On the 7th August Kotaku published an article titled “Inside The Culture of Sexism At Riot Games“. It collated the experiences of twenty-eight current or former Riot Games employees who could attest to sexual discrimination that occurred in and around the work place. For those of us who have known about this for years, the piece was needed, although it should have been written a long time ago. So I sat back and waited, watching as other ex-employees came forward speaking of sexual harassment and even instances of rape. The kicker being I constantly saw these allegations had been ignored despite a large number of people knowing of these terrible things. I was sure this would open the floodgates, enabling more victims and witnesses to speak openly. I also felt that the media, that had done so much to promote Riot Games as a progressive force in the games industry, would now welcome the opportunity to walk back that myth and really ask how this could have happened on such a large scale.
While Kotaku rode the wave of criticism and the wider community discussed the veracity of the claims, almost every other major games publication remained silent or added little more than an acknowledgement that Kotaku had written the piece. By the time ESPN had run Riot’s mealy-mouthed non-apology, what should have been one of the biggest scandals in gaming history had pretty much fizzled out. It wasn’t the first time that the games press had ignored negative stories about Riot Games, in truth they have always had an unbelievable control over the media–all the way back to their inception. Many publications had a journalist installed as the go-to League of Legends reporter, with Riot feeding them information about new updates and events ahead of time. They were all placed on the pre-approved list for events and interviews. People who gave favorable coverage were occasionally employed by the company, proof that they were a good culture fit. Anyone who did the opposite was blacklisted and monitored. They loathed my reporting about them so much I became an interview question, “What do you think of the current state of esports reporting, for example the work of Richard Lewis.”
While Kotaku rode the wave of criticism and the wider community discussed the veracity of the claims, almost every other major games publication remained silent or added little more than an acknowledgement that Kotaku had written the piece.
Before we dig into this madness, I know that with my reputation I will be considered something of an unlikely ally in all of this, especially when so many voices supposedly on my side of the fence have called the article libelous or false. I do not know why anyone would think of me as a misogynist, but it is an accusation that has been thrown at me multiple times. I’ve argued publicly with my share of women down the years, many of whom I call friends now, because I know they are my equal and more than capable of giving as good as they get. This, in my mind at least, has always been a sign of respect. I wish I didn’t have to write a qualifying paragraph along these lines but we all know it’s going to be brought up.
Now, I don’t peddle in conspiracy theories, but equally I do not consider pointing out that most of the mainstream games press colluded with each other to select targets and run defense for people who share their brand of politics to be a conspiracy. The evidence for it is overwhelming at this point even in the face of continued denials. These journalists sit in Slack groups and Discords with each other, still have their private forums where they effectively crowd-source their work and woe betide anyone who even suggests this might have an “echochamber” type effect on what they produce. For me, the way this Riot Games story has been handled only shows that the developer still has a lot of friends at these publications. How else can you explain, for example, Polygon’s decision to not write about the Kotaku report, but write multiple pieces about the world’s largest streamer, Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, stating he didn’t stream with women because he was worried about rumors of infidelity spreading across the internet.
For Polygon, Blevins was contributing to a culture of harassment against women. They took the time to interview several streamers and get their opinions on whether or not what Blevins said was sexist. They ran a story where Blevins issued an apology that pretty much confirms that Polygon did all they could to focus on what he suspected was a throwaway line and turn it into a “happening.” All of this effort and yet not a single piece discussing the accusations of systemic sexism from Riot Games. There wasn’t even a single tweet from their editor Ben Kuchera, patient zero for the epidemic of goony beard men in games journalism, who usually wastes no time in publicly condemning anything problematic coming from gaming culture.
Strange isn’t it? I am not sure where this very clear bias by omission stems from. Maybe it’s something as simple as them having a vertical dedicated to League of Legends, the kind of which we know Riot Games likes to quietly fund. Maybe it is something else entirely. There is no denying that the Kotaku piece provides evidence of genuine systemic sexism and worse at one of the largest games developers in the world. This is exactly the type of story that would warrant the coordinated offensive that the mainstream games press have employed for far more innocuous occurrences, some of them fictitious, in the past.
Honestly though, I am not surprised and if you’ve been paying attention then you won’t be either. As one of the few reporters who have risked their professional prospects and reputation to accurately document Riot Games many transgressions, I will forgive you for having not read about them at the larger publications. From their failure to disclose a data breach to their customers, their overreaching contracts that allow them to doctor an LCS player’s voice or image for marketing purposes, intimidating a journalist into deleting his private Twitter account over an argument with an LCS general manager, their support for an organization that threatened to take the house away from a professional player’s mother, their clandestine influence over the supposedly neutral league of legends subreddit that mysteriously found a reason to delete this Kotaku article the same way they will delete this one, or them using the player base as unwitting guinea pigs for psychological studies, I’ve been there every time. Each of these stories would have warranted mainstream coverage but somehow it just never happened. I understand the influence of Riot Games and their willingness to bully and strong arm anyone who criticizes them as they have done it to me for years. So I have never called these publications out for their three wise monkeys approach. This story though? Surely it’s too important to ignore, especially as this has been going on for years and was something of an open secret among everyone in the games and esports industries alike.
Let me tell you the horror stories I’ve been told by people I not only believe but absolutely respect. I’ve been told about event talent being rebuked by male Riot staff for not dressing “sexily” enough. I’ve been told on more than one occasion about Riot executives “jokingly” asking women at events for backrubs and blowjobs. I’ve heard first hand why they didn’t hire some women was because they weren’t attractive enough. I was once told the reason they wouldn’t have a female analyst is because they didn’t believe that their audience would ever respect a woman’s opinion on how to play so they were “sparing” them that harassment. Thank God for Indiana “Froskurinn” Black smashing that particular glass ceiling and even then I know the shit she was put through to get there. The ridiculous standards and expectations used as a reason to justify not hiring her, even stopping independent companies such as ESL from hiring her because she was a woman with bold opinions. And yes, I am sick to the pit of my stomach to say I’ve been told about the allegations of sexual assaults, emotional blackmail and manipulation and work offered as an inducement for sexual relationships. Don’t think it was cultural? Why then did a seminar about recruitment end with a rape joke? If I knew about all these things how many others did too?
I tried to bring these issues to public light using my platform to do so and constantly ran into several walls. The first, and most important, was that these were not my stories to tell. Many of the victims who confided in me did so because they know me to be reliable at keeping such secrets and usually a good source of advice in how to negotiate the political landscape of esports… That in itself should tell you all you need to know about the way Riot Games operates. People affected by some of the most grotesque abuses of power possible and they were worried about how coming out about them would affect their job prospects both internally and externally. When someone tells you they are afraid of what happens next, even after some of the worst things you can imagine, you have to respect their wish for silence.
Secondly people knew me as “that guy who was biased against Riot Games,” which was always a very reductive way to look at my work. It’s easy to appear biased, borderline crazy, if everyone else is ignoring the elephant in the room and you’re shouting “look at this giant fucking gray thing stood over there.” Even though I knew the shit it would cause to write about these industry giants I did it anyway because, honestly, fuck them. A frat-boy company founded by a banker and a marketing expert, who targeted people who felt that online games were too hostile an environment and tricked them into believing they cared. Given an endless supply of money by a company that has more than God and everyone fawning over them to get either a piece of it or access, they quickly became arrogant monsters. I know many former employees who are ashamed to have ever been part of it.
These issues hampered me so I could never be specific but I always made a point of talking about it as openly as I could if the subject came up. When I actually realized that there was an issue with the games press turning a blind eye to all of this was when the allegations about Jeffrey “Lyte” Lin being abusive towards his ex partners were public. Lin had been something of a darling with the mainstream games press because he had echoed their sentiments about how terrible gamers were online. He even helped popularize what would rapidly become one of their favorite terms to use to describe gaming culture – “toxicity.” He openly spoke of the same mission that the mainstream games press do, that it was somehow on him to make the internet a better place, that he could turn every angry 12 year old League of Legends player having a bad day into a paragon of virtue. That he alone could stop nasty words being typed online through using the game as a conduit for re-education.
Being the posterboy for saintly behavior online made the allegations about him especially newsworthy. I investigated this situation, interviewing those affected and was sent evidence by other Riot employees that showed two things. Firstly, there was certainly some substance to the allegations and secondly it was part of a pattern of behaviour that people were aware of at the company. In trying to get this story published I realised just how unwilling anyone was to go against Riot Games. I wasn’t sure if this was fear over them being notoriously litigious or, as I suspect, that because they were considered to be politically aligned with these outlets, that they simply let it slide. I sent it out to multiple publications and no-one wanted to run it. I had to tell the women whose lives had been made a misery that I simply couldn’t do anything. Releasing it all into the public domain anonymously was irresponsible, publishing it under my name left me legally exposed with no masthead to protect me should a lawsuit come my way. Even here I tread carefully but will add that several sources told me it was no coincidence that Lin left the company not long after these allegations were made public and to little fanfare.
Speaking complete truth there are, of course, some flaws with the report. I am not a fool. I acknowledge them too. Many will try and discredit the publication itself. Yes, Kotaku have produced some absolutely turgid pieces that exemplify everything wrong with the new wave of games journalism; uncharitable hit pieces, selectively skewed reportage imbued with political bias and, albeit infrequently, out and out fallacies. As one of Kotaku’s biggest critics, going back years before they openly sacrificed journalistic integrity at the altar of WOKE, I feel it’s important to remind you that even they are still capable of good work and on occasion produce it. This is one of those times.
If you’re one of the people critical of the journalist in question, then yes, I must agree it’d be easy to find the means through which to cast aspersions. On the same day the author, Cecilia D’Anastasio, published the report to many plaudits she subsequently followed that up by attributing a homophobic slur to former professional Overwatch player Felix “xQc” Lengyel that he never uttered. Not only is this a hugely embarrassing mistake because a fact check that would have taken approximately fifteen seconds would have cleared it up, it’s also hugely irresponsible to play fast and loose with people’s reputations in such a manner. While I absolutely cannot and would not defend it I’ll say it’s a symptom of a larger problem with Kotaku’s coverage of esports. This is what happens when you view every white, male competitor as singular, disgusting entity and have utter contempt for the subject matter. This was evident in the editors note that, reading between the lines, basically states “it was OK to make this mistake because so many professional players are dirtbags anyway.” Still, I’ve no doubt D’Anastasio was passionate enough about the Riot article to do her due diligence and make sure she didn’t let down the women affected through shoddy reporting that would fall apart under scrutiny. Her lengthy career suggests to me she’s obviously capable of such work but isn’t above phoning it in when having to report on something that doesn’t align with her already firm worldview. Regardless, judge the work on its merits while simultaneously factoring in the author’s reputation.
Some other critics have claimed that there is a problem with the sources. Again, a defense of this would be a lot easier if one of the now known sources wasn’t known for tweeting and then deleting several lies as well as a propensity for exaggeration and consistent histrionics. This same source has publicly shown that she despises not only the consumer base Riot relied on but also the culture from which they almost exclusively recruited; when you see the term “gamer” as a pejorative perhaps your opinions on the working environment at a games developer might be informed by that. Even then I wouldn’t entirely dismiss their stories as being false, although it is a timely reminder about the valuable lesson that the tale of “the boy who cried wolf” teaches us at an early age.
I feel sorry for the other sources to be tarnished by this association of fringe behavior. One person being dubbed a “lolcow” shouldn’t make you turn a blind eye to the rest. The volume of other sources, a total of twenty-eight remember, should tell you its own story. In addition to this once the report was public many longstanding Riot employees confirmed it and welcomed the report. I am urging you all to listen to this despite these criticisms because it is all true. If anything it is the tip of an Iceberg so foul no-one wants to even guess its size. I am happy to stand on the side of the report because it is the right side and I’ll put aside past grievances when it comes to something as important as this. I hope every reader will do the same. We can get back to the culture wars afterwards if you like but for now can we stand in solidarity with victims of abuse, harassment and bullying? In short, which is admittedly a route I rarely take, I think as things stand in this modern age where advocacy journalism is rapidly becoming the norm you can never realistically expect the perfect piece free from issues. What you must do is remain intelligently critical rather than blindly dismissive even when faced with people who have failed the trust test repeatedly.
I’ve seen the subsequent blogs detailing instances of inappropriate workplace language and exclusionary cliques. I don’t approve of any of that but I am not as interested in it as many of the stories that didn’t get told or were alluded to in the aftermath of the piece. Like those who inadvertently diluted the potency of the #metoo movement, these stories are important but not the ones that deserve the immediate spotlight.
The reaction of Riot Games has been what I would expect. Beyond the empty words that they sent across to ESPN and others, they made sure that the whistleblowers were put on notice with legal emails reminding them of their Non disclosure agreements. They put a tweet out explaining their public silence on the issue which was taken so seriously that their design lead, Ryan “Morello” Scott, was joking around with idiots who suggested balancing the game should be a priority It seems Riot are treating this the same way they do every other negative story about them. Promise a resolution, wait for the storm to blow over and rely on the fact that the media will constantly work with them either through silence or promoting the version of the truth Riot want everyone to see.
So please video-games media for once do something worthwhile with the platform and reach you constantly squander. Instead of trying to end the career of someone who told a joke you don’t like years ago, why not signal boost the voices of the women you constantly claim to respect so much. Why not dig deeper into a company who seemingly have committed the heinous acts you often assume others have or will? These people need your help and the truth needs to be told. I know neither is your strong-suit these days but if it’s not you, who else will it be?