League of Legends (LoL or League) is a multiplayer online battle arena video game. It was developed and published by Riot Games in 2009. LoL is considered an outstanding success, with millions of players logging on everyday despite it being over a decade since it was released. A distinct culture has formed within the League of Legends community and has led to a number of shared attitudes among its players. Unfortunately, one such aspect of League culture is sexism towards women. This text will analyze League of Legends through the circuit of culture (production, consumption, regulation, identity, and representation) and explain how each aspect has contributed to the misogynistic behaviour prevalent in the LoL community.
Production is an aspect of culture that is concerned with funding, fabrication, and distribution. In the context of League of Legends, this means taking a closer look at Riot Games, the company that both developed and released League. And it does not require much investigation to see that the culture of sexism begins with them. In an article by Cecilia D’Anastasio, numerous female employees of Riot Games were surveyed about their experiences working at the company, and many of them reported facing sexism and misogyny in the workplace. The term “bro culture” was mentioned many times in these employee’s testimony. With 80% of Riot employees being male, one female source described it as “like working at a giant fraternity”.
While struggles with diversity are not uncommon at video game development companies, Riot Games seems to have exacerbated the issue with their standards of only hiring gamers. They have been transparent that their philosophy has always been seek out hardcore video game enthusiasts, and this may have had unintended consequences. Multiple female employees recall interviews where their passion for video games was questioned, seemingly only because they were women. They report this “gamers only” philosophy being used as an excuse to reject their application or deny a promotion. Furthermore, D’Anastasio found multiple instances of harassment. With both male and female sources describing having seen unsolicited pictures of male genitalia. And one woman having seen an email thread about what it would be like to “penetrate her”.
Clearly, Riot Games has issues with sexism and misogyny in their workplace. This cannot be overlooked when trying to explain the culture of sexism around League of Legends. Production is an important aspect in the circuit of culture, and if sexist attitudes are allowed to even permeate here, it makes the issue a lot harder to overcome.
Consumption is an aspect of culture that is concerned with who purchases the product and how they use it. In regards to League of Legends, the consumers are the players. LoL is a free video game that is played by millions of, usually hardcore, gamers around the world. Many of them are playing every day, and they spend their money on in-game cosmetics called “skins”. It is not hard to see that this is where the main issue lies. The players themselves, at least while playing the game, behave in a sexist and misogynistic manner.
League of Legends is a team-based game, where temporary teams are formed for only the duration of the match, about 25 to 45 minutes. A paper by Kou and Gui researches how players interact and collaborate with their temporary teams. They found that, when successful, players can create a positive and collaborative atmosphere that ultimately helps them win the match. However, the interactions can often turn problematic. While some players try to give advice, other players default to blaming their teammates for their own mistakes. And when some players struggle, their frustration often turns to insults and rage. Naturally, when a female player is on the team, this means sexist comments. The fact that the teams are only temporary means that players can be as hateful and sexist as they want with virtually no repercussions.
Since over 80% of LoL players are male, there is almost guaranteed to be some sort of comment if it becomes known that a teammate is female. And, according to a paper by Ratan and others, this is a large contributor to the dearth of female players in the community. Thus, a self-fulfilling cycle has formed among LoL players. Less female players leads to more sexist comments which leads to less female players and so on. Unless the consumption of League changes in who plays it (more women) or how they play (less rage and insults) the issue of sexism will remain an aspect of the culture around League of Legends.
In the circuit of culture, regulation involves the governance, rules, and enforcement of a thing. One would hope that the regulation of players in League of Legends could solve the sexism problem in the community. Maybe by banning sexist comments or players, the issue would be resolved. However, this is easier said than done.
A paper by Kuo and Nardi analyzes the governance system in League of Legends. They describe it as a “hybrid system” that relies heavily on crowd-sourcing. Essentially, if players are engaging in toxic behaviour, other players can report them and possibly lead to some sort of ban for that player. This has the potential to be effective, and is pretty good at preventing behaviour that LoL players deem to be too disruptive or hateful. However, Riot Games has kept their list of official rules vague and relies heavily on the players to make their own decisions about whether a teammate is violating them. This means that sexist behaviour, which has been normalized in the community, does not get players banned, since few people report the perpetrators.
This is where we really start to see how interconnected these aspects of the circuit of culture are. Since the consumers are mostly men, who have normalized toxicity and sexist comments, it prevents the regulation from being effective. Furthermore, since the producers themselves are the same, they don’t bother implementing a better system. So, the regulation aspect of LoL culture remains powerless to prevent sexism and misogyny in the community.
Identity is the aspect of the circuit of culture that is concerned with who all the agents involved are and how they got to be that way. As we have seen in the analysis of production and consumption, the League of Legends identity is that of a hardcore gamer. The people surrounding LoL have invested so much time and effort into it, that it has become almost a lifestyle rather than just a video game.
An article by Marshall discusses how League of Legends has become more like a lifestyle product. With music, esports, collegiate competition, and more, League has expanded to affect more and more aspects of players’ lives. This is more true than ever, with the recent release of Netflix’s popular animated series, Arcane, which takes place entirely in the League of Legends universe. LoL consumers, producers, and regulators are not just hardcore gamers, they are League players. And since the overwhelming majority of them are male, it is not surprising that League players are doubtful when a female claims to be one of them. This sentiment, that women can’t be hardcore gamers and can’t be League players, that they don’t share this identity, seems to be a driving force behind the sexism in the community. It is the same sentiment that Riot Games interviewers expressed when they doubted that female applicants’ were true gamers.
The shared identity of being a hardcore gamer and a League player is ingrained in LoL culture, and this has resulted in sexist behaviour towards women both among players and developers, as they are often not considered to be able to share this identity.
Representation is the aspect of culture that is concerned with how something portrays itself. In League of Legends, this includes things like trailers, esports events, and branding. While there is nothing outright sexist in how League represents itself, it is obvious that men are the target audience and that it perpetuates the “bro culture”.
Through its trailers, which often advertise new updates or events to the game, League of Legends represents itself as a place of intense battle, teamwork, and competition. The trailers almost never feature actual gameplay, instead opting for animated shorts that appear closer to movies than video games. And there is one component that seems to always be present: beautiful, scantily-clad women. Almost all of the playable characters in League that are women have clear skin, thin waists, and big breasts. These are the same characters featured in the game trailers, so it is no surprise that League draws in a lot of young men. While this is not an unusual phenomenon in the entertainment industry, the effect may be more pronounced in League of Legends.
Another way League is represented is as a competitive esport. With bigger prize pools than any other game, League esports events also draw in more viewers. For the last couple of years, LoL championships have consistently drawn in over 40 million viewers (Clement). And the vast majority of professional players are men. The sheer scale of League esports has contributed to the presence of a collegiate esports team on nearly every college campus, and nearly all of these teams are also composed of men. With only men representing the competitive scene in League, an unintended result has been the belief that men are better at League than women. The paper by Ratan and others has proven this belief to be incorrect, finding that female players accrue skill at the same rate as males. However, the belief that men are more skilled at League remains a part of the community and contributes to the culture of sexism surrounding the game.
Both the trailers and the esports events represent League of Legends as a game intended for men. Coupled with the misguided belief that men are also better at the game than women, it is not hard to see how this perpetuates the “bro culture” surrounding League of Legends and the sexist behaviour of its players.
By analyzing League of Legends through the circuit of culture, we can see how each component of the culture of League contributes and perpetuates the sexism within the community. Beginning with production, we saw that Riot Games, the company that develops League of Legends, struggles with sexism in the workplace. This was followed by consumption, where it was evident that the overwhelming majority of consumers being male combined with the toxicity and rage with which they play the game exacerbates the sexist behaviour. Next was regulation, where our analysis showed how the crowd-sourcing system is powerless to combat sexist comments because they are so normalized. The next component of culture was identity. Here, we saw that League players share the identity of being hardcore gamers/League players and that they are often skeptical of women who claim to share this identity. Finally, in representation we saw how the game clearly targets a young male audience, and that the esports scene contributes to the misguided belief that men are better at League than women, which obviously leads to sexist comments in the game.
Each component of culture clearly contributes to the sexist and misogynistic behaviour in the community individually, but it is important to examine how they are all connected as well. The system of regulation is ineffective because both the consumers and producers are unwilling to tackle the issue of sexism and reform their method of regulation. Meanwhile, since consumers are mostly men and hardcore gamers, it contributes to the shared identity of League players being strictly male. Furthermore, since Riot Games hires many League players who have this shared identity, the “bro culture” is prevalent in their workplace and also in the way they represent themselves in their trailers and esports. There are innumerable connections we could make between the components of culture, but the general idea is that each component contributes both individually and together to perpetuate sexist behaviour in the community.
Images above are screenshots of chat from a ranked game of League of Legends
Ratan, Rabindra A., Nicholas Taylor, Jameson Hogan, Tracy Kennedy, and Dmitri Williams. “Stand by Your Man: An Examination of Gender Disparity in League of Legends.” Games and Culture 10, no. 5 (September 2015): 438–62. https://doi.org/10.1177/1555412014567228.
Yubo Kou and Xinning Gui. 2014. “Playing with strangers: understanding temporary teams in league of legends.” In Proceedings of the first ACM SIGCHI annual symposium on Computer-human interaction in play (CHI PLAY ’14). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 161–169. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1145/2658537.2658538
Kou, Yubo & Nardi, Bonnie. (2014). “Governance in League of Legends: A Hybrid System.” Foundations of Digital Games. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/309738489_Governance_in_League_of_Legends_A_Hybrid_System
D’Anastasio, Cecilia. “Inside the Culture of Sexism at Riot Games.” Kotaku, 7 Aug. 2018, https://kotaku.com/inside-the-culture-of-sexism-at-riot-games-1828165483.
Clement, J. “League of Legends – Statistics & Facts.” Statista, 15 Oct. 2021, https://www.statista.com/topics/4266/league-of-legends/#dossierKeyfigures.
Marshall, Cassandra. “Can League of Legends Become a Lifestyle Product?” Pcgamer, PC Gamer, 29 Sept. 2016, https://www.pcgamer.com/can-league-of-legends-become-a-lifestyle-product/.
Soba, Carly. “League of Legends Survey Shows Toxicity, Competitiveness among Players.” Daily Esports, Daily Esports, 10 Feb. 2020, https://www.dailyesports.gg/league-of-legends-survey-shows-toxicity-competitiveness-among-players/.