its video racked up over 20 million views in just four days. 

Electronic boards at Samseong Station in Seoul display promotional images of K/DA on Oct. 30 ahead of the release of “All Out.” (Riot Games)
Electronic boards at Samseong Station in Seoul display promotional images of K/DA on Oct. 30 ahead of the release of “All Out.” (Riot Games)
“It’s hard to expect that type of reception ahead of the release. Throughout the production of 'POP/STARS,' it felt like we were doing something special. But you still don’t know if fans and players are going to like it as much as you do,” Toa Dunn, head of Riot Music Group and one of the creative minds of K/DA, told the Korea Herald via email.

"'POP/STARS' definitely garnered interest outside of our normal audience, which is great, but that’s also not the sole reason why we did this. We really wanted to create something special for our players.”

Infusing the genre of K-pop into their musical capabilities built over a long time through past songs, anthems and even first virtual metal band Pentakill, Dunn said the team wanted to create a special music-driven experience for the players.

“Many of us have been fans of the different music coming out of South Korea for years. And at that time, our upcoming World Finals was going to be in South Korea. It made a lot of sense for us to lean into some of the aesthetics of Kpop, especially since the band was founded by Ahri,” he said. According to the K/DA universe, Ahri, originally a K-pop star, brought together the other three bandmates to pursue their own music.

“I think it’s fascinating that we were able to have the incredible talent of both Korean and Western pop artists on stage together in a way that you don’t see often, if ever. This really brings a global nature to K/DA that is very compelling.”

Cover image of K/DA’s single “MORE” (Riot Games)
Cover image of K/DA’s single “MORE” (Riot Games)
Members of K-pop girl group (G)I-dle, Miyeon and Soyeon, along with American pop singers Madison Beer and Jaira Burns, took on the voices of the four bandmates. Along with the augmented reality visualizations of the four characters, the four singers performed during the 2018 opening ceremony. To get fans involved into the universe of K/DA, Riot Games gave each of the characters a detailed background story and even social media pages to which the fans could get updates of the imagined “real lives” of the characters. To grant them more K-pop-like identities, the group referred to their fans as Blades and designed a custom light stick -- used by fans during concerts to identify themselves and to connect with the artists.

A busy two years it has been for K/DA since, and their recent return with the group’s first EP “ALL OUT” may not have been planned, but was without doubt highly anticipated. The five-track album, including two prereleased tracks “THE BADDEST” and “MORE,” takes the group to another level.

Part of the reason for the anticipation was the expansion of musicians involved in the album’s making. For “THE BADDEST,” which dropped in August, fans were delighted to see the reunion of Miyeon, Soyeon and Miller, and their new collaboration with American singer-songwriter Wolftyla. Following that was lead track “MORE,” involving guest member Seraphine, voiced by Chinese singer and rapper Lexie Liu.

“Part of the exciting challenge was for us to plan out how to create a full EPs worth of music in the same time frame. In the past, we had spent up to nearly 9 months on a single song, as we dedicate a lot of time and thought into all aspects of a song. And we were not willing to sacrifice any quality just to make more songs,” Dunn said.

Head of Riot Music Group Toa Dunn (Riot Games)
Head of Riot Music Group Toa Dunn (Riot Games)
According to the creative director, the goal in the production of “ALL OUT” was to dive deeper into K/DA and its individual members, giving fans the opportunity to connect with their favorites.

“By having songs that were creative directed by each member, we were able to really see what made them special and unique. Our hope is that you are able to really grasp their personalities and that you are encouraged to express yourself in ways that you truly enjoy.”

Expectations were especially high for even the regular K-pop fans as four members of girl group Twice -- Jihyo, Nayeon, Sana, and Chaeyoung -- featured on “I’LL SHOW YOU.” As in the case of Miyeon and Soyeon of (G)I-dle, the company also reached out to the group’s agency first as fans of their music.

With more than a dozen names listed as featured artists on the album, “ALL OUT” did not expand just in terms of sound, but also in the messages they send to the game’s players.

In a separate virtual interview with the members of K/DA about the selection of their lead single, Kai’sa said, “‘MORE’ has two sides to it. On one level, it’s a response to our fans, who were asking for more. After ‘POP/STARS,’ we wanted to go bigger and come back better than ever. But it’s also a message; it’s who we are as K/DA. We’re more when we’re together.”

Initially released in September, “MORE” also topped the World Digital Song Sales chart in the second week of November, with the video racking up 12 million views in just a day from its release on Nov. 19.

The unleashing of “ALL OUT” went by quietly amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, followed only by the unveiling of concept videos for tracks “VILLAIN,” “DRUM GO DUM” and “I’LL SHOW YOU,” which garnered less attention compared to the massive debut single still boasting an unparalleled No. 1 by viewer count on the League of Legends YouTube channel. Perhaps the privilege of a virtual group, K/DA showcased an AR performance of “MORE” at this year’s World Championship Finals opening ceremony in October, heralding the release of the album a few days later.

“The world pandemic definitely limits what everyone can do, especially in a physical space. We did, however, want to build a way for fans to connect with K/DA this time around, and so we had a much bigger social presence. It’s been amazing to see the reception and overall amount of engagement with K/DA over the past few months,” Dunn said, referring to the active communication between the virtual members and the fans through their social media.

While no plans are set for K/DA and its featured artists, the company is already gearing up for further expansion of the act’s influence both in and out of the game. Following the release of “POP/STARS,” the company incorporated one of the members, Kai’sa, into the creation of another virtual group, True Damage. With “ALL OUT,” they also hinted that Seraphine’s role may not end here as just a one-time guest member.

By Choi Ji-won (jwc@heraldcorp.com)
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