E02: Riot, Seraphine, and Vibes Marketing
What happens when you make a character so real, your connection blurs a line?
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Riot Games, and parasocial relationships
The main subject of this newsletter is Riot Games (who develops League of Legends) and their recent marketing campaign to promote the release of a new in-game hero, Seraphine.
For context, Riot leans very heavily into the K-pop fandom with a line of cosmetic skins called K/DA. This skin line portrays multiple female heroes as modern-day Kpop stars, and takes advantage of the things that fans of that genre like.
This has done really well for them, and has expanded to virtual performances, clothing partnerships, and a muddled sense of "is this real?" This, of course, is all counted on: Riot want K/DA fans to be League of Legends fans, but at the same time, if they can profit out of this new venture, they aren't going to complain.
Recently, Riot started a new account called @Seradotwav, which hinted at being a new member of the League of Legends roster. According to her lore, she would be an "idol"-esque character that would, in turn, work with K/DA; the account is run from the perspective of someone living in the same world as you or I, and Seraphine is less a hero and more an indie songwriter.
The campaign led up to her reveal as part of League of Legends annual Worlds tournament, with Seraphine talking with fans about how nervous she was to take her place on stage.
(Note the lack of Riot branding anywhere; this account looks like any other number of musicians on Twitter, minus the verification, maybe.)
Seraphine’s account was/is run from the perspective of being a real person. Scrolling through her feed, it wasn’t just all promotion, and it lacked the tactless shilling that usually marks these kind of things as corporate-run.
In storyline, Seraphine is a musician, and as such, she posts songs (again, not Riot-branded) as any other indie artist would. Her songs had a genuine indie feel to them, again, not being hosted on the League of Legends site or socials. Her Spotify looked like something you could find from any indie artist. She retweets “aesthetic” posts.
I've been a bit checked out of the LoL sphere for a while, so when I first started seeing Seraphine's posts, I assumed it was a real person that was using a filter or art style to portray themselves as a more ideal persona. As creators, we’re always told to “go where our audience is,” and to Riot’s credit, they’ve done that wonderfully.
The line of comfort has began to feel muddled, however, as there’s something a bit uncanny valley about all this.
As I learned more about this person, things fell into place. Still, Seraphine's posts took a bit of a weird turn to me: she was openly expressing her anxiety and self-doubt, and posting a lot of what I see real people post about mental health, depression, image issues, and the motivation they try to use to drag themselves back up.
As Worlds grew closer, she asked her fans to send her encouraging messages, which she printed out and posted.
While on paper this seems admirable, it struck a weird chord because this wasn't a real person; it was a fiction that was developed by a team to capitalize on those feelings in order to better attach players to a brand.
As someone who struggles with my mental health and dodges all sorts of accounts that profess to be about inspiration and wellness and all sorts of alternative medicine on the subject, this kind of made me feel a bit nauseous.
Her entire account is essentially constructed, from Tweet #1, to be the kind of account that a demographic of fans engages with, and is used to seeing. It is taking other peoples’ genuine connections, boiling them down to their base elements, and manufacturing them for a marketing campaign.
And while yes, I’ll admit that this is what all marketing campaigns do, how well it’s done provokes something primal inside of me is just going “this is kind of perverse.”
Riot probably has good intentions, but I cannot help but feel critical and cynical, because in speaking to their audience, they're trying to capture the emotional attention of vulnerable people. They're trying to create attachment between a real person who may be struggling, and fictional person who has very real problems.
While they aren't trivializing those issues, they still get to control how much Seraphine is affected. They get to decide on whether Seraphine has a good skin day. They get to decide whether she’s so depressed she can’t leave bed. They get to decide whether her brain gives her thoughts about breaking her hands, so she has an excuse not to face her anxiety over creating (a very real thing, that’s crossed my brain a couple times).
Then, they get to try to make money off of it.
If you're someone searching for a sense of community, identity and empathy, you may be engaged by Seraphine's story. You may see a lot of yourself in her, and want her to succeed; that success might give you hope that you can do the same, yourself.
However, it's important to understand that Riot gets to decide whether she succeeds or not. It's important to realize that that emotional connection (a form of parasocial relationship) is something that Riot has planned for and wants to use as a way to attach people to their brand, and spend money.
Something about that seems incredibly wrong to me on a moral level.
My feelings aside, Riot is just making more efficient something that creators have been relying on for a very long time: creating a bond with their audience that turns into tangible support.
However, the lack of transparency and how well they’re capturing a personality type that brings into an audience is uncomfortable. If this was McDonald’s or some other large brand, you’d almost expect a level of clumsiness that would “give them away”; here the process is so efficient and well-executed, it represents a culmination of a marketing team basically dissecting real emotions and connections.
While I hate to admit it, that’s kind of the point in all this.
I don’t know if I have the right to be offended with that, as someone who’s always touted that building value and connection is important. I can only hope that the Riot (and others) can up the transparency just a bit to the point where there’s a balance between the uncanny valley and something that means well.
I imagine that the idea of making Seraphine’s “photos” be drawn/CGI was supposed to cover this gap, but at this point I’ve seen so many people represent themselves as art (either through insecurity or necessity) that it didn’t occur to me to think as critically.
Between Seraphine, V-Tubers and DeepFakes, the next couple decades has the potential to be very cruel to people looking to build branding based on authenticity and genuine connection. Some possibilities are:
Brands will know how to distill that “secret sauce” and exploit it to the degree that real people cannot hope to compete. “Real” will not feel “real”, because even the flaws are executed to an absurd degree of efficiency and purpose.
Users will be unable to differentiate between a real human and a manufactured one, and react cynically to any attempt at being real. In an effort to guard themselves, anything attempting to make a genuine connection will result in negative feedback.
Users will be unable to differentiate between a real human and a manufactured one, and be blissfully taken into the ruse because it hits them so well. Their ignorance, or lack of desire to think critically, makes them susceptible.
The idea of “create something with your heart; people will know it’s real” becomes more muddled when that can be mathematically solved by a computer, or people in a boardroom.
I don’t know if there’s some kind of limitation or ethics that prevents this from going too far; I don’t know what a solution is. I just know that on the moral and empathetic side of my brain, something feels wrong about this; on the marketing side of my brain, I can’t help but think “you’ve gotta hand it to them; maybe you’re just mad you didn’t think of it first.”
I think I am extremely okay with the former being the much larger and louder thought, at the moment.
Thanks for reading. I’ll be back next Friday with more. In the meantime, click any of the buttons below to help out my work.