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Riot Games responds to toxic workplace allegations and reports

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“We’re sorry it took us so long to hear you,” League of Legends studio says

Riot Games co-founders Brandon Beck and Marc Merrill
Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for BAFTA Los Angeles

Over the last decade, League of Legends has grown from a humble indie into one of the biggest online games and esports titles in the world. In recent weeks, the human cost of that success has come into question. On August 7, 2018, Kotaku published an in-depth report entitled “Inside the Culture of Sexism at Riot Games.” The piece was followed by a number of allegations from individual employees.

Now, just over three weeks later, Riot has responded to the allegations with a statement, titled “Our First Steps Forward,” acknowledging its responsibility and pledging change.

It’s been a complicated story, spread across news sites, press releases and personal blogs. Here’s what you need to know about the statement and the events that led to it.

The statement starts with an apology to the people who have worked at Riot, past and present, and to the game’s players:

For the past three weeks, we’ve been focused on listening and learning. As a company, we’re used to patching problems ASAP, but this patch will not happen overnight. We will weave this change into our cultural DNA and leave no room for sexism or misogyny. Inclusivity, diversity, respect, and equality are all non-­negotiable. [...]

● To Rioters, contractors, former Rioters, and past contractors: We’re sorry. We’re sorry that Riot hasn’t always been—or wasn’t—the place we promised you. And we’re sorry it took so long for us to hear you. In the days, weeks, months, years to come, we’re going to make Riot a place we can all be proud of.

● To players and fans, past and present: We’re humbled by the time you’ve spent with us. We know that the studio behind a game can be an important part of how you feel about that game. We know we’ve let you down and we’re committed to fixing that.

The Kotaku piece, written by Cecilia D’Anastasio, was the result of several months worth of investigation and research. 28 current and former Riot employees spoke to Kotaku; most did so anonymously.

The Kotaku report immediately gained traction in the community and became widely discussed on social media platforms like Reddit (although /r/leagueoflegends mods removed the post due to “vote manipulation” when the thread was linked to on Twitter.)

The report contained multiple serious allegations. Some sources spoke of low-level hostility and sexism from coworkers who expected their female colleagues to hit an arbitrary standard of being a “hardcore gamer”. Other sources alleged that they were sexually harassed at Riot, and it was an environment where male employees would sexually evaluate their female colleagues or send unsolicited pictures of their genitalia.

Multiple ex-employees have written about their own experiences since Kotaku’s piece went live. Riot Games is a large company, with multiple offices around the world. Due to the size of the company, as well as the range of tasks and departments, some employees reported that they had personally not encountered any of the allegations made.

But many of the claims were similar to what had been reported by Kotaku.

“Not too long into my career one of my male coworkers might have thought he was giving me a compliment when he decided to tell me about how great some of the guys thought my breasts were,” wrote Katie De Sousa, a former senior concept artist at Riot Games. “I had made the foolish mistake of going to a Riot pool party, wearing a swimsuit, and swimming.”

Yonah Bex Gerber, a former Riot art archivist, also wrote about their experiences with mental health at the company. Gerber is a non-binary trans person, and their account includes the aftermath of coming out as trans while working for Riot. “Whenever I asked for understanding for my mental illness, I was rebuffed. My depression didn’t matter. My dysphoria didn’t matter. I had to perform perfectly, and it was unprofessional to say I couldn’t.”

Meagan Marie currently works as a senior community manager in the gaming industry; she wrote a post on her Tumblr entitled “Six Months at Riot Games”.

Marie’s post shared details of a deeply hostile environment where colleagues threw around slurs and gendered language in everyday conversation, went to strip clubs after work and created a team in which Marie was the only woman entitled “Bros and Ho.” Marie describes a culture in which her fellow Rioters regularly denigrated women, and it was continually reinforced by management.

“Asking me what age I lost my virginity at was deemed appropriate conversation during a team dinner, and employees I didn’t know prodded into how my sex life worked in a long-distance relationship,” she wrote.

Diana, a female moon paladin in League of Legends Riot Games

On August 27, software product development professional and software engineer Barry Hawkins wrote a long post about his time at Riot Games that mirrors many of the stories told on social media since the initial report. Hawkins’ post also includes his description of a meeting with Brandon Beck and Marc Merrill, the two co-founders of Riot Games. Beck and Merrill are currently working on the development of new titles in Riot Games.

Hawkins raised concerns about a recruiting joke made during a Q&A session, and subsequently repeated in a presentation: “No doesn’t necessarily mean no.” After sharing his concerns with the company, Hawkins was later invited to a meeting with the co-founders that included the heads of Communication and Legal. Hawkins writes:

At some point I think I referred to the slogan as a rape joke. Brandon pulled up a picture of a t-shirt that had an iceberg floating in water on it with the words “just the tip”, and said he had that t-shirt, and what did I think of it. I said I didn’t think it was appropriate.

[...] I said, “Well, we’ve heard a lot from me, but we have the head of Communications and the head of Legal here. I think it would be interesting to hear their thoughts on this.”

Up until that point, neither of those people had said much at all. The head of Communications said that we were edgy, and that if we as Riot started chipping away those edges, we would become shapeless and bland, like EA or Blizzard. I responded that if we told everyone starting today there could be no more rape jokes in presentations and talks, it would still be a multi-year effort for us to no longer be edgy.

I remember trying to appeal to the business aspects of the behavior, and how it opened us up to legal liability. The head of Legal did speak up and asked if we were concerned about legal liability. She was seated to my left, and I was seated on Brandon’s left, where he was at the head of table. Brandon extended his arm past me and held up his hand in front of her and hushed her, saying we were not going to talk about that.

That was pretty uncomfortable.

Hawkins’ account of his meetings with Beck and Merrill are not as extreme in scope as the previous allegations made.

If accurate, however, it shows that top management were either blind to or complicit in the most serious allegations made against Riot. Hawkins’ description of events is backed up by another ex-employee post published on August 19th by Zoë Curnoe, a project manager in the games industry.

Tryndamere, the namesake champion of co-founder Marc Merrill. Riot Games

Corporate communications lead Joe Hixon gave a brief statement to ESPN after the Kotaku report went live, and posted the full statement Riot Games had provided to Kotaku during the investigation process on the /r/leagueoflegends subreddit.

On August 10th, Riot tweeted another response. This one read:

Jessie Perlo, a former employee of Riot Games, made the following tweets on the same day:

In today’s statement, following the list of apologies to the team and its players, Riot also apologizes to people “considering a career at Riot,” asking for their help to rebuild the company. To that end, Riot lists its “first steps” in the goal of rebuilding its culture. The first two are largely focused internally, in what seems to be a focused effort on attacking the root causes that led to the culture described by sources.

1. Expanding the Culture and D&I Initiative: We’ve built a new team to lead our cultural evolution. This group and their work will impact every corner of this organization, and will also accelerate our existing cultural and inclusion work. We are all committed to keeping the best parts of today’s Riot—like our focus on player empathy—while tirelessly looking toward the future. The team will be accountable to our CEO directly.

2. Revisiting Cultural Definitions: We are putting everything on the table, including our core cultural tenets, like our manifesto. This includes reevaluating the language of Riot, words like “gamer” and “meritocracy,” to ensure they mean the same thing to all of us. If the words are misused or don’t help us describe our vision for the future, we won’t use them.

Riot Games has also announced that it is planning on bringing in external consulting and investigation agencies during this process.

3. Third ­Party Evaluation: We have engaged two leading consultants on culture change to provide us with their expertise and recommendations as we rebuild Riot’s culture. Our goal isn’t just to be good; it’s to become a leader on diversity, inclusion, and culture. We’re asking them to develop mechanisms to measure our progress and hold us accountable against this objective.

4. Investigation Process: We’re evaluating and improving our investigation process and systems. We understand we lost trust with Rioters, so rebuilding trust is key to making Rioters feel safe and empowered to raise issues. Here’s some of what we’ve done already:

a. We set up a hotline where anyone can anonymously raise issues and submit complaints.

b. We have expanded our internal team, and brought in an outside law firm to assess our policies. They’ll also be working side-by-­side with talent partners to investigate any new claims raised by Rioters to provide an additional, unbiased layer to all of our investigations.

c. No one and nothing is sacred. We are prepared to make big changes and have begun taking action against specific cases, including removal of Rioters, though we aren’t likely to get into those details publicly on a case-­by-­case basis for legal and privacy reasons.

Riot Games will also be making changes to recruiting and training — including bringing on diversity and inclusion staff in executive roles.

5. Reevaluating Recruiting: 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.

6. Trainings: We’re doubling down on trainings. Trainings that had been specific to managers are being expanded to all Rioters, including interview training and harassment training. We’re also investing in anti­-bias training to encourage behaviors that foster a fair and inclusive work environment. In addition, we are investing in management training for all managers to build and support better teams.

These trainings will be required for existing Rioters, with elements integrated into our Rioter onboarding program.

7. Staffing up for D&I: We are deep into the process of recruiting a new Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO), and recently began the search for a Chief Diversity Officer (CDO). They will join the CEO, President, and COO as part of our executive leadership team, and will add critical experience to our existing D&I team to accelerate all our work in this area.

Riot Games has grown immensely, but the company has struggled to mature beyond the atmosphere of its earliest days. There are no quick fixes for success in a problem that runs this deep; Riot will need to dedicate itself to rebuilding its foundation.

While the initial wave of changes from Riot Games seem to be well-intentioned and promising, the road to sustainable change and a healthy environment will be more of a marathon than a sprint.