Earlier this week, Riot’s CEO sent an e-mail to employees describing the punishment its COO, Scott Gelb, will face after multiple employees alleged that, as a comedy bit, he has repeatedly touched subordinates’ balls or butt or farted in their faces. Several employees tell Kotaku that his punishment—two months of unpaid leave and training—is far from satisfactory.
An eight-month Kotaku investigation, informed by interviews with dozens of current and former employees, revealed that Riot Games has fostered a culture of sexism. The company, which is 80 percent male and has 2,500 employees, has an alleged history of passing up qualified women for promotions, holding female job candidates to a higher standard and perpetuating a “bro culture” of bathroom humor and alleged sexual misconduct.
Throughout Kotaku’s interviews, one name kept cropping up: Scott Gelb, Riot Games’ COO, whom current and former employees allege participated in “ball-tapping” (flicking or slapping testicles), farting on employees or humping them for comedic effect. “It just became so normal,” said one employee who witnessed Gelb’s behavior. Another added, “The ball grabbing and things like that—that was absolutely well known across the board.” Other former employees who witnessed this believed that this style of bro comedy trickled down into the company’s lower ranks, where employees comfortably settled into a fraternity mindset that has, sources say, disadvantaged women.
In response to Kotaku’s investigation, Riot put out several statements reaffirming its mission to set right the company’s reported wrongs. In an August blog post, Riot wrote, “We are prepared to make big changes and have begun taking action against specific cases, including removal of Rioters, though we aren’t likely to get into those details publicly on a case-by-case basis for legal and privacy reasons,” adding, “No one and nothing is sacred.” Riot has also made adjustments to its leadership that, in theory, should help make diversity a focus. As of September, Gelb remained at the company while other employees whom sources allege also participated in Riot Games’ so-called “bro culture” had left. You can read all about that here.
Kotaku learned this week that Riot did in fact investigate Gelb. In an e-mail sent on Monday to Riot employees, CEO Nicolo Laurent explained that, after an investigation led by law firm Seyfarth Shaw and overseen by a special committee from its Board of Directors, Gelb will remain at the company. He will, however, be put on two-month unpaid leave and receive training. Laurent explained in the e-mail:
“As I have mentioned, we are committed to protecting Rioters’ privacy and the integrity of the investigation process. This means that you will not hear me or any other leader discuss individual cases.
“Having said that, we made a very rare exception in the case of our COO, Scott Gelb. There are factors that collectively drive this exception. The Special Committee of the Board of Directors has specifically requested that one of Scott’s consequences be highly visible. Scott holds one of the most senior roles at Riot and is held to a higher level of accountability and visibility, therefore certain consequences are going to be very visible to Rioters. It’s for these reasons I feel it’s necessary to make an exception.”
Before detailing Gelb’s punishment, Laurent said that “Many of the rumors circulating about Scott within the company, in the media and other channels, are not true.” Kotaku has not received any corrections from Riot regarding our continued reporting, and when we asked Riot specifically what claims were “untrue,” a representative declined to comment further. Later in the e-mail, Laurent went on to say that “There were claims made about Scott engaging in inappropriate and unprofessional behavior, particularly during the early days of Riot. And some of these claims were, in fact, substantiated. The conduct alleged in these claims is not acceptable.”
Laurent concluded: “Scott could have avoided owning his past and his consequences. He could have left Riot. Scott chose ownership and redemption. I will root for him, will support him through this journey, and will leverage him as a great leader when he returns next year. I hope you will join me.”
Several current Riot employees interviewed by Kotaku are furious about Riot’s response to its COO’s conduct. “I think it’s pretty telling that Riot’s commitment to changing their culture only goes as far as firing people who aren’t already insulated from the repercussions of that culture,” said one, who is anonymous for fear of repercussions. “For Riot leadership, protecting their awful friends matters more than protecting their vulnerable employees. And that isn’t going to change unless the workers do something about it directly.” One other current employee described the two-month unpaid leave and training as “a tiny slap on the wrist. . . I think this is also not respectful towards people that were hurt or offended by his behavior.”
Another current employee, who believes that Gelb should be “demoted or outright fired,” told Kotaku that unpaid leave may barely feel like punishment to somebody who likely made loads of money off his early involvement in Riot. On top of that, she added, “This person is in charge of a lot of people and it’s clear that he has giant lapses in judgment. . . I would say across the board it’s pretty unsatisfying.”
Riot Games’ apparently dogged quest to dig into its roots to remove or mend the sources of its employees’ discriminatory behavior has, in instances like this, hit some rocks.