The Stories Behind League’s SFX14.07.2018

When players hear Blitzcrank’s hook or Kled’s ult, they know what’s about to go down. There are thousands upon thousands of sounds in League of Legends, but some of the most important and recognizable are attached to champion abilities. These sound effects primarily communicate gameplay mechanics, but they also help to define a champion’s unique thematic. Imagine if Zoe had a Nocturne-like ultimate; it wouldn’t really fit her character if it sounded dark and menacing, so it’d probably sound bright and menacing instead.

Creating sound effects for champions is a constant balancing act between gameplay clarity and character thematic. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, and it can include everything from recording underwater explosions to smashing watermelons.

Audible Building Blocks

Just as artists create concept art to explore a champion’s looks, sound designers create a sonic palette to explore a champion’s sounds. “A champion’s sonic palette is like a collection of building blocks,” says Brandon “Riot Sound Bear” Reader. “We start by putting together an array of sounds that’ll hopefully cover what we’ll need for the kit, and then we can expand on it and combine the pieces later.”

The real first step: setting a clear direction for the champion’s sound design.

Designers don’t always need to start from scratch; Riot’s internal library of sounds offers a digital catalog of cacophony. In particular, it can be helpful to peruse (or even repurpose) the sounds previously created for champions who share a home region. Every area of Runeterra has its own sonic language, which is why champs from Piltover tend to have fine and precise Hextech sounds, whereas champs from Zaun have scrappy and cobbled-together-sounding effects. “Not every champion from a region should sound the same, but they should all share sonic characteristics,” says audio director Brad “Riot Eno” Beaumont.

League’s spells and abilities also need to share a sort of sonic synergy. For example, stuns and snares usually have a hard-hitting tone at the beginning that’s held out—think Twisted Fate’s Gold Card or Morgana’s Dark Binding. Shields, heals, knock-ups, invulnerabilities, and most other common mechanics share audio characteristics because it helps clarify gameplay. Oftentimes the outcome of a teamfight or even a game can be determined by less than half a second of reaction time, so it’s important to make these effects as clear as possible. You might not see that Yordle Snap Trap, but your ears will help you discover that you’ve stepped on it.

For champion reworks in particular, another strong starting point is the types of sounds used in the original kit. “Just like the rest of the team thinks about the iconic visual or gameplay elements of an existing champion, we think about the iconic elements their sound design,” says Matteo “ChefSpecial86” Stronati. “We try to find ways to keep it familiar while also making it sound better, which can be tough.” None of the original sound effects are directly used in a new sonic palette, but they can they serve as inspiration or even a foundation for the new design.

Bringing the Concepts to Life

When the sound designer has a sonic palette they feel pretty good about, they share it with the rest of the team. At this point, it’s not intended to be a final version as much as a way to explore possibilities. “For Kai’Sa, I tried a couple different approaches in her first sound palette,” says Riot Sound Bear. “The team thought the organic, deeper sounds better fit Kai’Sa’s character than the higher-pitched sci-fi ones, so I focused more on that direction.”

Sometimes in place of sending out the sonic palette itself, sound designers use those sounds to create an audio story. “Sharing our work early is important, not only because it’s an opportunity to ask for feedback, but also because it’s a chance for us to inspire the team,” says Riot Sound Bear. “That’s one reason why stories can be so awesome—they help bring the concept on the page to life.” Below is Pyke’s audio story, during which he attacks a poor bloke leaving a Bilgewater tavern.

Fireballs, Slingshots, and Nitrous Bombs

Now comes the fun part—recording new sounds in Foley labs. But first, a quick history lesson: Foley originated in the film industry where sound-effect artists would perform sound effects while watching the picture to recreate or heighten the audio recorded on set (it’s named for Jack Foley, who was a sound effect artist in the earliest days of film). When you hear the sound of some dude punching someone in an action movie… that’s the result of Foley.

League’s sound designers do the same thing (just not for a film), and because League’s cast of characters is so diverse, Foley recordings involve everything from fireballs and whips to trashcans and Mayan Death Whistles. “Every champion has their own version of Foley exploration,” says Isaac “Audio Ninja” Kikawa. For instance, Irelia’s recording session involved whipping around swords and knives in Riot’s Foley studio, a sound-treated room with a locker full of strange objects accumulated over League’s nine-year history.

Sometimes the Foley room won’t work well for the types of sounds a champion needs, so it’s better to head off-site for the recording session. For Pyke, the team spent an afternoon at a pool recording sounds underwater, including people screaming and exploding a dry ice bomb. “That last one shook the foundation of the house,” says sound designer Bryan “Ampson” Higa.

Other times, recording sessions can be more digital, like when Riot Sound Bear used a synthesizer to explore laser-y sounds for Kai’Sa’s kit.

No matter what form it takes, recording Foley is all about creative exploration. “Sometimes you’ll just want try something to see what happens,” says Riot Sound Bear. “A lot of the cool stuff comes from happy accidents.” For Xayah’s recording session, the team launched a bunch of small objects from a slingshot and recorded the sounds they made as they soared through the air. Once they ran out of things to shoot, they scrounged through the supply closet. “Audio Ninja was like, ‘I found this old bullet casing back there, wanna try it?’” Ampson says. “And that ended up being the core to Xayah’s feather throw.”

Some other origins for League’s sound effects include… 

Blood splatters from Kayn’s weapon started as water splatters in Riot’s campus showers.

  • A layer of Elder Dragon’s roar came from using a violin bow across chicken wire and a trashcan.
  • Assorted sounds from Bard’s kit (as well as the in-game shop bells) were created using tiny brass bells purchased in L.A.’s Chinatown.
  • The bright and shimmery tonality on Garen’s ult came from a closely mic'd tuning fork and a finger cymbal hitting a broadsword.
  • Parts of Ivern’s sounds came from constructing a Foley prop called “The Creaker,” a rope stretching across two wooden planks attached to a hinge.
  • Zac’s globby sounds were made by filling a condom with dog food and beans and smashing it against the wall.

No matter what it what it takes (or looks like), the goal of recording Foley is to create the sounds that’ll be used in-game.

Assembling the Sound Effects

Sound designers can usually fill out the rest of a champion’s sonic palette after processing the audio from the initial Foley recording sessions. “Most of the sounds are put through a meat grinder of different processes and effects, so what comes the other end isn’t always super recognizable,” says Riot Sound Bear. The way sounds are processed varies from champion to champion, but it usually involves changing the tone and pitch and running the sound files through audio processing plugins and synthesizers, which do things like add doppler effects and distort the sound. 

At long last, sound designers are left with a bunch of building blocks to choose from and can start assembling the sounds that’ll eventually become part of League. “Sound design is like cooking. You take the ingredients and combine them using a bunch of tools, then hopefully you end up with something that’s more than the sum of its parts,” says ChefSpecial86. While the core to Xayah’s auto attacks came from the slingshotted bullet casing, they also they contain traces of… 

A drum brush swish.

An elastic band.

Whooshing leather.

Whooshing towel.

... the magical, processed whoosh

Slingshotted bullet casing

and combined together... ta-dah! Xayah's auto attacks.

All that’s really left now is to get the sound effects into playtests and polish them up. “In early playtests, the focus is pretty broad: Does this champion sound like any other champion in the game?” says Audio Ninja. With 140+ champs, and hundreds of skins, it can take some time to differentiate the new effects from what’s already there. “It can be the most challenging part, especially when we’re working with another champ with a sword, or another champ with a gun,” says Riot Sound Bear. “How do we make them all sound different?” 

This is why the playtests are so important—the more ears on a sound, the more likely someone is to pick up when there’s too much audio overlap.

Towards the end of development, playtests are more about polishing the effects, which includes balancing the audio levels and cleaning up when and how the sounds play. “We’re really focused on gameplay clarity at this point, making sure we’re not adding unnecessary noise to the game,” says Audio Ninja. A lot of these fine-tuning decisions depend on the type of ability that sound is attached to—if it’s really impactful to the game (like most ultimates), it’s okay for it to take up more auditory space. For example, Ornn’s ult has an audio cue when it’s cast, then a metallic clang each time it hits a champion. It’s ear-catching, but that’s because it’s a high-impact ability and it’s important for players to know exactly what’s happening.

The Final Moments

Sound designers continue working on a champion’s sound effects until the final days of development, which is mostly because any change to the champion in-game will likely impact their sound effects. If an animator changes the path of an animation, or the VFX artists changes the way an effect triggers, or the game designer changes the timing of a spell, it has an effect on the way the sounds should be played. “Audio relies on a lot of teams and their work,” says ChefSpecial86. “But that also means we have the unique chance to tie all of the aspects of a champion together, which is pretty awesome.”