Riot’s 2021 Pride Icons, the Legacy of Pride, and LGBTQIA+ Representation in Esports

by in General | Jun, 16th 2021

The recent announcement by Riot Games that they would be celebrating Pride across their various titles with in-game content and out-of-game donations has me thinking about how they and other esports companies have celebrated Pride or hidden it. With the world still stuck in the past – preventing gay people from marrying each other, telling them they’re going to Hell for who they love, or just generally being awful to anyone who is not cisgender and heterosexual – we have a lot of work left to do before we reach equality. And that’s just between cishet people and people who fit under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella. Humanity has too long lived under the boot of hierarchy. I’m trying my best to change that. And, yes, this article has already gotten political.

Representation of queer people in esports, video games, or the media, in general, is the bare minimum. Donations to LGBTQIA+ organizations, celebrating queer people in their payrolls, and taking stands against nations and people who would pretend that queer identities are sinful, immoral, or both are far more important. Very few companies in or out of esports have ever done so. So-called “Rainbow Capitalism” has become pervasive, with most conglomerates only showing support for Pride on a surface level and only for one month out of the year. I have various images saved on my computer attesting to that because if I didn’t laugh, I’d cry. 

Anyway, let’s go through the various identities Pride rightly celebrates and then discuss how companies involved with esports, such as Riot Games, have and haven’t shown their Pride, their support for the LGBTQIA+ community. 

Waxing Philosophical for a While

I’m happy for the opportunity to add EsportsTalk to the list of esports companies that have shown Pride through support for the queer community in this segment that at least some of you hopefully find enlightening. It started as a paragraph and became what is effectively a short essay. An understanding of the language people use for sex, gender, and sexuality can help us all. The words under this heading are intended for mature audiences only, though we won’t get too graphic at all. The maturity I’m looking for is not just in age but in the ability to open one’s mind to see and respect the way others live. When the fog of culture clears, when ingrained ignorance is dispelled, I have faith that Pride can shine through, and all can be free to live as they feel within their hearts, so long as it brings no harm to another. To love who you want and live as you want surely brings no harm to anyone. This is not our site’s specific content brand, so I don’t mind if you skip ahead to the next section here. But I can no longer be silent about queer issues on this or other platforms. It’s a subject rather close to my heart if you can’t tell.

The LGBTQIA+ community has long struggled for the right to exist without having to hide. Unfortunately, no one can control their attractions to any significant degree; we can only repress those deemed unacceptable by society. As a queer person who attended Catholic school from preschool through twelfth grade, I can attest to that and to the number of slurs that my peers slung. When we were old enough for teachers to lecture us about it in hushed tones, sex was described as “had” only between a man and a woman and only begrudgingly, in the context of marriage. All other forms of it, and seemingly even enjoying it in one’s marital bed, were sinful and evil and horrible acts that could book you a one-way trip straight to Hell.

Nowadays, I see it as an expression of a deep bond between people, an expression of the ultimate pleasure we can experience on this Earth. Sensual love is not something to be feared but rather embraced. Even a straight person with a low sex drive can take Pride in their expression of it, can lose themselves in pleasure once in a while, or in bringing their partner to that realm of wordless bliss. Nor is sex something truly “had,” a physical possession. It’s a beautiful moment in time, not something you can put on a shelf. Sensual encounters, like all things, are temporary, just one step in our journeys here on Earth, a single yet integral part of the broader organism. 

Sex is the mechanism through which all of us are brought to be; let’s speak frankly and not pretend otherwise. The people responsible for repressing sexuality (mind you, these people are usually high-ranking members of an Abrahamic religion’s clergy) are all themselves the results of sexual bonds. That’s not a reason to pedestalize straight relationships above all others, but rather to realize that sex is part of our birthright, should we find ourselves experiencing mutual physical attraction with another. The time to “Be fruitful and multiply” has long since passed; since we’re on track to there being 10 billion people on this planet, it’s time to “Be reasonable and gently subtract.” If we don’t, we’ll continue to drive the myriad species of this beautiful planet that has graciously supported us with food, water, oxygen, and shelter to extinction. To “gently subtract” means to birth fewer children (note that I don’t think you can “have” them, either) and to foster more acceptance of people who don’t want or can’t birth kids.

Acceptance of the LGBTQIA+ community, with sensual bonds based not on procreation but rather mutual friendship, attraction, and pleasure, is a big stepping stone to a more reasonable world. Bonds between consenting adults that can’t produce children are not only beneficial to the world – they’re essential, even from a biological standpoint. Non-straight people (and other animals) often work as wonderful adoptive parents, and everyone deserves parental love. Widespread acceptance of sexual minorities would also be dangerous to the patriarchal world order because it helps the cause of women being seen as human beings rather than ways for “man” kind to reproduce. 

And even moving beyond those utilitarian arguments, it’s no one else’s affair that arouses anyone unless you’re with them. Unless someone is acting on attractions to partners who cannot consent (like children or animals), it’s not anyone’s place to tell them what to do with those feelings. “You do you and I will too” are good words to live by.

Now, a lot of queer representation in media has been decried as “gay people shoving their agenda down our throats,” but look only to the love interests in an overwhelming majority of books, movies, video games, TV shows, etc. to find the straights shoving heteronormativity down our throats, where just about every romance is between a man and woman. People in the LGBTQIA+ community have also been subject to plenty of “queerbaiting.” 

My condolences to those who have sat through a garbage show or movie to see one scene with a same-gender kiss or whatever. And shows that do feature queer characters to any significant degree often get bombed with negative reviews from hateful and/or ignorant people. I agree that being a member of a minority should not be a character’s entire personality since that’s an extremely shallow representation. Still, it’s time to face the fact that people who are not straight, cis, white, and male share in the fullness of humanity. 

It’s hard to remember that equality is a goal, not everyone shares, now that I’ve surrounded myself with feminists, racial activists, allies, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community. We can be better as a species than we have been. We have to be. Peace, love, and equality seem like goals that no reasonable or feeling person would oppose. 

Now, if you’re wondering why there are so many darn letters after the T in the acronym I keep using, I get it. It’s not something most people have to think about, and things are much simpler if everyone’s either gay or straight, man or woman. Of course, lesbians and gay men are keystones of Pride, people who have worked tirelessly to secure queer spaces – public and more often private – for millennia. For those of you lucky enough not to have to worry about sex, gender, or sexuality, pieces like this can be a confusing barrage of jargon and acronyms. But, let’s face a set of simple truths: Trans and generally gender non-conforming people exist and have existed for longer than anyone can remember. So do bisexual people, as do people who find that label inadequate to describing their sexuality for one reason or another, usually relating to the prefix bi– meaning “two.” Of course, bi people are valid. This is a matter of personal preference.

Personal preference is why some people who experience attraction regardless of gender (like my wonderful partner) would rather describe themselves as pansexual, from the Greek root pan– meaning “all.” There are also those of us non-straight people for whom sexuality is fluid and strange enough for L, G, B, and all the other terms related to B to be inadequate, so we call ourselves just “queer.” This label was once a slur but has been gladly reclaimed by people who are now proud to wear it. This post featuring art by jollyjoules (and several of the Pride flags Riot are introducing to Valorant, which we’ll discuss in a bit) speaks volumes, and I’ve included that specific link because it has comments that warm this queer heart. 

The word “queer” can also function as a catch-all term for anyone who isn’t straight, the way “cisgender” denotes anyone who isn’t trans/nonbinary. I usually denote the generalized version of the word “queer” with a lowercase q rather than the uppercase for the specific sexual label. The “Q” in the acronym has also been unabbreviated as “Questioning:” People who are just starting to question their sexuality are certainly welcome in the community. Sexuality isn’t fluid for everyone, but almost certainly is for more than would care to admit it.

The acronym is a big ol’ umbrella that tries to cover all people who aren’t cisgender or heterosexual, in one way or another. Huddled together like penguins sharing warmth and protecting the most vulnerable among us, we try to spread love, make the language more accurate, and fight for equal rights.

Language is constantly evolving – people have always experienced attraction to people of various sexes and gender identities and found themselves struggling against gender norms; we’re just giving names to those attractions and identities. We must also acknowledge that fixing our cultural relationships with sex, gender, and sexuality are only parts of the broader path to equality for all. I believe that women must be emancipated across the world, racial equality achieved, and the “classes” equalized before there can be true justice or peace on Earth. “No justice, no peace; know justice, know peace.”

I’ve talked before on here about the power of the naming of language, and Pride is an excellent example of this. Pride began as a struggle, not a parade. To give a grossly oversimplified history of it, I also recommend googling the Stonewall Riots of June 1969, in which Marsha P. (“Pay It No Mind”) Johnson, a black transgender woman, was among the first to throw bricks and/or shot glasses at the NYPD when the latter raided the Stonewall Inn gay bar. 

The police were attempting to enforce laws against soliciting gay sex and requiring at least three articles of “gender-appropriate” clothing in New York City. From this absurd overreach of power and breach of freedom came the Stonewall Riots and later Pride, a global movement demanding equality for those of marginalized sexualities and gender identities. Johnson and her fellow trans people involved in the Riots fought for their credit within the sparking moment as well as for the movement itself. Nowadays, to have Pride with a capital “P” is to embrace one’s queerness unapologetically. To be yourself in public is a privilege that ought to extend to just about everybody.

The “A” before the “+” that stands in for everyone else under the big umbrella can stand for Allies (though I’d argue that the straights shouldn’t be all that offended that we have our communities) or Asexual, people who experience very little (if any) sexual attraction. Some aromantic people are by and large not at all interested in forming romantic bonds with anyone. Both groups are more than welcome and valid despite the difficulty of empathizing with their feelings for many of us. To paraphrase a joke I once heard, people talk about how they don’t “get” certain sexual minorities. Well, I don’t speak German, but I at least know that it’s a language!

Going down the line, trans and non-binary people find their birth genders inadequate for their lived experiences. Trans people wish to live as the “opposite” gender to their assigned birth. At the same time, “enbies” feel themselves to be somewhere between the two genders – or simply beyond those – that are generally accepted in our society. Sometimes, nonbinary people are considered a subcategory of transgender individuals. The “two-spirit” gender among the indigenous peoples of the Americas and the Māhū people of Polynesia and Hawaii have faced unimaginable oppression from white colonizers. Both of these indigenous gender categories can be defined similarly to the nonbinary gender identity. The same school that feels content to leave it at “boys have penises and girls have vaginas” probably wouldn’t teach you about the Māhū, or especially how they (singular or plural they, there) have an uplifted status in the culture of these islands as caretakers, healers, and teachers. This institutionalized historical ignorance can come confusion, invalidation, discrimination, or even hatred of all people between or removed from the two ends of the gender spectrum. That’s part of why I feel compelled to talk about Pride, even on a platform that is usually only about esports. It turns out that queer, trans, and nonbinary people play video games too.

Some trans and nonbinary people know their identity from a very young age, while some don’t know until after their 50s. It can be very tricky to discern one’s inner truth, and coming out is often a struggle that lasts for years and years. Sex and gender are different, though many use the terms interchangeably. What is between one’s legs does not necessarily correlate to how they want to be perceived in the world. All are valid, no matter how they look, how many times they got it wrong, or whether they take hormones, though the latter has been revolutionary in gender non-conforming individuals’ mental health. It’s just the truth that throughout history, oppression and repression, there have always been and always will be people who want to move beyond the gender assigned at birth when their parents asked the midwife, “Is it a boy or a girl?”

When I got to college, three years into my undergraduate degree, I was taught about intersex people, people born physically – not just mentally – between our flimsy ideas of male and female, for the very first time. Not a hint of a whisper of an idea that they existed before then, in all my years of being “educated.” Unfortunately, these fortunate beings are mutilated by their doctors, doctors who delude themselves into deluding the intersex child’s parents, so said parents answer the above useless question. 

No matter which letter in the acronym or full label we wear, people of queer sexualities and gender non-conforming individuals face all too much hatred, ignorance, discrimination, and fear in our day-to-day lives, especially in certain nations. Heteronormativity, the denial of people between male and female, and anti-trans rhetoric are collective delusions I hope our species wake up from soon. It’s a matter of life or death, in more ways than one. 

Whew. Got that out of my system. Thanks for coming to my not-a-Ted-Talk. 

Let’s Pull Back and Talk About Valorant

So, yeah… uh… Riot, huh? They’re uh… putting rainbows and stuff in their games. Cool.

But seriously, it is cool. And this Stonewall Riot Games joke is all too easy. 

The proliferation of accurate labels for people in the above section is why Pride in esports is so important. It will have taken a lot to get me to wear another Valorant player card than the dope octopus holding a piece of Radianite (“What Ancient Mystery”) that I’ve been rocking since Act I, but I’ll be showing my Pride in Riot’s newest esport when they let me. 

These new playercards are, from left to right:

  • General / Gay Pride 
  • Trans
  • Pansexual
  • Nonbinary
  • Bisexual
  • Asexual
  • Lesbian

And, yes, there are lots of Pride flags that got snubbed there, with the most notable one left out being the Intersex flag.

It wouldn’t have fit in with the rest, with their vertical lines and all. Still, Intersex representation is incredibly important since educating the masses that intersex people exist is essential to get doctors to stop mutilating helpless babies because…

OK, fine, fine! I’m back on topic. The variety and aesthetics of the Pride flags on display by Riot are pretty awesome. However, we should acknowledge that they do bring with them the danger of toxicity. 

Teammates and enemies can see your player card before and after the game. Showing your Pride in Riot’s tactical shooter (or just about any esport, for that matter) is a little risky if my interactions with people who throw slurs and get reported in Ranked games are anything to go by. 

Still, with Riot’s new policy of recording voice comms in the background and hopefully cracking down more on childish jerks, this way of celebrating Pride Month and queer identities in my current favorite esport is a welcome addition. 

The official Riot esports Pride post tells us to “Keep [our] eyes on for more details.” This screenshot of a break in the action during the Masters: Reykjavik stream has those details in the top right.

Throughout June, you’ll be able to redeem a code on Valorant’s site to get the sweet new player cards. In all likelihood, we’ll get to keep them indefinitely if we so choose. I would not have minded completing a little in-game quest – like Riot’s other titles – to unlock Prideful rewards, but this is fine, or arguably even better. Pride with no barrier to entry other than hitting copy and paste.

Riot’s Other Prideful Efforts and Other Esports Companies Showing Pride

To their credit, Riot has shown Pride on multiple occasions in esports. I had to add “Riot” to my Google search to filter out results featuring them when searching for other companies in the esports industry that have been involved with the Pride movement. The Overwatch League has done a little, such as the efforts in this post of theirs. However, note that they were profiting from all the Pride merch they sold. Still, the invitations extended to various LGBTQIA+ organizations at the bottom of that post are a good step in the right direction. 

Some esports orgs have done a lot for the queer community. This great nonprofit organization, Queer Women of Esports, works to help said group break into the traditionally straight-male-dominated space. Lesbians and other queer women deserve a break after all the work they’ve done for Pride and equality, often with little to no thanks.

Few mainstream esports teams have done much, though. That said, Cloud9’s “Inclusivity Ambassador,” Amanda Stevens, has been working with the company to improve their Pride month efforts. In return, C9 has been listening to her suggestions and working to make her voice as a black, queer, trans woman a less marginalized one. This post by the org points to their various efforts to show their support for Amanda and charitable donations to the LA LGBT Center, Trans Lifeline, and the Ali Forney Center. 

The other teams out there have to step it up. Let’s be real: straight, white men have nothing innate in their DNA that makes them better at esports than people of other demographics. Our species’ (relatively small, compared to many other animals) physical sexual dimorphism is responsible for such events as the Williams sisters losing to a male tennis player ranked #203 globally – a German named Karsten Braasch in 1998. No such physical differences between the sexes keep women out of men’s esports leagues. Rather, it’s a self-replicating problem upheld through gatekeeping. If and when we reach proper equality – that whole “liberty and justice for all” shtick – I think people of all stripes will be clicking heads and getting pentakills together and against each other. Male, female, intersex, gay, straight, bi, pan, Queer, ace, cis, trans, nonbinary… the virtual arena is one where your physical strength doesn’t matter. 

This is part of why I think a solid grasp of the various identities under the acronymic umbrella is important. We have hobbies too, and should not have to hide our Pride in esports arenas. It’s rarely if ever, anyone’s “whole personality.” It’s just a part of our story, an important one at that. Amplifying queer voices brings us closer and closer to a world in which no one is afraid of merely being themself.

Riot’s esports efforts to show Pride are as such more than welcome, an encouragement to show off the symbolic colors of your particular identity or even your solidarity with the cause. I’m a big fan of this brief post from 2018, with a lovely reminder of the sanctity of identity and the power of naming oneself, and that it does indeed get better. They also include several incredibly important resources at the end of the post. A younger version of myself, who sat huddled beneath my windowsill, sweating and crying, convinced I was bound for Hell because of things beyond my control, would have greatly appreciated those resources and the truth that it would get better. 

And the It Gets Better Project is a wonderful organization, making Riot’s esports commitment to Pride-related merch sale now through July 31, sending all of the proceeds to the organization. 

It’s pretty great that Riot has consistently shown its support for the community in recent memory, celebrating the IDAHOTB (International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia) on May 17 for several years in a row. Allowing players to put on their specific Pride colors through player cards, emotes, or trails behind their characters is a cool way to give players the tools to become beacons of Pride to other members of the LGBTQIA+ community. And grouping up with fellow queer people is a great way to avoid toxicity in any online game.

This League of Legends post goes through the specifics of how Riot’s various esports games will allow players to show off their Pride. You League of Legends players out there can see Rainbow Poro Icons and Prideful homeguard trails that can be unlocked through quests that will remain active through the end of June, plus some profile splash art customization. Wild Rift features the same homeguard trails, plus seven rainbow Poro icons and an emote. Legends of Runeterra has the same icons, a unique emote, and a colorful new Guardian named Ellie the Elephant. Finally, Teamfight Tactics is getting similar trails to the rest of the content in this paragraph, plus a Pride boom with seven variants to celebrate your victories in queer style. Unlock this stuff in TFT just by playing a game with Diana and Leona on your team. 

Queer Characters in Other Esports

Diana and Leona make for a great segue to this section, as a rare pair of non-straight characters who are officially romantically involved with one another – and in a major esports title, no less. 

We’ll start with fighting games. Nintendo won’t touch sexuality with a 30-foot pole, so no Smash talk today. Unfortunately, this cutthroat one-on-one brand of esports hasn’t always been full of Pride. King of SNK dresses in very masculine clothing that can be torn open if she’s defeated with a super move. Yikes. Queerbaiting that leads to pixelated near-porn isn’t a great look, SNK. Kurokouchi Yumeji of Samurai Shodown does a marginally better job, designed with no canon gender in mind. This has let enby fighting game fans everywhere connect with a character for once, albeit without official support. The English translation of SS5 uses he/him pronouns for Yumeji, though, showing that maleness is still the default for far too many people. 

Poison is perhaps the most famous trans character in video games, a Capcom character who Ono Yoshinori once talked about to “set the record straight: In North America, Poison is officially a post-op transsexual woman. But in Japan, she tucks her business away to look female.” Well, let me set the record straight for you, Mr. Ono: trans women who keep their “business” are just as much women as trans women who don’t. And both are just as much women as people whose doctors declared “It’s a girl!” at birth, albeit with different lived experiences pre-transition. Anyway, Poison’s reception from the community hasn’t exactly been sterling, with lots of anti-trans rhetoric, fetishization, and/or people just pretending that she’s a cis woman.

Poison and Yumeji give us a little bit of insight into how many video game companies handle non-cis, non-straight people in their titles. They often give these characters different identities in different regions or, more accurately, don’t talk about their sexuality or gender. Unfortunately, like far too many queer and trans people worldwide, some characters are effectively in the closet. 

I don’t want to end on that note, so let’s talk about how Apex Legends has done a solid job of including people of various backgrounds, sexes, gender identities, and so on. Community manager for Apex Jay Frechette recognizes that “Having a diverse cast is super important. You want everyone to have someone they can connect to.” And not only do we have people (and a robot) of most skin tones (and some that don’t exist on real people) to play as in Apex, but there are even two characters who unapologetically fall under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella: the queer tank, Makoa Gibraltar, and nonbinary hunter, Bloodhound. There’s not a lot of fanfare about it, but that’s fine. It doesn’t feel like queerbaiting, but rather a representation of two marginalized groups. 

Besides Riot, another example of Pride in esports is that of Tracer and Soldier: 76 in Overwatch. These two characters are canonically gay, with each having confirmed partners of the same gender in extra story material. I even vaguely recall Tracer having a voice line somewhere about having to meet Emily. Of course, the extra stories are not always received well by certain nations’ censorship boards. But to their credit, Blizzard did indeed translate them, even for nations that would take them down. 

And sure, there’s a lot left to be done in the realm of representation. No one in Valorant has any particular sexual or gender identity, for example, though the cast is diverse in other ways. I once had a weird dream of a future trailer where Skye gets rejected by Sage. As mentioned previously, tons of games and game companies won’t even go near this sort of thing. Silence has never been so loud as it is these days. 

But hopefully, as we continue to wake up from the delusion that is heteronormativity and repression of marginalized gender identities, we’ll eventually find ourselves in a better world, where queer characters – and queer people, for that matter – are free to exist without making anyone irrationally angry. So I’ll be waving my Pride flags, virtual and otherwise until we reach that destination.


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