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“Stickies of Support” from Riot Games at PAX. (Thomas Wilde Photos)

Riot Games, the California-based studio behind the mega-popular PC game League of Legends, is having a rough summer. After an expose at Kotaku that depicted the company’s internal culture as a hotbed of gender discrimination, Riot entered this year’s Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle on stage one of a new mission.

As part of its attempts to reform its internal culture, Riot held a series of presentations during PAX in Room 613 of the Washington State Convention Center, on topics such as narrative design and video game production, as well as opportunities for one-on-one resume review and feedback, in order to reach out to and potentially recruit new employees.

Further, as part of Riot’s goal to “support women and non-binary folks who are interested in getting into games professionally,” Riot limited attendance to its presentations to women and non-binary people until 2:30 PM.

Official art for Riot’s League of Legends. (Riot Games Image)

Subsequently, all hell broke loose.

You wouldn’t necessarily have noticed it if you were at the show — Riot’s presence was mostly on the sixth floor of the convention center, well away from most of the major events and booths, and their activities were primarily advertised via their own website; the most visible thing they did from the show floor was the cosplay repair booth–but on social media and Reddit, the League of Legends community went berserk.

The discussion became heated, to the point of personal insults and worse being directed at Riot employees. The worst of the online abuse, in conjunction with the recent shooting incident at a Madden tournament in Jacksonville, Fla., has caused Riot to actively increase security measures at the next League of Legends e-sports tournaments.

Several members of Riot’s staff participated in the social-media discussions surrounding the panels, speaking up in defense of the practice and against the loudest critics from outside the company. On Friday, it was confirmed that two Riot staff members, Daniel Klein and Mattias Lehman, were dismissed from the company, over what Klein told the Verge was a violation of Riot’s internal social media policies. Both Klein and Lehman had been vocal about the need for internal reform at Riot, on Twitter and elsewhere, with Lehman writing an essay on the subject on Medium.

Riot Games has offered the following comment when contacted by multiple sources: “These departures are independent from our efforts to evolve our culture. Our culture remains our top priority, and we remain committed to taking the steps that we need to become a leader in Diversity & Inclusion. We will always encourage Rioters to share their perspectives, and we fully support efforts by Rioters to further our Diversity & Inclusion initiatives. We are committed to making real, positive change in Riot’s culture and internal advocates are a crucial part of making that happen. Beyond that, we can confirm that these individuals are no longer with Riot Games, but we cannot provide further details on personnel issues.”

Klein and Lehman’s dismissal over their social media usage echoes the dismissals of Jessica Price and Peter Fries from the Bellevue, Washington-based Arena.net, developers of the Guild Wars series, back in July.

The Background

Gameplay in League of Legends. (Image: Riot Games)

If you follow video games at all, you’ve probably at least heard of League of Legends. An estimated 100 million players log into the game every month, League is a perennial hit on streaming services like Twitch.tv, and it has several professional competitive divisions, such as the League Championship Series (LCS). Seattle is represented in League competitive play via the Seattle Siege, which competes regularly in both local events and city-vs-city playoffs.

League is one of the most visible games in a genre called the MOBA, for Multiplayer Online Battle Arena. The genre, which originally developed from a player-created mode for StarCraft, is a team-based competition in which each player controls a single character. Both teams’ goal is to besiege and destroy the other team’s base, despite opposition from both other players and AI-controlled units. Other popular MOBAs include Defense of the Ancients and Heroes of the Storm.

Riot Games was founded in 2006 by Brandon “Ryze” Beck and Marc “Tryndamere” Merrill, who raised money from private investors to work on what would become League. Their game plan from the start was to focus on continually evolving a single game, rather than releasing multiple titles, which eventually turned into League‘s business model. Anyone can start playing League for free, but you can spend real money to get various cosmetic options such as new costumes, or to get new characters faster than you’d otherwise be able to unlock them through standard play, and Riot continually releases new content, including short films, to keep players engaged.

Riot is currently owned by the Chinese company Tencent, which finalized its acquisition of Riot in late 2015. As of 2018, it employs over 2,500 people in 24 locations worldwide, including an office for player support services in Redmond, Washington.

The Controversy

Kotaku’s Cecilia D’Anastasio released “Inside the Culture of Sexism at Riot Games” on August 6th, after months of research and interviews with current and former Riot Games personnel. It’s a comprehensive, well-sourced piece about the company’s internal politics, which was backed up by various additional online testimonials from former Riot personnel.

Despite the runaway popularity of League of Legends, Riot has struggled with PR problems–it’s had to take significant strides in the past to combat the toxicity of its community, as it was creating a problem for the game’s ability to retain players. The company quickly responded, pledging to fix the problems indicated by D’Anastasio’s piece. It then followed up with a longer essay on August 29th, just before PAX West, detailing the steps the company is taking.

Riot’s plan for moving forward includes the expansion of its preexisting Culture, Diversity & Inclusion initiative; the improvement of its internal investigation process; and bringing in exterior consultants for evaluation. In an essay published on its website, Riot mentions that “we’re accelerating our efforts to make our recruiting system more open. We’re overhauling our job descriptions to ensure they’re readily accessible to all demographic groups; reassessing which universities we recruit from; and expanding the pools from which we target our candidates.”

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