A Summer at Riot Games
This post was originally titled “Goodbye, Riot” and I had written a draft after returning back home from Santa Monica, CA and missing Riot. It had been the best summer of my life to date. Let me tell you a bit about why, what happened during my summer, and why I’m returning to Riot Games full-time next year. I hope this post is useful particularly to anybody considering work at the company.
Here’s the outline I’m hoping to follow.
- A bit about myself
- How I became interested in Riot
- The Kotaku article and what I experienced while I was there
- The upsides and downsides
- What I did
- Why I’m coming back
- My words of advice for a Rioter-wannabe
- Some funsies
Let me first tell you about myself and gaming.
I struggle with identifying as a gamer. My older brother was the one who planted the seeds for many aspects of my personality – my childhood music taste, television shows I watched, and anime I enjoyed were hand-me-downs from him. We weren’t particularly close, but were similar out of proximity. Between the two of us, he was the gamer. He owned a few Gameboy consoles and when my parents bought him a Gameboy SP, he’d sometimes loan me his Gameboy Advanced to play games like Golden Sun II and Spyro (my parents had bought the game for him just based on pictures, so he had a thrift shop of a collection with nonconsecutive, random jumps in series). But mostly, I enjoyed watching him play games. There’s a picture of us as children that my parents took of us two on a couch, me leaning over and watching over his shoulder as he plays on his Gameboy. Later, when he moved on to playing PC games, since we only had one computer, I’d sit by him and watch. I especially loved it when he played Red Alert: Yuri’s Revenge as I could watch the minimap for Kirov Airships and warn my brother, or, when Cabin Fever was released in Combat Arms, my brother would take the door next to the basement stairs that was and I would watch the minimap and warm him for special zombies (there were dasher zombies that needed to be taken care of first) and also when zombies would come bursting in from the basement (so he could just focus his attention on shooting and the main doorway).
It was a lot of fun. But I never played much myself. So I never thought of myself as a gamer. There’s some classics gamers cite and reminisce in among themselves, like Skyrim, Diablo, World of Warcraft, Runescape, etc.: games I’ve never touched.
It was only when I got into StarCraft II that this changed. I’ve talked a bit about it here. To be honest, I cringe a bit whenever I read this so I’d like to preface this by noting that I was a sophomore (?) in high school at the time. But, it’s a pretty thorough account (vs. my present-day account which has suffered from a few visits by the eraser in my mind).
I played Zerg and first started laddering by following Apollo’s Bronze to Diamond series where he would take fresh accounts and talk through how he’d scout, make build decisions, and general tips for all of the match-ups. I played on my father’s old work computer, a dinky Thinkpad with an unregistered copy of Windows (I couldn’t even change the background because it wasn’t a registered copy of Windows, so it perpetually had a black background). I was welcomed by my crush into his friend group, and I discovered a group of sure, tweens who were a bit edgy and slightly misguided, but also incredibly genuine, determined, passionate, and loyal. We called ourselves the “Gentlemen of the Revolution”, and we would have LAN parties, discuss philosophy, Watchmen characters, real-world events, our “dark and tragic” backstories, and sheepishly come to school the next day sleepy from Skype calls that went on far too late. The best discussions, the ones that were the most genuine and from the heart, always came after 2am, we’d always say. We’d watch Day9 together, and so while it’s pretty amusing for me to look back and remember that it was a crush on a boy that got me started on StarCraft, it’d be a pretty fun story I think for the Day9 community. My Felicity, in a way.
When we entered high school, we started a team to compete in the High School StarLeague (HSL). My friend and I founded the club, and although it later on fell apart for various and rather regrettable reasons (and I was thinking of discussing more about that and my experience in gaming and the HSL in another post), we competed for two years. In that second year, Oakton High School took third place in the nation.
I loved StarCraft. It was a huge part of me. I wouldn’t say I really identified as a gamer or in the gamer community, but I identified as a StarCraft player and as a member of the StarCraft community. It felt dignified, intelligent, funny, and smart. Day9’s StarCraft manifesto put it into words better than anything else I’ve ever seen, and I won’t even attempt to do any better (because I know that’s probably impossible):
We are more than stereotypes. We are adventurers and doctors, engineers and entrepreneurs, journalists and lawyers, scientists and students. We are smart, ambitious, and competitive. We are gamers.
We believe society has forgotten how to play.
Play keeps us sane in our daily lives. Play keeps us curious, imaginative and directed. It teaches us to learn from our mistakes, to constantly improve, and to stride forward – battling through failures on our road to success.
Play develops relationships and communities. We have fond memories of growing up playing games with our friends and siblings. The gaming experience bonds us together now, as it bonded us then. We discover friends, partners, and spouses while gaming. We game with our children. We transcend international borders when we play.
We believe that our game, StarCraft, is the chess of our generation. StarCraft requires the dexterity of a pianist, the mind of a chess grandmaster, and the discipline of an Olympic trainee. We believe that our game, StarCraft, is as dynamic and exciting a spectator sport as any other. We fill auditoriums to cheer on our favorite gamers. Most of all, we believe our game, StarCraft, is a beautiful platform for play. Whether you’re a veteran, a newbie, male, female, a parent, a student, or a total nongamer, you too can join in the fun.
Our community is smart, supportive, funny, irreverent, international, insightful, and intolerant of bullsh*t.
We think you should be one of us.
We fell apart from issues that had started to plague the entire StarCraft community – fears of the game being “dead”, Blizzard seeming to neither care nor listen to concerns about broken late-game compositions meaning that competitive play was starting to be less exciting (I play Zerg, and I admit that broodlord-infestor was ridiculous), and this sort of “superior” attitude that the StarCraft community had versus other games. For example, League of Legends, a game which had been taking off in popularity, was considered to be “easy”, “mindless” – it didn’t require any of the grand and complicated builds that StarCraft had required, its APM and micro demands were childish in comparison to bonjwas masterfully controlling both macro and massive armies, and people were resentful during gaming events when the League of Legends crowds would cheer so loudly they’d bleed into the StarCraft livestreams.
People had wanted our club to become a general “Esports Club”, but my friend and co-founder had disagreed. When people were playing other games that weren’t StarCraft, there was constant pressure and almost accusatory remarks of – “You’re playing League of Legends? Why aren’t you practicing StarCraft?” – in addition to unrelated and unnecessary personal comments such as insinuating they were “dumber” for not playing StarCraft.
StarCraft had been wonderful when we had our entire little friend group built around the game. It was so much fun. I one time played on Husky’s Arcade w/ Subs games (I was the MVP zergling, but alas, Husky has since removed all of his StarCraft videos which I’m honestly still a bit bitter about – that’s StarCraft history he just essentially erased in one fell swoop). We did Funday Mondays. Linked TeamLiquid posts and Reddit posts about funny clips or images (I remember one of my favorite images was one of Life during an interview where two microphones were unfortunately placed right over his eyes). I dreamed (I know, silly) of possibly even being a professional StarCraft player someday.
But StarCraft stopped being fun in our junior year of high school, and the club fell apart. I never looked back. As an act of almost rebellion, I made a League of Legends account and started playing. So it’s been ever since. It’s what gaming always was supposed to be at its core for me: fun.
I graduated high school as a pretty “OP” student. I had perfect grades, an essentially perfect SAT score, and was a prolific debater and Science Olympiad competitor. I didn’t do it for the applications though – I really did just do those activities because they were fun, I enjoyed school and genuinely looked forward to every day.
I later on went to study computer science at Carnegie Mellon University. Why computer science? Honestly a cheesy answer, but it’s because I wanted to better the world and it felt like computer science was a field that just held so much promise and open roads. I still want to do some good in this world. But, increasingly, I’m feeling like a wide-eyed newborn deer with awkward and unsure footing and wobbly knees. The more I learn, the more I realize I only know a modicum of what this world has to offer. So for now, I’ll focus on trying to be the best software engineer I can be. But I won’t lose sight of this goal of mine. Or, at least, I hope I don’t.
At this point, I never took League of Legends seriously and never tried to get better at the game. I played quite a bit (mostly normals and ARAMs), but mostly I just watched professional games – I started watching in Season 2, and remember the debut game WildTurtle had on TSM with his famous Caitlyn pentakill, securing himself the spot and the final nail in Chaox’s coffin. I loved TSM. They were the embodiment of everything I had loved about gaming in the past – just the fun I had with my old friend group, and watching their GameCrib videos wrought a sort of bittersweet nostalgia in addition to the laughs.
Gaming – or rather, StarCraft – was sort of like an origin story to me up to this point. It didn’t feel like my current self. I felt like it was an important part of my identity, but it wasn’t the front and center of my life. There were others I had met at CMU where gaming did feel like the center part of their life, and they were studying to become game designers, wrote game design critiques, and seemingly lived and breathed the craft. Me? I didn’t have much to say besides that I used to be well above-average at StarCraft II, but that’s about it. Nothing to see here.
I was walking around during my freshman year when I saw a flyer for a Riot Games information session. I had been looking for an internship, and seeing that Riot Games was coming intrigued me. I looked them up, and what I saw hooked me in – their front page immediately and almost obnoxiously broadcasted this “Riot Manifesto”, which was so similar to the Day9 StarCraft Manifesto I remember musing to myself about whether it had just been straight up copied. But, as I learned more about the founders, I realized they were huge StarCraft fans. It was a tribute to Day9.
They were like me. I didn’t know anything else really about the company, but in that moment, I felt like I wanted to work there. Whoever was there, they were must be people like me – people cut from the same cloth. I’m sure I would fit in and enjoy myself. I wanted to meet them.
I remember attending the information session and being totally in awe. The recruiter – I still remember his name, G.C. – was totally unabashed about how proud he was seemingly to work at Riot and belong to the company. He talked about the Manifesto, and I remember walking up to him afterwards and introducing myself and having a conversation about Day9 and StarCraft with him. He left me his business card and contact information.
I emailed him excitedly after the session, but never got a response. I tried to connect on LinkedIn as well, but the same response – none at all.
Well, I was disappointed. But, I moved on and looking back at it in my junior year, it had become an insignificant memory. I became the president of the CMU Debate Team, joined as a Teaching Assistant for our functional programming class, and later on interned at Uber ATG doing software engineering on the Scenario Engineering Team under the Simulation Department.
I remember being extremely stressed finding an internship for the summer after my sophomore year, but much to my surprise, I had already started getting emails for junior year summer internships beginning in July/August. I supposed that people were right – searching for jobs would become easier once I got older. I was scanning through my emails one day when a particular one caught my eye: it was from somebody named M.H., inviting me to apply to Riot Games.
At that moment, everything had come flooding back into me. I was so excited. I replied back, enthusiastic, ecstatic – yes! I’d love to apply! I’m interested!
It turns out M.H. had also been involved with the HSL/CSL organization and TESPA, and we bonded over this common connection. I started my interviews with Riot Games, and right after I had been informed that I had passed the first round, the Kotaku article came out.
The Kotaku Article
If you have never read the Kotaku article, you should. Here’s the link. The article details a culture of sexism that had manifested its ugly, rearing head at Riot Games; the article describes how “gamer bro culture” had contributed to a workplace at Riot Games that was falsely called meritocratic (claims of meritocracy that had attracted me to want to work there) but in reality was toxic and unwelcoming to women.
It was heartbreaking, honestly. I felt incredibly disillusioned. Riot Games had been my dream place to work. I ended up calling M.H., and we had talked for a while about what was actually going on at Riot Games. When I had made it to the on-campus interview round, I was upfront and asked each interviewer about their experience (the panel of three interviewers included one woman). The responses I got acknowledged that what the article talked about was problematic, and every person made sure to validate the accounts that were given in the article, and everybody was understanding of my hesitation and apprehension I had felt about potentially working at Riot Games. My friends who, previously had been extremely excited and impressed, were now wary of my potentially working there – one of them, while we were duoing, had said to me: “Grace, if you have any respect for yourself as a woman in this field, you shouldn’t go there. You do not deserve to be treated like that.”
But somehow, I still felt unsure. I believed everything I had read. I could understand it. I thought back to my experience as (to my knowledge) the only girl competing in that season of the HSL. They had put our real names on the HSL website, and with my name being “Grace” (a generally female-identifying name), I remember playing matches and having people message in-game: “Is there a girl on your team?”, “Is she cute?”, “Which one is she?”, or on occasion, “Is she a real girl?” (this during the time right after Scarlett had publicly transitioned, and the community and Twitch chat was frequently disgustingly transphobic). I have many thoughts about women in gaming, and I’ll likely write about that in a separate post, but I was intimately familiar with the gatekeeping mentality of not being “gamer enough”. In reality, very few gaming communities are like Day9’s utopia. Take a look at r/gaming and other game-specific subreddits, or jump into a Twitch chat for any major gaming event. Whenever I met somebody who was a gamer, I was quick to pull out my sort of “gamer credentials ID”: I had played StarCraft II (a real game, and it was a 1v1 game that nobody could boost me in) and I was highly ranked (I was actually good at the game), and not only that, but I used to compete in a league for it (I’m a serious gamer).
I remember actually talking about this in a 1:1 I had with one of my teammates, about how I always feel a need to immediately validate myself whenever I’m around a group of gamers, like preemptively showing a bartender my ID to verify I’m old enough for a swig. It’s like I’m always anticipating that sense of people believing I don’t belong, and I always feel a need to assert my “gamer-ness”. With playing League of Legends, whenever I told people how at the time I was Silver, I’d preface it with how I didn’t really play competitively (but, in the past, I did, and with a really hard and legitimate game!) and although I enjoyed playing Support, I always put my primary role as ADC whenever I queued and told others that’s what my main was.
Not only that, but I also remember first coming to CMU and feeling such an overwhelming sense of intimidation, lack of confidence, and sense of not belonging by witnesses the sheer capability of what felt like everybody surrounding me. I know what imposter syndrome is like. I feel it all the time. In the gaming community at least, I had a few cards I could play to assert that I did belong, and perhaps I could even argue how I belonged “more” than some others. I’ve had people meet me and hit on me as this “dream gamer girl”, or accuse me of putting on makeup just for attention (for this reason, I don’t think I will ever stream). From my experiences in the HSL, I’ve learned that the easiest way to cope (for me) was to just lie low and never identify as a girl online. But, I found myself gatekeeping other girls from the field: I remember watching the Team Siren promotional video and condemning them as attention whores, growing angry at girls who were streaming with visible cleavage and considering them to just be Kaceytron rip-offs who were just there to attract a few more viewers, and girls who would correct people saying things like “glhf boys” with “actually, I’m a girl” got an immediate mute from me in-game. I even victim-blamed a bit: for girls who had suffered harassment after joining voice communications, I would condemn them for even joining the chat in the first place. If you’re a girl gamer, you should just know that that’s clearly something you shouldn’t do, and I had no pity for somebody who had essentially brought it on themselves. I had a difficult dual-consciousness I had to internally reconcile with, because I also understood and had experienced first-hand the shameful reality of how women were treated in the gaming community. It’s an omnipresent force, and from even just logging into the client and looking at champion portraits, it’s clear to anybody how oppressive and sexualized the space that women in gaming are forced to exist in is. I had refused to acknowledge the very issues I was a victim of, and as a result, failed to even be an ally to myself. But, when what my trade was, when what I loved to do came face-to-face with what I enjoyed the most, when my career intersected with the gaming community, I couldn’t just ignore my position as a woman who was both a software engineer and a gamer. How could I want to work at a place that had a history of denying people like me a space to be myself, to deny people like me an opportunity to grow, to deny people like me even a chance to thrive? To invalidate women, discriminate against women, and invalidate good, honest work that was done by women for the gaming community is a monumental disservice of the highest degree to women who are fighting the right fight to have credit be given where it is due, and to the gaming space as a whole. Because this gaming community needs us. This gaming community was built on the shoulders of mostly men, but there were women among there too who were putting in more than their fair share of work even in the face of discrimination that was masked behind bro-culture gatekeeping, and if this community wants to thrive, improve, and grow, it needs women. They need women. They need us. This is an unalienable truth that the gaming community cannot deny. It is a disservice to the gaming community to treat women in this way. Gamers are doing a disservice to themselves by treating women in this way.
But at the same time, it was my dream place to work. I loved gaming. The person that I was had been shaped by my gaming experiences; the friends I surrounded myself with were born out of my gaming experiences; so much of the happiness I had experienced so far in my life came from my gaming experiences.
So, I took a chance. I remember two summers ago, I had cut off all of my hair into a pixie cut. Why? Because I had always wanted one, but I was afraid of whether it would be flattering. But, as long as I had never experienced it, I would constantly think to myself about the “what-if”. What is the worst that could happen? I’d have to grow my hair out, but afterwards, I’ll never think about wanting a pixie cut again. And, I did it.
I decided I wanted to go, to at least owe it to my younger self to see first-hand and experience what it is like to work at Riot Games. Perhaps it’ll be terrible, and worst case, it’s only a summer and then that’ll be it. I’ll know my end date when I walk in. And in the really worst case, I could quit early. This was highly unlikely, but it was possible.
And just like that, I became a part of the Class of 2019 Summer Interns.
This is what I experienced.
When you first join Riot Games, you go through an orientation period known as Denewb (Riot is full of these sort of cute names and conventions). I met other interns, and there were actually a few who had no experience playing League of Legends (but, the intern program leaders had reached out to them to help them set up accounts and get started playing the game). As a person who played League of Legends, I loved it. I loved walking in and seeing a giant Tibbers and Annie statue to immediately greet me; I found it cute that the program was called “Denewb”. But, I also noticed how those running the program took care to explain this gaming vernacular that I was already fluent in.
The intern program’s Denewb lasted for a few days. The purpose of the program is, in my opinion, to find a vocabulary that everybody knows and understands before we fully join Riot Games. This includes an understanding of the company’s culture and a mutual understanding of what to expect from others (and what others are expecting from us), and to align ideas about who Riot Games is. Of course, there was also quite a bit of fun and simply getting to know each other: we played in-house games in the PC Bang on Howling Abyss, played ice-breakers and shared stories about each other, and learned about the history of Riot Games (they have an interesting section where they discuss all of the company’s previous mistakes).
And, of course, we talked about the Kotaku article and the diversity and inclusion initiative at Riot Games.
One of the few things I noted about Riot Games was how openly people discussed the topic, and genuinely wanted to engage discourse. It wasn’t just mediated conversations with an overlooking D&I leader; even in quotidian conversations it was something that I and fellow interns had organically started talking about beginning at our Memorial Day BBQ right before our first day.
I definitely walked in as a cynic, and I perceived with a raised eyebrow the almost positivity that Riot discussed its culture of sexism with. Essentially, Riot acknowledged that they had made mistakes but instead were focused on bettering the company and becoming a more diverse and inclusive space. They saw this as an opportunity to become a leader in the space, and I remember even hearing once from a person in Denewb that it was a positive thing that the Kotaku article had been published, because now Riot’s culture had changed and it was now a chance to improve and grow. There had been a number of action items that had been completed since the article, including a revision of the Riot Games Handbook (think of this as an employee handbook) which included new policies that helped combat some of the factors that contributed to the sexist swamp that had been Riot’s culture, such as guidelines about dating in the workplace, and mandatory Ally Training classes (which the interns also had to complete). The treatment that Riot gave to D&I issues during Denewb excelled in successfully stressing its importance, having humility to acknowledge tremendous mistakes, and also portraying it as a current and salient issue, not just one from a “Riot of the past”.
But, I remember first coming in and still feeling quite unsatisfied. The Chief Diversity Officer, Angela Roseboro, came in for a Q&A session with us in which some interns pressed back hard about the fact that Scott Gelb was still hired at Riot Games. I remember Angela defending him and appealing to empathy, and how in fact Scott had spearheaded many of the D&I efforts at Riot and was a strong ally for D&I at the company. But I felt let down about this response. I can acknowledge that people change (although I still have some reserved feelings about what feels like a person turning over a new leaf only because he was exposed, and the outrage lit a fire underneath him to get his act together), and he can do good, and he is probably a human who isn’t fully deserving of the extent to which he is demonized, but all of this seemed tangential to what our dissatisfaction was. It’s not about what kind of person Scott is. He could be a saint. It’s instead about accountability. It’s about sending a message. How can somebody do such actions, and suffer only temporary consequences that will come and pass and remain in a position of power, while victims will still suffer from the consequences of what they experienced for the rest of their lives? It’s not about what he’s like now. It’s about holding those who acted in detestable ways accountable. Your actions have consequences, no matter who you are. If you fail to expel him from the company or give him any sort of permanent punishment, you are sending the message that if you are powerful enough, your actions might not have consequences.
That’s problematic on an incredible number of levels. You are no longer at a place that’s equitable and fair. There’s at least one person among you who is a god.
I left Denewb appreciative of the honesty and openness that Riot had towards its problems, but not completely satisfied. It was only after I met my team and started having conversations with individuals, one-on-one, that I started to feel more positively about the company.
To give some context, I was a software engineering intern on Esports Digital’s Gateway team. I was the only woman engineer when I started (there were two other women, one who was a development manager on my team, and another who was a product manager on Esports Digital’s Rewards and Achievements team, but they later on switched internally to other teams that better fit their career goals after our six-month milestone passed), and was the only woman in the entire initiative by the end. When I return, I will be the first female engineer the team has ever had.
My mentor was M.W., and he was four years older than me (and so was the same age as my older brother). He was an associate software engineer when I first started (he was promoted while I was there), and was just incredibly kind, empathetic, and supportive. He was knowledgeable and always gave me actionable feedback, and was constantly in communication with me about my progress, but also about how he could be doing better as a mentor. We had weekly 1:1s (we had a very similar walking pace, and so we’d have time for two complete loops around our building taking almost exactly 30 minutes to the dot), and I remember one of my first experiences that made me see him in a different light was when I was talking to him about my experience playing StarCraft II in the HSL. He had said to me, “I’m sorry you experienced that sort of sexual harassment”. I told him later on how that had taken me aback. I had literally never considered it to be harassment, because I was so ingrained in the gaming community I knew that, well, it seemed like just “boys being boys”. It was just how women in gaming were treated. It took me aback, because while we worked at a gaming company, M.W.’s standards for what was and wasn’t acceptable behavior wasn’t the standard of the gaming community. It was the standard that somebody who was a decent human being had, and how I treated wasn’t just “gamer bro culture” – it was harassment. He identified and called it exactly what it was, when even I had never done that.
M.W. continued to be an amazing mentor who was pretty involved with the Riot community and culture, and I had asked him what he had thought when the Kotaku article had come out and also about the walk-out. I remember one time looking over and seeing him reading the one year follow-up Cecilia (the author of the first Kotaku article) had written about Riot’s improvements. I frequently saw this, and noted how he seemed very invested in Riot and its culture. It was a totally different experience from what I had seen at any other company. I asked him if he thought about quitting. I asked this question to many people: I asked it to H.S., a senior software engineer on our team who mentored me quite a bit (and sends me very cute pictures of his cats), and also to M.K., one of the university program members. Pretty much all of them had said yes: they had seriously considered it. It mattered to them. It had been heartbreaking. They didn’t blame those who did leave. But, they had chosen to stay because they believed that Riot could do better.
There was one thing H.S. said (there are many things H.S. says that makes me see things differently) that really struck me. This culture of sexism at Riot that was revealed by Cecilia in an article she published on Kotaku could have just as easily been about any other gaming company. It’s not just a Riot problem. To call it just a Riot problem, and not a gaming industry problem (or tech industry problem) is dangerous. We have to acknowledge that uniquely good and bad actors don’t exist: that because Riot was exposed as a “bad actor”, this didn’t clear the name for other companies that didn’t have an article published about them. It doesn’t validate any other company in this space. This is a problem that every company is complicit with. This isn’t to dismiss what happened at Riot specifically as commonplace; this isn’t to invalidate the very real and damning accounts that were detailed in the article. That is what transpired, and it transpired at Riot. It was heartbreaking to acknowledge this about a place they had grown to love, and to also introspect and bear some of the implicit responsibility that comes with contributing to such a space. But, they wanted to stay and fix that. Riot was a place they loved. Because they loved it, they wanted to see it do better. If every good person who cared left Riot, there would be no hope for Riot. The company needs people like M.W., H.S., and M.K. to stay and be solid allies for the work ahead. They are people who are unafraid to identify and call things out for what they are, and unapologetic in holding those around them accountable.
They really cared. I also had a 1:1 with Victor, a researcher on my team, who had been closely involved and supportive of D&I efforts at the company and had even introduced me to another person who had helped organize the company walkout. They cared, this mattered to them, and they listened to me. Genuinely listened to me, validated my experiences and thoughts, and connected me with others who would be strong figures to get to know.
While I was there, Riot published this video on internship mentoring and at 0:38, you see two people, Y.C.T. and S.S., who appear on screen. Y.C.T. was S.S.’s mentor, who was an intern on Esports Digital the summer before. S.S. had actually returned, and I knew both Y.C.T. and S.S. (and sat right next to them). Y.C.T. is a strange person, but he’s genuinely kind, a hard worker, and extremely funny. S.S. was just a year older than me (and so was the person on the team I most saw as a peer), and has a way with talking that’s very warm (he always mentions your name in questions, like “Did you have fun today, Grace?”) and has kept friendships from high school strong (including his girlfriend, who he started dating in high school, had been long-distance with throughout undergrad with one person in southern California and the other in Georgia). I dyed my hair for the first time during the summer. I decided to dye it an ashy color, and I told S.S. about this. He then came to work the next day with temporary dye in his hair, and nonchalantly greeted me when I walked in. I laughed so hard that day. I’ve gone to that exact smoothie bar where Y.C.T. and S.S. are chatting with my mentor for a 1:1. My team might be all men, but they are all allies. They’ve treated me with so much respect and kindness, and there hasn’t been a day that’s gone by where I haven’t laughed hard about something (apparently many people in the building know who I am because I laugh so loudly and frequently).
These are the comments on the video I mentioned above. I remember feeling upset and frustrated, and talked with M.W. who felt similarly. I felt almost defensive of Riot, and it was the first time I had this moment where I felt like I was a part of Riot, and everybody else was an outsider. It was the first time I felt like a Rioter.
I remember I had a 1:1 with M.K. at the end of the year, and we talked not only about the internship experience and feedback for the program, but also about my own personal thoughts about the Kotaku article, the culture of sexism, my past in gaming, and the conversations and people I had met along the way. I remember it being a pretty emotional conversation, and I remember tearing up and thanking him (and the rest of the team) for giving me the opportunity to come to Riot and spend my summer there. He had responded by instead emphasizing, “No, thank you.” He told me how much he had enjoyed having me at Riot, and that I was an irreplaceable contribution to Riot’s culture and he hoped I’d return.
It wasn’t just him that told me this. Several people told me this, about how I had contributed to Riot’s culture in this meager three months I had been at the company – it really made me feel like I belonged and like I was wanted. I still had a lot to learn and prove for myself, but some of my last few moments at Riot Games were that of feeling completely and wholesomely welcomed.
I came in wanting to see what it was truly like to work at Riot Games. I left knowing what it was like to be a Rioter.
Since I worked in esports, I frequently ran into esports personalities and prominent figures, and every single time, I’d freak out (I got made fun of so much for this by my team). I once ran into Riv when I got locked out of the building, and he let me in. I had (as usual) freaked out at talking to him, and he asked me if I wanted a picture, and I declined because I didn’t want to delay him. When I told my team later on, they laughed and asked me, “How could you turn Riv down?” I had panicked and realized wait, that’s exactly what I had done. I was just being courteous! Of course I wanted a picture. Right before I left, I asked Riv if I could get a photo with him (I was so nervous to ask). Here’s the picture we took. We chatted a little bit (he agreed to meet me backstage despite casting for an event, hence his get-up) and even he knew me from my laugh! Riv, I want you to know you’re my favorite caster.
Also, I owe many thanks to L.A. – he helped me write the request to Riv to ask for a picture, and also came with me to go and get a picture with him. Thanks again!
Pros and Cons
Here’s my shortlist.
- People are awesome. Both the full-timers and interns are amazing. I made some of my best friends here. I already talked a huge amount about the people here, so I won’t go for too long, but it really is Riot’s highlight that probably no other company can quite beat (that together with the company culture).
- People genuinely care about Riot, and are invested in the company’s culture. They genuinely always want to see Riot do better.
- The internship program is well-run. There is a lot of mentorship (and a lot of fun activities). You’ll have so much fun you’re going to feel a bit guilty about it because you’re supposed to be working. And how could working be this fun?
- If you’re a fan of Riot’s games or are just invested in the gaming industry, there’s just simply the coolest shit ever going on at Riot. I’m so happy the Riot Games 10 Year Anniversary reveal happened, because now I can gush about just the awesome things that people are working about. I got to playtest some of the new games coming out, and all I can say is just, wow. We also saw a bit of Arcane, which I am the most excited for out of the insane amount of new projects Riot is juggling. You get to be somebody who contributes to and works on the things you’re a fan of – is that not every fan’s dream?
Cons (for the ones with an exclamation mark, there’s some other mixed thoughts about it though):
- There’s a pretty severe gender ratio.
- (!) Riot Games still definitely has a long way to go. Take this as you will: I think this combined with the fact that people at Riot genuinely care and are working hard, and so I think there’s a lot of room for growth. But, while I was incredibly impressed by individuals I’ve met on Riot, there’s certainly more that leadership can do to continue to steer the company in the right direction and make longer strides.
- (!) For somebody who is a software engineer, Riot Games is no huge tech company. It’s a gaming company. For example, for art, Riot is the top of the line for a career in the field. But, when it comes to engineering, you probably cannot just ubiquitously say that Riot is the place to be. It depends on what you’re looking for and what your goals are.
What I learned
I’ll probably make a separate post about the technical side of things (especially after I have a better idea of what I can and cannot talk about), but some of the technologies I worked with are Preact, JSX, and GraphQL. I made a “Jump to Start” on VODs on the watch platform, a new home page for the site, learned about the watch platform backend, and also helped create a new article format after migrating to a new CMS. So, I mostly worked on the front-end side – I had autonomy though to pick what I wanted to work on or learn about, but I chose to stay on front-end because that’s what my mentor worked on (so I’d rather stay on the same tasks and learn as much as I could). Later on, I was able to reach out to H.S. when I wanted to learn more about the back-end (and he also let me just stare at his screen as he walked through setting up a new monitoring system). When I return to the team, that’s what I’ll be working on.
I’ve talked extensively above about the culture and people of Riot, and how I have never been happier anywhere else. But probably here are some other reasons I also wanted to return besides that:
- There are some very talented engineers at Riot that are highly accessible. There isn’t some insurmountable difference in quality of engineers between Riot and another tech company; there are many people at Riot who have come from very well-known tech companies and have knowledge about what are “right” ways to approach building different products and solving problems (and so it’s knowledge specific to the individual, not necessarily the company). Not only that, but these engineers are very accessible – they are people you can ask to work with or be mentored by, and people at Riot are always super open to feedback and having 1:1s (Riot’s culture towards feedback was definitely something I found quite special).
- There’s a pretty good work-life balance at Riot, and this is definitely in part to good dev processes and our team lead being on top of keeping track of the team’s pulse and what our progress so far for our goals are (and adjusting easily). There’s daily stand-ups and the bi-weekly sprint pattern with a planning and retro meeting, all of which I actually do find pretty useful for ensuring there’s always plenty being tackled that we are interested in doing, but we’re not being overworked (and engineers have a lot of input into what is possible and what priorities are).
- General passion for the product. I remember when the 10 Year Anniversary announcements came out, I was so proud and was constantly telling my friends about say how I personally knew a person who appeared on stream, or how awesome a project was sure to be. There’s probably no other company whose products I’m more passionate about.
- The main thing I had heard people warn me about was that I’d be pigeon-holing myself by going into a gaming company as a software engineer, and it was better to go to a technology company for better compensation overall (it’s true that Riot can’t really compete with say the giant stock options and signing bonuses that tech giants boast). But, Riot still has pretty good engineering processes that they’re improving by the day, and as H.S. put it, there’s a lot at Riot that is still left to be done: in some ways, by working at a smaller company, I’ll be able to do more work and tackle more ambitious projects that a larger company’s bureaucracy wouldn’t quite give me access to (or perhaps it’s already been built and is mature at another place).
- Competitive compensation. Not too much more to say here.
- Santa Monica has beautiful weather. Also, it’s not too far from my brother which is a nice perk.
Some thoughts for prospective Rioters (internships):
- If you are a fan of League of Legends or just somebody where gaming is something which is important to you, you will love working at Riot. But, you don’t have to be a “gamer” or be highly ranked in League of Legends or even play the game at all in some cases (a few interns had never played the game before, but still 1) made huge contributions, 2) had a great time, and 3) got return offers) – but I would say (in my opinion) you should at least take gaming seriously and believe there is a really positive impact that the games and products we work on can have on the world.
- There are some really awesome people at Riot. That’s what really makes the experience, in my opinion. You’re going to find good friends and good mentors. Whether you’re at Riot or not, I think that the feedback culture and growth mindset Riot encourages is a positive one to maintain whether in your professional or personal life. I’d always recommend reaching out to people to ask them for their perspective or their two cents, and people are always open to have a 1:1 dropped into their calendar.
- In terms of applying, Riot’s internship program (this is from the perspective of a software engineering internship) has quite a few hoops you have to jump through. There are many technical rounds, and while they are lengthy, there’s nothing particularly special about them. I’d recommend any standard technical interview practice (work through HackerRank, Leetcode, or read CTCI) and make sure you’re communicating what you’re doing (and often times, the interviewers might chime in to help you a bit or give you feedback as you go). Perhaps the main thing Riot cares about is culture fit, and at least from the internship program standpoint, it does seem like culture fit means people who embody what we’d love to call a Rioter: somebody who is hard-working and excels at what they do, kind, friendly, growth-oriented, and believing of Riot’s mission (and not just a “gamer bro” stereotype). I definitely found that every intern was empathetic and thoughtful. It was an amazing cohort of interns. You should not gatekeep yourself out from applying to Riot Games because you don’t think you’re enough of a gamer. If you fit the above but say, don’t play a huge amount of League of Legends, you should apply anyways – weeding yourself out is doing a disservice to the company that would likely have loved to have somebody like you.
- Re: sexism. This is what I mostly wanted to write this post for, and I offer here just one perspective. Don’t just take mine. Ask others. I encourage you to do what I did, and find out for yourself what you believe the culture of Riot to be like and whether it’s a good fit for you. You don’t owe Riot anything; you don’t necessarily owe Riot a chance – but if you’re a bit like me, and perhaps your passions and interests are a bit like me, I think you should give it a chance. I had a very positive experience, and while I am not redeeming the company or clearing its name (I also acknowledge there is still quite a bit of work to be done), I found a supportive environment where I could thrive. There’s a danger in the single story and so I encourage you to find other narratives. But, I hope mine was helpful to you.
Here are some bonus images from my time there.
When I first joined, I got to test Proview and so I played on the LCS stage while we made sure that the product worked as intended. Here’s me from the stage:
Here’s the view from the balcony of my building:
My mentor also made it to the finals of the Masters Rumble Tournament (Rumble is Riot’s internal in-house tournament, and it’s split into different leagues for Bronze, Silver, Gold, etc.). Here’s us cheering him on from the stage:
I just casually ran into Kurt Hugo Schneider:
My birthday passed, and then I also went to A-Frame (one of the Worth It locations) with my friends:
I also went to Anime Expo:
And lastly, found an injured bird and took care of it on my apartment balcony:
GG Riot! Until next time!