It’s official: NewJeans is heading to the 2023 League of Legends World Championships. The breakout K-pop group of the year will perform their recently unveiled track “GODS,” which also serves as the anthem for this year’s competition, at the esports tournament’s opening ceremonies in South Korea on November 19. It’s news you probably could have guessed was coming if you caught our Twitch stream with Riot Games’ Global Head of Music and Events Maria Egan.
With “GODS,” NewJeans becomes the first-ever K-pop group to perform a League Worlds track (the annual anthems have been coming out for 10 years now), and Egan is the person who helped make it happen. As part of her role within Riot’s entertainment division, she oversees talent partnerships — see Lil Nas X and Jackson Wang performing at the 2022 games, for example. Because Worlds is taking place in South Korea for the third time, Egan and the rest of the Riot team knew they wanted to find a way to honor their South Korean gamers and fans while also speaking to the game’s massive worldwide audience. After Hybe — the South Korean entertainment megacorp behind acts like BTS, TXT, and Seventeen — put NewJeans’ impressive rise on Riot’s radar earlier this year, it became clear that they were the ideal group to meet the moment.
“Obviously, we fell in love with [NewJeans]. They are on a trajectory that is even extraordinary to them, and we knew that our players would love it — this was a global story coming out of Korea that spoke perfectly to the moment,” Egan told Refinery29 Entertainment Director and Twitch host Melissah Yang during the stream. “Being part of their journey and seeing them come on board with League was fantastic. When we launched, it was just very clear there was a very big overlap of fandoms.”
Celeb collabs aren’t the only thing Egan, who joined Riot in 2022, works on. As someone with a long career in the music industry (her first “job” was a music fan zine she started as a teen, and today she sits on the LA chapter board of the Recording Academy), she’s fascinated with the ways in which music and gaming culture intersect. This has continued with the creation of virtual bands — tech-forward groups made up of, for example, League champions who “perform” tracks in animated videos.
The latest example is multi-genre-inspired boy band Heartsteel, who will also perform at League Worlds and is the first virtual group Egan has worked on at Riot. Made up of champions Ezreal, Kayn, K’Sante, and Sett and featuring voice work from IRL stars like Baekhyun (a member of EXO and SuperM), the group debuted last month with the single “PARANOIA,” accompanied by an Arcane-style music video. “[Heartsteel] was really inspired by fan art,” Egan says, explaining that fans were expecting the brand’s next band to be a male K-pop group and started reimagining their favorite characters in that world. The team saw (and loved) that art, but decided to take it one step further. “I always use the analogy of League’s Beastie Boys … we wanted to subvert [expectations] a little bit and create a different style, different art style, different music style, and bring in a genre that we’ve not played with before.”
Virtual bands are something Riot has done since 2014, starting with the fictional heavy metal act PentaKill. (Their debut EP landed on the Billboard Top 40 charts.) In 2018, Riot also debuted K/DA, a K-pop girl group made up of LoL characters Ahri, Akali, Evelynn, and Kai’Sa, which even included voice performances by members of actual K-pop group (G)I-dle as well as Madison Beer.
And while the idea of a “virtual” band might sound gimmicky, they work, Egan says, because they’re all stemming from a genuine, creative, and playful place. Egan and her team have a deep passion for their work, and do it at the highest level. HEARTSTEEL, for instance, took over a year to come together, because everyone involved remained meticulous and thoughtful about every decision. First they had to decide on the characters, then they had to figure out how those characters would act if they were actually IRL music superstars while still staying true to their game aura that earned them fans in the first place. Then they had to find the right sound, which required months of trading playlists, writing, composing, and experimenting before eventually landing on the single. “This one feels like no one else could have made this but us — there were other good songs, but [“PARANOIA”] feels so in character and so endemic to our world. It feels like it’s really made for our community,” Egan says.
That level of authenticity, care, and attention to the fans applies to everything Egan and the rest of the music team at Riot do. “We’re not trying to make some generic pop song, we’re trying to make something that we believe fans will really love,” she says, adding they’re always trying to one-up themselves to keep the community engaged. “It’s just about the player experience. That’s completely the North Star, and that’s why everything has been so successful in terms of resonance.”