Neon, the lightning fast Agent from Manila, shocks the world with her arrival in VALORANT and sparks intrigue among Filipinos with how this all came to be. In an exclusive interview, Justin Hulog and John Goscicki share the development process to unveil how cultural representation is vital in the games we play.
It’s a do-or-die situation, I was all alone, and my friends on the call watched anxiously. Breaking the silence, I heard winds whirling and saw a sphere of smoke in front of me. It’s a Cloudburst, and I knew exactly who threw it. With reckless abandon, I zipped through the smoke, lined up my crosshairs, and picked off the enemy team’s Jett, their last Agent. All of them were knocked out, but the round was not over. This constant beeping noise rang in my ears as I patiently defused the planted Spike—a bomb that once detonated can lose me the entire match. The beeps sped up as my defusion neared its end. It’s going to be a close one. Thankfully, the glorious screen of triumph that read “CLUTCH” lit up my face in gold.
That was probably the closest game of VALORANT I have ever played, and a situation the 14 million or so monthly active players have experienced before. This tactical shooter by Riot Games isn’t just for competitive spirits like me, though. With a vibrant roster of Agents charged with unique personalities and a gorgeous art style that paints the game in an amiable light, VALORANT is built to be easy to pick up, quick to match-up, and designed for you to belong.
If you were online on any social media platform on January 6, then you would’ve seen VALORANT through the surge of posts, shares, and reactions when a young girl named Neon was revealed to be the latest addition to the Agent roster. What made this announcement spark immense joy locally is that Neon is Filipino—not just as a tidbit dropped for lore’s sake, but because she was designed to really be Filipino. But in a massive global platform such as VALORANT, what does it mean to finally have Filipino representation? I got to chat with Justin Hulog, General Manager for Southeast Asia at Riot Games, and John Goscicki, Character Producer at Riot Games, about the cultural focus of VALORANT, exclusive insights into the development of Neon, and a couple of notes for fans to watch out for as the story of Neon continues.
Neon, the lightning-fast agent from Manila, has arrived.♬ original sound – VALORANT Philippines
Spawning Cultural Connections
In VALORANT, Agents aren’t just mere players for you to choose from. They reflect the global player base of the game, designed with distinct interests, backgrounds, origins, and beliefs that define their identities. They are meant to resonate with you, the player, by making you feel like you are present in the game, whether through how they look, talk, or function in a team.
“As a player-centric company, Riot places a heavy emphasis on the player experience. It is what drives most of our strategies and approaches. Hence, we wanted a diverse cast of Agents that allow us to speak to a wider audience and deliver a truly special experience in our games, one where our players can feel represented,” Hulog mentioned.
“VALORANT players join us from all parts of the globe, and it is important to us that people feel seen. While we may not have an Agent for everyone just yet, VALORANT as a whole should represent a game in which you can envision an Agent being made for you some day,” Goscicki added. Honestly, it’s amazing to see a game go this extra mile for representation and cultural diversity, and not just paint red and blue over generic figures.
The First Spark
Even as early as December 2021, the world got a rather obvious hint as to who the next Agent would be. Goscicki opens the “Next Agent” section of the December “State of the Agents” blog post with “Mga kaibigan ko.” Lo and behold, the first thing people knew about Neon was her nationality before anything else.
The timing for the release could not have been better. Everyone already had their eyes on the Philippines leading up to Neon’s reveal as Team Secret, the country’s bet during the first ever VALORANT Champions world tournament, reached the quarterfinals in impressive fashion. But even before that, the game’s meteoric rise in popularity among Discord servers, local streamers, and friend groups garnered the interest of the devs.
“When we started up this project, there were many obvious signals that it was time to make an Agent from the Philippines, and the passionate player community from the Philippines was undoubtedly one of them! Once we kicked off the process, Justin, members of the Riot SEA team, and several other Filipino Rioters helped to shape who Neon is now,” added Goscicki.
How Do You Personify the Filipino Essence?
Neon is VALORANT’s newest and youngest recruit. With her foot always on the pedal, she zaps her way across entire maps, feisty as always. Her body is teeming with bioelectric energy that holds potential for massive possibilities—details of which Goscicki can’t reveal to me just yet, so keep posted! On the outside, she’s blunt and tough with a touch of sass. Internally, however, she’s guarded and caring, hiding a secret love for bursting into pop songs and keeping a collection of stuffed toys.
“The Riot development team in LA worked closely with our Riot Southeast Asia team to make sure we capture the details and cultural nuances needed to shape Neon’s character and make her shine as a Filipino Agent. This project was especially close to our hearts, since myself and two other members of our team are actually from the Philippines,” Hulog exclaimed.
The team’s efforts have made Neon feel truly Filipino, and not just become a stew of stereotypes we’ve grown tired of seeing. “When we lock down a location where an Agent is from, we do a lot of research into specific features from that region, including notable facial features, nose shapes, skin tones… Across the rest of Riot’s offices, we talked to several Filipinos who provided us with a wealth of references. We looked across mainstream media, music, sports, food—pretty much everything as we were molding Neon. These are super important details, especially on an Agent like Neon who is wearing more fictional gear and clothing. We have to get those features right in that case, as it’s the subtleties that really make someone shine,” shared Goscicki.
Two videos led up to the official announcement of Neon: a quick teaser on Twitter, and the Agent trailer on YouTube. These videos eventually showcased the two most important traits Goscicki identified when personifying the Filipino spirit: family and karaoke.
The sound bite in the teaser clip has Neon on the phone with her parents, similar to how one would be in touch with family after a long trip away from home. “Having strong values in family and community, and a sense of belonging to a large family were things we wanted to build into the character. Everyone we talked to brought up family first, along with the story of sometimes looking for different opportunities outside of one’s hometown, and the family tensions that these opportunities create,” Goscicki explained. “Brought up in Manila, Neon grew up as part of a big family. Having lots of aunts, uncles and cousins around is something I think many Filippinos can relate to, I know I certainly do,” added Hulog. We even hear about her love for family in a couple of voice lines in-game, such as, “We did that. Lola, I know you’d be proud.” whenever your team gets a flawless victory.
Riot Games also went out of their way to give Neon a quirky hobby that’s oh-so relatable. As Goscicki revealed, “We were also amazed at the level of passion that the Filipino community has for karaoke and singing so we had to make sure that if we are going to have a Filipino Agent, she better love music and sing well!” This became evident in the eventual reveal trailer, with the whole video showcasing Neon vibing to Ylona Garcia in the privacy of her room. The trailer also revealed a lot more about how deep the devs went into building Neon’s relatability. The beauty is in the details: the walis tambo casually standing in the middle of her room, the sigh of “hay, buhay” as she fell back on her bed, and even the row of framed medals and achievements hung on her wall.
“Some of the pieces we worked collaboratively on include deciding what Neon’s room in the introductory trailer would look like. We asked ourselves what items would appear in the bedroom of a typical Filipino young woman. The items, colors, and designs in her room were all carefully selected to ensure her private space is an accurate reflection of the lived experiences of our Filipino players,” Hulog shared.
Bringing Neon to life is the impeccable voice acting by Vanille Velasquez. Her smooth transitions between English and Filipino sound just like our daily conversations. People also noticed the distinct stresses in key words, like the hard R in “sorry” or that slight D thud instead of an airy TH for “this” and “their”, without sounding stereotypically provincial.
“Every VA needs to be able to hit the level of performance that we are looking for within the game, on top of sounding authentic to the region. During Neon’s development, it also became really clear to us how important Tagalog being spoken means to the Filipino community. Our [voice actress] Vanille was instrumental in getting this right. During the recording, she would volunteer notes where lines felt strange, and would help us rewrite those parts of the script so that Neon truly sounded like a girl from Manila,” Goscicki recalled.
Changing the Game and Genre As We Know It
For over a year, VALORANT has established themselves as more than just the average tactical shooter and continues to push the boundaries of what such a game can stand for. Its expanding lore continues to touch on real-world topics, such as familial connections, natural resources, and warfare. Its roster of Agents are rich in personality and mirror people’s real-life traits. It’s interactive, community-driven, and player-centric. “I think it’s important that players can see a bit of themselves in an Agent, be it their gender, the struggles they are going through, their nationalities, what they wear, and even the things they eat,” shared Goscicki.
Neon’s reveal is not just a prime representation for Filipinos and the Southeast Asian region as a whole, but also for the vocal youth who energize the online space with new energies and attitudes—even if they get a little prickly at times. “As our first Southeast Asian Agent, Neon reflects the culture and passion of our Filipino community. Neon seeks to represent a modern vision of youth in the Philippines: an impassioned, globally connected generation that stands up for their beliefs,” said Hulog.
“Aside from speaking directly to Filipinos, I believe the feeling of being the youngest in a new group is something many of us can relate to at some point in our lives. It can be stressful and you are second guessing yourself all the time, all while trying to put on a strong front of knowing what you are doing,” Goscicki added.
With Neon finally sprinting through the alleys of Icebox and the open courts of Breeze, and as the games that we play continue to become more vibrant representations of reality, there’s no better time to pick up the game and feel for who speaks to you the most. But if there’s one thing the release of Neon and the genre-defining direction of VALORANT as a whole leaves you, it’s that our culture is always worth celebrating. “We may not be able to shoot lightning from our fingers, but many of us can go outside and eat some kwek-kwek,” Hulog happily shared.