Vote manipulation. Banned journalists and YouTubers. Reddit moderators who enjoy a disproportionate amount of influence. Not all is well in the community of one of the most world's popular video games.
Over the past few weeks, the Reddit page for the game League of Legends -- a vibrant community that's home to over 670,000 subscribers -- has run into a glut of drama that raises serious questions about how much influence some of its members may have.
The story is long and complicated -- and it involves all sorts of drama involving Reddit moderators, a controversial journalist, and the behaviour of various people in the League of Legends scene -- but let me try to break it down for you, explainer-style.
I've seen all this chatter about big stuff happening over at the League of Legends subreddit. What's going on?
It's all very complex and intertwined, so let's get started by picking apart the drama as best we can.
There are actually three distinct scandals that have unfolded on the League subreddit. I'll identify each in order of their chronological appearance:
- In late March, a YouTuber named Gnarsies published a critical video of a third-party service related to League of Legends. A thread about it shot to the top of the subreddit, and was removed shortly thereafter by the mod team for what some reporters and fans suspected was corporate influence over the subreddit's moderators.
- Earlier this week, another Gnarsies video implicated a group of popular League YouTubers and Twitch streamers in an ongoing "vote brigade" scheme to upvote each other's work and downvote competing material.
- Late Tuesday night, the League of Legends mod team announced that it had instated an official ban on any content created by Richard Lewis, a well-known eSports journalist for The Daily Dot who'd been investigating and publishing critical stories about the subreddit's moderators regularly. The reason they gave for the content ban was that Lewis had been using his personal Twitter account to manipulate votes for threads on the subreddit and harass members on the subreddit.
Why should we care about any of this?
League of Legends is one of the most popular video games in the world, if not the most popular video game in the world. Last year, Riot Games, its developer, said that it has nearly 70 million people play it every month. So naturally, the subreddit carries a lot of influence.
That's a lot of people.
It really is. The subreddit isn't quite as huge as that. But it's pretty massive. It has more than 670,000 subscribers, 20,000 of which are usually browsing at any given moment during the day. It's safe to say that the League of Legends subreddit is the single-most important and influential resource for information about the game. More people learn stuff about League there than anywhere else -- except for maybe the game's client.
And it's not just a hub of information. It's a community that can make or break the careers of countless YouTubers, Twitch streamers, journalists and bloggers, even arguably eSports players. Basically, anyone who relies on visibility in the League of Legends community has felt some pressure to get their work on the front page of this subreddit. The subreddit's moderators have a lot of power to influence where and when something will appear on the forum, if it appears there at all, as a result.
OK. So when and how did this all get started?
On March 25, the YouTuber Gnarsies posted a video criticising something called "WTFast." This is a third-party product that's advertised by many other popular League YouTubers. It promises to resolve connectivity issues many League players suffer from when trying to maintain access to Riot's servers. This leads to lag, which is super annoying and affects one's performance during a game. Lag is one of the biggest issues League players suffer from and gripe about, so a video claiming to debunk a "snake oil" product that promises to reduce lag quickly shot to the top of the front page of the subreddit. Then it suddenly disappeared.
The moderation team decided to take it down, saying they considered the video to be an example of "witch-hunting," a type of personal attack against specific individuals or companies that incentivise members of the subreddit to take action against those individuals or companies. This is expressly forbidden by the subreddit.
Was it witch-hunting?
WTFast definitely sounds like a "snake oil" product, as Gnarsies accused it of being. Fixing League's lag problems is something Riot hasn't even fully figured out how to do yet -- the current best solution being their enormously ambitious plan to build an entire network of their own making to support the game. But WTFast's legitimacy isn't as important to the current scandal as what happened after the reddit submission was pulled. Daily Dot journalist Richard Lewis published an article showing that Gnarsies' video had been pulled from the subreddit because of one specific complaint that accused its creator of instigating the witch hunt. It came from Joedat "Voyboy" Esfahani, a popular League of Legends streamer on Twitch who's sponsored by WTFast.
That seems suspicious.
Right. WTFast's creators told Lewis they didn't request that Gnarsies' video be taken off the subreddit. The only people involved with the takedown, then, were the Reddit mods and Voyboy.
What did the mods have to say about it?
One of the mods (p00rleno) released a statement amidst the backlash insisting that while deleting the thread might have been a bad judgement call, it was not motivated by any corporate influence. Here's a section of the full statement:
So, the WTFast thread. OK. So, the long and short of the early history of the thread is that it was posted, got a whole pile of upvotes, and a decent sized pile of reports. I don't have numbers on either of these things for the early stages, because reports get erased when a mod action is taken on a thread and we don't store time-based voting data. For a while, dealing with the thread was ignored. In fairness, nobody likes dealing with the 50-tonne-elephant in the modqueue, because we're well aware that we're making a large group of people unhappy whenever we remove something from the front page. But when a mail comes in, that's kind of the kick in our butt that will force a decision.
The modmail usually comes from somebody who is connected to the topic or who cares deeply about it. This was no exception -- Voyboy (Sponsored by WTFast if I understand correctly) sent us the message. I'll point out here, it doesn't matter who messages us. It could be Krepo, it could be you, or it could be /u/xXxDankDongerDaily420xXx; the exact same thing will happen. I can only speak personally, but more than half the time I don't even look who sent a modmail, I just write the reply. Anyway, once a thread is pointed out to us, everybody who's currently around will have a look and weigh in with their opinion of the thread. Keep in mind, we all do different things. I'm a Mechanical Engineering PhD student; we have lawyers, teachers, tldr we're all very different. So, not everybody will be around for every thread. These thread discussions are very rarely unanimous. The outcome of this particular discussion was that the thread didn't belong here, and should be removed.
And so it was.
At this point, the original poster sent us a message. Not uncommon! Unsurprisingly, people don't like having their stuff removed! The ensuing discussion, while less civil than I'd like, did establish that we were wrong in our original assessment that the video contained a call to action. After acknowledging that fact, it was decided that lack of call to action aside, it still wasn't suitable. And so it stayed removed. That's all there is to the story. No magical collusion with WTFast employees or their reps or sponsored-folk, no wire transfers to my offshore account in France (But seriously, I don't even have one), nothing that could even remotely be called dubious.
And now here we are, twelve or so hours, a handful of leaks, 5 or so modmails demanding our heads on pikes, and one angry article later. Did we make a mistake by removing the thread? Maybe. Maybe not. Making a mistake is always a possibility. We've made them before. We will make them again. Threads that should stay up come down, threads that should come down stay up, and the entropy of the universe increases. I've said this before, I'll say it again. We're people. Mistakes are in the DNA. We'll always talk about mistakes, or potential mistakes, or what type of french fry is superior (For the record, it's totally seasoned waffle fries) -- just hit us up in modmail. There's a convenient link off in the sidebar on the right to 'Message the Moderators' or you can PM /r/leagueoflegends. Things sent there, and all replies to things sent there, are visible to all the mods. We read all of them, and make an effort to reply to all of them (Though, they can fall through cracks sometimes), and I can tell you first hand that the number of times somebody in modmail has convinced me that we did something wrong is a pretty good number. Because in reality, all of you are just as qualified (if not moreso) to do this than I.
Lewis suggested that the change in the mod team's specific reasoning -- which p00rleno also confirms in the above statement -- was indicative of something else that was going on -- Voyboy, the WTFast-sponsored YouTuber who first complained about the video, had an inappropriate amount of access and influence over the mod team's decisions. From Lewis's Daily Dot story:
While Reddit has clear rules surrounding the acceptance of rewards for favourable moderating decisions, what is less clear are the rules about any form of status-based influence or leveraging of popularity. It is hard to argue against the likelihood of influence given the post was on the front page for two and a half hours without incident but was removed within thirty minutes of Esfahani's message.
Equally, chat logs from the moderator's Skype group show that they were all comfortable with the submission prior to receipt of that message. "Just skimming through it" said the mod Merich, who would later claim it contained a call to action. "it seems like WTFast is being called out on bs." Even the moderator who would eventually remove it, Picflute, had no issue with the thread prior to being contacted by the affiliate, saying "a lot of Youtubers are advertising it boosts your connection between you and Riot which is BS. So I agree with keeping it up.
Also -- this will become more important later -- Lewis says that around the same time he started working on these stories, the mods banned his Reddit account from the League subreddit. . He deleted his account soon after that.
So what happened?
Lewis went on to publish two more articles about the League subreddit and the problems he saw with how its moderators comported themselves and managed the stuff that shows up there. These both focused specifically on the ways that Riot Games has an inappropriate amount of influence over the subreddit.
Is that true?
The articles speculated on a lot of scenarios where Riot could have an inappropriate amount of influence, but Lewis didn't give proof of the publisher actually suppressing information. The most damning evidence he offered was that Riot asks members of the mod team to sign optional non-disclosure agreements in order to get access to exclusive information, that they frequently offer the mods League-related swag, and that one former subreddit moderator went on to work at Riot while others are openly interested in doing so. In addition, Riot paid for a redesign of the subreddit in 2012, according to Lewis's reporting.
Riot disputes the accusation that they have disproportionate influence over the subreddit, saying in a statement to Kotaku: "mods have the option to join the a private skype channel with a handful of Rioters who operate our Live Service monitoring, and the NDA is in place to protect player information in the case of a report that a player was being harassed or was potentially going to harm themselves or others."
"We share a lot of info on the sub because we want to engage in conversations and be a part of this community," the statement added.
It's important to mention that Richard Lewis is an extremely controversial figure in the League of Legends community, and on this subreddit specifically. He has plenty of fans but also many detractors. Many of his critics describe him as the Bill O'Reilly or Rush Limbaugh of eSports given how combative and vulgar his behaviour on the subreddit was prior to his ban.
Was anyone inclined to believe what he reported?
He might be controversial, but he's still a longtime eSports journalist who's written many groundbreaking stories about important under-reported issues like, say, the mistreatment of professional League players by their coaches and manages. Back in February, for instance, he broke the story that the manager for the German League team Meet Your Makers had threatened one of his players, and the player's mother, when he confessed to being unhappy and wanting to quit. So, yeah. Commotion on the subreddit, and criticism of the moderators specifically, kept getting louder and louder as these articles were published over the course of a few days at the end of March.
On March 30, KoreanTerran, one of the most visible members of the mod team and the one who'd mostly been justifying the decision to removing the Gnarsies thread announced that he was stepping down. Richard Lewis, meanwhile, had seen his personal Reddit account banned from the subreddit a few days prior -- on March 24th, shortly before he began publishing his articles on the subject but when he'd already begun working on them.
Things sort of quieted down on the subreddit after that, but not really anywhere else in the League community. I mean, it's not hard to see why the suspicions didn't just die down or go away. No matter which side fans took, things looked very sketchy. You could either see it as a journalist being banned from a subreddit he was actively investigating, or you could wonder why a number of highly critical articles came out a just few days after this journalist was banned for personal reasons.
So, tensions were already running high. And they'd been running high for almost a month. Then, this week, Gnarsies showed up again with a new video and a far more convincing smoking gun than the one he had on WTFast.
In a video posted on April 20, he alleged that a cabal of prominent YouTubers were working together to vote brigade each other's work on the League subreddit:
It's something a group of people do to help drum up support for a particular thread or series of threads by coordinating with one another to either upvote something (i.e., posts highlighting their League videos) or downvote something else (competing League videos that show similar stuff).
How many people were involved in this vote brigading?
Around 60 have been implicated so far.
That's not a ton -- why does it matter?
Remember how popular the League of Legends subreddit is, and how important being on the number-one spot -- or even just the front page -- can be to any YouTuber or Twitch streamer. It's the difference between getting a video directly in front of tens of thousands versus watching it disappear into obscurity. Because of how Reddit's voting algorithm works -- it highlights posts that are gaining upvote momentum -- the first few seconds of a Reddit submission's life are crucial for its performance on a subreddit as huge as League's. Just a few dozen votes can make a huge difference.
This isn't just a matter of League content creators making, or losing, a potential buck either. League of Legends fans were justifiably furious to realise that they'd been missing out on potentially relevant information simply because a small handful of YouTubers had figured out how to successfully game the system in their favour, and the mod team had failed to do anything about something so patently manipulative.
What did the mod team have to say for themselves?
They haven't released anything in the way of an official collective statement yet. To their credit, though, they also haven't tried to deny the fact that they screwed up in allowing vote brigading to continue unabated. The most significant move they have made this week is simply to allow a number of popular threads ripping into them to bubble up on the subreddit. That, or to help promote alternative League content creators who've flown under the radar -- at least partly because of the vote brigading process.
I've sent quite a few messages to the entire mod team requesting comment for this story, but they have yet to respond.
Although it seemed like the drama might be simmering down, it reached yet another boiling point this week when the mod team announced that they were banning all of Richard Lewis's work -- whether it be his YouTube videos, Twitch streams, or Daily Dot articles -- from appearing on the subreddit. Last night, one of the mods issued a formal statement of sorts on the team's "ruling" to ban both Lewis and all of his stuff.
OK, one thing at a time. Why'd they ban ban Lewis in the first place?
It depends on who you ask! Lewis explained to me, and detailed in a lengthy video he published yesterday, that his relationship with the subreddit's mod team has become more and more strained over the past year simply because he's refused time and time again to agree to their requests to edit his work in order to make it more in line with their expectations.
Given that he's a professional journalist, not changing his work to befit the standards of volunteer Reddit moderators is understandable. But still: why even participate in these sorts of conversations in the first place? That's a question Lewis has a harder time answering, other than to now say that he might've made a mistake by even agreeing to communicate with the mods both on Skype and through Reddit itself.
As for the moderators? The statement on their ruling that was posted last night puts it this way: his personal account was banned because of the abusive behaviour and harassment he consistently exhibited despite repeated warnings by mods that he'd get banned. Here's the relevant passage:
For the underinformed, we decided late March to ban Richard Lewis' account (which he has since deleted) from the subreddit. We banned him for sustained abusive behaviour after having warned him, warned him again, temp banned him, warned him again, which all finally resorted to a permaban. That permaban led to a series of retaliatory articles from Richard about the subreddit, all of which we allowed. We were committed to the idea that we had banned Richard, not his content.
There's some really ugly accusations that aren't mentioned in the official statement but have frequently been dredged up whenever Lewis has become a source of contention in the subreddit. The worst of these is that he pressured someone into committing suicide.
Wow. Is there any truth to that?
Lewis admits that he "flamed" any number of people on the subreddit since he became an active member in 2013. But he vehemently denies harassing anyone over any period of time, or using any type of hate-speech. As for the specific suicide incident, he said: "it's all a lie," one he didn't "even want to dignify."
Wait, wait. What's the difference between "flaming" and "harassing?"
I asked Lewis that exact question. Here's the relevant passage of our interview:
LeJacq: How do you distinguish between "flaming" and "harassment" in your behaviour, either on the subreddit or social media? What is OK vs. not OK in your book?
Lewis: Harassment to me is persistent. You continually hound someone. I have never done that.
LeJacq: OK. But just calling someone a "fucking idiot" or something similar is cool/fine in an individual argument?
Lewis: Yeah. Just a flame.
LeJacq: Did you use hate-speech, or anything like that?
Lewis: God no. I've never used racist or homophobic language on Reddit. [It's] not in my make-up to do that. Politically, I am very to the left.
Make of that what you will. He's certainly done enough to make a lot of people -- especially the vocal type of League fans who frequent the subreddit -- seriously dislike and distrust him. The fact that he openly admits to being disagreeable (and vehemently so) could suggest that the difference between "flaming" and "harassment" is a semantic one. The Reddit mod team, meanwhile, has accused him of going one step further in his toxic behaviour by repeatedly threatening to dox them. Lewis, once again, denies this.
OK, so Lewis was banned for acting like a jerk. But why ban all of his content? He's still a journalist who writes about League, so why stop Redditors from posting articles that have nothing to do with him or his specific beef with the subreddit?
Vote brigading and harassment, according to the mods. The mod statement this week explained it this way:
However, as time went on, it was clear that Richard was intent on using twitter to send brigades to the subreddit to disrupt and cheat the vote system by downvoting negative views of Richard and upvoting positive views. He has also specifically targeted several individual moderators and redditors in an attempt to harass them, leading at least one redditor to delete his account shortly after having his comment brigaded.
Because of these two things, we have escalated our initial account ban to a ban on all Richard Lewis content. His youtube channel, his articles, his twitch, and his twitter are no longer welcome in this subreddit. We will also not allow any rehosted content from this individual. If we see users making a habit of trying to work around this ban, we will ban them. Fair warning.
The ruling went on to cite a handful of tweets from Lewis, each of which they said was emblematic of a different type of harassment or vote manipulation he regularly engaged in:
So, yes: banning his content does sound like it will block relevant material that could have a legitimate place on the subreddit. I read their statement as saying that the Lewis content ban, vs. the Lewis personal ban, has been enacted as a punishment for him engaging in his own form of vote brigading. The difference between him and the YouTubers, in the mod team's view, is that he's relying on his personal Twitter account to marshall his followers -- either to downvote stuff he doesn't like, or upvote his own stuff.
Why is he accountable for the actions of his followers? He doesn't ask them to upvote or downvote Reddit submissions in any of those tweets they submitted as evidence.
That's the crux of Lewis's defence of his actions. He told me, and explained in a lengthy video published yesterday, that he has never indulged in any calls to action -- asking his followers to manipulate reddit votes, harass specific members of the subreddit, or anything else he's been accused of. On the other hand...one thing that's always made Lewis controversial is the way that he aggressively messages prominent members of the League community -- be they eSports athletes, commentators, or what have you -- with suggestions that he's going to, say, "post screens" of some incriminating evidence against them. Like this Tweet, from yesterday:
It's hard not to read this kind of behaviour as either a) a thinly-veiled threat, b) an open invitation for his followers to have at the target, or b) both at the same time.
Isn't it kind of hypocritical to punish a single person for vote brigading literally a day after your subreddit has been rocked by a scandal about vote brigading by a much larger group of people?
Well, the mod team wasn't implicated in the vote brigading scheme in any worse way than allowing it to happen. They might not have known about it. There's no real evidence to suggest otherwise.
Oy. So what's next for all these different scandals? Is there any end in sight?
The moderation team hasn't responded to numerous requests for comment that I've sent them both individually and collectively about Lewis, the vote brigading, and the WTFast takedown. I suspect that they're currently in the midst of investigating the YouTuber vote brigading scandal to determine its true extent, and doling out some shadowbans -- "soft" bans that prevent other people from seeing a user's posts -- in the process.
As for Richard Lewis and his relationship to the subreddit? Well, he's still kicked out. I don't see that changing anytime soon. For his part, meanwhile, Lewis sounds determined to not let it affect his work in any way.
"My work is unprecedented in my space," Lewis told me yesterday. "I've had stuff like this happen to me before. People want to read my work so I'm not worried."
"The mods are doing this to try and get me fired," he said. "The Dot won't fire me."
As with many controversies that begin and live on Reddit, much of the League subreddit's current turmoil comes down to matters of hearsay and longstanding personal rivalries. All of these individual cases point to a real problem: The subreddit and its moderation team are currently stuck in the midst of a crisis of legitimacy.
Whether they have definitively proven themselves unable to control against manipulation by external forces -- be it one man with a large Twitter following, a cabal of like-minded content creators, or even companies like Riot and WTFast -- isn't as important as the fact that enduring questions and criticisms about these issues shakes people's confidence in the entire subreddit as a resource for legitimate information and entertainment. Whatever they do next, the mods are going to have to work to earn back people's trust.