Game Design

riot games’ problematic culture for female players of league of legends

In September 2018, I attended the North American League Championship Series summer finals in Oakland, CA.  Having just started playing League of Legends earlier that year and really enjoying it, I was so excited to watch professional players playing live in front of an arena-sized audience, and thrilled to hang out with the friends who had invited me.

But even though it was a fun weekend, there was this familiar, awkward feeling being in that arena.  It was the same discomfort I felt in computer science classes way back in the day, when I was one of maybe two females in a class of a hundred.

It was no surprise that the audience was mostly male and mostly (at least by appearance) the typical nerdy gamer guys that are expected to frequent events like comic conventions and Magic: The Gathering draft nights.  What surprised me was that while all the guys were sharing in this communal experience of enjoying watching this game together, I still felt not really a part of it.

There were many layers to this: I’m not a guy and therefore don’t match the typical gamer profile, but also the most visible representation of girls there came about during breaks in between games, when a group of mostly female cosplayers dressed as characters would parade about on the stage, tossing freebies to the crowd.

Don’t get me wrong, I like cosplay, and given the time and money, I’d probably want to make a costume of my favourite character and attend these events in costume.  And I’m not saying that anyone in costume was not a LoL fan, because I’m sure many were.

But being there, as a woman, not in costume, not as someone’s girlfriend, just as an interested player to watch the game, I was struggling to find my kindred in the crowd when there was also no female representation on the teams playing.  All the men had to do was look around to see people like them, to feel like they belonged.  I felt almost as if people who saw me would wonder, “what’s she doing here?”

Nevertheless, I had a great time watching the highest level players make League of Legends look easy, effortlessly making moves and plays that I could only dream of.  I left that day still enjoying the game, but questioning my place in the League of Legends community for the first time.

Workplace culture informs in-game culture

About a month earlier, Kotaku had published an exposé about the sexism in Riot Games’ workplace, which generally sparked outrage across the Internet.  The truth is, stories like this are commonplace in the male-dominated tech industry, and doubly so in gaming tech companies like Riot.

I was glad that discriminatory hiring processes and sexist treatment of women in the workplace got mainstream media attention, but the impact of this on Riots’ gamers has gone vastly unexplored.  I want to comment on this from a player perspective in this article.

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I think Riot was unprepared for how its “hardcore gamer” workplace culture not only made things difficult for women to work at Riot, but severely impacted the culture of the game it created in the first place.

For example, I’m lucky if I go one night in even the most casual, unranked games without being verbally insulted in game.  Moreover, these are often gendered insults, where the words “bitch”, “pussy”, and even “girl” are used derogatorily in contexts that would be very inappropriate in real life.  There are also off-hand comments that come up frequently, referencing characters’ body parts or phallic looking animations and moves.

Yes, there is a long-standing toxic gamer chat across all games, where people feel safe to be abusive behind the anonymity of a username and an avatar, but it really frustrated me that League of Legends didn’t seem to be doing anything to make things better.

Real in-game chat. (MF refers to Miss Fortune, a voluptuous pirate character who is one of my favourites to play.)
It’s not difficult to come across these sort of messages in chat. This is real, from a game I just played.

Women and esports

Beyond the game, Riot supports a vibrant esports community with big marketing initiatives.  A recent example is the music video for a fictional band “K/DA” comprised of four female characters from LoL, which became very popular within and outside of the League of Legends community.  I thought the video was incredible, the visuals striking, the song catchy, the skins that were being sold in-game probably flying off the shelves; everything seemed to be done right.

Then I saw a video of the ladies who provided the voices for K/DA in their opening performance for the 2018 World Championships, and again, it felt weird.  Madison Beer, Miyeon of (G)I-DLE, Soyeon of (G)I-DLE, and Jaira Burns were amazing, but it was the setup of the thing that got me, a group of girls and their holographic counterparts on display as an opener for all-male teams.

It felt like the women and their avatars were simply brought on as hype before the real show, and not fully treated as part of the LoL community.  Like cheerleaders, they were for entertainment only and don’t really cater to the females who want to be seen as equals to male gamers.

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What also really got to me about K/DA is Riot Games’ focus on the characters more than the women who were singing as them.  If Riot lacked support for its female players, it seemed like creating this girl group would be an alternative avenue to appeal to women to gain fans for their franchise.  After all, girl bands like the Spice Girls were symbols of girl power as much as they were entertainment for a male audience.

However, where Riot is supportive of its esports athletes, conducting interviews with them and allowing the fanbase to get to know players and invest in their strategies, it failed to support the female singers and dancers who put a lot of work into the POP/STARS music video.  Even the interview of the band on the LoL website provides fictionalized responses from the characters without including responses from their real-world counterparts, which I think would have been awesome.

It struck me that when a male player plays as a character, he is given his own identity, but when a female entertainer sings, dances and cosplays as a character, she is not.

Artwork depicting four female LoL characters as pop stars in the fictional k-pop group K/DA. Image from: Riot Games.

Maybe that’s because there are no high-level female esports LoL players.  Attempts to get more female esports participation have generally fallen flat, and hurt more than helped.  There’s some coverage on this, from the all-girls teams that are seen as gimmicky uses of the “cute gamer girl”1, to the community backlash and controversy surrounding transgender players2.

The infamous all-women Team Siren was known not for their gameplay but for fighting amongst teammates, trash-talking their opponents during games, and a promotional video showcasing several stereotypes of girl gamers that quickly became meme fodder3.  Also, female teams have players that are lower ranked than competitive male players, which is setting them up for embarrassment and feeding a harmful stereotype.

Most recently, the all-female team Vaevictis faced a match where their opponents banned five support characters (there’s a longstanding stereotype that females only play support), and another where their game was dragged out to a 52-2 loss4.  Riot followed up with disciplinary warnings to both teams, which unsurprisingly caused more hate in an already toxic and resistant-to-change community5, 6.

Even at noob level, females face much more abuse and resistance in-game, and I don’t see it improving at higher levels of play.  Someone that gets through that to emerge as a high-ranking player needs to not only have the right skills but an ability to be immune to the public ridicule and shame from the LoL community that is so prevalent for women who identify as gamers.  And it’s not an easy task.

Does the concept of separate male and female leagues promote diversity or is it sexist?  What are the social implications and personal pressures of putting a high-ranking female on a team where her teammates are all men?  These are questions with no easy answer.

Next steps towards diversity and inclusivity

The people at Riot responded to the Kotaku article with promises to do better.  They’ve reworked their core values, and hired people to work on diversity and inclusion7.  But diversity is not simply about hiring non-white-males on to a game development team or on to a pro championship roster.  It’s not even about improving the champions’ gender ratio, or adding some non-scantily-clad-females and racially-other characters to the game.  For a global game like League, it’s about fostering a community that is welcome to players of all genders, races, levels, play styles and so on.

Deliberate, persistent player harassment is common in LoL games, which can be a barrier for new gamers or non-“hardcore gamers”.  It’s also common to hear players asking others to report another player for being “bad”.

Riot’s February update on what it’s done to improve culture talks about the workplace, but does not address concrete actions for becoming more inclusive in game.  One could argue that this is on the players, but a culture so influenced by the old days of hiring only hardcore gamers who have normalized toxic behaviour in game will be slow to shift, if it’s even possible.

There need to be initiatives beginning at the company level, things like more inclusive marketing campaigns, characters that are more than two dimensional without one of their personality traits being their skin colour, and even events like the LCS encouraging more new players to attend.  While employees have been attending anti-harassment training and participating in team building exercises, players are not, and that is where Riot needs to make an effort.

Gameplay from a live stream of the spring 2019 NA LCS finals. Image from Riot Games.

Is it Riot Games’ responsibility to do something about this?  After all, maybe Riot is happy with its player base and does not need to reach out and foster a relationship with female players or make the game experience any less poisonous for new, different players to their core demographic.

I would argue that it is, because games should feel safe for everyone to play, and Riot’s new core value of “player experience first” suggests that it considers itself at least as responsible to its players as it is to its employees.  As Riot Games goes through this period of change, it should take the opportunity to evaluate its player culture on the grassroots level and make a solid plan to evolve that culture to match today’s expectations of inclusivity.

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League of Legends was a game made by only gamers, which made it a great game to play, but not necessarily a fun community to play in.  This is probably why there are fewer female LoL players – the obstacles to overcome as a new player are too high and sticking with it through the abuse is difficult.

Riot needs to actively support female players and have arenas where we can shine and grow and feel the same highs of a great play without being insulted for the character we chose or for not making a skill shot.  I don’t think I’m asking too much when I say that whether I’m watching esports, or playing League of Legends, I’d like to feel like I belong.

References Cited

  1. Yeung, Raymond. “Gamer girls: Hong Kong’s first all-female professional video gaming team PandaCute defy doubters.” Education. South China Morning Post, 22 April 2017. Web. 14 April 2019.
  2. Williams, Hayley. “League Of Legends Championship Series’ First Female Player Has Already Quit.” Kotaku AU, 8 February 2016. Web. 14 April 2019.
  3. Marcus, Alicia. “What Happened to the Infamous Team Siren?.” Esports Talk, 24 September 2018. Web. 14 April 2019.
  4. Sacco, Dom. “All-female Russian LoL team Vaevictis Esports lose 52-2 in the LCL: Is this really about giving women a platform or is it just an unfair publicity stunt?” Esports News UK, 17 February 2019. Web. 14 April 2019.
  5. LoL Esports. “Дисциплинарное решение: ROX и Vega Squadron.” LoL Esports, 21 February 2019. Web. 14 April 2019.
  6. Hochinchin. “Disciplinary Solution: ROX and Vega Squadron (LCL).” Reddit, 21 February 2019. Web. 14 April 2019.
  7. D’Anastasio, Cecilia. “Riot Games Says It Wants To Clean Up Its Mess, But The People Who Made It Are Still There.” Kotaku, 12 September 2018. Web. 14 April 2019.

Additional References

  1. D’Anastasio, Cecilia. “Inside The Culture Of Sexism At Riot Games.” Features. Kotaku, 7 August 2018. Web. 14 April 2019.
  2. Riot Games. “Update on Diversity, Inclusion, & Riot Culture.” News. Riot Games, 26 February 2019. Web. 14 April 2019.
  3. Riot Games. “Diversity, Inclusion, & Riot Games Culture.” News. Riot Games, 2018. Web. 14 April 2019.