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On any given day, League of Legends attracts more than 8 million concurrent players.

Photo: Courtesy of Riot Games
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How a Facebook post about George Floyd threatened a Verizon deal with 'League of Legends'

Verizon will pitch 5G to gamers — but only after Riot Games dealt with an executive who posted about Floyd's "criminal lifestyle."

Verizon announced Friday that it has struck a long-term partnership deal with the professional North American league for League of Legends, the world's most popular esport — an announcement delayed for a day by the fraught corporate politics surrounding the killing of George Floyd.

Verizon and League of Legends publisher Riot Games originally planned to unveil their partnership Thursday morning, a day before the North American league's summer kickoff; executives for both companies briefed Protocol on the deal on Wednesday under an agreement that Protocol would break the news exclusively Wednesday night.

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But Verizon postponed the announcement just hours before Protocol's original article was to be published after learning that Ron Johnson, then Riot's global head of consumer products, had shared an image in a Facebook post that complained that "the media and the left" had turned Floyd into a "martyr" despite his criminal record. As Vice News reported, Johnson added his own comments alongside the image: "This is no reason to condone his killing by the officer at all, which still needs to be investigated as a potential crime. It is a learning opportunity for people (and your kids) to teach that this type of criminal lifestyle never results in good things happening to you or those around you."

By Thursday morning — when the League of Legends announcement was supposed to have been made — it was clear that Verizon would not move forward with the deal unless and until Riot resolved the matter decisively. Late Thursday night, a Riot spokesperson told Protocol that Johnson was no longer employed at the company.

"The sentiment expressed in the image in question is abhorrent and runs directly counter to our values and our belief that addressing systemic racism requires immediate societal change, something that we're committed to working toward," the spokesperson said, noting that Riot had already committed $1 million to "areas where we can make an impact," plus $10 million more for "founders underrepresented in the games industry."

With that, Verizon announced the partnership Friday, just hours before the beginning of the summer league.

The deal includes a marketing relationship and also a far-reaching agreement for Verizon to deploy some of its most advanced networking systems to help make competitive video games more responsive and enjoyable. The technology aspects of the deal will include both terrestrial fiber-optic technologies and also wireless 5G innovations as Verizon deploys 5G over the coming years.

For Verizon, the Riot deal is just one part of a larger strategic decision to emphasize the $160 billion video game business as an industry vertical ripe for buying and showcasing its latest advanced communications services. Verizon has had a technology and marketing relationship with Google's Stadia cloud gaming service since January.

Roughly two-thirds of American adults regularly play some form of video game, and gamers are already the most important segment for the high end of the consumer PC business, from Nvidia's top video cards to specialty computer makers like Maingear and Falcon Northwest.

For Verizon's core consumer home communications business, targeting gamers makes sense because gamers can certainly appreciate and pay for the low latency and high speed of a Fios fiber-optic connection.

Meanwhile, advanced technical improvements can be an important selling point for games. For example, Riot is already seeing professional esports players flock to its new shooter Valorant partly because that game uses servers that are more responsive than earlier generations.

Wireless, Verizon's other main business pillar, plays an important role in the huge mobile games sector (which is a bit less than half of the overall game business), but the value of 5G remains murky for games, gamers and game publishers. So partnering with Riot and League of Legends to demonstrate 5G gives Verizon a chance to show off for millions of the world's pickiest and most lucrative consumers.

"Verizon has always been about the network, and what's going to be more important to the network in the future than the speed, capacity and power for gamers?" Rob McQueen, Verizon's head of strategic partnerships, told Protocol Wednesday, before the announcement was delayed. "So we're excited about expanding into esports and competitive esports, but really it's a holistic look at the ecosystem of gaming. Riot, being who they are, are a great partner to hit multiple parts of that ecosystem."

On the marketing and advertising side of the deal, Verizon will become the official 5G wireless and networking service partner for League of Legends' professional North American esports league, called the Championship Series, or LCS. The game's world championship in Paris last year attracted more than 100 million viewers, including a peak of 44 million concurrent live viewers. The league's summer season begins Friday. On any given day, League of Legends attracts more than 8 million concurrent players.

"Verizon is fully committed to gaming and esports and are a perfect partner for us," Matt Archambault, Riot's head of North American partnerships and business development, said in an interview with Protocol Wednesday. "The telecom and 5G elements of this relationship are extremely intriguing for us because they will deliver a far better experience for our viewers, for our players and for the league itself."

Riot is owned by Tencent, the Chinese media and gaming leviathan, but Tencent's corporate nationality does not appear to present obvious difficulties for the Verizon relationship. Tencent does not produce significant telecommunications gear and is not one of the prohibited Chinese communications equipment vendors that will soon be barred from contractors for the United States government. Verizon and its predecessor companies including Bell Atlantic and GTE have long been major communications providers for the American government and military. It is highly unlikely that any of those companies have ever used any Chinese communications equipment in an operational network.

This post was updated with additional information when Verizon announced its deal Friday.

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