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Bopping on broadcast — How the LEC finds the right tune

Tom Matthiesen

Spend just a few minutes visiting the LEC’s Twitch channel, and you know exactly what to expect as soon as there’s a break. The catJAMs, ratJAMs, pepeD’s and many other emotes fly by in chat as fans enjoy the tunes. From the Song of the Week to the music playing while teams go through their picks and bans ahead of a game, every song is handpicked. At the helm of production stands Kevin Bell, Senior Broadcast Producer at the LEC.

Kevin Bell LEC

Senior Producer Kevin bell spends hours trying to find the right songs to play on the LEC broadcast. (Image original courtesy of Riot Games)

“I actually came from Dota, the original Warcraft mod,” Bell laughingly admits when asked how he ended up working for Riot Games. “I knew of League of Legends. Every time I wanted to play with my friends, I would play League. But every time I would play solo queue or whatever, it would be Heroes of Newerth, Warcraft III… I was playing Counter-Strike too.” It wasn’t until he found a job at Riot that Bell developed a love for League of Legends: “When you see it all the time, it makes you want to play, right?”

Bell began his career in Hollywood, where he grew up, working on post-production of movies. After crossing the Atlantic and a stint at the short-lived project ESGN TV, he was hired by Riot Games to be stage manager and the hype guy during shows. Tech-savvy and willing to learn, he climbed his way up the ranks in production. “I went from the guy shouting at people to the guy shouting at people in the control room.”

The musical identity of the LEC

When the producer in charge of music left Riot’s European team, the task of selecting music was handed over to Bell. “In the beginning, I just followed in his footsteps. I was like ‘Ok, there is rock and roll, there is a bit of mild metal.’ If you look at the older themes of how our broadcasts were.”

The rebrand of the EU LCS to the LEC franchise changed everything on the production side, including the music that fit the broadcast. With bright orange and blue lighting up the visual aspect of the show, the audience’s ears had to experience something new as well. “I just wanted to completely wipe the slate clean and start with something fresh,” Bell explains, “That’s when more of this umbrella genre of EDM [Electronic Dance Music] kind of came out.”

Still, the LEC explores several subgenres in their Song of the Week selection, and especially for the champion select music. With five games played per day during the regular Split, it’s imperative that each one brings a slightly different flavor for the viewer in order for the broadcast to feel fresh. From rock to metal, from techno to funk: Bell finds a natural balance. “I do try to find common themes throughout the entire thing. That is intentional. But let’s take game five champ select. For whatever reason, I have decreed that this song is always going to be the weird outlier. There is no strategic reason for this.” One such outlier was the song “I Like It” by SaraoMusic.

The rebrand of the LEC and its subsequent change in music opened the eyes of Bell, who realized the importance of finding the right track. “Every season there would be one really good champ select song that everyone seemed to love. People were vocal on Twitter, Twitch chat, YouTube et cetera responding ‘Holy crap, this music is awesome! Give us more of this!’ That’s when it really clicked. Music isn’t just played to fill the gap. People are paying attention to it.”

Finding gems in endless libraries

Of course, when the music industry is involved, strict rules have to be followed in order to not infringe on any copyright laws. The LEC has access to a vast library of songs. “The majority of our music comes from Universal Production Music,” Bell says. Riot Games’ headquarters provides the LEC with a license to freely browse UPM’s database and pick any song to their liking. A partnership with Warner Music Group Europe expanded the possibilities even further: “In one way it improves our show because we have this high-quality music coming out, but it also validates us.”

With thousands upon thousands of songs available, finding the right songs to use during the Split isn’t easy. “I put a giant block in my calendar when no-one can set a meeting for me,” Bell says. He digs through the trenches of the libraries at his disposal, sometimes taking multiple days to find what he needs. “ I just click, listen, click, listen, click, listen. I download it if it has maybe something in there. Once I have this library of downloaded files, I’ll usually post it in one of our internal chat groups and I’ll try to get some feedback from different departments. Everyone’s taste in music is different.”

Bell, thirty-three years old, reached out on Twitter a few months ago to garner feedback from the LEC audience. “To help direct a little bit. Am I too old? Are the children listening to something else? Or am I still on the right track here?” He laughs. “I think I still get most of the memes. I think I’m there, still.”

Something particularly enjoyable to Bell is the fact that the music he has access to isn’t what you’d see top the charts of any radio station. At least not yet. While the LEC plays into pop culture trends from time to time—a remix of the sea shanty Wellerman was Song of the Week once, for example—there are many obscure songs woven into the broadcast. Especially the champion select music, which mostly comes from the Universal library, is niche. “You’re never gonna find the most popular current bands on there. It’s people submitting their own stuff, not big labels putting it in there.”

It’s a slightly different case for the Song of the Week songs, which is where Warner Music Group comes in. Bell elaborates: “One of the main goals for Warner coming to us, as far as I can interpret, is that they only want to release their new music to us because that’s what they need to promote in the moment. That sometimes comes with the benefits that we get music that is released to us before it’s ‘officially’ released. We’re usually one of the first platforms to push this music out.” A downside to the agreement, Bell acknowledges, is that good songs from a few years ago won’t make it to the broadcast.

When the music took over

Though there are many songs in League of Legends esports that are part of the culture worldwide, there is one song specific to the LEC that made larger waves than any other song before it. In the first week of the 2020 LEC Summer Split, the Song of the Week was “On My Mind”, by Diplo and SIDEPIECE. From the second it was played, the public responded extremely well to it, especially to the psychedelic video accompanying the song.

Bell knew he had to do something with the opportunity. “It was the first time where I saw Twitch chat copying the lyrics. I saw how the public was responding. I immediately called up my business dev colleague. I said: ‘You need to get on the phone right now. You need to give me permission to film this music video and recreate it.’” He explains how he realized he only had a small window to work with. If the LEC would have to wait weeks in order to play into the excitement surrounding On My Mind, it would be far too late.

The chain of events that followed was something Bell had never experienced before. “I called them on Saturday and I got the approval for the remake on Sunday night. I then got a film crew. All the casters bought in and we filmed it on Wednesday. Our editor then had to edit the entire thing from Wednesday to Friday morning and we were just able to use it as our cold open.”

It still amazes Bell himself that they were able to pull it off, and he looks back on it fondly. “That whole thing is probably one of the best feelings in recent times of the whole team working together. Us listening to the fans and resonating with them, trying to do something that feels really good for them. It just hit all the marks. That whole experience, that whole ride that came with that, it’s a memory I get to live with forever.”

The one song that should’ve lasted forever

While he takes great joy in discovering new gems to play every Split, the continuous rotation also means Bell waves goodbye to his favorites. If there is one song he could keep around forever, which one would it be? After a bit of pondering, he concludes, Exogenesis, made by Raffael Gruber and Matthias Ullrich.

“It’s not EDM at all, it’s rock. I love the band TOOL and this song basically sounded like a TOOL song. You could tell me it was TOOL, some B-side rarity that never was released, and I would’ve believed you,” Bell excitedly explains. “I don’t know if it’s everyone’s cup of tea, but that one was everything for me.” He continues: “It had this lull in the middle and then it ramps up, and with the casters getting hyped… Oh god, it’s so good. That was a gem in the rough. I want to throw that song everywhere, all the time. I wish I could carry it with me forever.”