Lil Nas X’s ‘presidency’ at Riot is off to a flier, with the star singer collaborating with the League of Legends developers on the Prestige Empyrean K’Sante skin. It’s more than just a token partnership, with both sides of the table coming together to build authentic representations of race and gender identity in Runeterra.
League of Legends as a game has grappled with diversity, or lack thereof. While there were elements of racial and gender diversity within the game, it lacked proper representation for those communities who wanted to see themselves in their favorite champions.
Over time that has evolved. Whether it be the release of Neeko, League’s first openly LGBTQIA+ champion, or rewrites of lore to establish relationships like Diana and Leona or Graves and Twisted Fate, the gender identity front is slowly being tackled. Riot has also explored non-white racial backgrounds too: Akshan, Senna, and more.
K’Sante, the Pride of Nazumah, comes into the conversation on both fronts, and he really lives up to that tag. He is prideful — proud of his identity as a LGBTQIA+ black character, Riot’s first across all franchises. Proud of his homeland, and defending it.
The representation could stop there. However, Riot took it a step further with an icon of high caliber for similar reasons in Lil Nas X. The current ‘President of Riot Games’ (but not really) took the reins when it came to his launch skin, Empyrean K’Sante, and its Prestige variant.
The star singer didn’t make K’Sante; the champion was deep in development by the time Riot struck up a partnership, and his identity as being black, queer, and proud was already defined. But Nas’ icon status in those communities, plus his high fashion sense playing into the Prestige ideal perfectly, saw the puzzle pieces click into place from there.
Thomas Randby, a developer on the Player Immersion and Expression (PIE) team at Riot Games, was thrilled to get the chance to work alongside Lil Nas X. A queer man himself, from the outset, there was an air of excitement to get quality representation into League of Legends through this prime opportunity.
“Everyone was so passionate, so easygoing and so forthcoming with their ideas,” he said. “Nas himself was really excited by the character and had a lot of ideas on how to style him for the skin’s interpretation.
“The team really wanted to emphasize vibrancy. We wanted to play with pastel iridescence in both his clothing and abilities to capture that surrealist, dream-like quality of Nas’ visuals. The team was interested in a subtle afro-futurist look to pay homage to K’Sante’s West African inspirations.”
On the creative side, Riot and Lil Nas X’s team brainstormed on design — sticking within the bounds of the newly-released Empyrean thematic and League’s design guidelines. It was a collaborative process with constant back-and-forth, drawing on some similar references in pop culture.
But it’s the deeper meaning of the skin, and the expression of K’Sante and Lil Nas X in it, that should be the take-home message.
“Nas fearlessly expresses himself and exists as uniquely himself in all aspects of life and his work,” Randby added. “It’s something we wanted to incorporate into the skin to allow K’Sante and players to express themselves in much the same way.
“Being able to reach people and achieve a specific level of representation that’s going to speak to certain people and allow them to be seen in the content that we’re making, especially coming from me as a queer person, it’s just energizing and wonderful to feel empowered to tell those stories and allow ourselves to weave those stories into the overarching fabric of League of Legends and Runeterra as a whole.”
It’s not just limited to this collaboration. This is reflected in K’Sante’s base character with mentions of his husband on the gender side and the pride for his homeland on the race side.
The messaging and theming came from inside Riot, as developers with lived experience shared their strong voices with the team working on the Pride of Nazumah directly. Narrative lead Michael Luo circled it all back to that one adjective though: Pride.
“There’s a central theme of pride that came up, and it’s in all senses of that word,” he said. “Both being proud of being from your homeland and your heritage, being proud of being gay and black, being proud in K’Sante’s case of being the greatest at what you do — being an athlete.
“But pride can turn into arrogance and stubbornness and add those complexities and flaws into someone’s personality. Their greatest strength can become their greatest weakness.
“From there, K’Sante’s story kind of came to light in how he’s always straddling this line of wanting to be proud of everything he is and everything he can do, and sometimes that does become a hurdle to cross.
“The entire development process, I was super grateful to speak and learn from people with those lived experiences and try my best to be a student and incorporate that authentic representation as best as we could. For K’Sante, I like to think we did our best due diligence in incorporating those details and the nuances of that identity.”
Commercially, there was a lot that went into Lil Nas X’s collaboration with Riot on this skin. It’s the first proper in-game product, and while others like Porter Robinson have had an artist collaboration on out-of-game content, this is a permanent fixture now.
This is something the developer is keeping in mind moving forward. They want to explore more of these partnerships, tying Runeterra in with pop culture and prominent figures. But it has to be authentic, and not come at the expense of player experience.
“The primary goal of our product partnerships is to reach beyond the realm of the game and meet players where they are outside of Summoner’s Rift and craft authentic and immersive moments to enrich the player experience,” Randby stated.
“Prestige Empyrean K’Sante is still very much his own character, and we want to make sure we preserve the core of his narrative and personality while incorporating the creative inspirations the partnership allowed us to evoke.”
This collaboration is more than that though. It’s a small step towards continuing to explore diversity in League of Legends’ roster. It’s about giving all players a champion to look up to, an inspiration within Runeterra.
A strong black queer champion like K’Sante does that, and it’s done in an honest and authentic way. But there’s still a long road ahead to make League of Legends reflective of his diverse player base and give everyone an idol to rally behind, no matter their identity.
“We’ve come a long way but we still have farther and farther to go,” Luo continued. “In no way does one character make up for a lot of the years of D&I work we have to do.
“We are always considering diversity and inclusion in all aspects of creative content we put forward, whether it be in a champion or story or re-examining past champions and what we can do better.
“One champion can’t represent everyone, but we hope this is a worthy effort to push Riot forward in terms of diversity and inclusion in League of Legends.”