'League of Legends' Studio Faces Employee Walkout, Promises Changes

Riot Games' decision to try and block lawsuits being filed against the company prompted an enormous internal blowback it's still wrestling with.

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Apr 29 2019, 5:58pm

Image courtesy of Riot Games

Employees at Riot Games are considering a walkout, and the organization efforts have prompted an internal response from company executives, Waypoint has learned.

On Friday, Kotaku reported League of Legends developer Riot Games took steps to prevent employees from taking legal action against the company, after multiple lawsuits were filed in the wake of Kotaku’s investigation into the studio’s culture of sexism last summer.

The reaction to the aggressive move prompted talk of an employee walkout, according to two employees at Riot Games and an internal Slack message sent by Riot’s chief diversity officer to employees. Waypoint granted the employees anonymity to speak about issues that could impact their employment.

“Talk of a walkout has been brewing among a number of folks with varying levels of investment since Kotaku’s first article hit,” said one source, “and leadership consistently promised transparency/actions to be taken and then did not deliver on that promise.”

The walkout threat spread far enough that it prompted a response from Riot’s chief diversity officer, Angela Roseboro, in the company’s private Slack over the weekend.

“We’re also aware there may be an upcoming walkout and recognize some Rioters are not feeling heard,” said Roseboro, in a copy of the message obtained by Waypoint. “We want to open up a dialogue on Monday and invite Rioters to join us for small group sessions where we can talk through your concerns, and provide as much context as we can about where we’ve landed and why. If you’re interested, please take a moment to add your name to this spreadsheet. We’re planning to keep these sessions smaller so we can have a more candid dialogue.”

Both of Waypoint’s sources verified the comments by Roseboro. Riot did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication, but as part of a company-wide internal email to employees passed along to Waypoint minutes before this article went live, Riot CEO Nicolo Laurent acknowledged the talk of a walkout and said "we’re very empathetic to this and will always support Rioters in leveraging forums that allow voices to be heard." Laurent also shared a statement to be later shared with the media:

"We’re proud of our colleagues for standing up for what they believe in. We always want Rioters to have the opportunity to be heard, so we’re sitting down today with Rioters to listen to their opinions and learn more about their perspectives on arbitration. We will also be discussing this topic during our biweekly all-company town hall on Thursday. Both are important forums for us to discuss our current policy and listen to Rioter feedback, which are both important parts of evaluating all of our procedures and policies, including those related to arbitration."

(We still have not received that statement.) Update: Now, we have.

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There is a “core” group in Riot who’s been planning and discussing the walkout, though Waypoint has been unable to determine the exact size of the group. One employee told Waypoint they have “support from a larger number of people who are not directly involved in planning.”

Roseboro acknowledged Kotaku’s reporting, indicating that the company intended to resolve employee lawsuits via private arbitration, could leave people feeling ,“like we’re not moving forward” and “demonstrates we still have work to do.” She argued there are “pros, cons, and nuances to the discussion of arbitration,” even though arbitration, which removes disputes from a court of law and prevents individuals from working together, undeniably hands power to corporations and removes it from workers.

Just last week, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision in favor of the court’s majority conservative wing, empowered the growing trend of forcing workers into arbitration.

It’s perhaps not a surprise, then, Riot would prefer discussions in “small group” sessions.

“When Angela Roseboro offered to schedule focus sessions with people,” said one employee, “there was backlash because people were frustrated at yet another example of closed-door discussions instead of transparency. Overall, I think Rioters are sick of feeling like they have no visibility into what leadership is actually doing to improve.”

One of the major points of discontent, a source pointed out, was the continued employment of Riot COO Scott Gelb, who Kotaku reported as having “‘ball-tapped,’ farted on or humped employees, remains in his position after a two-month unpaid suspension and training.”

More than 3,000 Google employees worldwide recently staged a walkout after The New York Times published a piece similarly exposing the company’s toxic culture.

“Forced arbitration clauses are designed to silence workers and minimize the options available to people hurt by these large corporations,” said Emma Kinema, labor organizer at Game Workers Unite, an organization dedicated to unionizing the video game industry. “Organizing a walkout takes great courage, and we see Rioters organizing themselves to speak truth to power as an inspiring example of how game workers can band together to improve our industry.”

Talk of unionization, greater worker rights, and improved labor conditions have been a steady drumbeat in video games the past few years, prompted by endless reports about crunch—such as Kotaku’s pieces on the brutal developments of Red Dead Redemption 2 and Anthem, and Polygon’s recent report about Fortnite—and the massive layoffs at publishers like Activision Blizzard, even as the company reaps in record-breaking profits.

Here’s a copy of Roseboro’s message in full:

"Hi Rioters, I’ve been off campus for most of yesterday afternoon in meetings and have spent my evening reviewing and absorbing everything you’ve shared. I feel it’s important to address your concerns this morning rather than wait until Monday.

I know yesterday’s article about Riot’s motion to compel arbitration feels like we’re not moving forward. And I have to say for me, it demonstrates we still have work to do. There are pros, cons, and nuances to the discussion of arbitration, especially given the active litigation against Riot. It can be complex so these types of topics are best discussed live where it’s easier to have a conversation. I encourage all of you to ask as many questions in this Thursday’s Unplugged, and our promise to you is we will be as transparent as we possibly can.

We’re also aware there may be an upcoming walkout and recognize some Rioters are not feeling heard. We want to open up a dialogue on Monday and invite Rioters to join us for small group sessions where we can talk through your concerns, and provide as much context as we can about where we’ve landed and why. If you’re interested, please take a moment to add your name to this spreadsheet. We’re planning to keep these sessions smaller so we can have a more candid dialogue.

We are committed to re-earning your trust by having an open and transparent dialogue, and doing the right thing by all of our Rioters. Personally I completely understand how this may feel like a setback, but my hope is that through this storm we will be a better version of ourselves. Hope to see you on Monday."

Kinema underscored that while the recent public disclosures about Riot are new, it often takes a long time for such events to come to light, and change is hardly guaranteed.

"Rioters have been fighting to improve their workplace for a long time, long before the toxic studio culture of sexual and gendered harassment resulted in a public scandal last year,” she said. “The workers there have been fighting a long and tough fight, but they have made significant gains through tireless day to day, hour to hour work. The Game Workers Unite movement, and thousands of game workers around the world, stand with the workers of Riot."

Additional reporting for this story contributed by Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai .

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