Riot Games are the developers of popular esports phenomenon League of Legends and have now produced a Netflix series based in that world called Arcane. It is, by all accounts, a fun and well-made show. Released the day of the League of Legends World Championship Final (a 3-2 surprise victory by China’s EDward Gaming), Arcane has generated a lot of good press for Riot—enough that it might make some forget that, for the past three years, Riot has been the subject of investigations and lawsuits due to a culture of sexual harassment and workplace discrimination that appears to start at the top.
Here’s a timeline of the various charges and lawsuits levied against Riot over the last three years.
In Aug. 2018, Kotaku published an exposé by Cecilia D’Anastasio on the culture of sexism at Riot that includes sexual harassment, hiring and promotion discrimination based on gender, general toxicity around the idea of what makes a good “gamer” and therefore a good employee, and use of inappropriate workplace language, including asking a female prospective hire in an interview, “How big is your e-peen?” That same month, former Riot Product Manager Barry Hawkins wrote several blog posts about the culture of sexism and how speaking up about it led him to feel pressured to leave the company. Some developers at Riot took to Twitter to corroborate the reporting at Kotaku, as covered at Game Developer (then Gamasutra) by Bryant Francis. This was followed by a statement by Riot at the end of that month claiming that they would work to address cultural problems (without admitting to a culture of sexism) by expanding their D&I initiative, “revisiting cultural definitions,” establishing a third-party evaluation, and “evaluating and improving [their] investigation process and systems.”
In September of 2018, Frances Frei—who was hired by Uber to fix their workplace culture—was hired by Riot to fix their workplace culture. Judging from what follows, she was not altogether successful.
In Nov. 2018, a class action lawsuit was brought against the company by Melanie McCracken and Jessica Negron, then-current and former employees, respectively, for workplace sexual harassment and gender discrimination. Their claims included that Riot paid women less than men in the same jobs, assigned women to lesser-paying jobs in general, promoted similarly-qualified or less-qualified men to positions that women were passed over for, and was responsible for “creating, encouraging, and maintaining a work environment that exposes its female employees to discrimination, harassment, and retaliation on the basis of their gender or sex.”
In Dec. 2018, Kotaku reported that COO Scott Gelb was being placed on unpaid leave after unprofessional, harassing, and abusive behavior was alleged, including that he had groped employees and “farted in their faces.”
In Jan. 2019, Haydn Taylor wrote for GamesIndustry.biz that Riot updated their company values page to aspiring to get away from the previous toxic “bro culture,” and hired Diversity Chief Angela Roseboro in February. Evidently this did not solve all their internal cultural problems as, in June 2019, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing was revealed to be investigating Riot for sex-based discrimination.
Riot agreed in principal to settle the Nov. 2018 lawsuit in Aug. 2019, offering in a statement:
After extensively reviewing these issues, we can confidently state that gender discrimination (in pay or promotion), sexual harassment, and retaliation are not systemic issues at Riot. But, what we also learned during this process was that some Rioters have had experiences that did not live up to our values or culture. In addition, we’ve encountered considerable fatigue among Rioters, who have been drained by constant engagement with the internal and external dialogues emerging from these lawsuits and recurring media cycles.
So, according to Riot, despite over 100 women being paid out due to sexual harassment and gender discrimination in assignment, delegation of duties, and promotions, there isn’t a systemic problem.
However, by Feb. 2020, the original motion for $10 million was withdrawn and legal counsel for the plaintiffs, Rosen & Saba, was replaced by women’s rights attorney Genie Harrison, because the DFEH and the California Division of Labor and Standards Enforcement (DLSE) suggested Riot had colluded with Rosen & Saba and, according to Sam Dean of the Los Angeles Times, that the plaintiffs may be entitled to a settlement closer to $400 million, with the DLSE filing a motion to intervene in the case in Dec. 2019.
In Jan. 2021, Riot and CEO Nicolo Laurent were sued by former executive assistant Shannon O’Donnell, who alleges that Laurent sexually harassed her and then fired her for refusing his sexual advances. In May, the Washington Post reported that Riot games retained the law office of Seyfarth Shaw LLP to investigate themselves and found nothing wrong. Riot went on to accuse O’Donnell of trying to bribe witnesses and “encouraged individuals to file a lawsuit against Mr. Laurent and/or join in hers so they can personally benefit, despite the individuals having stated they have no claim against Mr. Laurent.” It appears Riot is trying to discourage further legal action.
In August, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing asked the Los Angeles Superior Court to compel Riot to comply with the Court’s June 4 order that the company inform its employees of their right to speak with the government about any sexual harassment or other abuse they have been prey to while working at Riot:
In 2019, more than a year after the government opened a company-wide investigation of sexual harassment, sex discrimination, and sexual assault at Riot Games, the company announced it had reached secret settlement agreements with approximately 100 women who waived their claims and rights, without notice of the government’s actions. For the next 18 months, the DFEH sought the secret settlement agreements. The Court ordered Riot to produce them to the government in January 2021; however, Riot delayed production until April 2021. Alarmed by language in Riot’s settlement and separation agreements that suggested employees could not voluntarily and candidly speak with the government about sexual harassment and other violations, and obtain relief in the government’s actions, DFEH promptly moved for relief from the Court. The Court ordered Riot to issue the corrective notice; however, Riot has delayed the process for two months.
The court-ordered notice informs workers that they “may freely cooperate, participate, and obtain potential relief, if awarded,” in DFEH’s pending action, and that “Riot Games cannot retaliate or take any adverse action against [them] for speaking with DFEH, participating in DFEH pending action, or obtaining potential relief in such action.” Moreover, “Riot Games cannot require [any worker] to either notify the company or obtain permission
before speaking with DFEH,” and that “[i]t is unlawful for [any] employer to retaliate against [workers] for speaking to the government or otherwise voluntarily participating or cooperating in government proceedings.”
According to Court Record Legal Database UniCourt, as of this writing, the McCracken, et al. vs. Riot Games case is still in appeal in the California’s Second Appellate District, while Sharon O’Donnell vs Riot Games is similarly still pending in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
All in all, this paints a very bad picture of Riot. A toxic, sexist culture has been allowed to ferment and fester, internal and legal challenges to that culture haven’t been met in good faith, and three years after a statement claiming that internal revisions were undergoing to fix that culture, the company continues to face lawsuits. If these accusations are true, Riot Games has a lot of cleaning up to do, and needs to do better by their workforce. As a leader in videogames generally and esports in particular, they help set a cultural standard. That standard should be much higher. And no TV show, no matter how good it might be, should distract from the scandals surrounding the company.