CASE STUDY: Culture Change and Inclusion at Riot Games

June 9, 2020

CASE STUDY: Culture Change and Inclusion at Riot Games

In the summer of 2018, the Riot Games leadership team members experienced every modern CEO’s nightmare: they woke up to a breaking news story alleging that a broken, sexist culture had emerged on their watch. A few days later, the company issued a public apology and vowed to address the roots of the problem. Riot was known for its loyalty to players of its blockbuster game League of Legends, and the company pledged to bring the same level of devotion and empathy to its relationship with employees. It was a sincere, full-throated commitment to change and the reason we agreed to work with the team. Riot’s leaders were clear that the assumptions and behaviors that got them here needed real reform.

The team’s first step was to actively listen. In the days following the article’s release, company leadership met with hundreds of Rioters in small, interactive sessions to discuss what had gone wrong. A theme that emerged during these emotional conversations was frustration with a high-octane, “bro culture” that hadn’t evolved along with the company. Riot began as a scrappy, disruptive startup. Its handful of employees identified as underdogs in the gaming industry, channeling passion and ambition into better serving their fellow gamers. The language of an early Riot Manifesto focused on animating behaviors like “challenge convention.” As the company scaled to a workforce of thousands, however, the context surrounding these behaviors was lost. “Challenge convention” turned into “challenge everything.” “Take Play Seriously” became license to marginalize colleagues who weren’t considered true gamers, a subjective category that too often excluded women.

In addition to listening, Riot leadership commissioned a companywide survey—drafted by a newly formed cultural transformation team—that asked about the culture that would enable Riot to deliver resonant game experiences over the long term. The survey was simple and direct, just three questions:

  • Describe the core values you believe would foster the ideal company culture for Riot. Be as specific and descriptive as you like!
  • Which elements of Riot’s current culture are preventing you from experiencing the culture you just described?
  • Which elements of Riot’s current culture do you observe are preventing others from experiencing the culture you just described?

Survey responses were raw and real, revealing widespread discomfort with the status quo and a hunger for a more collaborative work environment. Many respondents expressed a desire to scale the company’s original vision in more inclusive ways, to adapt its founding values to the diverse workforce Riot needed to achieve its ambitions. One respondent summarized the aspirations of the larger team: “The best version of Riot is a place where Rioters come together with the shared goal of delivering unforgettable experiences for players . . . Our shared passion for games unites us toward a common goal, but our diversity is our strength. Each Rioter has their own wealth of experience and perspective, and an equal seat at the table.” 

Finally, all employees were invited to optional cultural “visioning” sessions, where they were encouraged to revisit the original Riot Manifesto, an exercise rich with symbolism. The manifesto was the company’s most important cultural artifact, and employees were given the mandate to change it, to even blow it up if necessary. Armed with pens and paper, they were asked to design a better culture for themselves and their teammates, one where everyone had an equal opportunity to thrive.

To our surprise, Rioters overwhelmingly wanted to retain the core of the company’s original vision. There was broad agreement that many of Riot’s founding values were still relevant if truly actualized—if the company truly walked the talk—and if these values were reconciled with what Riot had become, a company now positioned not only to disrupt but also to lead. Today’s Riot needed to innovate and execute with excellence, to embrace creativity and collaborate broadly, to take exquisite care of players and each other. These had been trade-offs in the past, but that tension had become untenable.

In December, a few months after the original article was published, Riot leaders shared their new cultural values with the company. Gone was the term manifesto, with its suggestion of revolutionary zeal, but many other words were familiar. Player experience was still paramount, but language that had been used to undermine trust or justify exclusion had been struck. A new commitment to “thrive together” felt particularly important to people.

The updated values informed the rest of the company’s culture change priorities, including the addition of a new chief people officer and chief diversity officer. This new leadership team (two women, one of them a woman of color) proceeded to assess all hiring practices and performance management systems. They invested in an educational foundation for all employees on how to build inclusive, high-performing teams. Their mission was to help create a reality that matched the height of the company’s new ideals.

Most exciting to us, Riot’s ambition on inclusion has moved beyond its own organizational boundaries. As the company continues to promote belonging inside Riot, Riot leaders have doubled down on fostering inclusion more broadly. The company is leading an initiative to build a working group for diversity and inclusion (D&I) professionals in gaming, and representation in its own games—played by over 80 million people a month—is taken as seriously as other creative priorities. As a result, female characters and characters of color have been given more prominence in the company’s games. Queer love stories have begun to show up in games’ elaborate backstories. A full- time role focused on inclusion in products has been added to Riot’s dedicated D&I team, a role unique to the company, as far as we know. 

Although Riot is proud of its history of representation, these efforts have new resonance. They also reinforce what we love most about culture change: you can’t contain it. Culture changes the people it touches, and culture change transforms them. The people touched by Riot’s extraordinary culture journey are becoming culture warriors themselves.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Adapted from UNLEASHED: The Unapologetic Leader's Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You by Frances Frei and Anne Morriss. Copyright 2020 Frances Frei and Anne Morriss. All rights reserved.

The Authors: 

Frances Frei is a professor at Harvard Business School and recently served as Uber’s first Senior Vice President of leadership and strategy. 

Anne Morriss is the Executive Founder of The Leadership Consortium. 

Frei and Morriss are coauthors of Uncommon Service.