The average League of Legends player might not know Naz Aletaha’s name, but they definitely know her work. If they grabbed a LoL-themed AmEx card in 2013 and redeemed points for RP, the MOBA’s in-game currency, Aletaha helped negotiate that deal. Or if they snagged one of those Louis Vuitton-designed League skins in 2019, or just wondered how that unlikely collaboration came to be, that’s thanks to her too.
For eight years, Aletaha secured major partnerships with companies that also include Mercedes Benz and Spotify to help grow League of Legends’ esports scene into the behemoth it is today. That keen sense of developing business opportunities in the most surprising of places paid off. Last October, Aletaha was named Riot Games' global head of League of Legends Esports and tasked with overseeing and expanding the competitive scene of Riot's crown jewel. She does everything from managing the esport’s 12 professional leagues across the globe to bringing on artists like Lil Nas X (aka LoL Nas X) to be the game's "President" and perform this year’s Worlds anthem.
“Leading a sport that's so beloved by millions of people around the world, millions of people who have frankly built this with us, it's a big responsibility,” Aletaha tells Refinery29 over Zoom. “If I look at 22-year-old me, 23-year-old me, just starting out in my career, I would have never in a million years dreamed that this is where I would be,” she adds, reflecting.
Back in those early days, she would queue up for Summoner’s Rift with her coworkers after a long workday (Jinx will forever be her girl), or attended her first Worlds at then-Staples Center, where she grew up watching her home team, the Lakers, play. Now, she’s hopping from city to city as Worlds 2022 continues its North American tour. The semis take place this weekend at State Farm Arena in Atlanta.
Refinery29: It's wild to think of how quickly the esports industry has grown exponentially in such a short amount of time. What do you think legitimized the esports space?
Aletaha: From the get-go, we were never looking to become “mainstream.” Our goal was always to deliver an esport that's worthy of this fanbase and that's worthy of these pro players who are so talented and are dedicating their lives to do that. Once upon a time, you could only really compete in an esport as a hobby. You couldn't really support yourself doing so, so that was the impetus for us to come in and really invest in building the infrastructure and the leagues and these big global tournaments.
The crossover into the mainstream is cultural resonance. Partnerships have played a big role, like MasterCard and Mercedes coming in and not just advertising at the audience or dipping their toe, but really supporting LoL Esports the same way they would support FIFA, the NBA, and the NFL. We've also seen really fun things like Saturday Night Live poke fun at us.The Simpsons did an episode about Bart Simpson becoming a pro [esports] player. And those are those wow you've made it moments.
Riot is killing it in the entertainment space. Arcane [on Netflix] is amazing, and there's also obviously [Paramount+'s] Players, which you executive produced. Players was so good. I loved all the League of Legends references and Easter eggs, like Kyle and April's daughter Irelia. In that moment, I was like , oh my god, I want to name my daughter Irelia.
That makes my day, I can't even tell you. We knew this was gonna be met with skepticism because we're very attuned to the history of video game adaptations. All credit to [creators] Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault on that one because they wanted it to feel so authentic that you wouldn't be able to even tell if it was fictional or set in the real world. They threaded that needle brilliantly of being able to appeal to the core League of Legends and League of Legends esport fans as well as to somebody who's never heard of this thing called League of Legends before and that's a really hard thing to do. This was the first time that the entire series was going to be based on LoL Esports. So it was my pleasure and my honor and a passion project really to be involved every step of the way.
How do you make that time to have passion projects at your level? How do you make sure that you're able to feed back into your soul and your energy?
When you chase passion, you make the time, whether that's after hours or over your weekends or before work or between meetings. I think those are the perfect words. It feeds your soul and being able to work on something that you hope is gonna bring so much joy to this fanbase, it's just special.
The gaming industry and esports have long been gatekept by white men, so it's amazing to see a woman of color in your position who has been able to find success in so many different areas. What advice do you have for women specifically who are interested in working in esports?
One is to look around because there are brilliant women who are across every aspect of the esports industry right now. Aside from seeing the esport over the years get to the size and scale that it's at right now, it’s spun up an entirely new buzzing industry, everything from broadcast and production, in front of camera, behind the camera. Team management, general management, lawyers, marketers, finance, accounting.
Self-advocacy is another important one for women in the industry. I'm totally generalizing, but sometimes we can be too humble and sometimes we won't ask for what we want or ask. So make sure you're having those conversations. Once you are in whatever role that you're in, it’s really important for women to keep growing and keep pushing forward.
On the flip side, and this is something that I’m always hyper aware of, does it ever get exhausting being the ‘woman gaming executive’ who’s asked to always talk about women representation in the space? How do you navigate wanting to represent an underrepresented group but also still be viewed as your own person with your own accomplishments, independent of your background or identity?
I wouldn't say it's exhausting, although I can totally empathize with what you're saying. For myself at least, I'm a big believer of if you can see her you can be her. There's a little bit of a responsibility or a privilege in a way for us who are here in these roles to continue to advocate for the women who are coming up behind us. So if that takes us speaking on it, I'm all for it. Let's speak on it. Let's clear the way. Let's spotlight the women up and coming so they have the same, if not, way more opportunity than we even had in our time.
What is one area or job in esports that you feel doesn't have as much attention that you think deserves and is growing?
Some of the women I admire most in esports right now are women who are operators and general managers. Badass women like [Evil Geniuses CEO] Nicole LaPointe Jameson and [Cloud9 Chief Marketing Officer] Tricia Sugita who are managing some of the biggest orgs in the business. When you're in those roles, you have to wear so many different hats. You kind of have to become a jack of all trades. Again I'm generalizing, but I think women are well suited for that.
You've had a storied career that you're still continuing. What’s the biggest takeaway looking back?
Say yes to opportunity. Stay curious. I think a lot of us when we're young, we think a career path is really straight and linear. And the reality is that it's not, and that's been my biggest learning. A career path, it zigs, it zags, and I think the best thing you can do is embrace those sharp turns because you just never know where that next step, where that next turn, is gonna land.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.