Richard Lewis: Sean, Welcome to Riot’s World

Sean Gares commentating Valorant EventRiot Games

On March 14th Valorant commentator Sean Gares announced that following the decision of Riot Games not to hire him for their upcoming Masters event in Reykjavik he would be quitting the world of commentary indefinitely. That decision came as a shock to many given his near omnipresence in 2021 and his usage at the end-of-year world final event, Champions.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and are not necessarily shared by Dexerto.

The consensus among the fans on social media was that this was a “big L” their way of expressing that the broadcast would be diminished. Sean is now likely to walk into his choice of coaching role among North America’s biggest teams and make more money than Riot would ever pay him. 

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How does something like this happen? Well, the assumption would be it was about money. Certainly, as we’re about to discuss, it’s often a factor. Not this time though. On the first stream since the announcement Sean explained: “It has nothing to do with pay… I gladly accepted a pay cut this year and I told them I would have worked Iceland for free.”

So why then? Well, this is a textbook Riot Games play. I’ll elaborate but since as so many of you have a short attention span I’ll frontload. Riot do not like their games being kingmakers for people they do not have direct influence over. Sean was rapidly becoming a new Christopher “Montecristo” Mykles for them to deal with, an influential voice, who is well-liked by the community, who is not above criticizing what they do in public, and knows his value while doing it. This archetype has been Riot’s nightmare for years.

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Now, I’ll also say this upfront. In the freelance world, no one is guaranteed shit. No one is obligated to hire you nor give you a reason when they don’t. One of the first esports tests you’ll face from any big company is your reaction the first time you get left out. They often purposefully do it just to see how you react. And if that reaction is to take to social media to bellyache about what you thought you were entitled to, or even the more subtle “just letting the fans know…” spiel, just know you failed. The time to crow about it comes once you’ve had a hat-trick of knockbacks. At that juncture just accept they don’t want you and air whatever fucking dirty laundry you want to. There isn’t even a bridge to burn at that point.

That said, the refusal to hire Gares is stupefying on the surface of it all. He is easily one of the most technically minded commentators the game has. He is in every way broadcast ready, and I say that as someone who has worked with him on ELEAGUE. He has a competitive background, giving him credibility that most broadcast talent, especially commentators, does not have. He is beloved by the community having circumnavigated his entire esports career with only one “drama” of note. The reason I feel compelled to write this piece is that it is not despite these things he was left out. No, it’s actually because of them.

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A quick history lesson for the Valorant zoomers who might have very naive ideas about the type of competitive scene Riot are going to build. I’m one of the few equipped to tell it because I’ve always known exactly who Riot Games are from the moment they came into our industry. Power-crazed, corrupt liars who abused every little bit of power and status they have to a level that would make you believe it was codified. They will never change, no matter how much they profess so publicly, to cater to the optics-obsessed internet. They very much like the way they do things.

The company was founded in 2006, an unholy alliance of two people from the world of banking and marketing, placing them just behind the military-industrial complex and fentanyl distributors in terms of evil. They would go on to meet a narcissist who after completing a PhD in cognitive neuroscience wanted to turn videogames into conduits for influencing young people via the conduit of “player behavior systems.” No really, that was baked into the game from almost its inception. “League of Legends attracts around 67million players per month, who are all potential test subjects for Riot Games” one 2015 article proudly declared. This was the same year they sent out creepy surveys clearly aimed at children through their game client.

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League of Legends survey screenshotRiot Games
Riot’s survey on agressive behavior.

Even before that they only understood success through the lens of the failure of others. Their original marketing strategy for League of Legends was mostly around tearing down DOTA, something they did in a very literal sense. Not only was some of their initial advertising obnoxious and full of impossible promises – check out the No More DOTA ad banner below – they actually hired the people behind the main DOTA forum, DOTA Allstars, and made them shut it down. Not just leave it in the hands of others you understand… Actually take it off the internet.

Years of community content evaporated overnight without any prior notice for its creators. That was not by mistake of course. Many people who conceptualized heroes for DOTA stated that their ideas were stolen and used in League of Legends. 

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League of Legends No More Dota poster advertDOTA Allstars
The infamous No More DOTA advert appeared online.

Anyway, let’s rattle through some of the many sins as quickly as possible. They told esports organizations that they could not support both a LoL and Dota team, something that was stated by many industry people with stellar reputations despite Riot denying it to this day. I can tell you with absolute certainty it happened. They publicly covered up a Data breach that was the direct result of staff incompetence, something that allowed a hacker to steal people’s accounts and extort Riot staff. 

They banned a prominent player for a whole year because he criticized artwork for a skin they sold. They made Reddit moderators sign NDAs in exchange for meetings and access with the staff. This would later go on to be abused with Riot staff influencing content decisions, something that no longer seems a big deal given how much of Reddit is astroturfed. They tried to contractually prevent LCS players from streaming rival games on their personal channel and only removed the clause after it was made public.

They shut down a better version of the League of Legends client because their egos couldn’t handle the fact they didn’t make it. They encouraged a partner, the now-defunct Azubu, to abuse DMCA laws to take down a stream that showed gameplay footage of the then-best player in the world and said it was “harassment” and compared it to e-stalking.  

They did this despite showing a random selection of other player’s games in the client and running a stream called “Teemodies” that broadcast footage of players dying without their knowledge. They refused to hire three of the game’s best commentators for their world finals because those individuals had been helping broadcast talent get an industry-standard amount of money for their services. The founder of the company had his own account boosted, despite accounts being regularly shut down for this practice.

In response, Merrill donated $10,000 to charity… A charity called City Year, which is barely a charity at all, and one he just so happened to sit on the board of. Funnily enough, City Year are a group where people don red clothing and behave in a cult-like fashion. Stop me if you’ve heard of something similar to that. 

They banned a professional player who spoke out about corruption in the CIS region for six months, forcing him into retirement. They shut down an English LPL broadcast once the league got significantly popular and then refused to rehire one of the women behind it.  They fucked with the woman they would hire eventually, IndianaFroskurinnBlack, preventing her working events by third-party operators. In the end, her working experience with the company was stated by her to be one where she experienced unspecified “toxicity” from the management prior to leaving the LEC broadcast.  Which I guess is as “good” a point as any to segue into the blockbuster 2018 article about sexism within the company which would lead on to them settling a $100 million lawsuit.

Despite much talk about how happy they were to make things right, they, of course, fought tooth and nail at every step, tried to lowball the victims with an initial $10 million offering and a refusal to end the practice of forced arbitration for its staff. This, according to the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, was done following backroom collusion with the plaintiff’s legal counsel, leading to their termination. So yes, there was much talk of changing and listening and learning after this but of course, it’s Riot, so it was only two years after the article about rampant sexism within the company they would try to sneak through a deal with Saudi Arabian owned NEOM by making sure it didn’t line up with Pride Week.

They followed that up by firing one of their lead writers despite having recently lost his father and while he needed the money to pay for his wife’s cancer treatment because they requested the business take better care of the lore they crafted

This is by no means an exhaustive list but it should be enough to show you what they are. Each one of those stories has one thing in common – control. They control everything in their game’s orbit and if you won’t be controlled then they will use every tool at their disposal to penalize you for it. In short, it’s Riot’s world and you just happen to live in it. And if that list doesn’t convince you of how they view things, why not take it from the horse’s mouth, Marc Merrill. “Congrats on having a career revolving around the free game we made” reveals their worldview in just a few words. You owe them and you better pay up. 

Screenshot of Twitter exchange between IWillDominate and Marc MerrillScreenshot via Twitter
Merrill’s now-deleted tweets to Rivera.

This is the lesson that Sean is being taught right now. In his recent stream, he seemed at a loss as to why this had happened, despite the fact I warned him and all my good friends about what it means to be in Riot’s world. Indeed the fans are as equally bewildered, which isn’t a surprise as I’m sure most of you reading this article didn’t know much of the history chronicled above. As the person who has been chronicling all of Riot’s bullshit from the start, so much so the interview question “what do you think of Richard Lewis’s journalism” was used in their hiring process for a few years, I will explain it now.

First and foremost they operate under the rule that no one can be allowed to be “too big” by which they mean bigger than them. It is their view that when talent becomes popular for casting their game, unless they are desirable to hire directly, then this only creates problems in their eyes. Those problems include being able to demand increased money for their services and, more importantly, being a credible critical voice somewhere down the road.

You must have noticed all the things happening in the Valorant broadcast space already. Inexplicably leaving talent out of events, breaking apart duos, region locking talent, refusing to hire specific people despite their credentials certainly suggest they could improve their product. All the while they do this while pushing employees and loyalists that every fan knows isn’t as good.

Behind the scenes, by the way, the psychological trickery that goes on is something people don’t believe until they experience it firsthand. Riot loves a good fealty test most of all. I’ve been told repeatedly that one such game they like to do is to tell both commentators in an established duo that they love their work but not their commentary partner and that they could guarantee future hires by uncoupling themselves. This is done to see who can be molded to be loyal to the company down the line but also stops the prospect of “must-have” pairings in the eyes of fans. Two in unison is certainly harder to break down than one person operating for their own self-interests.

Another practice they love is to tell two parties with role overlap that they are in direct competition with each other for one spot, regardless of the reality. This further promotes the culture of “undercutting” thus saving them money and also keeps talent divided and further away from a unified front when it comes to bargaining. 

Sean’s mistake was to establish himself as one of the best in his field and popular with it. The decision to leave him out is simply to show that they can and that ultimately fans will watch anyway. Equally, I know from talking behind the scenes that he had markers against him he probably wasn’t aware of. For example, expressing a distaste for being used in an analyst role when he is one of the game’s leading commentators should be par for the course in any healthy relationship between talent and producers. He has also been critical of game balance issues in his content and work.

Unfortunately for him, this is Riot’s world, where any criticism, no matter how mild, is treason. The fact that they wouldn’t even take him on the broadcast for free should really underline how pathological Riot management are when it comes to this doctrine. 

SeanGares swapped his vast CS:GO experience for Valorant.

The second component of all of this is the rise of co-streaming. A hugely popular development in esports and gaming broadcasts, Riot have used this to great effect in order to bolster the reach of Valorant as an esport and as a way to cite huge viewing figures that leave out the critical details of how they were obtained. The reality is that no broadcast talent can rise to the level of a top Twitch streamer and Riot’s internal data shows what we all know, that co-streams provide more viewers for lower cost. Remember, Riot are the developer of the game and not a tournament organizer.

They consider their official broadcast a loss leader because in their mind they see it as something separate from the game. It is a non-cost efficient form of advertising that is one of the downsides of a potentially lucrative esports product. Thus, there is no real incentive to promote the best talent on a continual basis. All that will serve to achieve is make their already expensive broadcast more so. This is why they cycle their talent, keep them unsure, never certain if they have done something wrong, zero communication around the decision. It stops them from getting ideas.

Incidentally, if you think there’s no truth to them being less interested than the numbers on their main stream than the totality of co-streaming, take a look at some of the decisions they have made. Right now, the official VCT stream is emote-only. Sure, this makes moderation a lot easier as unless you’re one of the crazies that sees racism in cartoon frogs, little abuse can be expressed. That fixes one issue but being able to chat in real-time during a stream is one of Twitch’s biggest selling points and there’s no way that not being able to do it doesn’t impact the numbers. By the same token, the main channel doesn’t allow for clips to be made unless you are a follower, another downside that makes watching a co-stream more desirable.

It also plays into Riot’s control strategies. You see, the only way to bring someone bigger than you to heel is to make them dependent on you in some fashion. For the streamers being approved for co-streaming is the dream content. They get to do very little and receive huge numbers for doing it. It is essentially react content, where they have expended no time or money into what they get to stream. You barely have to even say anything beyond the occasional exclamation and the zoomers lap it up. Now, if you want that free content and free money you have to toe the Riot Games line. No criticism, no behavior they deem “toxic,” they can now dictate other content and sponsors you might have because it’s “brand adjacent.” Keep it up and they may even bring you in for an activation. Even more money and eyeballs. 

The third and final component is storytelling. Riot don’t want their broadcast talent telling the story of their game. They want the content they create to tell the stories. Now Riot does a fantastic job with their content, no doubt about that. I worked in television and can tell you firsthand how much goes into the quick turnaround of a polished content piece.

The team who works on them can be rightly proud. But where most sports use pieces like that to augment commentary and leave narrative up to the commentators and analysts, Riot wants the content to be the official version of the story. Why? Well, broadcast freelancers might actually tell a few inconvenient truths by mistake. They might introduce a vital component of the story Riot would rather be left out. They might not lean into the anime-style narrative bullshit and upset kids that aren’t yet old enough to have any expectations placed on them nor taste of life’s many bitter disappointments. No, it is far, far safer that the preserved and archived storylines are ones that Riot writes themselves.

Right now so many of the broadcast talent pool over in Valorant live walking on eggshells. They know that Valorant will be successful in the long term and want very much to be one of the faces of that success. They won’t speak out when things like this happen because they know with a certainty that if they do they will be cast out. For them, there is too much to lose. It will almost certainly lead to Dan ‘DDK’ Kapadia choosing to throw in the towel as so much of what he wanted to do revolved around this partnership.

Sean might also learn that if Riot are particularly upset with how this story unfolds in public they are not above back-channeling to the organizations who are looking to hire him and “advise” them doing so could come at a cost. They’ve been known to do that too you know.  Of course, they do.

It’s all Riot’s world and that’s the way we like it, right?