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K/DA, Seraphine and Parasocial Marketing

Who is this Seraphine lady, and what is she selling?

This article is a collaboration between Kate King-Smith and Max Jordan.

Riot Games — or more specifically, its parent company Tencent — is known for using extravagant marketing schemes to encourage people to buy into the League of Legends (LoL) phenomenon. One of the company’s more recent endeavours has been the K/DA skin line, a series of skins for notable playable characters that turns them into members of a virtual K-Pop girl group called K/DA, which made its real-life debut soon after it started appearing within the game… to considerable financial success. Riot’s monetization strategy for League of Legends isn’t particularly different from those of competitors like DOTA 2 or SMITE, but tying its marketing in with real-world music has seen Riot’s offering reach an unprecedented level of popularity

Most recently, Riot started a viral social media phenomenon across both Twitter and Instagram in the form of its newest Champion, Seraphine, documenting the character’s music, personality and induction into K/DA. The campaign hasn’t been without cause for concern, though, as it soon became clear that the accounts existed only to market a $35 K/DA themed skin for the Champion that was available alongside Seraphine on release day. It has also called Riot’s inconsistent approach to lore and character design into question, as well as the parasocial aspects of what was presumably a social media intern role-playing as an up-and-coming artist to benefit a huge video game corporation. There’s a lot to unpack here — more than we have time for — but we’ll narrow it all down for you and summarise the drama that has been the Seraphine debacle.

Why is this making people upset, exactly? 

The issue with Seraphine, much like any good controversy, has layers and nuance to it. It can often be difficult to discern from the overwhelming amount of internet noise, just what exactly people are mad about and whether or not it really is a problem. For the sake of relative brevity — and everyone’s sanity — we’ve grouped the issues into three categories: the parasocial nature of the character’s social media accounts; Riot’s decision to shoe-horn her into League of Legends lore, which speaks to the company’s inconsistent approach to lore as a whole; and the concerns surrounding the similarities between Seraphine and the existing musical mage, Sona.

From a marketing aspect, the parasocial engagement Riot utilised to spark interest in Seraphine was — and continues to be — gross, to say the least. Seraphine’s Twitter account was opened on 27th June, with over 700 posts being uploaded since then, but her connection to League of Legends was only really made clear in a post from September 5, in which Seraphine was included in a candid “photo” with the members of K/DA. Seraphine also has an Instagram account, which was opened on the same day as her Twitter account. While it’s not inherently the worst marketing strategy, Seraphine was not immediately sign-posted to be a fictional character; she acted like, and was thus perceived as, a real person behind a persona for more than three months before it became clear that her existence on social media was a simple ploy to sell in-game cosmetics. 

Consumers often react poorly to marketing that they perceive to be overtly aggressive or coercive in its attempts to reach into their wallets, and so many players were not happy that Seraphine turned out to be just more marketing from one of the biggest gaming corporations in the world. In a world that often struggles to take mental health or the everyday struggles we all face seriously, it is disheartening and downright offensive to see human empathy so blatantly exploited for financial gain, and that’s something that the wider community is well within its rights to be upset about. 

In addition to this, the tweets and their accompanying images have carefully cultivated the image of a relatable everywoman struggling with imposter syndrome, mental health and her own artform. This, naturally, prompted many users on Twitter and Instagram to reach out and interact as though Seraphine was a real person, offering their support and telling their stories in the process. All of this isn’t necessarily a bad thing — perhaps it could have even been a good opportunity for Riot to actually comment on mental health and the struggles of artistry — but the revelation about Seraphine’s true purpose on social media understandably left a poor taste in many mouths. The financially exploitative nature of her mere existence on these platforms makes it difficult to reconcile the overall marketing and outreach plan with whatever good might come out of it; there’s something disturbing about big corporations role-playing as normal people on social media, and Seraphine is not much different in this regard.

Another problem reveals itself in the issue of Seraphine’s Runeterra lore, which has been understandably ridiculed for both its sheer ridiculousness and the very slapped-together nature it seems to emanate. Seraphine’s lore is simple — she’s a Piltovian singer who can hear other souls, and she sings in order to help said others “find their own voices.” We run into trouble, however, upon realising that her signature floating stage is made from Hextech crystals, which were harvested from the now extinct Brackern race. From within her stage, Seraphine hears a mysterious voice who she forms a connection with… and only goes downhill from there.

The only Brackern within the current Runeterra lore is Skarner, a much-neglected character in both lore and gameplay, who has now suddenly been yanked out of obscurity just to be included in Seraphine’s story. The voice in Seraphine’s stage turns out to be Skarner’s brother. Initially, the lore stated outright that this voice was that of Skarner’s long-dead sibling, trapped within the crystal his race was essentially exterminated for. The writers have since retconned Seraphine having any knowledge of the crystals or the Brackern in an effort to make her more palatable but this hasn’t removed the stain of its initial inclusion. This problem, however, is a smaller issue against the much larger issue of Seraphine’s presence within Runeterra as a whole.

Beyond her presence within K/DA, Seraphine just seems to lack too much depth beyond her key character trait of being bright, bubbly and (mostly) altruistic in her intent. Integrating her into K/DA, by contrast, was a project that Riot put almost six months of time, money and effort into, and that was developed through the countless Tweets and Instagram posts she released during that time. By comparison, her presence within Runeterra is abysmally small. Unlike previous characters like Senna, who was given a full short story from Lucian’s perspective leading up to her release, Seraphine’s single page of lazily-collected anecdotes presents her as a character that the writing team just didn’t put too much effort into. Given Riot’s extensive efforts to refurbish League of Legends’ lore into something engaging and coherent, one might even read Seraphine’s inclusion as an act of sabotage against the writers who have spent years perfecting the connections between storylines. Fans, understandably, have reacted in kind; from what we can see, there’s been very little positive feedback about Seraphine’s in-universe inclusion. There’s still much to be revealed in regards to this but if anything, Riot will have to pick up its game if they want to include her in any Runeterra lore from now on. 

In terms of gameplay, Seraphine is… basically what a Sona rework might have looked like if Riot had the good sense to make it happen. With a kit geared toward lane bullying and fast clears, Riot intended her to be played as a mage mid-laner, but much of the player base has lumped her into a support role. Down in the bottom lane alongside an ADC, her massive range and nigh-unmissable ultimate make her just as much of a bully as Sona can be in the early game while requiring considerably less skill and precision. In short, if you’ve ever played Sona before, then you will no doubt adapt to Seraphine’s kit within about five minutes. 

Alongside her near-predatory personification on social media, Seraphine’s kit has attracted plenty of criticism in its own right as it is quite transparently tailored towards the mobile market: her almost-impossible-to-miss skillshots, the huge radius on her shielding ability, and her long range help her farm or protect her teammates from afar without the fear of being ganked or dived on. Given that a mobile version of League of Legends called Wild Rift is on its way – the full set of K/DA skins will be available on there as well – it’s easy to see why Riot would gear her towards newer players coming through on mobile. Unfortunately, for those who’ve been playing the game on their PC for any part of the past decade, Seraphine’s kit just feels like a lazy copy-and-paste rework of an existing character. 

There are plenty of other issues with Seraphine as a whole that we could dive into – like the fact that you need to complete a series of “missions” to be able to acquire her ultimate skin – but these are the ones that fans have been discussing the most. Many of the issues the community has raised with Seraphine are definitely valid, but it’s worth exploring whether some of them actually matter nearly as much as Twitter dot com likes to suggest.

What’s the problem with this type of endeavour? Is there a problem at all?

On the surface, many of these issues seem semantic. Sure, the whole parasocial marketing scheme is a little creepy in hindsight but, in the end, it did get people talking and that’s all a top marketer could hope for. The lack of coherence in her lore isn’t necessarily a permanent flaw, either; Riot has been making significant efforts to revamp and revitalise its Runeterra lore in recent years, so the idea of retconning a character’s backstory isn’t off the table. What’s more, the lack of depth in her gameplay could easily be seen as a blessing more than a curse, especially considering the disdain with which the community received Champions like Aphelios and Samira due to their excessive complexity and variability. 

It’s only understandable that players are annoyed with Seraphine, given that most of her presence thusfar has been marketing for her ultimate K/DA skin with “lore” seemingly an afterthought, but perhaps it was just the next logical step for Riot to take in its string of recent endeavours to branch out. K/DA has been a considerable success – even more so than League of Legends’ original Champion-filled band, Pentakill – and the company has inevitably capitalised on that by adding more and more characters into the skin line. True Damage was the beginning, although the advertising campaigns for those skins felt far less exploitative, and Seraphine has proven to be the continuation. She represents a social media marketing experiment, representing the character as a “person” and allowing players to interact with the character in order to encourage them to invest in their overall existence within League of Legends. Riot saw an opportunity to further promote the virtual group that has been such a success, and it took that chance; that’s Marketing 101 more than it’s something to be angry about.

However, one cannot ignore the precedent it sets, not only for League of Legends but for other industries as well. Recently, SM Entertainment released plans to debut a new girl-group called “aespa”, whose primary gimmick is that each of its human members will have a “virtual” counterpart that’s being sold on its ability to interact with fans just like Seraphine. Unlike the members of K/DA, however, who are alternate versions of characters within a video game, the virtual members of aespa are idealisations of real people: unlike their real-world counterparts, they don’t need to eat, drink or sleep, they don’t get sick, they don’t have scandals… they’re perfect in every way and they can be sold as such, regardless of what actually happens to their real-world counterparts. In an industry that’s notorious for overworking and exploiting its idols, the influence that Seraphine and K/DA have had bodes ill for the future of exploitative marketing tactics. Riot has proven that markets can capitalise on this parasocial marketing to the tune of millions, and other entertainment companies are bound to take note and follow suit without any regard to the real-life consequences. 

The issues fans are having with Seraphine from a gameplay perspective are different, as Sona’s existence makes it quite difficult to explain away. We can theorise that Riot felt it necessary to make Seraphine a musically-oriented Champion considering that her design was largely based around her position in K/DA, but that explanation is somewhat lacking – firstly, because the other members of K/DA have had nothing to do with sound or music up until they were involved in K/DA, and secondly because the company could have just found a way to incorporate Sona herself into K/DA, perhaps as a DJ like it did with Yasuo in True Damage. In truth, we have no idea why Riot felt it necessary to poach its own existing character design for Seraphine, and we haven’t been able to come up with a reasonable explanation other than to make it easier to market her on social media as a “struggling-artist” archetype. One could hardly imagine trying to do the same with a character like Evelynn, the pain-obsessed succubus… though there have been plenty of jokes floating around the community about Evelynn opening an OnlyFans account (please, Riot, do not take these jokes as an invitation). It all gives rise to a very valid concern about League of Legends’ future: the potential for Riot to start optimising its character designs for marketability, rather than for gameplay and lore. 

As with any good controversy, the one surrounding Seraphine and her inclusion within K/DA is full of nuance. Although it’s clear that Riot designed the character specifically to sell in-game cosmetics and generate more interest in its virtual K-pop group, we really can’t condemn the company for trying something new and business-savvy with League of Legends. After all, the only thing that matters to stakeholders is cash in pockets, and it’s sure to generate exactly that. Just how much fans will tolerate this attitude, however, will depend entirely on where Riot chooses to go next, whether or not it decides to continue to build characters for the sole purpose of making money. 

In many ways, Seraphine simply represents League of Legends’ evolution from a game to a game that’s also a money-making tool – she just does so in a particularly egregious way that’s called the entire practice into question. 

This article was originally published on Doublejump. If you enjoyed what you’ve read, you can support the site further by following us on social media, becoming a Patron, and/or purchasing some merchandise!