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After ‘brother culture’ crisis, ‘League of Legends’ esports executive Riot touts new game, new perspectives

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For much of 2020, developers at Santa Monica-based studio Riot Games are gearing up for the release of “Valorant,” a highly competitive video game that looks predestined to become the next esports sensation. After all, for the past decade, Riot’s “League of Legends” has been the world’s most popular esport – its tournaments can attract audiences that eclipse the Super Bowl.

And so in the days leading up to Tuesday’s launch, the creators of “Valorant,” Riot’s first tactical shooter, experienced the avalanche of emotions that accompany a game’s launch to audiences.

There was pride: “Valorant” operates on a complex back-end designed over a development cycle of more than six years to enhance the choreography of virtual team play.

There has been anticipation: Riot has invested heavily in “Valorant” – “hundreds of millions of dollars,” says CEO Nicolo Laurent – with the hope of launching not only a new game, but a new era. for Riot, which sees the studio diversifying its roster of games and fostering a new Online community.

And there was also caution: the developers of “Valorant” admit that some will use its game tools for abuse, whether it’s blatant verbal harassment or finding ways to cheat.

And that says nothing of the launch of a community game amid increasingly intense protests against systemic racism and police brutality, as well as a global pandemic.

Riot CEO Laurent released a note with the Tuesday launch of “Valorant” acknowledging that “the days are tense and exhausting”, but he also expressed hope that “Valorant” could be “a small bright spot. .. during an otherwise dark time. The studio also said it would refocus its charitable efforts to allocate funds to criminal justice reform and “local communities focused on black-owned businesses,” and that it would match $ 1,000 per donation. employee of Riot, with details, according to a spokesperson, to be released in the coming days.

“I think at Riot we’re pretty idealistic, which is good and bad,” says co-founder Marc Merrill.

Good in that the company believes in the power of interactive entertainment as a force for positivity. Indeed, Merrill envisions a future in which Riot’s games will play a leading role in a Little League-like youth organization designed not only to spark interest in e-sports, but also to teach kids about the work of the game. team and cooperation. Bad in the fact that dealing with a player base of 100 million players can, when only a fraction of that audience is angry, “manifest as a pretty negative sentiment,” Merrill says, “when someone can directly tweet you ”.

With “Valorant,” Riot Games aims to create the next esports sensation.

(Riot Games / Riot Games)

So when Riot executives speak of being “on the front line,” it’s an acknowledgment of the challenges inherent in running an always active and aggressive game with a passionate online community not always known for its courtesy – and who at times, disconcertingly, hold employee email addresses and personal phone numbers. While the Dodgers can largely ignore the taunts and cheers from their home crowd when fans leave Chavez Ravine, it’s more difficult for Riot. Its virtual arenas are located in the homes of players around the world, where amateur and professional players and spectators mingle. Monitoring all the cheers and complaints of its internet savvy gamers comes with the territory, say business leaders.

Anna Donlon, the developer behind “Valorant”, delicately states that “special ways of presenting information” by fans can be difficult. This is something she learned during her years of working in the shooting field. But Riot is ready to listen.

“It’s in our DNA, being very involved with the players,” says Donlon, who joined Riot in 2015 after working on several “Call of Duty” titles. “We did not know that the shooting community was thirsty for this commitment from its developers. We’ve been hearing a lot about it since our closed beta. “I hope you don’t go. Hope you are still there. “And yes, we promise to be there – with armor.”

With the name Riot and the studio’s ability to tweak familiar genres into something resembling a new competitive landscape, it is taken for granted that “Valorant” will be huge. When Riot made the game available to popular streamers for beta testing in early April, “Valorant” drew an audience of over 1.7 million people.

“It’s not an unknown amount that we deal with with Riot,” says John Robinson, president and COO of L.A.’s 100 Thieves, which is home to many esports teams and an associated clothing brand. “They know how to build a community. They know how to foster a competitive community. We are convinced that they will do good by the people who really love this game. It’s just a matter of how well the community responds and how quickly it grows. “

With more games in development and the possibility of an animated TV series set in the “League of Legends” universe, the hope is that Riot, only associated with “League of Legends” for the past decade, will be recognized as a name outside of the world of electronic sports.

“Trying to train and align and build an organization that can iterate over all types of media, from games and sports to music and other aspects of entertainment, is a really difficult problem to solve,” Merrill says. “We’ve been curled up, trying to build an organization that can do all of these things.

Riot Games co-founders Marc Merrill and Brandon Beck in 2016.

Riot Games co-founders Marc Merrill and Brandon Beck, featured in 2016.

(Riot games)

To get to this pivotal point, some of Riot’s most difficult battles have been internal. The studio, says Merrill, who started Riot with former roommate Brandon Beck, is still in the midst of an ongoing “existential threat,” a journey of personal growth that is “never-ending.”

In August 2018, Riot was the subject of a detailed article in Kotaku who detailed a toxic “brotherhood culture” in the company and compared work to employed by a fraternity where “women are treated unfairly, where the corporate culture puts employees at a disadvantage.” In November of that year, a class action lawsuit was filed after two women alleged that they were regularly victims of sexual harassment and discrimination based on sex.

At the time, the California Fair Employment and Housing Department questioned a $ 10 million settlement offer from Riot and said the women could have millions of dollars more in back pay. The case is ongoing.

“Realizing that, for an entire population of Riot, that we failed them was just a horrible realization,” Merrill says. “It was obviously an important moment for introspection, not only for us but for the whole company. I think we don’t know of any other way of being other than being a company that looks at each other intently and has a conversation. Understand what we are doing well and what we are not doing well and how we can improve ourselves and recognize the things that we are not aware of. “

Riot, founded in 2006 in West Hollywood and now owned by Chinese gaming giant Tencent, has 23 offices around the world and approximately 3,000 employees. The studio had to consider its workplace culture at a particularly fragile time, with Riot thriving on “Valorant” and other new products.

Donlon, who at that time had only been in Riot for a few years, said the stories that were starting to appear rocked her.

“I wouldn’t want to say that I represent what all Rioters might feel, but the kinds of things we were talking about, I’ve been through my entire career,” Donlon says. “I have almost 25 years of career in this sector, and what disappointed me is that it can exist here too. I felt that maybe Riot was the place that wasn’t vulnerable to this stuff. Disappointed is such a harsh word. When I tell my kids that I’m disappointed with them, they are in agony for a week, but that’s how I felt. “Oh no, not here too.” “

While far from the only company to re-evaluate its workplace in recent years, Riot has been a company that has been relatively straightforward in the way it attempts to resolve its internal issues. Last year, the company hired Angela Roseboro as its first-ever Director of Diversity, reporting to Director of Human Resources Emily Winkle, another recent recruit focused specifically on Riot’s people and growth opportunities.

While the leaders interviewed for this story are careful to say nothing is resolved, Riot has diversified his leadership roles, noting in a recent report that he is currently 28% female and 45% led by minorities. He has conducted studies on pay equity and created a number of employee resource groups to foster communications and linkages, among other initiatives. Long-time employees note that Kotaku’s article led to a period of intense reflection, including further examination of work-life balance and what it means to be professional in the video game industry, where work can look like an extension of personal leisure and private life. .

“When I think about my playing behavior 10 years ago, what would I say to people in games? I have regrets, ”says Jeff Jew of Riot, executive producer of the digital mobile card game“ Legends of Runeterra ”. And yet, Jew hopes that “social conduct in games is improving at a rapid rate. We have Anna Donlon at the helm of “Valorant,” and the hardcore shooting space is one of the scariest places you can visit. It’s extremely competitive. It is predominantly male. It’s very hardcore. Riot, we’re going to try to help people treat each other in these games. Honestly, because of what we’ve been through, we’re better equipped to handle these conversations. “

Difficult times, if handled well, can also be a bonding moment.

“They were able to gain my trust,” Donlon says of the response from senior management at Riot. “Even if they didn’t have the right solutions quickly, they would keep working on it. It kept me from worrying so much and focusing on the work, and I don’t think we could have been shipping these games that we are shipping if the top levels of the company didn’t say, “ C is ours. ” ”

Donlon was not hired to lead “Valorant” but raised his hand as soon as she found out about the project. “Valorant” represents a departure for Riot on several fronts. In addition to the focus on the shooter, it takes the company out of the fantasy world of “League of Legends”. While the characters have magical abilities in “Valorant,” these are designed to be used more strategically, building obstacles or defenses that lead an opposing team into a ball.

“Valorant” is a new, highly competitive game from local studio Riot.

(Riot Games / Riot Games)

Thus, the gaze is anchored but slightly mystical. The architecture is broken and sometimes floating because over time Riot intends to build a backstory for the game. And while the inspiration may come from a place like Italy, Donlon says, the game doesn’t reflect “real-world Italy,” but that’s in large part due to Riot’s desire to create an art style that can run on a wide range of personal computers. .

“The map we launch with is floating in the air,” says Donlon. “Something is happening to change the world, but we also didn’t want to lean too much into magic. We don’t want it to look like wizards and wizards. It’s a real world game with real world stakes. It is extremely deadly. You don’t stay alive for long in this game, so we don’t want it to be too fantastic. “

Donlon also knows that a game like “Valorant” can be intimidating, especially for solo or female players. While designed to be played specifically with a team able to adapt to each other’s play styles, which often requires constant vocal communication, Donlon notes that the studio is investing in non-vocal options – as a method of reducing harassment in the game – which will continue to be perfected over time. She went so far as to issue a pre-launch statement saying it would be “irresponsible” to accept such harassment as the status quo.

This will continue to evolve, especially if “Valorant” is as competitive as Riot hopes, which could lead to some very emotional matches and bordering on volatility. “It’s for the shooter who really wants to compete, who wants to master this game, who wants to improve,” she said. “I think that’s why it seems like a natural fit for esports at some point. This is done for the player who wants to spend years and years improving. “

And yet, Riot’s attention shouldn’t be seen as narrow, at least more. While “Valorant” is the studio’s first major step beyond “League of Legends,” it is on a mission to further diversify its content beyond high-stakes player-versus-player battles.

“Arcane,” an animated series set in the world of “League of Legends” is in the works, as are other games that place more emphasis on story or role-playing elements.

While Merrill hopes for a future in which parents drive with bumper stickers touting their teen’s participation in esports, Laurent says he’s thinking bigger. Although Riot’s roots are in competitive games, he says the company will continue to grow. Think of Riot, he says, as the first or second decade of Walt Disney Co., when the company was still primarily known for animation.

Those who pay attention to Riot’s esports competitions know that the company has created virtual bands, and Laurent suggests that such entertainment experiments have broader purposes than just advertising “League of Legends.” He quotes his daughter’s love for “Frozen” or his friends who champion “Star Wars” and notes that he is not a fan of it but that he can still get excited about it. idea to see the musical “Frozen” or to visit “Star Wars” lands in Disney parks because of the spectacle of it all.

Games, he says, will begin to transcend their appeal beyond their target audience. And he wants Riot to lead the charge.

“If you think of the 20th century, you think of Disney as the entertainment company of this century,” Laurent says. “But if you look at the 21st century, 21st century society will not have its roots in family entertainment but in gaming. It is the most important, the most dynamic and the most interesting industry. Everyone is playing. So if you believe in that assumption, that the 21st century entertainment company has its roots in gaming, I think we’re in a pretty good position to tackle it. “



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