League of Legends developer Riot Games is asking employees at its Los Angeles headquarters to return to the office, without requiring masks or COVID-19 vaccines, prompting employee fears and even some resignations, according to two current employees and one former employee who talked to Waypoint.
“I'm angry over it,” said a current Riot employee, who asked to remain anonymous over worries of retaliation. “It's a foolish and pointless policy being done at a poor time, and being handled without real guarantee of our safety. We're just playing Russian roulette with Rioters’ health.”
The biggest video game productions are made by thousands of workers, most of whom were working in large offices prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. For the past two years, they’ve transitioned to remote work, leaving game companies struggling to know when employees should head back to the office in the midst of the ebbs and flows of COVID-19, or if the largely successful transition to hybrid and remote work requires a more permanent change.
Recently, Riot Games chief security officer Christopher Hymes sent a Slack message to employees who work out of the League of Legends developer’s Los Angeles, California office, announcing that Riot was dropping office mask mandates, among other changes to its existing COVID-19 policy. Hymes told employees Riot is also dropping required testing for employees who have not provided proof of vaccination, and said the mask change came because Los Angeles was dropping indoor mask mandates.
The changes came alongside Riot’s broader push to return to its Los Angeles office, which started this week and will continue rolling out, based on the demands and needs of individual projects. Anyone assigned to the Los Angeles office must be in the office on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, with Monday and Friday being flexible work from home days.
“Early on in the pandemic, we committed to following the public health recommendations from state and local government entities. Recently, state and local regulations have updated their COVID-19 recommendations, including vaccination and mask mandate requirements, so Riot followed their lead,” a Riot Games Spokesperson told Waypoint in a statement. “In accordance with LA County health orders, Riot strongly encourages, but does not require, all individuals to wear a face covering while on Riot’s property. That said, we know that some Rioters will feel more comfortable wearing masks, and we want our campus to be a place where people feel safe to take whatever precautions best fit their needs. We are encouraging Rioters to have open communication and to be empathetic and accommodating toward those colleagues who prefer masking up.”
Riot Games also said it’s seen “a lot of enthusiasm” from employees about coming back to the office, and outlines additional measures the company is taking to keep workers safe. These measures include a partnership with an outside janitorial team that provides COVID-19-specific cleaning protocols, a MERV rated air filtration system, contact tracing, daily health risk assessment to enter the campus, and free N95 masks to those who want them.
If you work at a video game company and they’re rolling out return to office policies, I want to hear what those conversations are like. My secure email is email@example.com and my Signal number is 224-707-1561.
It’s important to make clear the fact that Riot Games is operating exactly as the local government in Los Angeles is expecting it to, and providing additional safety measures. While many workers across the country who have been working from home for two years are wondering why they’re being asked to return to the office while new strains of COVID-19 are still spreading and case rates are going up in some areas, Riot Games and other companies are following instructions from the WHO, CDC, OSHA, and state and local health authorities.
The tension playing out here, at Activision Blizzard, and society writ large is a bigger one without easy answers: a restructured power balance between employees and employers as a result of sustained remote work and whether governments—local and federal—are changing COVID-19 policies for health reasons or economic and political pressures.
We don’t know how these policies are playing out across other Riot offices around the world, including Japan and Singapore. All of Waypoint’s sources were working out of Los Angeles.
“The return to office always loomed over Rioter's heads as we went through 2020 and 2021 in a work from home environment,” said one former Riot employee to Waypoint, who later left the company because of how it was handling return to office policies, and asked to remain anonymous to avoid impacting their current career prospects.
“While we hate to lose valuable team members, we’ve always expected that some Rioters would choose to leave because they wanted to work remotely on a permanent basis,” a Riot spokesperson said. “One of the reasons we’ve been so transparent about our approach is to ensure that Rioters are armed with all of the information they need to make career decisions that are right for them.”
Riot’s optional masking rule applies regardless of the vaccination status, though anyone who’s had close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID is required to wear a mask for 10 days. It also stipulates those who test positive should not come into work, though there appears to be no way to ensure employees are reporting symptoms, positive cases, or close contacts, according to workers we talked to. The company is also dropping required weekly COVID testing, even if the employee has not provided a vaccination status.
Additionally, noted Hymes, Riot employees were encouraged to ask non-masked employees to wear one, if it made them more comfortable, putting the onus on employees, not company, to keep them safe. As mentioned, the company does have masks on-site for those who don’t have or forget one.
“If I have a one-hour meeting with 10 people, and seven aren't wearing masks,” said one source, “it will take an inordinate amount of time for all seven to go get masks and return, wasting a lot of the meeting time. Which everyone will certainly remember is my fault.”
Despite dropping mask, testing, and vaccination requirements, office workers will be required to carry around an RFID tag for contact tracing, two Riot employees told Waypoint. The RFID tag, which many carry around with their building access card, is unobtrusive, and in theory, a useful way to help workers navigate ongoing COVID-19 spread.
“A couple times I've received emails about ‘someone on campus you walked by had COVID’ and I appreciate getting that notification,” said one source, who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak on the company’s behalf. “Unfortunately, as you might guess, all of this is now entirely predicated on self-reporting, since there are no covid safety mandates basically. So who knows how useful those'll be now.”
The reliance on self-reporting, and the ways people are unable to comply with basic social distancing within the office itself, has been a source of contention for workers Waypoint spoke to.
“There are signs strongly encouraging social distancing everywhere, but no practical way to do this at lunch,” said one employee. “There just isn't enough space. They set up a huge swathe of additional outdoor seating, but the indoor seating is still packed. I'm not concerned that the RFID tags are tracking my bathroom breaks or anything, but I am annoyed by them, their inconsistency, and the ease which many people simply can ignore them, thus breaking the whole value of their use in the first place.”
The company is providing exemptions for some teams and individuals to skirt the return to office requirements, but everyone Waypoint spoke with found the process confusing.
“People across the company were being given exceptions based on their merit with co-workers,” said one Riot employee who attempted to pivot to remote work before quitting because of the company’s return to office policies.
“Reasonable accommodations based on medical needs are part of a formalized process that is managed by the Benefits team. If a Rioter believes that they have circumstances that prohibit them from being able to return to campus - such as certain medical conditions or medical caretaking responsibilities—we encourage them to share those concerns with their manager and HR business partner to discuss what accommodations or leaves are available based on their specific needs,” Riot’s spokesperson said. “We know that every individual’s situation is different, so all requests are evaluated on a case by case basis.”
In January, Riot temporarily expanded what the company called its “queue dodge” program, which is meant to allow new hires to leave the company within the first six months with a percentage of their salary and COBRA benefits, if things don’t seem like they’re working out. This expanded version of the program applied to anyone at the company, however long.
That expansion ended before Riot announced its new return to office policies.
“We opened the Queue Dodge window for several weeks and all Rioters had the opportunity to take advantage of it, no questions asked,” the Riot spokesperson said. “Overall, 4% of eligible Rioters opted into Queue Dodge, which is about the same rate of attrition we tend to see around that same time of the year when bonuses are distributed.”
The new return to the office policies also come after the company recently shut down a Slack channel employees previously used to directly ask Riot management questions. The “Riot Unplugged” Slack channel, as it’s called, was created in response to a 2018 Kotaku article exposing the company’s toxic culture, one that resulted in a $100 million class action lawsuit settlement in late 2021. For two hours every two weeks, workers could use the Slack channel to ask executive questions.
“While those answers weren't always good, it was a nice release valve more or less,” said one source.
One Riot employee told Waypoint that the channel “got less spicy” since 2018, and eventually evolved into a series of issue-specific meetings and other Slack channels.
The sources Waypoint talked to didn’t say that the decision to shut down “Riot Unplugged” has anything to do with the return to office policies, but that it was “timely.”
“Do I think it was shut down to quell complaints? Probably. Were those specifically RTO complaints? I don't think so,” one source said. “It's standard C-suite lockdown bullshit, I think.”
“The deletion of the direct feedback/communication channel is certainly timely (and annoying), it wasn't because of this,” said another source. “Annoyingly timely though.”
After this story was first published a Riot spokesperson reached out to reiterate that there are still Slack channels for Riot employees to ask executives questions.
"This change was made as we moved into our new operating model in 2022, in which the company is organized into five pillars (Games, Esports, Entertainment, Publishing and Enterprise)," the spokesperson said. "With that move, we created dedicated slack channels for each so that questions could be more easily directed to the senior executives and subject matter experts who can best answer them."
Riot worker anxieties come just days after Activision Blizzard employees staged a virtual walkout over the company rolling out a similar set of criticized policies, prompting the company to walk things back and allow individual studios within Activision Blizzard to set policies.
For the moment, Riot is pushing forward, and people are headed back to the office.
“It feels to me that Riot's leadership has invested heavily in a large campus and so they feel they need to use the large campus,” said one source.