LGBT identities in League of Legends

It’s been a big year for the League of Legends community, the most recent big event being DRX winning the World’s Championship against the undefeated T1. Other major events within the community constitute the new champions that have joined the game. Riot games’ newest champion and co-designed by rapper Lil Nas X, K’sante is a gay man, the face of diversity that most of its players hate. K’sante adds a new narrative to the game’s fictional universe, despite the game itself not focusing on painting a socio-political narrative. League of Legends is completely different from RPGs where identity is central to the gaming experience. It is a strategy based glorified capture-the-flag, an online 5v5 with distinct roles and playstyles (like support, tank or DPS). You pick the character that has the best skills, the most favourable playstyle, the one that matches your team and counters the enemy team. Yet K’Sante (and the handful of other LGBT characters) offer more to players than a unique gaming experience. What narrative does he offer? Why is it so important that characters like him exist at all? 

League’s fictional universe

League of Legends is a team-based 5v5 battle arena with a cast of over 160 playable characters that all bring unique play styles and strategies within the map called Summoner’s rift. As a result some characters are favored by the dynamic meta, and their abilities synergise with or counter other characters’ abilities. Players take this into account when selecting a character to play. It is strategy-focused, with identity the last thing on players’ minds. You play to win.

However, in the creation of these characters, Riot has established a huge fictional universe by the name of Runeterra. This world has millennia of history filled with war, politics, dynamic societies and a good amount of magic. It is now divided into several unique countries with their own cultures, societies, governments and more. Ionia takes influence from East Asia, while the Freljord is Scandinavian, and Noxus takes harsh inspiration from the United States. All the characters are fitted within these nations, within these social and political environments, to take up their own lore, personality and identity. Characters’ abilities and playstyles are derived from their background. Riot games emphasized the importance of this fictional universe with popular netflix show Arcane, which commented heavily on poverty and social class as well as political power play. On top of that, Riot publishes musical cinematics several times a year that further explore this vast realm. 

Cinematics are outside of the gaming experience and so players can choose to ignore them. Even then, characters’ identities are inevitable within the gaming experience through their unique voicelines that play throughout moving, attacking and encountering other champions. A non-sexuality or romance trait that is highlighted through voicelines is nicely illustrated by popular character Sett on his father abandoning him and his mother:

“My old man ran off… you’d be smart to do the same”

Sett, upon encountering an enemy in the game

Focusing back on romance, though, Riot has created canonical straight romances, such as Xayah and Rakan, Lux and Ezreal, and Garen and Katarina. These romances are… inescapable when playing these characters. Riot has shown the relevance of socio-political and romance in its game despite those aspects not being the main focus of the actual game. In a universe that mimics our own while also creating mythical beasts and magical powers, LGBT identities shouldn’t be all that rare.

The players behind the characters

Even with this extensive universe and large cast of characters, a videogame can’t achieve much without its playerbase. Even the toughest, most professional players have attachments to the characters they play frequently. The winners of worlds get to pick 5 characters that have a special Winners skins, and these don’t have to be the characters they won with. 

Pro-players are only a select few. Upon asking around in the variety of discord servers I am a part of, many casual players report not only playing characters according to the meta, but because they enjoy a character’s design and personality in addition to their playstyle. The cast of League of Legends is becoming increasingly diverse and includes many aesthetic choices through skins, giving most players an opportunity to find someone that suits them. Personally, I find identity in dominating my games through playing hyper-feminine characters. My friend L, a guy from the Caribbean, expresses his preference for character whose storylines focus on overcoming turmoil that reflect his own.

Seeing yourself in someone in videogames is empowering

my friend T, an Ezreal main

The representation of LGBT characters goes beyond individual players’ gaming desks. Riot finally taking a stance on adding explicitly LGBT characters consequently takes a stance against its market. Riots’ biggest market is in the East with China and South-Korea, countries that are heavily LGBT unfriendly. Despite intense censorship, Riot takes the side of a discriminated community through the aspect that makes League so successful: its characters. This potentially exposes players in these countries to LGBT characters despite the best efforts of their intolerant societies. 

A concluding note

With the value Riot gives to the lore of League of Legends, and players being exposed to this universe while valuing the characters they play, it now becomes evident why LGBT champions are important in battle-arena video games. Not only does it give LGBT players a place within the game, it also exposes players to socio-political questions as well as identities relating to people they would typically ignore or are not exposed to within their own environment. As a result, even video games that are not inherently reflective of real-life society take crucial elements of social identity.

With that said, the gaming community is still terrifyingly behind on anything relating to gender and to trans identities. With the progress we have been making, I hope that it will be a matter of time before we will also see representation in this field as well.