Riot Games, Inc. is an American video game developer, publisher, and esports tournament organizer based in West Los Angeles, California. The company was founded in September 2006 by University of Southern California roommates Brandon Beck and Marc Merrill, as they sought to create a company that continuously improves on an already released game, instead of commencing development on a new one. Riot Games was majority-acquired by Chinese corporation Tencent in February 2011 and fully acquired in December 2015. As of May 2018, Riot Games operates 24 offices around the world, in which it employs 2,500 staff members.
Riot Games is best known for League of Legends, a multiplayer online battle arena game and the company’s flagship product. The game was first released in October 2009 and subsequently became the game with the highest active player count by 2013. Since 2011, Riot Games also operates various esports tournaments for the game, including the League of Legends World Championship, the Championship Series, the European Championship, and the Mid-Season Invitational.
The original Riot Games logo, used from 2006 to 2019
Riot Games’ founders, Brandon “Ryze” Beck and Marc “Tryndamere” Merrill, became friends while business students and roommates at the University of Southern California, where they bonded over video games. Beck and Merrill were frustrated because they felt game developers were not listening to fans. Developers, they believed, moved from game to game too quickly, leaving their passionate communities behind. During their time playing video games together, Beck and Merrill created an idea for a company that continually introduced new features to its games. Rather than follow the video game industry formula of releasing game after game, Beck and Merrill sought to create a company that was player-focused and made games that constantly evolved. They drew inspiration from Asian video game designers who were offering games for free, yet charging for additional perks. The founders thought it would be unfair to create a pay-to-win game, so they decided Riot Games would not sell upgrades that other players receive through skill. Rather, the additional perks would include cosmetic improvements such as new clothes that changed characters’ appearance, so players can personalize their experience.
Beck and Merrill sought funding from family and angel investors, raising US$1.5 million to launch their company. Riot Games was established in September 2006 and opened an office in an old, converted machine shop under an Interstate 405 overpass in Santa Monica, California. The first person Riot Games recruited was Steve “Guinsoo” Feak, one of the early developers of DotA Allstars, the game that pioneered the MOBA genre. As they refined League of Legends‘ initial creation, they sold investors on the plan for a video game company rooted in e-commerce, which led to several rounds of funding that totaled to $8 million, including investments by the Benchmark and FirstMark Capital venture capital firms, as well as Chinese holding company Tencent, who would later become League of Legends‘ distributor in China.
Following six months of beta tests, Riot Games released League of Legends as a free-to-play game on October 27, 2009. The company continued to develop League of Legends by allowing players to offer feedback. Their game designers and executives participated in online forums to make adjustments based on player feedback.
On May 10, 2010, Riot Games announced that they would take over distribution and operation of their game in Europe; to do so, Riot Games relocated their European headquarters in Brighton to new offices in Dublin. In February 2011, Tencent paid $400 million for a 93 percent stake in Riot Games. Tencent bought the remaining 7 percent on December 16, 2015; the price was not disclosed.
In 2012, in response to toxicity and harassment in video game culture, Riot Games launched a “player behavior team” of psychologists to combat harassment on its platform. Riot Games’ tactics to address issues on League of Legends, including an opt-in chat function between opposing players, informing banned players of the reasoning behind the ban, and creating a tribunal of players to weigh in on bans, resulted in a 30 percent drop in reported harassment behavior. By 2013, League of Legends has been the most-played multiplayer PC game in the world. From 2014 to 2016, the number of active League of Legends players grew from 67 million to more than 100 million.
Riot Games relocated to a new building on a 20-acre campus in West Los Angeles in 2015. In March 2016, Riot Games acquired Radiant Entertainment, another developer who was working on Rising Thunder and Stonehearth at the time. Rising Thunder was effectively canceled following the acquisition, with the game’s team allocated to a new project. On October 13, 2017, Beck and Merrill announced that they were returning their focus to developing games, aiming to create new experiences for video game and esports players. Beck and Merrill handed over the day-to-day operations and overall management of the League of Legends team to three longtime employees: Dylan Jadeja, Scott Gelb and Nicolo Laurent, who previously served as chief financial officer (CFO), chief technology officer (CTO) and president, respectively. Subsequently, Gelb and Laurent assumed roles as chief operating officer (COO) and chief executive officer (CEO), respectively, while Beck and Merrill became the Riot Games’ chairmen. As of May 2018, Riot Games employs 2,500 people, operating 24 offices around the globe.
In October 2019, Riot Games announced several new games: A version of League of Legends for mobile devices and consoles known as Wild Rift, a standalone mobile version of the Teamfight Tactics mode from League of Legends, the digital collectible card game titled Legends of Runeterra, and LoL Esports Manager with all four scheduled for a 2020 release. The company also teased further games—codenamed as Project A (later revealed to be called Valorant), Project L, and Project F–that have not been detailed outside of genre descriptions.
In December 2019, Riot Games announced Riot Forge, a publishing label headed by Leanne Loombe. The label partners with smaller game development studios for the creation of League of Legends games, with some games of this type already being in development. Two titles from Riot Forge were announced at The Game Awards 2019: Ruined King: A League of Legends Story by Airship Syndicate, and Convergence: A League of Legends Story by Double Stallion Games. Another division, Riot Tabletop, was announced in January 2020. Producing tabletop games, its first was announced to be Tellstones: King’s Gambit.
Riot acquired Hypixel Studios in April 2020, which they had been investing into over the previous eighteen months to help them publish Hytale, a voxel-based sandbox game. Also in April, Riot announced plans to establish a Singapore office later that year. Riot Games Singapore is to support Riot’s existing titles and will have a major focus on developing the company’s newer titles.
The stage for the 2017 League of Legends World Championship finals between SK Telecom T1 and Samsung Galaxy in the Beijing National Stadium
Riot Games operates esports leagues worldwide. This includes the League of Legends Championship Series, comprising leagues in North America and Europe. In total, there are more than 100 teams in Riot Games’ 14 regional leagues around the world. Teams compete over the course of a season separated into two seasonal splits. Teams earn championship points to qualify for two major international competitions: the Mid-Season Invitational and the League of Legends World Championship. Riot Games’ World Championship is the annual professional tournament at the conclusion of each season.
In June 2014, Alessandro Di Fiore, the founder and CEO of the European Centre for Strategic Innovation, wrote in Harvard Business Review that Riot Games’ League of Legends was the massively multiplayer online game that epitomized the growth of the esports industry. During 2010 and 2011, the Riot Games team developed new content for League of Legends; it was during this time that the company realized that people did not only like to play League of Legends, but also liked to watch it. As a result, Riot Games established its own League of Legends esports leagues that produce weekly broadcasts and create a professional game schedule. Following Riot Games’ first world championship event in 2011, a small affair at a conference in Sweden, the company decided to turn their tournaments into professional sports-like events. It invested in broadcasting equipment, hired sports programming producers, and trained pro gamers to be “TV-ready”. In 2012, Riot Games held its tournament at University of Southern California’s Galen Center, offering $1 million in prize money. Riot Games has since held tournaments in Berlin, Seoul, Madison Square Garden in New York City, and the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
The company sells corporate sponsorships, merchandise, and streaming rights for its esports league. In 2015, investors bought stakes in teams and began building their own squads. Among the team owners in Riot Games’ leagues are the owners of the Washington Wizards, Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors, Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Dodgers, AOL co-founder Steve Case, and life coach Tony Robbins. Inc. cited the growth of the leagues and high-profile ownership as part of its reasoning for making Riot Games its 2016 Company of the Year. Following debates over whether pro players and coaches should have a greater share of Riot Games’ esports revenue and concerns raised about the company making in-game changes prior to matches, the company issued an open letter in 2016 promising higher revenue shares and more collaboration with professional teams. In 2017, Riot Games held the League of Legends World Championship in China, with the finals taking place in Beijing. The same year, the company announced it would franchise its ten-team North American League of Legends Championship Series, which cost at least $10 million to enter.
Riot Games disallows the expression of personal views on what it deems sensitive issues (including politics and religion) during its live-broadcast esports events.
|2009||League of Legends||Multiplayer online battle arena||macOS, Microsoft Windows|
|2019||Teamfight Tactics||Auto battler||Android, iOS, macOS, Microsoft Windows|||
|2020||League of Legends: Wild Rift||Multiplayer online battle arena||Android, iOS, consoles|
|Legends of Runeterra||Digital collectible card game||Android, iOS, Microsoft Windows|
|Valorant||First-person shooter||Microsoft Windows|||
|LoL Esports Manager||Simulation||Android, iOS, Microsoft Windows|||
|TBA||Project F||Action role-playing, hack and slash|
|2013||Astro Teemo||Arcade||Browser||Pure Bang Games|
|2014||Cho’Gath Eats the World|
|2015||Blitzcrank’s Poro Roundup||Android, iOS|
|2017||Ziggs Arcade Blast||Microsoft Windows||Riot Games|
|2018||Star Guardian: Insomnia||Shoot ’em up|
|Super Zac Ball||Sports|
In October 2016, Riot Games released Mechs vs. Minions, a cooperative tabletop game based in the League of Legends fictional setting.
In January 2020, Riot Games announced the creation of a new internal studio, Riot Tabletop, which has several games in development. The first scheduled to be released is Tellstones: King’s Gambit, a bluffing game for two or four players.
- Ernst & Young — Entrepreneurs of the Year (Beck and Merrill) (2011)
- Business Insider — 4th of the 25 Best Tech Companies to Work For (2013)
- Game Developers Choice Awards — Pioneer Award (Beck and Merrill) (2014)
- Glassdoor — 18th of the 50 Best Places to Work (2015)
- Fortune — 39th of the 100 Best Companies to Work For (2016)
- Inc. — Company of the Year (2016)
- British Academy of Film and Television Arts — Special Award (2017)
- National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences — Sports Emmy Award for Outstanding Live Graphic Design (2018)
Criticism and controversy
Allegations over gender discrimination
Over the first half of 2018, Kotaku spoke to about 28 former and current employees at Riot Games, several of whom claimed that female employees at Riot were being discriminated against, such as ideas from female employees being overlooked while the same ideas from male employees being readily accepted, and some female employees being groomed for more senior positions only to be passed up by a new male hire. These employees described the environment within Riot as a “bro culture”, more like a fraternity than a workplace. Kotaku published these interviews in an August 2018 report, and speculated that this came from Riot’s history of generally catering to “core” gamers both in products and in hiring practices, which would cause the company to favor male employees over females. Kotaku did speak to some Riot employees who stated these accusations were not true or were already being addressed; for example, Oksana Kubushyna, the head of platform, stated that efforts to improve the hiring process to be more diverse and inclusive toward women had started about nine months prior to Kotaku‘s article. Riot Games’ corporate communications lead Joe Hixson responded to the Kotaku article, stating “This article shines a light on areas where we haven’t lived up to our own values, which will not stand at Riot. We’ve taken action against many of the specific instances in the article, and we’re committed to digging in, addressing every issue, and fixing the underlying causes. All Rioters must be accountable for creating an environment where everyone has an equal opportunity to be heard, grow their role, advance in the organization, and fulfill their potential.”
In the week following Kotaku‘s article, several more current and former developers came forward to speak on their own experiences at Riot, which included claims of sexual harassment and misgendering. In a statement to Gamasutra, Hixson stated that the company is taking action based on the story and its response. Hixson stated that “our primary goal is to be listening to the personal experiences and stories of everyone that has ever been part of the Riot team” and “in instances where former Rioters are raising issues that we need to take action against, we are attempting to get in contact with them to learn more so we can take action”. Hixson further stated that in regards to some claims of misbehavior to higher-level executives at Riot, “we’re investigating and will uphold our zero tolerance stance, no matter the seniority of those involved.” By the end of August 2018, Riot stated they were implementing seven “first steps” to change the company’s internal culture in light of the issues raised, including a “Culture and Diversity & Inclusion Initiative” priority. To help implement these, Riot hired Frances X. Frei as a senior adviser for diversity, leadership, and strategy.
Despite these announcements, Riot Games’ stance was put into the spotlight at the 2018 PAX West event at the start of September 2018. Due to the Kotaku article, Riot offered a session for attendees interested in getting into the video game industry, some roundtable talks and one-on-one sessions to review resumes, and only admitted women and non-binary people for a majority of this period; otherwise, the sessions were made available to view online by anyone after the event. Members of Riot’s game communities expressed outrage at the exclusion of men, while Riot employees defended the decision as such gender-exclusive support was necessary to correct the male-dominated nature of video game development. Some of the feedback towards Riot included harassment and threats, and, in combination with events from the shooting at a video game tournament in Jacksonville, Florida the prior month, Riot plans to increase security at its upcoming events. Two employees of Riot attempted to address the feedback from the PAX event, leading one to be fired and the other to leave the company; Riot stated that these departures were separate from their Diversity Initiative.
In December 2018, Riot’s CEO Nicolo Laurent sent an email to all employees stating that following the company’s internal investigation, their COO, Scott Gelb, was suspended for two months without pay for workplace misconduct and would take training classes before his return. Riot stated to Kotaku that there still other cases they were investigating but did not involve those as senior as Gelb, and thus would not discuss these cases publicly. By January 2019, Riot published its updated company values on its website, the first time since 2012, to reflect the apparent “bro culture” that the company had been seen as since the Kotaku report, and by February 2019, had hired Angela Roseboro as the company’s chief diversity officer to further help improve their culture.
A proposed settlement was reached in the class-action suit in August 2019, which would include at least US$10 million in damages to women that had been employeed at Riot Games over the prior five years. Representatives of the class stated “We believe that the policy changes Riot agreed to make will continue the progress toward equality that we’ve made over the last year”, while Riot Games said “While this settlement helps bring peace of mind to women at Riot, we want to acknowledge that issues of discrimination and harassment go beyond gender, and acknowledge the victims who aren’t covered in the suit.”
California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) had been investigating claims of gender discrimination at Riot Games since October 2018. In June 2019, DFEH had stated that Riot had denied providing them requested documents and were seeking action to compel these documents, though Riot stated that they have complied with all requests issued by the Department. On word of the settlement, the Department filed a complaint with the court that stated they believed the settlement was far too low, estimating that the lawsuit potentially could have been worth as much as US$400 million. The state’s Division of Labor Standards Enforcement also filed a complaint, believing the settlement would release Riot from labor liabilities that had been raised by the lawsuit. Both complaints urged the court to reject the proposed settlement. Riot dismissed DFEH’s larger value to the suit, as well as denying charges raised by the DFEH that it had colluded with the class’s lawyer to reduce the amount they would pay through the settlement.
As a result of the state’s findings that the terms of the settlement should have been valued higher, the class withdrew the proposed US$10 million settlement and dropped their original legal counsel, bringing on new lawyers who had been involved in prior lawsuits related to the Me Too movement in February 2020. Riot stated in response that they felt the original US$10 million figure “fair and adequate under the circumstances” after analysis, but remain committed to reaching a resolution.
Dispute over forced arbitration clauses
About three months after Kotaku‘s story, one current and one former Riot employee filed a lawsuit against the company, asserting the company engaged in gender discrimination in relation to their pay and position, and that the company had created a hostile workplace, including “the ongoing sexual harassment, misconduct, and bias which predominate the sexually-hostile [sic] working environment of Riot Games”. The lawsuit seeks to qualify it as a class-action suit, and for damages to be based on unpaid wages, damages, and other factors to be determined at trial. Three other employees followed with their own lawsuits against Riot Games in the months that followed. Riot Games attempted to have two of the suits dismissed in April 2019, citing that the two female plaintiffs of these suits, when hired, had agreed to third-party arbitration rather than take court action. Internally, several employees of Riot threatened to walk out, an idea that had been around since the first Kotaku article, as alongside the coercion to use arbitration, these employees felt Riot had yet to improve its transparency on the processes and had otherwise continued to retain Gelb despite his suspension. Riot acknowledged there are issues, allowing employees to speak anonymously with the press, and plans to use town hall meetings and smaller group discussions with Roseboro and employees to determine the path forward. Riot also committed to removing mandatory arbitration in new employee contracts and potentially for existing ones after the current litigation had been settled. Additionally, Riot established a 90-day plan starting in May 2019 to continue to address internal issues related to diversity and inclusion. Despite this, over one hundred Riot employees staged their walkout on May 6, 2019, demanding that Riot end forced arbitration for all past and current employees as well. About two weeks following the walkout, Riot stated that they will not change forced arbitration in existing agreements while the current litigation against the company is ongoing.
In 2017, Riot Games filed a lawsuit against Moonton Technology Co., the developer of the mobile game Mobile Legends: Bang Bang, because of copyright infringement, citing similarities between Mobile Legends and League of Legends. The case was initially dismissed in California on account of forum non conveniens. Tencent, on behalf of Riot Games, then filed a new lawsuit in a Chinese court, which ruled in Tencent’s favor in July 2018, awarding it $2.9 million in damages.
In October 2019, Riot Games filed a lawsuit against Riot Squad Esports LLC, a Chicago-based esports organization founded in March 2019, alleging that Riot Squad intentionally infringed on Riot Games’ “Riot” trademark.
In June 2020, Ron Johnson, Riot Games’ global head of consumer products, shared a Facebook post that claimed George Floyd had been killed by police “because of his criminal lifestyle”. The company subsequently placed Johnson on leave to conduct an investigation, after which Ron resigned from the company.
Riot had announced a planned partnership with the developing city of Neom in Saudi Arabia in July 2020, with the city to sponsor the upcoming League of Legends European Championship series. Shortly after the announcement, fans of the game as well as Riot employees criticized the company over social media and their streaming channels over the partnership, asserting past poor treatment of human rights by Saudi Arabia and the violent attempts to evict the Howeitat tribe from the area during the city’s construction. Riot cancelled the partnership within a few days in response, apologizing and stating “In an effort to expand our esports ecosystem, we moved too quickly to cement this partnership and caused rifts in the very community we seek to grow. While we missed our own expectations in this instance, we’re committed to reexamining our internal structures to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”