This article is part of Virtuos Insider, a series of interviews where Virtuosi share about their careers and experiences in the company and video game industry at large. In this installment, we chat with our team working on League of Legends (LoL) at Sparx* – a Virtuos Studio.
Since the inking of our partnership with Riot Games in 2019, our Sparx* team has developed over 150 champion skins for LoL, including Qiyana’s Lunar Empress skin, Azir’s 2022 LoL WORLDS Championship skin, and several other fan favorites. As the scope of the collaboration has been expanding, the core team dedicated to LoL at Sparx* has also grown over the last few years.
In November 2022, our team visited Riot’s headquarters in Los Angeles for a week-long immersion program and worked directly with our partners on the franchise. We sat down with a few of them to learn more about their experience working with Riot:
- Nguyen Chi Hieu, Senior Character Artist
- Dong Thi Thanh Phuong, Rigging Artist
- Nguyen Khiet Toan, Senior Animator
- Nguyen Anh Tuan Tu, Technical Artist
Sparx*’s LoL team posing in front of Riot’s LA campus
1. Please introduce yourself and tell us about a personal hobby that you enjoy in your free time.
Thanh Phuong: I’m Phuong, rigging artist at Sparx*. In my free time, I often watch movies, listen to music, and play my favorite games such as LoL, Teamfight Tactics, and Valorant.
Chi Hieu: I’m Hieu, character artist at Sparx*. When I’m not working, I usually try out both popular and various indie games. Recently, I have been playing God of War Ragnarök.
Khiet Toan: I’m Toan, and I’ve been working as an animator at Sparx* for six years. I like listening to music, watching movies, and playing adventure and puzzle games.
(Left to right) Khiet Toan, Chi Hieu, My Anh (associate art producer), Thanh Phuong
Tuan Tu: I’m Tu, technical artist at Sparx*. My hobbies include traveling and discovering new technology while surfing the internet. I love dabbling in these technologies and experimenting with them in my personal projects.
Tuan Tu (far right) with his Sparx* team on their Los Angeles tour
2. Tell us about your journey in the games industry – how did you get started as an artist and what keeps you going?
Chi Hieu: I started playing games since I was two years old, ever since my family got me hooked on titles such as StarCraft and Final Fantasy. When I learned that drawing could be applied to designing games and movies, I knew right away that this was the path I wanted to pursue – building fantasy worlds for everyone. My work is deeply motivated by the fulfillment of seeing the products of my imagination being realized on the screen, and by my teammates who inspire me to improve myself.
Thanh Phuong: I’ve loved playing games since I was in school and I got into LoL in 11th grade. My passion for LoL motivated me to sign up for 3D modeling and animation classes to recreate what I was playing. I’d also been a long-time follower of Sparx* and aimed to join the company, with the hopes of making LoL skins one day. It is this long-lasting love that encourages me to do better every day.
Khiet Toan: I’m in this industry because I like drawing and playing games, especially titles such as Call of Duty, God of War, and Command & Conquer. It is my team at Sparx* that keeps me excited about work as they are passionate professionals who are always full of amazing ideas and creativity.
Tuan Tu: Actually, I didn’t start my career as a technical artist or anything related to computer graphics – but as an automation engineer! I loved playing games when I was a kid and hoped to become a game creator one day.
A friend introduced me to a technical artist position at Sparx* and I decided to give it a try. Once I started exploring this field, I fell in love with it and stayed on since then. The best thing about working on game projects is that you can visualize your idea and share it with everyone via a medium that we all enjoy and love.
3. Could you share more about your roles and responsibilities?
Chi Hieu: I’m responsible for creating 3D models in LoL from 2D concept designs. When I receive a skin concept, I analyze it with the rigging team and compare it with the existing skins of that particular champion to see if any technical problems should be noted. I will spend around 1-2 weeks modeling it in 3D Maya and ZBrush. Once the model is approved by Riot, I will focus the rest of my time on coloring the texture of the model. If you have ever painted figurines or assembled Warhammer models, you will find this process quite similar, just that it is done on a computer instead.
Tuan Tu: As a technical artist, I am responsible for managing the project pipeline and ensuring its technical stability so the team can work smoothly. This includes implementing the client’s tools to suit the company’s current workflow, developing new tools to help artists, and resolving any technical issues that arise from the moment assets are being developed until the new skins are finished and ready to use in the game.
Thanh Phuong: I work closely with other teams to make rigs customized to client requirements. I also support other teams such as in animation, VFX, and technical art to fix bugs and ensure that there are no errors when importing a model into the game, and that it stays true to the concept.
Khiet Toan: I am the project owner for the animation of LoL skins. My primary responsibility is supporting our animators in the working process in terms of art and technical requirements, and performing final checks or our work before it is delivered to our art director.
4. What’s your proudest achievement since joining the LoL team?
Chi Hieu: My happiest moment was when I saw the splash art (a promotional illustration) of the skin I had just made with ideas from my own 3D model.
Splash artists often have a keen eye for details and as a result, will be able to create much more detailed illustrations. We often study and learn from our splash artists’ illustrations. So, I was pretty proud when our splash artists recognized some of the details I put in the model and included those in their illustrations.
Thanh Phuong: I was, and continue to be, thrilled to participate in creating skins for players and especially for myself – a hardcore LoL fan. I’m proud to have been part of the team that has created over 150 skins in the past four years.
Khiet Toan: I can’t really decide on one, but I’m proud to have worked with the LoL team at Sparx* to release many high-quality character skins such as the Bee, Astronaut, Star Guardian, and most recently, Fright Night.
5. Tell us about your recent visit to Riot’s HQ in Los Angeles.
Tuan Tu: We experienced “a week of a Rioter” and worked with everyone as a team, exchanging many ideas. We also toured the workspaces of different departments and observed how they turned ideas into fantastic products. Riot was a great host and arranged a lot of interactive activities, lunches and hangouts with us after work. I really appreciate that we are respected as partners that collaborate with them to co-develop skins that elevate players’ gaming experience, rather than juat a third-party art content provider.
Chi Hieu: It was an excellent opportunity for us to connect and network with the artists at Riot. We got the chance to communicate directly to understand each other better and improve our working efficiency in the future.
Riot & Sparx team’s game night at Two Bit Circus – a popular arcade in LA
Khiet Toan: I really enjoyed the friendly and multicultural environment at Riot. They even asked the barista to put Vietnamese coffee on the campus coffee shop’s menu during the week we visited. After this trip, our LoL project team of both Rioters and Sparxers has grown much closer.
Riot prepared Vietnamese coffee for the team every morning
Thanh Phuong: We also got to attend WORLDS 2022 Finals – it was so fascinating to be there and watch the matches in person. I almost cried when DRX won. They truly deserved this year’s trophy for their efforts.
The team at Worlds 2022
6. What is one key takeaway from your time in LA?
Khiet Toan: It was enlightening to observe how rigorously Riot evaluates a champion skin to bring the best experience to players around the world.
Chi Hieu: With the goal of improving the relationship between artists from the two studios, this trip gave my whole team and I many opportunities to discuss and offer suggestions to work on the project more effectively. Riot’s artists often learn and collaborate with each other even if they work in different departments. It was a good reminder for myself to learn more from other departments at Sparx* like VFX or Rigging to go further and work better with my teammates.
Sparx*’s animators with Matthew Johnson – animation lead at Riot
7. What advice would you like to share with an aspiring artist wanting to enter the games industry?
Chi Hieu: Keep improving yourself and find joy in your work. Everything gets much easier when you do something that is enjoyable and makes you happy. Try to deliver your best work with utmost responsibility because once a project has been released, it will be difficult to make changes.
Thanh Phuong: Always be ready to learn new things if you don’t want to be left behind. As you search for a place to work, look for studios that have collaborative environments (such as Sparx*!), as you’ll be able to learn from each other more constructively. If you are genuinely passionate about your craft, you will find a way to overcome the difficulties that you may encounter on your way.
Thanks Chi Hieu, Thanh Phuong, Khiet Toan, and Tuan Tu for sharing your journey and advice with us! As we continue to learn and grow with the LoL team at Riot, we look forward to creating more great skins that fans love.