A pair of swords crosses on a rainswept battlefield. The fighters move gracefully, as if dancing. In between flashes of bloodshed, the pair argues about honor. It takes less than a minute for the viewer to understand the fraught, difficult relationship between these two brothers. It sounds like a scene out of a samurai movie, but it’s from the latest animated short from League of Legends. Developer Riot has crafted a gorgeous anime clip to officially reveal the game’s latest champion: Yone, a sort of demonic samurai character.
These kinds of splashy, animated reveals aren’t new territory for Riot. But Yone’s cinematic — dubbed “Kin of the Stained Blade” — is longer and more ambitious than what the studio has attempted in the past. It clocks in at 10 minutes long and jumps back and forth between CG animation and hand-drawn anime art. “The scope was bigger, and the timeline was about the same,” jokes associate art director Mike Berry.
The animation is part of a current League event called “Spirit Blossom,” which brings an anime aesthetic to the venerable strategy game through character skins, a new dating sim-like narrative experience, and more. Yone serves as the showcase piece. A week ago, Riot released a brief anime clip called “The Path,” which explored a key moment in League of Legends lore. Yasuo is one of the game’s most popular characters, and he’s known as a tortured soul because he was forced to kill his brother. You guessed it: his brother is Yone.
According to Berry, there were various elements — the in-game event, a desire to expand Yasuo’s backstory, and a fan base regularly asking for anime content — that inspired Yone’s elaborate reveal. “It seemed like an awesome time to dive in and tell Yasuo’s story, because he’s one of our most popular — or infamous, depending on how you play him — champions,” he explains. “The timing felt right. We started there, and then added the goal of launching Yone. There’s no way to tell Yasuo’s story and not tell Yone’s, and vice versa.”
Riot has been working on the project for some time. Riot developed the story last fall, and it got the official green light in January when the storyboard process began. (Riot partnered with two animation studios, Haoliners Animation and Paper Plane, on the project.) This means that while the animation team was working on the short, the actual Yone character that would be implemented in the game was still in flux. Berry says this can complicate things, but the teams get around it by staying in constant contact; for instance, Berry spoke with Yone concept artist Justin Albers daily while working on the project.
The goal of these animated projects isn’t just to introduce a character, but also to show a different side of the League universe. Yasuo and Yone are samurai, but because of the type of experience League is, they can’t exactly have a sword fight inside of the game. “We really want to pump up the fantasy of what you’re going to get in-game,” says Berry. “We don’t have the limitations that you do in the game. There’s a lot more sword fighting in our piece than you’re going to get in-game, because we don’t have to worry about cooldowns. A real samurai doesn’t worry about a cooldown. And that’s where we went more into the anime space.”
One of the most striking things about “Kin of the Stained Blade” is the way it shifts back and forth between two art styles. The scenes featuring the brothers’ deadly battle are rendered like a classic anime, while Yasuo’s more current storyline is done in 3D. (The 3D art is reminiscent of Arcane, an upcoming League animated series.) Part of this was a creative decision; Berry says the team wanted to respect anime conventions, including having inventive ways of showing flashbacks. But there were also practical concerns. “We didn’t have 30 minutes to elegantly drift between these two [timelines],” Berry explains. “Part of the decision was to make sure we had two very distinct styles so you never doubted where you were on the timeline.”
Over the years, League cinematics have spanned multiple genres and styles. They can be bright and fantastical or dark and dramatic. Sometimes they’re K-pop videos. Berry, who was also a lead on the K/DA music video, says that whatever genre they explore, one of the key elements is being authentic to what came before.
“It’s research,” he says. “Everyone on this project has to understand, if you don’t already going in, exactly what people love about anime. And we need to look at that and make sure we’re bringing that into our piece. Whether it’s the visual style, the storytelling, the pacing. We want to be extremely respectful. When we think about how we want to be measured, we never say ‘I want this to be a great Riot cinematic.’ We’re going to be judged against the best of modern anime.”