Throughout her three years at Riot Games, the company behind League of Legends, Lacy made it her mission to hire a woman into a leadership role. Lacy had heard plenty of excuses for why her female job candidates weren’t Riot material. Some were “ladder climbers.” Others had “too much ego.” Most weren’t “gamer enough.” A few were “too punchy,” or didn’t “challenge convention,” a motto you can find in Riot’s company manifesto and recruiting materials.
“Across the board, you’d have side-by-side similar backgrounds,” said Lacy, which is not her real name, “but the leadership team would constantly ixnay any female candidate for leadership.”
Hiring a woman into a leadership position proved impossible for Lacy, she said, and she left the company in part because of the sexism she’d personally experienced. She said her direct manager would ask her if it was hard working at Riot being so cute. Sometimes, she said, he’d imply that her position was a direct result of her appearance. Every few months, she said, a male boss of hers would comment in public meetings about how her kids and husband must really miss her while she was at work.
One day, Lacy conducted an experiment: After an idea she really believed in fell flat during a meeting, she asked a male colleague to present the same idea to the same group of people days later. He was skeptical, but she insisted that he give it a shot. “Lo and behold, the week after that, [he] went in, presented exactly as I did and the whole room was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is amazing.’ [His] face turned beet red and he had tears in his eyes,” said Lacy. “They just didn’t respect women.”
Riot Games, founded in 2006, has become one of the biggest companies in gaming on the back of its sole release, League of Legends, which had 100 million monthly players in 2016. With 2,500 employees across 20 offices, Riot is a powerhouse. In 2013, Riot was named one of Business Insider’s 25 best tech companies to work for. Two years later, it made $1.6 billion in revenue. Its Los Angeles campus is cushy in the way you’d expect a money-bloated tech company’s offices to be. It’s got a gym, a coffee shop, a cafeteria with free food, a LAN cafe. Employees often stay late to grind out competitive skill points in League of Legends with their Riot family and are communicating on Slack well into the night. Women who don’t fit in with Riot’s “bro culture”—a term I heard from over a half dozen sources while reporting this story—say these amenities help make the job bearable for only so long.
Over the course of several months, Kotaku has spoken to 28 current and former Riot employees, many of whom came forward with stories that echo Lacy’s. Some of those employees spoke on the record; most spoke anonymously because they feared for their future careers in the games industry or they were concerned that League of Legends’ passionate fanbase would retaliate against them for speaking out. Many of those sources painted a picture of Riot as a place where women are treated unfairly, where the company’s culture puts female employees at a disadvantage. Other current employees, speaking on the record, disputed that account, with some top female employees telling Kotakuthey had not personally experienced gender discrimination at Riot.
Five months after we started reporting for this article, days after Riot apparently learned about it, the company added a “diversity and inclusion” page on its website that says, “We aggressively enforce a zero tolerance policy on discrimination, harassment, and general toxicity. It is incredibly important that our leaders embody this commitment, and reinforce this expectation across their teams.” The page was added in late May, according to the Wayback Machine, but when asked, a Riot representative said the company’s “roadmap” for diversity and inclusion initiatives, including a public-facing definition of “gamer,” was presented to Riot staff as early as April, “notably well before Kotaku began its inquiries.” (Kotaku began its inquires in December of last year, and reached out to Riot leadership mid-May.)
The page also says, “There is no cookie cutter template for what a Rioter looks like.” But women who have worked there said that nothing could be further from the truth.
Over the course of reporting this story, we found that many former Riot employees were restricted from talking on the record because of non-disparagement agreements they signed before leaving the company. Some say they received severance after speaking to Riot’s “talent” team—what the company calls its human resources team—about their experiences at the company.
When contacted by Kotaku for comment on the details in this story, Riot sent over a lengthy statement, which we’ve quoted throughout this story. In short, the company said that the anecdotes described in this article are “explicitly opposite” to its culture. “When we encounter any contrary behaviors, we dig in to understand, evaluate, and address,” the company said. “We have a zero tolerance policy on discrimination, harassment, retaliation, bullying, and general toxicity.”
Among the people we spoke to, three women described being groomed for promotions, and doing jobs above their title and pay grade, until men were suddenly brought in to replace them. Both male and female sources have described seeing unsolicited and unwelcome pictures of male genitalia from bosses or colleagues. One woman saw an e-mail thread about what it would be like to “penetrate her,” in which a colleague added that she’d be a good target to sleep with and not call again. Another said a colleague once informed her, apparently as a compliment, that she was on a list getting passed around by senior leaders detailing who they’d sleep with. Two former employees said they felt pressure to leave after making their concerns about gender discrimination known. One former male employee said that Riot’s “bro culture” is more pronounced behind closed doors, and hurts men too: One of Riot’s male senior leaders regularly grabbed his genitals, the source said, adding, “If he walked into a meeting with no women he’d just fart on someone’s face.”
“The ‘bro culture’ there is so real,” said one female source, who said she’d left the company due to sexism. “It’s agonizingly real. It’s like working at a giant fraternity.” Eighty percent of Riot employees are men, according to data Riot collected from employees’ driver’s licenses.
It’s not unusual for a tech or gaming company to struggle with sexism and lack of diversity. In recent years, some studios have tried to reckon with that reality, taking steps to hire more women and making games that showcase more diverse characters. But at Riot, the fundamental values fueling its celebrated culture of “core gamers” and Riot devotees over the past decade may also be the root causes of an ingrained sexism that manifests in both blatant and subtle ways.
Among behemoth tech companies, there’s a commonly-held belief in the idea of meritocracy. That’s the notion that the most talented and deserving employees will rise through the ranks into leadership positions. In theory, it’s a no-brainer goal for any workplace. In reality, it doesn’t seem to materialize at companies like Riot. The problem of hiring, promoting and retaining women at tech companies is well-documented, and it’s a problem that makes any true “meritocracy” difficult to attain at these workplaces. At Silicon Valley-based companies like Google and Apple, only a quarter of “professional” jobs—like engineers, designers and analysts—were held by women in 2016, according to Reveal, a project from The Center for Investigative Reporting. When it comes to leadership positions, that number is much lower. In the technology field, the quit rate for women is over twice as high as it is for men, according to a study by the National Center for Women & Information Technology. One report surveying 3,700 women in engineering detailed how women in these fields felt they had fewer opportunities for advancement and a higher rate of feeling undermined by managers.