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Interview: Creating K’Sante and Letting His Prestige Shine On

K'Sante's Empyrean skin, in collaboration with Lil Nas X.

The world of League of Legends is something I’ve never really dabbled in, personally. I’m not big on MMOs, in large part because most of my friends aren’t big on them, and they tend to be more fun in groups. So when I took on an assignment related to Lil Nas X’s collaboration with League, both for Worlds and for a prestige skin for their newest playable character, K’Sante, I mostly did it for the love of Nas.

What came of this was a series of wondrously insightful conversations with various team players within LoL developer and publisher Riot Games, who reached out to me to discuss their roles within the company and their involvement with K’Sante. I truly did walk away from these interviews feeling their passion for games and better representation within them, and while I validate the concerns others may have regarding the company itself and its issues with gender discrimination, I do believe this team put their entire hearts in this project and made something beautiful from it.

In conversation with Drew Jackson and Thomas Randby

When K’Sante, the most recent League of Legends champion, was in development, developers wanted to ensure that they avoided letting him fall into two tropes: a typical “strong, traumatized Black man” in games, or an example of the “bury your gays” trope. K’Sante was therefore the product of much deliberation and collaboration, which heavily involved the input of Drew Jackson, a prominent member of Riot Noir.

Having roots in West Africa, Jackson was consulted quite often on various aspects of his background and upbringing that ended up being part of K’Sante, too. He reminisced on how fun it was, sharing these meaningful details with the team. Even when there were things that needed to be changed—such as crafting more realistic Black hair, with a variance of styles (Jackson humorously added that there must be a barber in Nazumah)—he said he received support and that there were frequent “sensitivity checks” to ensure that, on Jackson’s and his Riot Noir peers’ ends, things felt copacetic regarding K’Sante’s development.

On the opposite side of the design process was Thomas Randby, the lead concept artist for K’Sante’s Lil Nas X prestige skin, who worked tirelessly to create a K’Sante that matched Nas’ aesthetics while also staying close to K’Sante’s essence: that of a queer Black man whose story doesn’t hinge on trauma, but instead is built on pride. Randby is currently Riot’s lead skins concept artist, and I think that bodes especially well for the company’s design process moving forward.

Not only was his passion supremely evident throughout our entire conversation, but so too was his sense of self-awareness and candor. He cited very specific concerns, such as making sure nobody speaks over each other during meetings or exhibits other micro-aggressions, that I was impressed and heartened to hear. More than that, I could tell that this wasn’t just a job for him. His ultimate end goal (beyond the fun of designing games) is to help people see themselves in games, and find a home in them.

Ultimately, learning about this process from these men was an utter delight. They truly put their whole hearts into what they do, with the sort of nerdy candor one would hope to see in a team of creatives. It was clear that Thomas put a lot of thought and care into every outfit he designed, especially the redesign of Caitlyn, and Drew’s pride over his first major project—the launching of Runeterra on mobile—was so infectious that it made me proud of him, too.

For the love of inclusion in gaming

The last person I spoke to—the person who helped make this collaboration possible—was Riot’s newest diversity and inclusion director, Patty Dingle. Dingle has worked in various corporations as a driver of diversity initiatives for 20 years, almost her entire career, and it shows. Her knowledge of how corporate structures work, and similarly how to work with them, was masterful and incredibly insightful. Moreover, she came from a place of knowledge and wisdom, being a woman of color in the Bay Area throughout it all. We had an incredibly electric conversation about the racial structures at play in the modern workforce, one that had me feeling hopeful about the state of the industry, as opposed to my usual malaise.

Of course, I don’t know how Riot works on the ground myself, and it’s therefore not my place to definitively make any statements about its current state. But it does seem like the structures currently being built upon (via “Riot Inclusion Groups,” AKA RIGs, and other corporate initiatives) could hopefully make League, as a whole, more of a welcoming place, both inside and out.

I know it’s so easy to make fun of gamers and “gaming culture.” Some of that mockery is merited when the “culture” becomes toxic and unlivable for 90% of its participants. But ultimately, I really appreciate what these Rioters are trying to foster, which is a more welcoming environment for all of its people. And with that welcoming attitude comes encouragement for excitement, inspiration, and of course, passion.

And boy, Nas really did bring the passion to Worlds. Patty went to see him perform, and her experience was this:

Living in the Bay Area and attending Warriors games regularly at the Chase Center I was pretty familiar with the venue. I didn’t know what to expect when walking into the arena that day because I’m so used to seeing it a certain way. When I walked in I truly didn’t even recognize where I was. Between the stage, production, lights, sound, and the noise of that crowd it really clicked for me how big of a deal this is for players. I thought I knew fandom before this but this fandom was like level 1000. 

It was also really fun to be sitting in the stands with players and hear what they were talking about. I’m still new to League so talking with them, hearing them explain about the teams and what was going on in each match really allowed me to learn in real-time. I got to ask them questions, figure out who they were rooting for and why, learn where they were from, what brought them here etc.

Once that countdown clock began to kick off the night it was truly an out of body experience. I really want to give a shout out to the esports team for producing something that was just off the charts phenomenal. Even if you didn’t play League you would have been impressed by the experience they provided to everyone in that arena. 

When I asked Patty why esports was becoming such a major focus for the company, her answer echoed something Drew had mentioned earlier. Growing up, Drew was drawn to video games because he had to move around a lot, and games were a way of connecting him with friends he left behind, and beyond. Similarly, Patty believes that esports are becoming a new way of connecting people: both with video games, and through them.

Through esports, she has hopes that more people will be able to see themselves in gaming. Whereas once it felt like a boys club, I have to say, visibility has definitely helped me, at the very least, feel more comfortable “admitting” that gaming is a hobby of mine, and even regarding the single-person experience, Riot is finding new ways of connecting all kinds of people to games and beyond. Thomas still fondly remembers meeting a Caitlyn cosplayer who’d never even played League. She just connected strongly with the character.

Now, Riot’s even going the extra mile by implementing extra initiatives to help make League, and online gaming as a whole, less toxic. It’s a research project titled “Zero Harms In Comms,” and considering so many games are off-putting for their comms alone, this seems like such a massively intentional undertaking.

There really is no telling which way any of these initiatives will go, and like I said earlier, to definitively make a statement about the company as a whole and whether its sexism issues have improved would be somewhat reckless. But I truly did get a lot out of speaking with these employees, and I’d like to think they can see their goals through and then some. At the very least, K’Sante is badass, and his Nas prestige skin is utterly gorgeous. More designs like this, please and thank you.

(featured image: Riot Games)

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Madeline (she/her) is a writer, dog mom, and casual insomniac. Her prior experiences with media have taken her down many different roads, from local history podcasts to music coverage & production. Niche interests include folk music, elves/wizards, and why horses are cool actually.