In 2020, there’s no question K-pop is now part of the American mainstream. It’s a different environment than even two years ago, when “League of Legends” virtual group K/DA broke YouTube records and charted on Billboard’s world lists.

Now with real-life groups BTS and Blackpink dominating the charts and defining the ever-evolving K-pop sound, K/DA is back with a new EP designed to showcase each of the new personalities, including new member and virtual star Seraphine.

Seraphine is the new hook for K/DA: a virtual, computer-generated pop idol meant to build a devoted fanbase as big as any real-life star. With Hatsune Mika and Lil Miquela setting the mold for virtual stars, Seraphine is unique in that she’s tied to an already-established brand and the most popular esport in the world.

“As real musicians, we wanted players to interact and ‘stan’ over them, the same way they can with other musicians in the real world through social media,” said Patrick Morales, Riot Games’s creative director for “League of Legends,” K/DA and Seraphine, the new music-based Champion character. “Much of what began as a celebration of music has gone on to inspire content from skins to limited-time in-game events … creating a unique ecosystem."

Seraphine debuted in the middle of a pandemic, which seems serendipitous for a virtual-only star. But Morales said they had plans to have more live performances, including one at SXSW, before the pandemic hit. It’s why they pivoted to Seraphine and the other members posting more “influencer”-style content, and aggregating fan comments to create more posts. That approach caught a handful of flack from commenters, summed up in a Vice post about Seraphine’s anxiety-ridden posts, but other fans are more than happy to play along.

“We meant to do it in a way where we didn’t want to promote it,” said Morales about starting new Twitter and Instagram accounts for Seraphine. “We started this as far back in June, and for a number of weeks, it went pretty undetected."

The K/DA production line has three tracks: the songs, the in-game skins and events and the marketing, which Morales oversees. Toa Dunn, head of Riot Music Group, said they write music that “makes sense” for the characters and the lore. It’s not necessarily about chasing the latest sound or trends in music.

“Even for us back in 2018, a lot of us were really passionate and inspired by Western pop and K-pop at the time, and the differences between the two,” Dunn said. “It’s exploring what we’re passionate about and having that as the North Star we chase, as opposed to what is someone else is doing. We think that’s something that resonates with players. We’re not trying to imitate, we’re just driven by pure passion and what our players like. And that’s how we end up in the spaces we’re at.”

K/DA’s latest video and single, “MORE,” decidedly sounds like a Blackpink single, which is for the most part a great thing for music fans. And that connection is only stronger with collaboration with artists like Bekuh BOOM, a charting songwriter who’s worked with Blackpink as well as Ariana Grande.

“We didn’t do it with the intention of following what was happening at the time, because there was no parallel to K/DA,” Morales said. “We just wanted our own take on it, and we know our players. Our only hope with K/DA was to channel their love of the game into a place they didn’t expect. The unique thing about K/DA musically is that it is a different mix of eclectic inspirations. … Broadly, it feels like pop to me.”

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