Updated on September 28, 1:55 p.m. (GMT+8): Improved relevancy.
When it comes to the music of League of Legends, it’s not the main tournament theme songs that I look forward to. It’s the orchestral versions of the Mid-Season Invitational and Worlds orchestral themes that really get to me.
The first orchestral theme was produced four years ago for the Mid-Season Invitational. Then, the first ever Worlds orchestral theme was released later that year. It accompanied an epic SK Telecom T1 run at Worlds, the team I supported at that time.
As this was Riot Games’ first production of a Worlds orchestral theme, the Worlds key motifs were born. 24 seconds in, you can hear the first signature tune that marks the coming of Worlds.
Where it all started — the original Worlds orchestral theme debuted in 2016
Set in a major key, the rising line led by strings with drums in the background goes on for three bars before it resolves. The rising line then comes in again, but in a higher tone and this time layered with vocals, creating a surging build up.
For ten seconds, the music transits to the “chorus” one minute in. Here, brass and woodwind instruments take the lead against the backdrop of ‘falling’ semiquaver strings. This main melody has four parts, marked by distinct drum beats at the end of each phrase.
In the last phrase, the tune rises higher than before with violins entering at the climax.
Similar to the scores that accompany the movies that we watch, main themes evolve with each new film in a series. Modern superhero movies adopt this approach, with iconic individual themes for each character (think Superman and Wonder Woman) that sounds familiar but are never the same in each movie.
As Worlds continues to be held each year, it’s incredibly interesting to listen to how the Riot Games Music Team morphs their orchestral theme.
2017 was my favorite year for Worlds orchestral themes (although not so much as an SKT fan). Riot created themes for each region at MSI, and incorporated Chinese culture into Worlds, which was held in China for the first time in history.
In the first ten seconds, you already hear the sound of bowed Chinese strings that pick up the “verse.” Half a minute in, the “chorus” that you know and love rides in with a slight change in rhythm compared to the 2016 version.
Again, the theme is led by brass and woodwinds, but after the chimes sound, the second half is taken over by strings, adding more variance to its tonality.
When you hit 50 seconds, this is what I like to call a “Pirates of the Caribbean” moment. The drums are tough, the rhythm is steady, low rumbling sounds are emitted from the entire orchestra while the strings play short, ascending, unresolved lines that create a swell of anticipation.
In 2018, a new element was added. Literally.
HEALTH, an American rock band, contributed additional production to the Worlds orchestral theme. It opens quietly with a mix of synth sounds and mysterious noises, before the orchestra jumps in loudly.
Instead of the traditional orchestral resonance from the last two years, the 2018 Worlds orchestral theme is marked by the beat of the drum. It has highly contrasting quiet and loud junctures, and incorporates electronic music and synth elements to generate a futuristic feel.
This is my least favorite theme, even though it was a delight to see Invictus Gaming win Worlds that year.
Worlds 2019 brought the theme back to their orchestral roots, and the comments on the track’s YouTube video speak volumes about this year’s music.
It was a year where we were all amazed at the detail that went into the marble-like sculptures in the video, depicting key moments from previous Worlds events. It’s also the year when Worlds was held in Europe — a continent of majestic cities, history, and grandeur.
It’s no surprise then, that the accompanying Worlds theme is the richest one you’ve heard.
Right from the start, there’s a baseline of strings that underpin the drum beat, which continues non-stop throughout the song. Thick layers of vocals, synths, and drums merge with the orchestra to create bursting sounds in each horizontal bar.
Don’t forget to listen till the end because the 2019 theme finishes with an epic ‘John Williams-eque’ ending!
The 2020 Worlds orchestral theme song hits different
This finally brings us to the 2020 Worlds orchestral theme.
This Worlds orchestral theme takes you on a very surprising ride. After I heard it on release, I cried for joy.
It opens innocently with the usual lead-in, but then the drums start to pick up twenty seconds in, cumulating in speed alongside electronic synth beats before the sick drop at the 30-second mark.
Then, the choir hits you. It’s the first time that the vocals are not singing the same tune as the main theme. Instead, they add a second, dramatic sub harmony to the “verse.”
You’ll also notice that this is the first time that electronic sounds interweave playing the main theme with the orchestra, forming more variants than before. In fact, these electronic dance beats punctuate the entire song, marked by sharp drum strikes.
The beauty of the 2020 Worlds orchestral theme then, is how Riot managed to knit electronic sounds fluidly with the traditional orchestra, making it edgy, modern, and elegant at the same time.
The Riot Music Team is Challenger tier, and it gains LP every year as they keep pushing boundaries of the Worlds orchestral theme. With these orchestral masterpieces, Riot proves that it’s more than just a game developer and Worlds is more than just an esports tournament — Worlds is about creating memorable experiences for LoL fans across the globe through the game, merchandise, AR, and of course, music.