It’s been awhile since I’ve had a chance to just pick a topic and riff off of it, but now that I’ve got almost 10 days until the next LCS game, I’ve decided to hit on a few topics I’ve had on the backburner.
The first is the different representation of male and female champions in League of Legends. Strap in and get ready for a wild ride!
Oh hey! And join the discussion on Riot’s GD forums to see if we can get some Rioter attention!
There is something fundamentally wrong with the way female characters are presented in League of Legends. Of course, there is something fundamentally wrong with the way female characters are presented in most computer/video games, most fantasy, and indeed, most media in general.
So you should — with the knowledge that I’ve invested many hours of my life and career into League of Legends — see this not as a condemnation of Riot Games, but of our culture, with notes as to how Riot can break out of this bubble and be innovators in gender presentation as they have been in all other aspects of game design.
We can see at least some of those problems by looking at the champions in League of Legends, and the skins available to them. I’m about to present a mountain of data, and I implore you to read it all. But if you want to read my conclusions first, before you do so, you can skip straight there.
First, I divided all champions into three groups. I am following in the methodology of another poster, although I hope to expand on their methods, provide more precise definitions, work within the context of a long-time League of Legends player, and expand their data to recent champion releases.
Human or Not?
The first group is simple to explain: humanoid. I won’t bother to define humanoid, but instead shall define the two non-human groups.
These champions have extremely small bodies and extremely large heads. Some of these are humanoid, but are children. Others are cute races, like yordles. Typically, their bodies are divided into three approximately evenly sized parts: an oversized head, a torso, and legs. Their facial figures are exaggerated for cuteness, with either wide faces, large mouths, large eyes, large ears, or some combination thereof.
Monstrous champions are — well — monstrous. I struggled with how to categorize monstrous champions. At first, I thought it was simple: they were the champions who were neither humanoid nor cute. Like Anivia!
Unfortunately, not all examples are so clear cut. Why, for example, did I want to count Maokai and Malphite as monstrous but Brand or Aatrox as humanoid? In fact, my aforementioned predecessor had chosen to simply say that anything with body modifications or not made of flesh was monstrous, a notion I rejected.
Ultimately, with some help from friends, I decided to focus on faces. Monstrous champions all lack normal face proportions. Either their heads are far too large or small, or — more common — some part of their face simply is not human. Whether that be because they are non-human, or simply distorted out of proportion, this excludes the gamut of furry champions, as well as a few champions you might be tempted to see as humanoid, Dr. Mundo included.
And what numbers did I get?
Total: 118 – 78 Male (66%); 40 Female (34%)
Cute: 14 (12%) – 10 Male (9%); 4 Female (3%)Monstrous: 36 (31%) – 34 Male (29%); 2 Female (2%)
Humanoid: 67 (57%) – 33 Male (28%); 34 Female (29%)
Nunu: 1 – Humanoid? Cute? I couldn’t really make a decision. I feel like he should probably be in Cute, and we can discard Willump as like Sejuani’s boar.
What struck me as most interesting when I was going through the list of champions was how many I didn’t know the genders of with 100% certainty: Blitzcrank, Fiddlesticks, Galio, Kog’Maw, Malphite, Maokai. I checked their bios to make sure, and indeed, they were male. As well, Cho (Gentleman skin aside), Galio, Karthus, Nautilus, Nocturne, Rammus, Skarner, and Xerath could all easily be female. I don’t mean that their characters could have been designed female. I mean that, had I gone to their bios and seen “she”, I wouldn’t have thought “typo” (as I might about, say, Darius or Garen), I would have thought “didn’t see that coming”.
This is — I think — what creates the perception that the genders are ‘even’ in League of Legends. When it comes to humanoids, that is certainly true. It is just that all of the non-gendered champions are, by default, male. On the other hand, when you have a female champion who could be monstrous, like Elise, she is very clearly female. If Elise’s bio said “he”, I’d think “typo”.
So basically, you have a 50/50 split between male and female champions, unless they’re non-human, in which case they’re mostly (88%) male by default.
Surprisingly, I came away from this data feeling somewhat good about Riot. An equal number of humanoid men and women is actually staggeringly notable in the field of fantasy.
Ever heard of the Smurfette Principle? Basically, it says that most casts will have a lots of different characters: the funny guy, the smart guy, the annoying guy, the single guy, the sneaky guy, the woman. Notice the difference? The guys have adjectives that make them different; the woman is different by virtue of being a woman.
That is to say, you can vary personalities all you want amongst male characters, then add in a woman to round them out. You can read more about why this is problematic in this NY Times article; I don’t really want to get into it here.
By and large, Riot avoids the Smurfette Principle. But arguably where it matters most, the Monstrous champions (those champions who are the most different from normal), male characters are given all of the divergence from ‘normal’. What are the two exceptions?
- Anivia – the most boring champion to ever boring in Boring of Borings.
- Orianna – who is a robot girl built as a copy of a real girl, and is so like a humanoid champion that I almost put her in humanoid except…she’s cut in half.
This isn’t a new concern to voice; people have been asking for female monstrous champions for ages. The real issue is that Riot thinks they have produced female monstrous champions.
Now, you may argue that I’m being unfair in excluding Soraka or Cassiopeia, but you’ll notice that I’ve been pretty consistent in excluding Aatrox as well. When it comes to male champions, Riot has put out some seriously monstrous (and I mean that in a complimentary way) champions, like Urgot or Trundle. But when it comes to female champions, the ‘monstrous’ champions more resemble ‘sexy’ Halloween costumes than monsters.
Suggestion #1 – Female Monsters
There’s an easy solution for Riot. Next time you release a genderless champion — a water elemental, for example — make it a lady water elemental, give it lady voicing, and for the love of god don’t give it breasts because it is a water elemental and why does it need to suckle young like a mammal?
Even cooler (Riot, you can hire me for this champion), why not make a cool Void champion that has two heads, is genderless, and speaks with two voices (one male, one female). Sometimes, you can have them talk separately, but you can also have them talk together for a cool blended effect! Call it Kor’Nath, the Progenitor of the Void. Ok, but that’s all you get for free! (No really, I even have a kit written up for them. You know how to reach me; I’m already working for you!)
The second area in which female skins vary wildly from male skins is in the amount of skin per skin. For now, we’ll only be looking at humanoid champions. The cute champions are almost entirely clothed all the time, so we can exclude them, and the monstrous champions don’t need clothing because they’re…monstrous.
To give a strict definition, I’ll be calling a skin revealing if the torso below the armpits or the legs above the mid-thigh are revealed. I acknowledge that this is a general rubric and not a hard rule, of course. After all, Blood Moon Akali is technically revealing according to my definition, but I think we can mostly agree that it’s a pretty classy skin:
We have 33 male champions and 34 female champions, so we barely need to worry about equalizing percentages.
Firsts, looking at the base skins, 12 of the male champions (36%) have a revealing base skin, while 23 of the female champions (68%) have a revealing base skin.
And while there are 15 male champions (45%) who have no revealing skins, only 2 of the 34 female champions (a mere 6%), Kayle and Quinn, have no revealing skins.
On the other hand, there are 15 female champions (44%) who have no skins that aren’t revealing. Male champions who fit that bill? Not a single one.
Gentleman Gustaf, what are you, some kind of prude? There’s nothing wrong with partial nudity in a game!
Hey, I’m totally with you there! Like I said above, I think there is a way to handle partial (or even mostly) nudity in a way that is classy, not just fan service, and contributes to the quality of the game.
Nor am I trying to make some argument that women shouldn’t be wearing revealing clothing in a way that’s intended to be sexy. There’s a time and a place for those characters, too! Take Ahri, for example:
Ahri, as a character, is supposed to be foxy and sexy. One of her ability is literally called Charm. The description? Ahri blows a kiss…the first enemy it hits…is charmed, forcing them to walk harmlessly towards Ahri. She is literally a fox lady! Everything about her character says sexy, sultry seductress who will turn around and kill you. I think there is definitely a place in the game for characters like Ahri.
And you know what, there’s even room for characters whose characterization isn’t based around sex appeal to still be presented attractively. Me? If I were a video game character, my skins would be me:
- In my pajamas watching LoL and writing an article at the same time.
- Cooking something delicious
- Reading or writing fantasy/sci-fi
- Cuddling the ladyfriend
But then again, I work out and eat right. And when I do go out? I like to class it up. The amount of days I leave the house for anything other than the market in anything less than a three-piece suit? Limited. The amount of days I leave the house without a waistcoat on? Please. If I leave the house in a t-shirt? You bet your ass it’s fitted.
But nobody says “Hey, Gustaf, you’re not a model, why are you trying to look good?”
Everybody — ok, most people — want to look sexy. There’s a time and a place for that.
That time and place just isn’t almost every female champion in the game.
Unfortunately, the data above shows that it is almost every female champion in the game.
As a follow-up, we should also note that ‘revealing’ often doesn’t mean sexy for the male champions. Let’s take a look at the ‘revealing’ male skins; we’re not exactly talking about beefcakes here:
Of course, as far as ‘sexy’ goes, your mileage may vary, so let’s leave such a subjective analysis out of the crux of this article.
As well, the ‘revealing’ skins for men almost all reveal some part of the chest. This is about the only sexy skin that reveals a male champion’s legs above the knee:
I made a joke above about Halloween costumes, but it is in the themed skins where we see the biggest difference between the male and female champions.
When a male champion gets a theme costume, they’re relatively serious and impersonate the role they take. When a female champion gets a theme costume? Look for yourself. Let’s take, for example, Doctor Shen and Nurse Akali.
In this case (and many more like it), the message is clear: men are there to do things; women are there to be looked at.
Suggestion #2 – Skin Variety
111 of the 152 female skins (73%) are revealing, while 35 of the 134 male skins (26%) are revealing. That’s basically an inverse value. Only 2 female champions aren’t ready to strip down. Make some badass fully clothed (maybe even armored) female champions. And then, 6 months down the line, when you feel the urge to make a skin of them half-naked, just don’t. Instead, give us a sexy shirtless Jayce. Malzahar, too. Oh, and Vladimir. Riot pls ; )
(note: the below picture is fan-art)
Champions like Varus, Aatrox, Leona, Diana, and Vi are all great starts. But instead of making exceptions, start setting your own trends.
Of course, it’s not just clothing that sends the message that women are eye candy, but also the positions champions are put into:
Being Sexy vs Modelling Sexy
Now, I’m not saying that revealing = sexy. Nor am I saying that the female champions are attractive and the male champions are dumpy. But the female champions — by and large — have skins that are about sexiness. The male champions on the other hand, may happen to be sexy, but it is rarely the focus of what they are doing.
Broke(n) Back Mountain
The easiest way to see that is from the poses. Let’s be real. If League of Legends were real life, half of the female champions would have severe scoliosis, and the other half have literally broken their spines. Let’s take Miss Fortune as our example:
Before I talk about spines, let’s talk about the skin second to the right. I’m going to call this the “chest + butt” pose, because its purpose is…well, to showcase the character’s front and back. Given the 180 degree rotation between the two, this can create a logistical problem.
But on to the more serious issue: in the first 5 skins, her spine ranges from ‘that’s mildly uncomfortable’ to ‘seriously, how are you not yet dead?’
But Gentleman Gustaf, you’re not a spine expert, how do you know how bodies work?
You’re actually right on this one. I’m so used to seeing women posed in ads or billboards in ridiculous positions with half of their chest photoshopped out that my judgement was horribly wrong. So I called in two friends of mine with a lot of experience drawing the human body to second-guess me.
And what did they do? I categorized each skin as “That pose is totally manageable”, “That pose is uncomfortable looking, but I bet it’s possible”, or “Dear gods, what am I looking at?”
Rarely did they disagree with me when I said “Dear gods, what am I looking at?” For example, we all agreed that Soraka has clearly just suffered an spine-shattering fall:
But almost every time I said “that looks uncomfortable, but I’ll bet it’s possible”, they turned, looked me dead in the eyes, and said “show me”. In the now four days since then I’ve had constant pain in my everything. My back feels like an elephant stepped on me repeatedly. But if you don’t believe me, ask this contortionist martial artist who has written on the same topic. But feel free to try it. Go ahead and photograph yourself mimicking the following 10 champion skins and submit that as a comment:
- Foxfire Ahri (pay attention to her left elbow; it’s QUITE behind her)
- Popstar Ahri (note how far back her shoulders are)
- Lunar Goddess Diana (her spine is at like a 75 degree angle with itself)
- Base Janna
- Sandstorm Katarina (good luck detaching your torso)
- Base Lux
- Base Miss Fortune
- Battle Bunny Riven
- Dragonblade Riven
- Base Soraka
Again, this is not a female-only thing, but it is certainly a predominantly female thing. Aatrox, after all, is definitely giving us a little bit of the stock chest + butt pose:
Come on Gentleman Gustaf, I’d like to see you draw better!
Take note; I’m not criticizing the Riot artists for being unable to draw. Sometimes, you want a character in a certain pose, but you also want that character’s face visible. So you cheat a bit with perspective, you shave a bit here and there, and you bend your character just a bit to make the picture work. And in moderation, there’s nothing wrong with that! But it can be overdone, both in degree and in quantity.
To give an example, here is a side-by-side of how Lux looks, vs a re-worked version of Lux for less broken spine, courtesy of Escher Girls:
When you see the following data, you should know that anything that I did not always disagree with my friends. If I couldn’t manage a position, but it was close, I let it slide anyway. Only things I upgraded to “that champion literally does not fit together/is dead” got counted as “awkward pose”.
32 champions in total were posed in a ridiculous fashion, and of those 32, 27 were female, and 5 were male. And the male characters were a real stretch. Aside from the already mentioned Aatrox, here is the worst offenders:
This may not look horrible, but consider the following. Master Yi’s sword is spinning (implying that his torso probably was spinning the same way somewhat). His legs, on the other hand, were rooted. He’s already got a bit of chest + butt going on, so imagine where his torso must have been oriented before that!
But there’s still a difference in presentation. The point of the Master Yi skin is to point out his awesomeness: check out how he spins his sword fast! The point of most of the poses of the female champions is to point out their sexiness: check out how sexy I am!
To give some data to this point, let’s narrow our search to champions who are both posed and revealingly dressed in the same skin. This leaves us with 23 of our 34 female champions vs 2 of our 33 male champions. Mostly, the men are posed to be cool, while the women are posed to be sexy.
In Riot’s defense, they actually have a decent lineup of male champions designed to be sexy:
But with exception of Aatrox and Varus, the male champions are not trying to be sexy, they just are. Ok. They’re trying a little bit. I can totally see Graves sucking it in and walking with his shoulders back. But if that’s trying, what is this?
Now, I feel that I need to reiterate my thesis to make sure that the point is not lost at this point: I do not object to sexy skins or champions. What I object to is the huge dichotomy of variety. Male champions exist in all varieties: macho, boyish, lithe, muscled, sexy, and monstrous. Female champions basically have thin and sexy.
Suggestion #3 – Stop Trying so Hard
You have a great team of artists. Look at Iron Stylus being an excited fucking geek about the sword of one of the coolest champions in League of Legends (designed by him, no less). If I didn’t want to work at Riot Games already, I would want to just to meet Iron Stylus. Let’s not mention the wonderful champion designers you have. So trust their characters. We were compelled by Diana when she looked like this:
She’s a sexy, dark, powerful, scary badass with an underexplored storyline. And then we get this:
This skin has potential; it highlights her massive changes from her past in ways that a story could not. But it does that whether or not she’s arching her back impossibly.
Everybody trusts Riot’s ability to make new champions, develop characters and storylines, and tell stories with skins. Y’all are badasses. So rest on that, on the variety of stories you can tell, not on chest + butt poses.
On the note of variety, on the male side, I count at least 5 types of bodies, with examples:
- Barrel-Chested – Garen/Darius
- Bodybuilder – Olaf
- Buff – Draven/Lee Sin
- Fat – Gragas
- Lithe – Varus
- Thin – Ezreal/Singed/Master Yi (look at those arms/legs)
As for the women? Mostly thin with maybe a few lithe champions (Ashe in a few skins). Even champions you’d expect to be buff like Leona or Riven manage to look like they could belong on a runway with a quick change.
Oh, and what is this? Stop doing this! It looks like Warwick got hungry and has been taking bites out of your female champions’ sides!
We get it, they’re thin. But that’s not thin, that’s “missing space for internal stomach organs”!
Suggestion #4 – Establish Your Own Archetypes
Riot really had a chance to break new ground in the representation of women in games with Diana and Leona. You already have the sexy/lithe male archetype with Varus/Aatrox.
You could have embraced the physically strong woman archetype with Diana and Leona. Unfortunately, they ended up with the same sort of stick figure bodies every other female champion has.
And that’s ok. Who am I to tell you how Diana or Leona should look? Those are your ideas, not mine. But the idea for a stronger looking, fuller, more buff female character? That can be your idea too. You only have to embrace it.
Game of Thrones did it, and they’re about as successful as fantasy gets.
Why does this matter? Because media shapes the way we see the world. Because maybe this is the reason there are so many fewer female League of Legends players. Because it’s real life, flesh and blood sports that are constrained by the old notions of male competitors and female cheerleaders. Fantasy is about imagining new and better things, and breaking the way we see the world.
Progress from Criticism
I truly think Riot Games has reinvented the gaming industry in so many ways with League of Legends, enough that I’ve devoted part of my career and so much of my life to it.
League of Legends is a fantastic game, in many aspects. It is the best esport in the world. Riot is the best company when it comes to listening to its customers (in my opinion). They have pioneered whole new methods of dealing with toxic players. And now Riot has a chance to blaze the trail when it comes to handling gender in a unique, progressive, and wholly modern fashion.
They’ve even made progress thus far. A quick trend line (the least useful statistical method of analysis ever) shows that the proportion of female skins that are revealing is down from 80% at the beginning of LoL to 60% now, although back-breaking poses are up from 25% to 50%… As for dudes? They strip down 30% of the time now, as opposed to 20% on release, and they even have an increase from almost no posing to 15% or so!
So what can we get from this all?
Gentleman Gustaf, I guess you want to do away with all the sexy women in League of Legends. They should all be monsters instead.
Look, I like attractive women. The pursuit, wooing, and further romancing of attractive women has not only historically been a major part of my life, but is also a significant part of my social and biological imperative.
But attractive female characters are even more compelling when they’re not trying to be attractive. So you can have your overly sexualized female champions (male versions: Aatrox/Jayce/Varus/Pool Party Lee Sin), but next to them, you can have attractive champions who aren’t trying to be sexy (male versions: every other Lee Sin Skin). You can even have *gasp* conventionally unsexy female champions (male versions: Gragas and most monstrous champions).
And don’t give me that “it’s a game, it’s about fantasy” line. First, we have to consider whose fantasy it is: the male champions are designed as somebody you might want to be, while the female champions are designed as somebody you might want to look at.
There are lots of fantasies, and I grant that some of them are about attractiveness. Sometimes I just want to be a hideous troll bashing people with a club. Sometimes I want to play Draven, and nobody thinks that facial hair is attractive. I’m not even really saying “make some unattractive champions”, although I don’t think it would kill you. I’m just saying that every female champion doesn’t need to be look more concerned with the observer than what it is she’s fighting.
Check out this difference. Lee Sin looks cool; he definitely looks sexy. But his sexiness comes from the fact that he’s physically fit and in a fighting stance. You know how I know that? Because it’s the same whether he’s wearing a shirt or not:
Lee Sin is an attractive badass who will fuck you up if you mess with him. And you know what? Sometimes he likes to go down to the pool, flex his muscles, and …tickle the chin of that female champion next to him… if that’s what he’s into.
But in League of Legends, female champions don’t really get a choice. Fiora, the Master Duelist, is the best fencer in all the land. Surely she gets a cool fighting pose?
Diana and Leona and Jinx and Quinn and Riven and and Sejuani Shyvana and Vayne and Vi are all super well-designed champions (I don’t see it as a coincidence that IronStylus worked on Diana, Leona, Quinn, and Sejuani’s rework). They’re badass, they’re sexy, they’re cool, and they have distinct personalities. But making them preen doesn’t improve their characters; in fact, it can diminish them by masking the elements of their character that define them.
And you know what, Ahri is a super cool champion too. She’s all sexy and seductive and that is her character. And it almost doesn’t register, because your brain is all “so what, every female character is sexy and seductive”.
All the variety that goes into your male champions’ art? Just send some of that over to the female champions! Because variety in champions actually serves to make your unusual characters stand out even more because they don’t play by the rules of the other characters.
It’s really a simple thing to improve on, and what I’ve written is anything but simple, so here’s a restatement of my points:
- Diversify monsters: make some truly monstrous champions that are female. I’m sure your community (not to mention your already employed concept designers) have plenty of ideas for that.
- Change what “revealing” means. Make more revealing skins for male champions, and allow some female champions to go without revealing skins.
- Change what “sexy” means. The variety in male champions shows you understand this distinction. Some champions are sexy because they’re trying to be sexy. Some champions are just inherently sexy, but it isn’t their main attribute. Allow more female champions to fall into that camp: let them be sexy without forcing sexy.
- Let your creations speak for themselves. Don’t overstate something when subtlety will do, because it adds depth to the overall presentation.
Oh, and if you skipped the data for the conclusion, click here to hop back up to the data!