The Hard Realities of Working at Riot Games, One Year Later

Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition crew. Photo by Frank Hurley.
“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold,
long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful.
Honour and recognition in event of success.”

Ernest Shackleton allegedly ran this brutally honest ad in a London newspaper when he was trying to recruit men for one of his Antarctic expeditions. His warning proved to be true and when his crew encountered these conditions, they accepted them as best they could.

A year ago today, I wrote about the “hard realities” of working at Riot Games (henceforth referred to as the “Reddit post”). My intention was to supplement all of the awesome things that candidates can find out about Riot with a dose of brutal honesty so that only those most drawn to Riot’s mission and unique culture will apply.

Unfortunately, my post had two unintended outcomes: first, some interpreted my post as championing passion above all else; second, some viewed my post as being a definitive explanation of Riot’s culture. These views are inaccurate and I’m taking responsibility for my actions by setting the record straight on these two points. Some candidates read my post as one of many reference points about Riot and I would hate to have anyone make a decision based on inaccurate information.

1. Passion Above All Else

I was surprised that the “P” word evoked such a visceral reaction for some readers in the game development industry. Apparently, it was because they have experienced companies using “passion” as rhetoric to cover-up for poor labor conditions. My Reddit post last year clearly landed me in the “passion-crunch-work/life balance” debate. This is a meaty topic that transcends companies and industries, and here’s my take on it:

I love working with passionate people and I can never imagine myself working for a company where people show up just to collect a paycheck.

But I did make two mistakes: first, I overemphasized passion without mentioning Riot’s total rewards strategy: compensation, benefits, unlimited paid time off, play fund, intangible rewards, etc.; second, I created the perception that passion should be valued above all else at Riot.

How a person values passion is an individual decision and therefore I can only speak for myself. I am fortunate to work for a company where I don’t have to sacrifice compensation for passion.

Determine for yourself if Riot is a place where passion meets benefits and compensation by reading what other Rioters are saying in over 200+ company reviews on Glassdoor. Riot recently placed number 13 on Fortune’s Best Companies to Work For list, and that is a great source of information also.

2. Riot’s Culture

Over the past year, many people outside and some inside Riot were surprised that I wasn't fired for writing the Reddit post; it resulted in both positive and negative perceptions and was a distraction for some Rioters. Many people who felt that way came from organizations that didn't tolerate any mistakes. Some people even disagreed on whether it was a mistake or not.

Here’s what happened: I was called into the “principal’s office” and I thought I was going to get a stern lecture from Marc Merrill (Riot’s President). I was actually surprised by what happened next. First, he wanted to know how I was doing and feeling about all of this. This wasn't bullshit small talk, it was genuine. Then the rest of our discussion centered around what we could learn as a company from this event.

There was never a moment when I was chided or felt that I was going to be punished.

We both agreed that while my intent was good (informing candidates about Riot), I could have been way more thoughtful in my execution (more refined language, using a platform for communicating with candidates vs. Reddit which is a platform we use to communicate with players, and more). Culture can be one of the hardest things to communicate properly and I didn't help myself by using sensationalist language (“Riot becomes your life”) and such a definitive tone.

What’s more interesting is what didn't happen. Riot didn't strip away my ability to communicate with players or candidates. Riot didn't ask me to remove the post. In fact, my post is being used as a case study demonstrating voice and how Rioters are given latitude and trust but should wield that carefully as part of our “Red Name” training — training that Rioters need to go through to earn their badge to post as a Rioter.

After speaking to Marc, I also sent Brandon Beck (Riot’s CEO) an email apologizing for the distraction that I caused and he replied with this:

This is great Jon and appreciate your courage in taking all this feedback and owning it. Somehow we all knew you would. That is a powerful trait.
You have a truly great cadre of people who are investing in you and that says something very positive about you! I would be happy to spend time with you as well and thanks for the update!

My initial reaction: awesome! It’s always great to receive a heartfelt note of support. Then I thought more about this topic. What would I do if our position was reversed? Would I default to trust if I were the CEO? I don’t think I would have. I think I would have overreacted — “How dare this new person talk about my company this way?”

This really changed the way I thought about culture.

If I were to ever start my own company, what type of culture would I want to build? After all, a company’s culture starts with the company’s founders and key founding members. What will be the immutable core values?

After working at Riot, one of these core values will definitely be focusing on people. To paraphrase Brandon, talent isn't on the balance sheet but it is Riot’s most important asset. If you want to learn more about Riot’s view on people, a good starting point is to watch one of Brandon’s earlier talks in 2011 as well as his most recent talk that was delivered at the 2015 D.I.C.E. Summit.

So all this and not even one mention about the “hard realities” of working at Riot Games yet. If I had to mention one, it would be that self-development and growth is on the individual. This isn't everyone’s cup of tea. This Reddit post experience has been an unexpected learning experience for me and being at a company where I can continue to learn and grow everyday is what keeps me here.

If you want to hear more about self-development and growth stories from other Rioters, I encourage you to continue the conversation through our LinkedIn group.

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