League of Legends: Too Little Too Late?

Image Credit: Samaneh Sadeghi Marasht

With the recent introduction of LGBTQ+ cosmetics into League of Legends, does it make up for Riot Games’ history of sexual misconduct, boys club culture, and poor management? Rory Galvin investigates.

Since the launch of League of Legends in 2009, Riot Games has been a major player in the gaming industry. Thanks to the intellectual property’s huge successes over the years, more than 2,500 people are employed across the globe: from China to the United States, and even right here in Dublin city. When so many people are brought on in such a short amount of time, the history of allegations and lawsuits against Riot Games - specifically their management - is unfortunately, not surprising. What issues did they have? Are any still cropping up? And are the recent olive branches of inclusion enough to make up for a shaky reputation?

The story behind League of Legends is one similar to Facebook. Two college students, Marc Merrill and Brandon Beck met each other, bonded over their love for video games, and decided to make their own. A few years later, the opportunity arose, and the two were able to head a small team to develop their dream game, eventually releasing in April of 2009 as a closed beta. Even in a limited format, the growth was phenomenal: they made $1.3 million in 2009, $17.3 million in 2010 and over $85 million in 2011. The money was coming in, and the game was gaining popularity day by day. It wasn’t until the buyout when Riot Games became the gaming giant it is now. Tencent, a Chinese entertainment company, bought a 93% majority stake in the studio, worth $400 million - this eventually led to more support to the game, and the current operation of 24 offices. The freemium model is what got people in the door and kept them there with a satisfying loop of competitive gameplay and seasons akin to televised sports. Revenue was gained through the consumer purchasing different characters, skins and various other cosmetic items. League of Legends made this format very popular in the West and led to other games (such as Fortnite) following in its footsteps.

Problems with work culture have been affecting the studios for the past few years. Former Kotaku writer Cecilia D’Anastasio spoke with multiple women who worked at Riot Games. One employee, Lacy, recounted one public meeting where a boss mentioned “...how her kids and husband must really miss her while she was at work.” Another manager asked her how she could be working at Riot while “being so cute”. 28 other staff members were asked about their experience working at the company, with many of them having similar stories to what Lacy went through. They had all wished to stay anonymous, which certainly speaks towards what they could face if they spoke publicly. The toxic ‘bro culture’ is much worse when nobody is watching: a list from senior members containing whom they would sleep with, crude comments on email chains and even physical harassment. One male employee said that his genitals were grabbed by a senior leader frequently, and in meetings (if no women were around) would fart on someone’s face. The list of stories and allegations can be overwhelming, and fans were shocked when they came to light.

Separate from the toxic workplace, Riot Games’ flagship title is equally terrible to witness. Poor moderation tools have led to extreme and offensive language all across League of Legends. In September a new game mode was introduced called ‘Clash’: a team-based minigame where you get some friends together to compete against others. A bracket system is used, with in-game prizes up for grabs. The main issue here is that players have the freedom to name their own team whatever they desire, and in a lot of cases, it has led to sexist, homophobic and racist language. Dot Esports’ George Geddes compiled a list of names staff found only three days into the competition; these 40-odd teams included extremely offensive references towards the Black Lives Matter movement and had racist rhetoric in general. Riot has profanity filters in place, so you can not directly spell curse words, but they’re very easy to work around, so you can read between the lines. In 2012, League of Legends had an estimated 90% male player-base, which only plays into this boy’s club mentality; some would call it locker room talk, but clearly there is a problem present.

In cases like these where both the game and the company have deep-seeded issues, you would hope that steps are taken to make things right. However, Riot Games initially tried to suppress anyone who wanted to speak out. To prevent any lawsuits against the company, especially with past employees, Riot used forced arbitration. This is a clause in the employment contracts that removes any employee’s right to sue, take part in a class action lawsuit, or appeal decisions from the company. In this case, due to the arbitration, anybody who wanted to take action against the company for years of misconduct were not able to do so. The frustration surrounding this rule eventually led to the first ever organised walkout in the North-American gaming industry: something fascinating considering how long the market has been around. Despite the multiple walkouts (including one at the Dublin office) Riot Games have maintained their arbitration rule. However, following the protests, they have supposedly tried to change their code of conduct, alongside a diverse selection of employees, but as far as public perception goes, nothing has changed. A theory as to why they maintained the arbitration plays into the monetary hit they would take for any lawsuits they are liable for. One example is a class action lawsuit filed against Riot in 2018 pertaining to gender discrimination, where Riot now have to pay out $10 million dollars (and possibly a lot more in back pay).

In what could be seen as an olive branch towards change, Riot introduced pride-based cosmetics into their game this year. This includes a multitude of LGBTQ+ flags that follow behind the player as a trail. While this is a welcome addition, is it enough to make up for their past? Well, to me, it is obvious: no. When there are serious cases of sexual assault, harassment, and racism, adding items to the game is not going to fix any of that. Also, the items themselves are not very special for two distinct reasons: they did the same thing the year before, and they are limited-time, meaning they will eventually disappear. The most significant part of flying the flag that represents you as a trial expired at the end of June, so the only thing remaining are the tiny player icons that aren’t very obvious in what they’re meant to display. Pixels and polygons on a screen don’t fix real world problems, but when they’re not even permanent - is there even a point in including them?

I asked three questions in the beginning, and we should have the answers to them now. Riot Games have had extreme issues in both their game and company. Following fan outcry and protests from hundreds of employees, some things changed, but certainly not enough. Forced arbitration is still an issue, and the fruits of their new diversity plans have not been seen yet. Limited-time cosmetics do not help any of these issues in a meaningful way, but when years of controversy are minimal against their bottom line, Riot Games may never need to change what they’re doing right now in order to retain its players.