How Riot Games has evolved since 2018 discrimination lawsuit

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In August of 2018, Riot Games didn’t have a chief diversity and inclusion officer, a team dedicated to diversity, nor any pay equity practices. Its leadership team was all men. After being sued in California in November of 2018 for gender-based discrimination and sexual harassment, and settling the suit last December for $100 million, the “League of Legends” publisher released its third annual diversity report Wednesday, reflecting on the recent years of reform and active investment to hire more women and people of marginalized backgrounds.

The company of over 3,000 workers now has a diversity and inclusion team of 10. Women comprise 21.5% of its leadership team and 25.8% of Riot Games overall.

Owned by Chinese conglomerate Tencent, Riot has been reshaping its internal policies on diversity and inclusion as it seeks to grow its already notable position in the video game and entertainment industry, entertaining ambitions for a whole franchise universe. “Arcane,” its Netflix TV series set in the world of “League of Legends,” launched last November, to immediate success. It has also bolstered its game offerings beyond the flagship “League of Legends,” publishing the first-person shooter title “Valorant” and card game “Runeterra.”

Riot’s chief diversity officer, Angela Roseboro, recalled employees’ reactions when starting her job in 2019.

“There was hurt, there was disappointment,” she said. “But people wanted us to be better … and so to walk into that, and to help build to make sure that, as a chief diversity officer, you want to make sure that whatever you put in place outlives you.”

Roseboro announced to staff in May she was stepping down by the end of the year and will stay on in an advisory role, as she spends more time with family.

“It’s tough because although I don’t think the work was finished, I thought it was at a point that I could be part of Riot’s story and I feel good about where we were,” Roseboro said. “And so if I was going to take the time, now would’ve been it.”

Her replacement, Patty Dingle, who currently serves as Riot’s global head of diversity and inclusion, told The Washington Post she heard all about the suit while she was still a bank executive. Dingle has been in her position for six months as she waits to succeed Roseboro.

“I was interviewing to come to Riot and when I Googled it, all of this stuff came up and I read it. It was very impressive around the commitment that I read that Riot was willing to make,” Dingle said.

The 2018 gender-based discrimination class-action lawsuit had ripple effects across the industry. Companies like Activision Blizzard, which has faced its own lawsuit and reckoning over working conditions for women employees, reconsidered its alcohol policies. The suit came after gaming news site Kotaku published an exposé about a culture of sexism at Riot Games, which manifested itself in workplace behaviors ranging from unwanted advances and harassment to a hiring and promotion process that passed over female candidates for being insufficiently into gaming and “League of Legends.”

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Last December, Riot Games announced it was settling the suit for $100 million. The company will pay $80 million to members of the class-action suit and approximately $20 million toward plaintiffs’ legal fees. A judge approved the settlement July 25 and the case is still awaiting final approval from the court.

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“I started months after the first article was released by Kotaku. I told myself that I would not accept the job if no one mentioned what had happened, and thankfully, my manager at the time brought it up in the interview,” said one current female employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity because she wasn’t authorized to speak to the media. “I don’t believe change happens on its own. If Riot was willing to own up to sexism inherent to our industry, then I would work to ensure we could and would do better.”

While several current employees agreed Riot has made significant improvements in company culture, some incidents have continued to draw scrutiny. Last month, some female Riot employees tweeted that they could get in trouble for posting photos of themselves in bikinis on social media, and said men at work could wear shirts of bikini models and be protected from complaints.

Joe Hixson, a spokesman for Riot Games, said in a statement that the company’s loose social media policy had created confusion.

“There’s absolutely no policy against posting bikini photos or swimsuit photos in general. With 3,000+ Rioters out there I’m sure you can find many pictures of Rioters of all genders wearing all sorts of swimwear,” he said. “Another claim in the tweet was that there is a rule against raising possible dress code violations. This isn’t true. In fact, we want and encourage Rioters to bring any concerns they may have about their workplace environment to our attention so that they can be addressed as quickly as possible. In this case, if this issue had been raised internally we would have reviewed the T-shirts in question and probably asked those Rioters to change them.”

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As the organization gets more grown-up and buttoned-up it has added executives who hail from Visa, Netflix and Hulu.

As part of an initiative Roseboro introduced in 2019, when hiring for director-level positions and above, Dingle said Riot requires that women and ethnic minorities be included on any list of candidates provided to hiring mangers. This initiative was enacted before the settlement, which states that Riot will also be required to include a woman or a member of an underrepresented community on employment selection panels.

The 2018 lawsuit alleged Riot Games employees faced gender-based discrimination, including when managers looked for “core gamers” when hiring, often assuming them to be men. When asked about whether this had changed, Roseboro said it was one of the first issues she worked on when she started at Riot. Both Dingle and Roseboro also pointed out they were not gamers, and that their colleagues did not discriminate against them.

“When I first started, I also led talent acquisition. That was one of the things that we shifted,” Roseboro said. “So we do think that there is competency in knowing certain skillsets. We have a rubric now. If you are in game design, you should know games, right? For a person like me, I don’t have to be a gamer, it’s about craft. We put a rubric around roles that needed gamer knowledge.” Roseboro added that questions like “Are you a gamer?” don’t need to be asked anymore and are instead replaced by questions about game design.

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The current female employee said, “I do believe we’ve moved away from ‘League’-only, core gamer mentality. I personally hadn’t played any of Riot’s games prior to working here, though I play them now.”

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The claims against Riot in 2018 also stated the company denied women promotions and paid them unequally compared to men.

“When we first started … we had very few women in leadership,” Roseboro said, adding that now over 20% are women. “And that came from us saying, ‘Hey, if we’re going to make an impact, let’s hire these leaders, let’s make sure that we’re, from a gender and underrepresented minorities perspective, that we are ensuring that people are getting the interview.’”

Not everything in Wednesday’s report was rosy. In 2020, Riot’s percentage of women hired dipped to 28%, down from 32% the year prior, though it floated back up to 30.4% in 2021. Similarly, the percentage of underrepresented minorities newly hired dropped to 17.3% in 2021, compared to 19.6% in 2020.

The company said that through a third-party’s pay review studies, it found no statistically significant pay inequity for women or marginalized groups. Pressed for details on this point, Roseboro said that this was the trend across the company, and that in specific instances where people were found to be underpaid, Riot would take action to adjust their salaries.

“It’s a practice that we do every year, based on not having any processes at all three years ago, and now having to check to make sure that we are holding ourselves accountable, to continue to be fair,” Roseboro said. “All of that was part of the checks and balances that we held ourselves to, to make sure that we didn’t go backward.”

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While diversity data in the Riot report reveals how many women and marginalized groups are being hired, the numbers don’t detail the experiences of those employees, nor if the company is retaining them over time.

Riot doesn’t publish attrition numbers in its diversity and inclusion report. Roseboro said they internally track the rate at which they lose women and marginalized employees compared to male and White employees, and if attrition for marginalized groups is above average, leadership will hold meetings to discuss how to retain talent. In addition to statistics, Roseboro said she listens to a group of employees who share anecdotal evidence on whether company culture has been improving.

Even the process of creating diverse characters in its games “League of Legends” and “Valorant” has been recalibrated since 2018. Dingle described how, in the past, product team employees would come knocking on the diversity and inclusion team’s door so often that they had to make an official process and diversity guide for character creation, including what not to do and things to consider.

“That makes writers super excited, when they can see this authentic representation in these agents, in their characters,” Dingle said. “Who doesn’t want to see themselves reflected in one of the games that they love, or a series that they love on Netflix?”

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The Netflix series “Arcane” was created in 2015, before the lawsuit, and while the characters in “League” were still not as diverse as it is today. It was back when fans only knew of Senna, a Black woman, as Lucian’s dead wife mentioned in passing, rather than a stand-alone champion with a powerful ultimate skill of her own. (Riot later released Senna as her own champion in 2019 and in the initial few weeks of her release, gamers were delighted by how her attack could blast across the map.) “Arcane” creators added an additional character, Mel Medarda, a woman of color, on the show while expressing disappointment last November to The Washington Post that they couldn’t incorporate newer champions or lore.

One current male Riot employee suggested that slow, sometimes contradictory approach to diversity can still be felt in other areas of the company today. He pointed to cosmetics skins available for purchase in “League of Legends” that turn champions like Vi and Caitlyn (also stars of the show “Arcane”) in to police officers for roughly $6 or $10.

“Riot gave an admirable amount of money to activist organizations in 2020 following the George Floyd killing, but still profits on ‘cop skins’ in ‘League of Legends,’ ” said the Riot employee, who chose to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak publicly on these matters.

Hixson, the Riot spokesman, said in a statement: “Those skins are mostly not monetized, have been in the game for years, and are part of a global game where the vast majority of the player base doesn’t have a negative association with police.”

In March 2021, “Valorant” added a Ghanaian agent named Astra, and hired an external consultant based in Ghana to make sure her looks, voice-over lines and lore were authentically representing the culture.

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While creating more diverse backstories, Riot employees often mine their own experiences, but the gaming audience has not always been receptive. In a June 2021 video shared with The Post, three Asian American Riot employees discussed their experiences detailing “League of Legends” champion Seraphine’s Chinese heritage in social media posts. They faced a social media outcry when they depicted Seraphine cooking a Filipino dish in 2020, but Riot later announced the champion was actually Chinese. Fans who had believed Seraphine to be Filipino were disappointed, and others on social media expressed racist disdain for Filipinos.

“One of the things I had to learn is I had to think about the essence of what people’s frustrations are versus the package of how they present it,” Roseboro said. “And so I tried to look at, ‘Okay, if that was wrong, we should fix it … But I will always make sure that those writers [working on Seraphine] are okay, because they just want to deliver something great to the world.”

Roseboro said the situation reminded her of how some gamers online called her a social justice warrior when she joined Riot.

“I recognize that not everyone’s going to like change,” she said. “Change is a hard thing for folks to get their head around.”

Nathan Grayson contributed to this report.

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