Power

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."

video games on screens in a pc cafe

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

Photo: Courtesy of Riot Games

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.

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.

Protocol | Policy

5 things to know about FCC nominee Gigi Sohn

The veteran of some of the earliest tech policy fights is a longtime consumer champion and net-neutrality advocate.

Gigi Sohn, who President Joe Biden nominated to serve on the FCC, is a longtime net-neutrality advocate.

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Joe Biden on Tuesday nominated Gigi Sohn to serve as a Federal Communications Commissioner, teeing up a Democratic majority at the agency that oversees broadband issues after months of delay.

Like Lina Khan, who Biden picked in June to head up the Federal Trade Commission, Sohn is a progressive favorite. And if confirmed, she'll take up a position in an agency trying to pull policy levers on net neutrality, privacy and broadband access even as Congress is stalled.

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Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

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Adobe wants a more authentic NFT world

Adobe's Content Credentials feature will allow Creative Cloud subscribers to attach edit-tracking information to Photoshop files. The goal is to create a more trustworthy NFT market and digital landscape.

Adobe's Content Credentials will allow users to attach their identities to an image

Image: Adobe

Remember the viral, fake photo of Kurt Cobain and Biggie Smalls that duped and delighted the internet in 2017? Doctored images manipulate people and erode trust and we're not great at spotting them. The entire point of the emerging NFT art market is to create valuable and scarce digital files and when there isn't an easy way to check for an image's origin and edits, there's a problem. What if someone steals an NFT creator's image and pawns it off as their own? As a hub for all kinds of multimedia, Adobe feels a responsibility to combat misinformation and provide a safe space for NFT creators. That's why it's rolling out Content Credentials, a record that can be attached to a Photoshop file of a creator's identity and includes any edits they made.

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Protocol | China

Why another Chinese lesbian dating app just shut down

With neither political support nor a profitable business model, lesbian dating apps are finding it hard to survive in China.

Operating a dating app for LGBTQ+ communities in China is like walking a tightrope.

Photo: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP via Getty Images

When Lesdo, a Chinese dating app designed for lesbian women, announced it was closing down, it didn't come as a surprise to the LGBTQ+ community.

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Zeyi Yang
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The Oura Ring was a sleep-tracking hit. Can the next one be even more?

Oura wants to be a media company, an activity tracker and even a way to know you're sick before you feel sick.

Over the last few years, the Oura Ring has become one of the most recognizable wearables this side of the Apple Watch.

Photo: Oura

Oura CEO Harpreet Rai swears he didn't know Kim Kardashian was a fan. He was as surprised as anyone when she started posting screenshots from the Oura app to her Instagram story, and got into a sleep battle with fellow Oura user Gwyneth Paltrow. Or when Jennifer Aniston revealed that Jimmy Kimmel got her hooked on Oura … and how her ring fell off in a salad. "I am addicted to it," Aniston said, "and it's ruining my life" by shaming her about her lack of sleep. "I think we're definitely seeing traction outside of tech," Rai said. "Which is cool."

Over the last couple of years, Oura's ring (imaginatively named the Oura Ring) has become one of the most recognizable wearables this side of the Apple Watch. The company started with a Kickstarter campaign in 2015, but really started to find traction with its second-generation model in 2018. It's not exactly a mainstream device — Oura said it has sold more than 500,000 rings, up from 150,000 in March 2020 but still not exactly Apple Watch levels — but it has reached some of the most successful, influential and probably sleep-deprived people in the industry. Jack Dorsey is a professed fan, as is Marc Benioff.

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David Pierce

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