How Riot Makes Their Black Characters

How Riot Makes Their Black Characters

(And how they learned to make them better.)

On October 15, 2019, I was one of at least a dozen journalists hunched around a foggy cell phone screen on the back patio of a Berlin nightclub. Our table was slippery from the rain, but that didn’t stop people from crowding around to cheer as the countdown for Riot Games’ 10-Year Anniversary Celebration video premiere reached single digits.

In that 40-minute video, Riot announced games like VALORANT, Legends of Runeterra, and Wild Rift, and teased ARCANE for the first time. But for me, and everyone at that table, none of that news was as hype as the cinematic reveal of League’s first Black woman champion, Senna.

I’ll never forget the moment the trailer settled on her face at the end of the clip. The whole place erupted chanting “SENNA! SENNA!” for so long we missed most of the next announcement. As the only Black person there, I was finally getting something I’d been owed for a long time. But as touched – and admittedly a bit surprised – as I was by everyone’s reactions, I also found myself thinking, “what took so long?”

Senna, The Redeemer

Concept art and sketches for Senna. She was almost Kalista-adjacent!

Before Senna’s release, League only had three Black characters: Lucian (2013), Ekko (2015), and Pyke (2018). (Be honest: did you even know Pyke was Black?) The game’s lack of Black representation had long been a massive elephant in the room, especially for Black fans who’d played League since day one. Of course it was weird that in a world flush with fantastical warriors, mythical beings, and eldritch monsters, only three characters out of 145 were Black.

According to Riot’s Lead Designer for League of Legends, August Browning, Senna’s design team was painfully aware of the game’s inadequate representation.

“From my perspective, it was a BIG DEAL that she was League's first Black woman,” said Browning. “We definitely wanted to make sure we were meeting players' expectations on such a long talked-about character.”

Senna’s release was significant not only for adding to the paltry list of Black faces present in League’s roster, but also for her role in Lucian’s lore as the wife he’d set out to rescue from imprisonment in Thresh’s lantern.

“We had to ensure we did her justice in terms of representation  — concept, personality, visuals, gameplay feel — and make her an actualized character with agency, and not just ‘Lucian’s wife’ or ‘the lady Thresh trapped in the lantern,’” Browning added. “[She] and Lucian needed to be able to stand together and stand alone.”

Black representation in games isn’t solely about checking boxes or increasing headcount, but since Senna’s release, Riot has introduced two other Black champions to League in Rell (2020) and K’Sante (2022). Six Black characters total out of 170 isn’t the most impressive number, but it’s better than three.

Riot’s insights on Rell’s design tell us more about her gameplay than her identity as a Black girl, which is a shame, because her metal-bending mounted lancer concept goes hard. Luckily, that trend wouldn’t carry over to the next Black champion release. Riot’s article on K’Sante’s development illuminates us as to how the time between his and Rell’s was meaningfully spent by the design team, ensuring the new champ’s blackness was more than just another box checked.

Incorporating Black Voices into League of Legends

Concept art of K'Sante.

“We had another goal when we started K’Sante, and that was to create a champion inspired by Ghana,” said Riot Game Designer Buike Ndefo-Dahl. “A good part of my family is from Nigeria, we’re neighbors and occasional rivals of Ghana. And so I talked to my mother about Ghanaian fashion designers, photographers, and general inspiration.”

K’Sante was born from a collaboration between Riot Champion Designers and members of Riot’s Black employee resource group, Riot Noir. He’s a gay Black man, and these identities are central to his character.

We learn in K’Sante’s backstory that his partner, a marksman named Tope, provided strategies to help him defeat the malignant cobra-lion terrorizing their people and return to Nazumah a hero. The heavy West African influence present in both his design and the fictional city of Nazumah is immediately familiar to Black people who know the vibrant patterns of Kente and Ankara textiles.

Art of Tope. A clear marksman. Maybe even a candidate for League's sixth Black champion. Who knows?

“We worked really closely with the Riot Noir RIG [Rioter Inclusion Group] and they told us how important oral storytelling and folklore are in African culture,” said Riot Narrative Writer Michael Luo. “K’Sante had grown up hearing about these amazing stories and tales of his great-great-great-great-great uncle who fought against the Ascended, or how his father defeated some amazing monster and crafted his weapon. These stories are so ingrained into Nazuman culture that they’re built into the city and part of the people. They’re part of what drives K’Sante to become the pride of Nazumah.”

K’Sante stands out among League’s Black champions because Riot doesn’t shy away from his blackness and queerness. This level of unabashed authenticity and depth isn’t the norm in most mainstream games – League of Legends included – when it comes to Black characters. Let’s go back to the example of Pyke.

Pyke's splash art.

Between the green hues obscuring his complexion, the mask covering his face, and the ragged cloak-tunic-thing (complete with sharktooth pauldrons), it’s impossible to know for sure that he’s Black without Riot telling us. It’s clear that fixing this was prioritized in K’Sante’s development, and that included listening to the lived experiences of others who identify similarly.

“People exist with multiple dimensions,” said Luo. “For K’Sante, we wanted to show that reality. Authentic representation is difficult, but always worth trying because we have players from all over the world who we want to be seen and represented. I don’t believe one character can speak for everyone who identifies as Black and queer, but I do hope that K’Sante showed what is possible and what can still be improved.”

Today, K’Sante is one of League’s most unapologetically Black characters, and one of the champions at the center of the game’s marketing and meta. He even has a starring role in community memes. In 2022, Black queer artist Lil Nas X collaborated with Riot on the Prestige Empyrean K’Sante skin. At the end of 2023, K’Sante debuted in League’s newest music group HEARTSTEEL, along with four other popular champions. Riot Narrative Writer River Jaffe even confirmed that HEARTSTEEL K’Sante would probably listen to IRL R&B groups like Boyz II Men and New Edition.


Astra, Valorant's Ghanian agent.

The work to improve Black representation in a game as old as League is never finished, and 14 years in, there’s plenty of lost ground to make up. VALORANT’s release in 2020 provided Riot a clean slate, and entirely new universe, to invest in that work sooner rather than later.

VALORANT is Riot’s first game to have a playable Black character – Phoenix – on the day of its release. Less than a full year after that, Astra, a Black woman, was added to the roster as well. With a world much more similar to our own than League, VALORANT Narrative Lead David Nottingham stressed how important it was to share culturally diverse stories from the jump.

“As a global game, something we really take to heart is for players from across the globe to sense the authenticity of our agents as complex characters with unique personas, style and values,” said Nottingham. “A ton of conversations, research, and trust happen across our teams to bring our agents to life, and in doing so, we strive to avoid creating generic or superficial character archetypes.”

During the agent development process, the team finds different ways to immerse themselves in the essence of a place, people, and culture. This includes conversations with regional consultants and Rioters with similar cultural experiences and perspectives to learn about everything ranging from food to fashion to socio-politics.

“Our goal for every agent is to stay as authentic as possible to the cultures they represent, while also allowing players around the world to resonate with them,” said Nottingham.

Phoenix’s roots in culturally diverse London — specifically Peckham, a district with a majority Black population — are a huge part of his story. VALORANT Agents Lead John Goscicki explained how casting Afolabi Alli, a Black actor native to London, significantly impacted the direction Riot took with Phoenix’s character.

“Voice actors play a critical role in helping us with authenticity and accuracy,” said Goscicki. “When we got the auditions back for Phoenix, we heard Afolabi Alli and we thought, this is the dude. So we looked into where he’s from and tailored Phoenix’s backstory more around that area instead of trying to cast for that particular thing. We try to leave the hyper-specific stuff fuzzy until we cast the actor.”

Goscicki shared that for Astra, a Ghanaian agent seeping with Afro-Futuristic design influences, the team had to be more intentional when it came to showcasing the real-world inspo behind her thematic.

“It was about making sure there was enough of a real world grounded element to her personality and character design,” said Goscicki. “We worked with a consultant from Ghana on the details. At its core, VALORANT is meant for everyone. Through a deep exploration of cultural nuances, we celebrate the representation of different cultures in our agents that we hope players around the world are able to resonate with.”

Goscicki’s insight paints a clear picture of Riot’s long and rocky journey regarding earnest cultural representation in its games. No, the investment wasn’t always there, and that fact is painfully obvious to the Rioters doing the work to rectify that today. But those Rioters are there, doing that work.

The Riot Noir crew - AKA, many of the people doing the work. Photo courtesy of Riot Games / Afrotech 2023.

There’s More to Be Done, and That’s Okay

Riot’s approach to representing Black folks across titles has been a slow one. Games like League and VALORANT have a long way to go, though the latter has had a much better start. In its 14 year history, League has released more champions from the Void – that world’s version of an extraterrestrial abyss blighted by hideous monsters – than it has Black people. But that’s also why the Black characters that do exist in those games are so important.

Black representation in games isn’t truly about the numbers, though. It’s about real Black people on the other side of the screen who deserve to see themselves in the games they love. They are players, artists, cosplayers, content creators, musicians, athletes, loyal friends, and loving partners — a diversity that should be reflected in their games, too.

Thinking about this disparity used to make me angry. A few years ago, I was one of a handful of Black games journalists, and the only one covering the League of Legends beat full-time. I’ve published critiques on the lack of Black folks on official LoL Esports broadcasts, or the staggeringly low number of Black players competing at the highest level (today it’s less than three). Those of us who’ve played League since before its first Black champion release (Lucian) remember seeing a sudden increase in the use of racial slurs from teammates or opponents if he was in the game. I wanted something to change, not as an indictment of Riot, but because League is my favorite game and I wanted others like me to feel welcome enough to experience why I loved it so much.

Maybe I’ve gotten used to it, but to be honest, I don’t harbor much anger or resentment towards Riot or any other game developer for doing less than they could. I don’t even like discussing it that much. Instead, I think about how many Black people with a burning passion for their favorite games work behind the scenes to communicate to Black players. I also think about how many Black cosplayers hollered in excitement and disbelief when Riot first dropped the (dope) TRUE DAMAGE skins for Ekko and Senna that made them look even cooler than they did in the animated music video.

If I could add more Black characters to League with the snap of my fingers, I would. But as long as I don’t have that power, I’d rather focus on the times the games we love do get it right, and the joy that’s spread as a result.

I’ll never forget the mixed emotions I felt watching Senna’s champion reveal for the first time. I was tired and bitter, but every time I reflect on that memory I mostly remember feeling happy.  I hope more Black gamers get to feel that way, too.

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