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Riot Games fans received one of the biggest surprises of 2022 with the announcement of VALORANT and League of Legends’ newest characters Neon and Zeri. While VALORANT players have been able to get their hands on the electrifying duelist Neon since Jan. 12, Zeri is still a few days out from her debut on Summoner’s Rift. 

Both Neon and Zeri are cool, sarcastic sharpshooters with breakneck attack patterns that reward players for staying on the move. Design-wise, they also draw heavy inspiration from Filipino culture. And while Riot recently confirmed their similarities don’t go beyond appearances and abilities, both characters happen to be voiced by the same person.

Vanille Velasquez is the voice behind Riot’s shocking new duo. Her voice acting career began as one of her hobbies as a kid; these days, her portfolio includes credits on PBS Kids’ “Jelly, Ben, and Pogo” and the Tagalog version of Nickelodeon’s “The Loud House.” As a life-long gamer and Philippines native, being tasked by Riot with bringing Neon and Zeri to life felt like a dream come true, according to Velasquez.

“I just got an email one day, and at first, I didn’t know that it was Riot Games,” Velasquez said. “All that I was told was that it was a big, well-known video game company. And then I signed a contract and then that’s when they were like, ‘this is Riot Games,’ and my head exploded.”

An opportunity years in the making

Velasquez has been a self-proclaimed geek for as long as she can remember. She was introduced to games and anime at a young age, and recalls fond memories playing the Playstation 1 with her cousins and watching the original “Teen Titans” animated series.

“That’s what inspired me to try to get into voice acting,” said Velasquez. “ I started doing it for fun because I thought I want to be in these things too. And it’s crazy — a decade later, I am.”

Velasquez started voice acting for fun as early as 10 years old and her parents supported her in her hobby. In 2016, when she was 17, Velasquez joined a voice acting competition called Dubbing Academy on HeroTV, a TV station that aired anime and other cartoons in the Philippines. After graduating college in 2019, she decided to pursue voice acting full time and took on roles in a variety of online indie projects while working on larger gigs.

When a casting producer passed the opportunity to voice Neon and Zeri to Velasquez, she completed both of her auditions from her bedroom studio. At the time, she didn’t even realize what games the characters would be a part of. Once she heard that she got the roles, and learned that she’d be in League of Legends and VALORANT, it was difficult to keep the news under wraps, especially since her younger brother loves both games.

“He didn’t know until the trailer dropped,” she said. “I was going crazy talking to my diary, talking to myself because I wasn’t allowed to tell anybody about it… I was even talking to a friend and he was like, ‘Hey, I heard they were adding a Filipino agent and VALORANT,’ and I was just like ‘Yeah, I heard about that.’”

Velasquez kept her secret for a bit over a year after her initial audition for the role. For her, seeing Neon and Zeri’s trailers release, and witnessing the world’s reaction to them, was like opening gifts on Christmas morning.

Bringing Neon and Zeri to life

With the job landed, Velasquez committed to absorbing whatever material she could to learn about VALORANT and League of Legends’ worlds, particularly Piltover and Zaun. From studying online wikis, cinematics and watching Arcane to reading up on every character in both games, her research played a large part in her ability to create the Neon and Zeri that Riot Games fans will get to know over time.

“I read all about the other characters so I understood who they were and I didn’t have to rely on what my director tells me,” said Velasquez. “I even played the games a little bit so I could at least understand the basics and how it goes and what the hell is a Spike and all that stuff.”

While technically only Neon is from the Philippines, since real-world locations don’t exist in Runeterra, both she and Zeri are influenced heavily by Filipino culture. As some of the Rioters that worked on both characters are also Filipino, this aspect of their release was handled with a lot of care, something Velasquez was appreciative of and excited by.

“It’s amazing what you can create when you have actual people behind the whole process,” she said. “It really shows, in my opinion, how passionate they were about seeing themselves in video games because they’re also Filipinos who haven’t really been seeing themselves in video games.”

During the recording process, Velasquez was given opportunities to embrace her cultural connection to these characters as she saw fit. She was frequently encouraged by writers in her recording sessions to insert ad-libs in Tagalog for some of her voice lines. She even translated some of the lines they wrote in English into Tagalog, a process she said she was grateful for being trusted with and ultimately helped strengthen her personal connection to the roles.

“I like to think that Zeri and Neon are like two parts of me,” said Velasquez. “Zeri is like my cheerful and happy-go-lucky side, and Neon is my more sarcastic side.”

Embracing representation

For Velasquez, being the voice of Neon and Zeri is more than just a dream job. As someone who grew up in the Philippines, where pursuing a career in voice acting is more difficult, she felt honored to bring these characters to Filipino fans.

“When I was playing video games back in the day, there wasn’t a lot of Filipino characters,” said Velasquez. “So I know exactly how it feels for them to finally see more Filipinos in video games.”

Velasquez lit up whenever she talked about the trailer for Neon in particular. It’s full of references to Filipino culture that “don’t scream Filipino,” as she puts it, but would resonate with most Filipino players in an instant. The Pilipinas jersey on Neon’s wall and her theme song, Entertain Me by Filipino-Australian singer-songwriter Ylona Garcia are two of the more obvious ones.

While Zeri’s trailer is more restricted in this respect since she’s in League, it was revealed in an AMA that at the start of her cinematic her annoyance at her powers not working right away is a nod to frequent random power outages experienced by some in the Philippines. This was added by Zeri’s Lead Concept Artist Gem “Lonewingy” Lim, who is Filipino.

Since the reveal, Velasquez can’t stop reading what people have to say about Neon and Zeri online. From retweeting fan art to scrolling through trailer reactions, she’s been soaking up all of the buzz since the announcement and even started using her social platform to give advice to those looking to break into the voice acting industry. 

“I used to just dream about this, and I didn’t really think that it was possible because I’m this girl in the Philippines and usually for these huge video games, they hire people local to [Los Angeles],” said Velasquez. “I know my younger self would be so thrilled.”

In the future, Velasquez would love to take on a major role in more narrative-dense games similar to Life is Strange or games developed by studios Quantic Dream and Naughty Dog. But for now, she’s simply excited to see the places this new step in her career will take her.