For the first time, Riot Games employees were allowed to bake a champion’s sexuality and race into his story and gameplay details right from the start. K’Sante is a West African-inspired tank who comes with unique devastating powers that help him target foes effectively. Riot employees told The Washington Post that they designed him to be an anti-imperialist monster hunter who is very prideful.
Owned by Chinese conglomerate Tencent, Riot has been reshaping its internal policies on diversity and inclusion as it seeks to grow its already notable position in the video game and entertainment industry. The studio has been entertaining ambitions for a whole franchise universe: “Arcane,” its Netflix TV series set in the world of “League of Legends,” launched last November, to immediate success. Riot has also bolstered its game offerings beyond its flagship, “League of Legends,” publishing the first-person shooter title “Valorant” and card game “Legends of Runeterra.”
K’Sante marks an evolution in “League’s” approach to characters’ race and sexuality. Previously, Riot often included a tidbit confirming a champion’s sexuality in out-of-game lore, or coyly worked it in in some regions’ version of the game and not others’. “Arcane’s” main characters seem to be queer, but their sexualities haven’t been explicitly confirmed.
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“League’s” most famous and instantly recognizable champions include Garen, a White knight, and marksmen like Ashe and Miss Fortune, who also appear to be Caucasian. Riot senior game designer Buike Ndefo-Dahl pointed out, first in a blog post and then in an interview with The Washington Post, that before K’Sante, there was no Black character who is the equivalent of a Garen in “League”: someone who is simply allowed to exist.
“Some people might say, Garen’s boring, but as a Black man, I’m like, ‘When do I get a character like Garen? When am I allowed to be boring instead of having to be exceptional?’ ” Ndefo-Dahl said. “I had always felt that the Black characters in our game shared a problem that also tends to be pretty common across most media, which is that they’re defined by their struggle or defined in opposition to their oppressor … A lot of people won’t notice this because you really have to interrogate the culture as a whole.”
The concept behind K’Sante wasn’t determined by any one person. But once Riot developers received the instructions to create an African-inspired top laner, they started riffing off that and consulting diversity and inclusion focus groups to build out K’Sante’s backstory.
“My ancestors built Nazumah. No God, king, or beast could conquer them, and none will conquer me,” reads a K’Sante quote from “League’s” website.
The team also took pains to tell K’Sante’s love story with his ex, an archer named Tope who used to hunt with him, and to depict a healthy breakup that ended in friendship.
“We definitely wanted to make sure there was a real, romantic relationship,” said K’Sante lead narrative writer Michael Luo. “To me, I always felt like romantic relationships are where both your best self and your worst self come out because it’s such an intimate relationship between two people and all your vulnerabilities show … I wanted to make sure that Tope didn’t just exist as an idea, that we could depict him in a story, visually and although he’s not a playable character, I wanted us to be able to do as much as we could to show that these two people existed in time and had a meaningful relationship.”
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Like a lot of top laners, K’Sante is fairly tanky; his character’s lore says he’s 6 feet 7 and 250 lbs. But not a whole lot of tanks in the game are encouraged to rush toward the enemy alone.
K’Sante is not an easy champion to learn. His kit involves plenty of smashing, popping enemies up and kicking them through walls — but the skills have to be timed carefully around cool-downs. And while K’Sante’s ultimate skill was inspired by the anime Naruto, in which the character Rock Lee drops his leg weights and powers up, the game had to be balanced so that K’Sante wasn’t all-powerful. When K’Sante goes all out, he loses part of his health pool and armor, making him easier to kill.
Ndefo-Dahl noted that many tanks in “League” play in a self-sacrificing way, either spending time in a side lane, split-pushing, hoping to knock some towers down for the team or soaking up the damage in the front lines of a teamfight. They’re usually not the ones racking up all the kills on the team and claiming all the glory.
“We didn’t have a tank that was just like, ‘Screw it, I’m gonna get it done myself,’ and reclaim that agency,” Ndefo-Dahl said.
K’Sante could, once implemented into professional play next season, lead to more interesting games, too, as his lowered health means shorter — and perhaps dirtier — teamfights.
“League of Legends” fans have so far been receptive to the new champion, who was revealed earlier in October and released Thursday. Some expressed mixed feelings about the heavy emphasis on the character’s race and sexuality, but many ultimately felt that it didn’t affect how much they liked his abilities and gameplay style.
Olutope “Aegmox,” a 21-year-old student in Williamstown, New Jersey, who declined to share his last name for privacy reasons, said that before K’Sante was added to the game, there were no Black champions in the top lane position. He said that he felt that the “League” community could be racist (the player base is widely known to be very toxic) and he was wary of their reactions if too much emphasis was placed on K’Sante’s race, rather than just his abilities as a champion. He liked the nods to K’Sante’s Ghanaian heritage, which he said he could relate to because he is Nigerian.
“He is literally just like me, a Black West African male. I’m just not gay,” Olutope said, adding that he liked K’Sante’s abilities, too. “I feel like African Americans have the lowest player count in ‘League.’ So I think the addition of some more Black characters like K’Sante could make them feel like they have an identity.”
Lazare Armi, a 31-year-old archaeologist in Paris, said K’Sante’s clothes, style and food as depicted in his lore reminded him of his father’s south Moroccan heritage and vacations to the Sahara, and it helped him feel close to the character. Still, he expressed suspicion over K’Sante’s race and sexuality being so heavily emphasized in Riot’s promotional materials.
“He’s the first being put in that position. And I don’t know if they made him for marketing purposes or for good reasons,” Armi said.
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K’Sante’s launch was complicated by some of Riot’s marketing efforts. Lil Nas X is this year’s “League of Legends” World Championship performer, after the annual esports event “hosted” a group of virtual Korean pop stars called K/DA (a group invented by Riot) in years prior. Lil Nas X’s collaboration came with a big marketing rollout: The singer debuted a new theme song, and starred in several advertisements where he pretended to be the so-called president of Riot Games. (He “resigned” from the role Wednesday). The collaboration will also help Riot sell in-game merchandise: Lil Nas X designed a cosmetic skin for K’Sante that will be sold for real money via in-game currency.
The extra marketing gave some Rioters cause for concern. While K/DA in 2018 was an immense success for Riot, generating fan art and interest from even non-“League” players across the internet, similar efforts to add a virtual star to the group in 2020 drew backlash. Fans were upset by seeing the new champion, Seraphine, posting to social media about her cooking; gamers noticed it was a Filipino dish, only to learn later that she was announced to be Chinese. (They viewed the discrepancy as Riot paying lip service to diversity). They were further upset by her tweeting about her mental health, which they felt trivialized the subject.
Luo, the narrative writer, said that their work was presented to Lil Nas X late in the champion’s development and that all the marketing was added on at the end. Luo has been nervous to see gamers’ reactions.
“I didn’t quite know if we wanted to put a spotlight on K’Sante, and then when it just happened, it was pretty nerve-racking,” Luo recalled.
“People are gonna think we just tried to put [Lil Nas X] in the game,” Ndefo-Dahl recalled of his reaction when he learned Lil Nas X would be involved.
Regarding fans wondering about K’Sante being a marketing ploy to sell cosmetics, Ndefo-Dahl insisted the character was created from a place of authenticity. He said that if Riot wanted to sell skins, making a champion who appealed to the majority would be more effective and that “it’s so much harder to make a character [whose] sexuality is outlawed in multiple regions we operate in.”
“I am Black and gay. I wanted to see a character like me in a video game for so long,” Ndfeo-Dahl said.