Riot’s Marc Merrill Discusses SpectateFaker and Improving Community Relations

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Earlier today, Riot Games President Marc Merrill issued a formal statement regarding his company’s investigations into the “SpectateFaker” Twitch stream, the Azubu DMCA takedown notice that was issued against it, and Merrill’s controversial comments on Reddit and Twitter last weekend.

This morning, I sat down with Merrill to discuss that statement, his interactions with the community, and what this means for Riot going forward.

Riot’s statement frequently references Sanghyuk “Faker” Lee’s personal desire to have the stream removed as a major motivating factor in their decision to issue the DMCA notice. With the only public comment on the issue coming from his team, SK Telecom, I ask Merrill if Riot had spoken to Faker. I also ask if it was necessary for Lee to personally want the stream taken down or if the organization representing him could request the removal on its own.

“I think that Faker, like any amazing pro athlete around the world, is in clearly high demand,” he replies, “and our understanding is that he has a really good relationship with SKT. Otherwise, when he was getting crazy offers to go play for different teams around the world, the assumption would be that he would have taken something like that. That being said, I’m personally not super close to the details in terms of how his relationship works.”

Speaking further, Merrill likens the scenario to traditional sports, where players don’t have the time or interest to navigate all of the business dealings around their career and end up relying on agents or sports clubs to handle such issues for them. He believes that “it would be a situation like the [Patriots] speaking on behalf of Tom Brady.”

“…our mutual understanding of this stuff will continue to evolve and become more clear over time as well.”

Is SKT setting a precedent? Would the handling of any future requests for a stream takedown of a professional player’s gameplay shift to the team organizations, whether it be in North America, Korea, or elsewhere?

“It’s a case-by-case basis. I think we’re covering new ground here and need to evaluate the types of things that are going to happen and unfold going forward. In the same way that when we originally launched League of Legends we didn’t have the Summoner’s Code, we expect these types of things to evolve over time as we learn and get more exposure to what types of divisions we’re going to encounter.”

Regarding guidelines, much of the public discourse around the SpectateFaker stream involved where the line was drawn. Could someone “unlock” the camera from Faker, create a “SpectateFakersOpponents” stream, or even more broadly, could they create a stream that spectated a team of players instead of an individual? How will Riot determine when “harm” is being done, as referenced in their statement?

Merrill admits that it’s hard to figure out where the line is; “We think that the SpectateFaker case is above the line whereas SaltyTeemo is below the line. So that gap is the type of situation that I think is where we’re all going to have to work together to figure it out. So we expect that our mutual understanding of this stuff will continue to evolve and become more clear over time as well.”

He does promise that for anything “precedent setting,” Riot will be transparent with the community and open a line of communication.

But for content creators and fans, this still leaves a lot of questions open. Hypothetically, if I want to create an automated Twitch stream that follows different members of Counter Logic Gaming across their matches, how do I know if I would be at risk for receiving a DMCA takedown notice from Riot after launching it?

“One of the things that I think would be great is if people who are working with the API and trying to build great systems on it, reach out to our dev relations team and talk to us. If they say, ‘Here’s what I’m trying to do, what do you guys think?’ I think as we all figure these things out together, it’s about dialogue and getting on the same page about the goal: Let’s make sure we don’t harm the community in any macro sense or a micro sense for an individual.”

Riot hopes that by explaining its intent in today’s statement, it’s helped players and members of the community understand what the general boundaries are. Merrill adds, “If there’s a gray area, we can collaborate to figure out what makes sense and what doesn’t.”

With its statement, Riot has formally acknowledged that Azubu had no valid right to issue the initial DMCA takedown notice. But did it take Riot over two weeks to publicly address its partner’s overreach?

“Our goal is to nurture this positive and engaging global community”

Merrill explains that Riot “needed to look into it and double-check our facts.” Now that they have, he feels comfortable clarifying its position, which is, “If there are going to be any takedowns, they will be from us.”

Our conversation then turns to the individual that started it all: StarlordLucian, the SpectateFaker stream administrator. I’m curious if Merrill or Riot have reached out to him directly yet. “Our only communication currently has been through Twitter and/or Reddit. I would love to in the future, but we haven’t done that yet.”

Finally, we arrive at a more personal subject: Merrill’s controversial and emotional comments the weekend before. Riot is no stranger to events unfolding in an unpredictable way that leads passionate fans to intense discussion. Why did this moment in particular spark such an immediate and unrestrained reaction?

Merrill describes his initial reaction upon becoming aware of the situation: “My mind instantly went to ‘Oh my God! Precedent!’ and we’re theoretically entering this new gray area where a bunch of bad situations might manifest. The worst case scenario for me would be that Riot wouldn’t stake the type of position where we can protect players in the way that we always care about doing. Our goal is to nurture this positive and engaging global community through esports and all those different dimensions. Everything that we’ve done has always been consistent with that, we think. And if there’s ever something that isn’t right, then we quickly adjust course, apologize, and try to evolve. We’re going to continue doing that going forward.”

The emotional reaction, Merrill attributes, to a personal sense of desire to help the disenfranchised. He recounts several life events where he was angered or frustrated by an individual or a group being mistreated. “That’s why I was emotional in the reactions and what I clearly screwed up was, I muddied the message because of the emotion. I was meant to just talk about the case and the principles, but then I ended up doing some things which came across as attacking an individual which was definitely not my intention at all.”

Merrill explains that while he was very active in the community in the early days of Riot, that involvement has dropped off as the company has scaled. He hopes that both he and CEO Brandon “Ryze” Beck can work to improve their personal relationship with the community so that players have better context and understanding when they make personal statements. “At the end of the day, the reason Riot is the way it is from a lot of dimensions is because we don’t see ourselves as above the community, we see ourselves as a part of it. Sometimes we forget that we could be perceived as these dudes that have this powerful voice, because we don’t see ourselves that way.”

He explains that he never wanted players thinking his comments were an official statement from Riot. “What I was trying to do was say that we’re going to look into this and come out with something. I’m concerned.”

Ultimately, Merrill does not feel discouraged by the harsh feedback from the community, “A lot of the comments are really well-deserved. I botched a lot of the intent through bad, reactive messaging, so I don’t blame the community for anything. We’ve been in their shoes many times and been pissed at online game companies that are doing things that we perceive to not make sense. The comments sting, of course, but I think it’s the case where it motivates us to get more involved. If there was more of a relationship there, like there has been in years past, this type of stuff would be easier to reconcile.”

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