Following NEOM controversy, Riot Games to establish global deals council and ethics committee

Provided by Riot Games

Riot Games will establish a global deals council and an ethics committee following internal and external controversy around a partnership it previously struck with NEOM, a Saudi Arabian state-backed city development, the company told employees on a company-wide call Thursday.

The establishment of the global deals council will come with a new internal deal tracker that will provide company-wide transparency for all business development and sponsorship deals occurring in Riot's global operation. The council will feature representatives from the Global Esports team, Riot's social impact division Karma, and its legal and diversity and inclusion teams. The council will answer to Riot senior vice president Mark Sottosanti and head of corporate and business development Brian Cho.

More: Dallas Fuel release HarryHook due to player misconduct | How It's Made: Assembling the Sentinels' VALORANT roster | Battle Royale with Arda Ocal: How companies are trying to catch cheaters in BR games

"The intent is for all of us to have a voice to raise a flag and for that to be followed through on," Riot president Dylan Jadeja told employees on the call. "That team, that department, will also be responsible for formalizing and reinforcing the deal evaluation framework."

The separate ethics committee comes after the company consulted with its board of directors and outside advisors. Jadeja told employees that the committee will be involved in evaluating deals, discussing company direction and philosophy, and evaluating relationships the company holds with global partners, including countries in which it operates.

"We're not going to comment on specifics of an internal conversation," Riot spokesperson Joe Hixson said in a statement Thursday. "We're in the process of reevaluating our internal processes to make sure nothing like this happens again."

On July 29, Riot's League of Legends European Championship division announced a partnership with NEOM, a $500 billion futuristic city development in the Middle East, backed by Saudi Arabia and overseen by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.

Within hours, commentators for that broadcast and other employees of Riot threatened to boycott last week's broadcast until the deal was canceled, citing concerns about Saudi Arabia's treatment of gay and transgender people. In Saudi Arabia, which follows Sharia Islamic law, it is illegal to be gay or transgender. Punishment has included fines, public whipping, castration and various forms of imprisonment, according to a report from The Guardian. Riot canceled the NEOM deal 16 hours after it was announced.

On Thursday's call, Riot CEO Nicolo Laurent and members of his executive team apologized for breakdowns in communication and process that led to many Rioters across the globe feeling upset and unheard. Laurent also restated his desire to push Riot's presence everywhere across the globe, including in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, and outlined the process in which the NEOM deal was constructed.

Laurent also discussed the importance of Riot working with government entities, citing its relationship with the Chinese government as a core reason that it will be able to hold the 2020 League of Legends World Championship in October in a bubble, akin to the NBA and NHL, in Shanghai, despite the coronavirus pandemic.

A potential deal between NEOM and Riot was brought forward by Lagardère Sports and Entertainment, the French agency responsible for League European Championship sponsorship and sales. From there, the internal European, Middle East and African business development team for Riot evaluated the deal and pushed forward.

In that process, a visibility email was sent to Laurent and several executives, but none of them approved or disapproved, leading the business development team responsible to believe it was OK to proceed. In the call, Laurent outlined that the Global Esports team -- led by department lead Jon Needham in Los Angeles -- did not have veto power over the decision, something Riot hopes to mend by the establishment of its new deals council.

Employees and commentators of the League European Championship were notified less than 24 hours prior to the announcement of the NEOM deal. When announced, nearly the entire cast -- including veterans Trevor "Quickshot" Henry and Eefje "Sjokz" Depoortere and analyst Indiana "Froskurinn" Black, who is gay -- spoke up against the deal on social media, stating they felt both disappointed and betrayed.

"This is disappointing because this is the LEC," Froskurinn wrote on Twitter. "It's my team, my product, my managers, my office. My family. My home. This isn't someone far away in HQ that I don't know. This is devastating because I know who made these choices and I feel silenced."

On the Thursday call, Laurent, chief diversity officer Angela Roseboro and chief people officer Emily Winkle spoke to internal sentiment that echoed the feelings of the more outspoken cast. Last week, Riot held a number of question-and-answer sessions the day the deal was announced, as well as an Unplugged session with leadership the day after it was canceled. Laurent said that the executive team had come unprepared to last week's Unplugged session, which left many Rioters disappointed.

Roseboro and Winkle spoke at length about being able to learn from these moments and ensuring that all voices within Riot will be heard. Winkle and Roseboro were both recruited to Riot at the end of 2018 and beginning of 2019 following a Kotaku report that publicly exposed an internal culture at Riot of misogyny and inappropriate behavior toward employees. Winkle previously worked at Caruso, a real estate firm, as well as Caesars Entertainment and Activision Blizzard. Roseboro worked at Dropbox for more than a year on diversity and inclusion, a role she is now responsible for at Riot.