A woman named Stephanie has alleged that a new League of Legends character with a similar appearance and name, Seraphine, is based on her. At the crux of her allegation is a brief relationship she had with a Riot employee in 2019, an employee who she believes borrowed details from her likeness and life for the fictional KD/A pop star (opens in new tab).
Riot denies the allegation. "Seraphine was independently created by Riot Games and was not based on any individual," wrote the company in a statement emailed to PC Gamer. "Additionally, the former employee [Stephanie] is referring to left Riot more than a year ago and was in a department and role that has no input whatsoever into the creative design process."
(Note: We have agreed to omit Stephanie's full name at the request of both her and Riot.)
In a Medium post (opens in new tab) published today, Stephanie shares a screenshot of text messages and recounts moments from a brief relationship with "John," a name she uses to obscure the identity of the former Riot employee. Stephanie says that she and John met in person twice, and otherwise chatted and played League of Legends over the course of three months in 2019. During that brief relationship, John allegedly brought up ideas for skins for her favorite League of Legends character, Ahri, that were based on her. When she visited him for a tour of Riot's headquarters in Los Angeles, he also gave her artwork by Riot illustrators depicting her as Ahri, which she thought was "strange" given how briefly they'd known each other. Additionally, she says that John implied that he could influence the KD/A project.
Shortly after Stephanie's visit to Riot HQ, she cancelled future plans to see John and expressed to him that he was moving too fast. At that point, "he ended things and blocked me," she writes.
When September of this year came around, Stephanie was reminded of something John had said in 2019: That a K/DA surprise would be revealed on her birthday. On that day, an illustration of Seraphine was posted to the character's Twitter account (opens in new tab) to announce that she was "working" with KD/A (Riot posts on behalf of some of its characters as if they're real people). It all seemed to Stephanie like more than a coincidence.
The pink-haired character looks similar to Stephanie, and poses with a cat in illustrations that are somewhat like Stephanie's photos with her cat, which she says she sent John in 2019. Stephanie also notes that the character's drawings look similar to her own artwork, and that the character comes from Piltover and Zaun, regions in League of Legends lore that she wrote an essay about—an essay she shared with John, and that she says he printed out and framed in Riot's office.
From her statement, it's clear that Stephanie has not enjoyed any part of Seraphine's resemblance to her. "I've felt really grossed-out about it, to the point that I can't play one of my favorite videogames," she wrote. "Besides that, it's been kind of horrid to have a League champion who looks like you, has so many of your characteristics, and has a NAME that's almost identical to yours. People I've never met send her to me online and point out the similarities, there’s already immense amounts of porn of her, I see people arguing about her near-daily."
One challenge to Stephanie's allegation is that a Riot employee can also make a credible claim to being inspiration for Seraphine. On October 29, Riot senior designer Jeevun Sidhu tweeted that (opens in new tab) his partner, a Riot employee who goes by Riot Whiskies online, inspired Seraphine's personality. Whiskies, whose hair is also dyed pink, posted a photo (opens in new tab) of herself cosplaying as Seraphine on September 28. Stephanie has acknowledged the tweets (opens in new tab), saying that she doesn't believe Seraphine is only based on her. She also pointed out that the claim that Seraphine is based on someone else is contradictory, because Riot claims that Seraphine "was not based on any individual."
Still, the tweets do seem like a difficult hurdle for Stephanie's case, as does Riot's claim that the employee in question hasn't worked at the company for over a year and never had influence over character design. As for what legal angle she could pursue, Michigan State University law professor Brian Kalt said in an email to PC Gamer that the case would likely involve "the tort of right of publicity, also known as appropriation of likeness," which "protects your name or likeness from unwarranted intrusion or exploitation."
There are multiple ways to build a case based on the tort. A celebrity, for instance, might argue that Riot is exploiting their "reputation, prestige, social or commercial standing" for publicity without their permission. While Stephanie does point out that Riot is potentially making money from her likeness ("just another way a giant videogame company has screwed over a woman without a second thought"), she is not famous, and the focus of her complaint is on privacy. "This whole situation has been really violating," she writes.
"She might have a case for that," says Kalt. "It's not clear to me what her damages are, though. She's upset, but how many dollars is that worth?" In his view, the situation "doesn’t sound like a 'million dollars worth of emotional distress' sort of case."
Whatever happens in the legal arena, if it goes there, it's easy to understand why Stephanie believes that Seraphine is at least partially based on her. Based on her account of events, the Riot employee she dated hinted that he could put aspects of her into the game as an (over the top and unwanted) romantic gesture, and then, a year later, Riot did release a character with a similar name, glasses, hair, and face shape to her. Seraphine genuinely does look like Stephanie beyond just the choice of hair color.
But there's also the chance that it's pure coincidence. If the resemblance is intentional, it seems very hard to prove unless someone, such as the former Riot employee who was allegedly responsible, confirms that Stephanie was the direct inspiration for Seraphine.