I first started in the video game industry with Blizzard Entertainment in 2005 as the Marketing Director for the Korea office. World of Warcraft took the video game world by storm. Blizzard’s StarCraft was so popular in Korea that it was referred to as the “National Pastime,” just like baseball is in the US. It was rare to find young men who did not know how to play StarCraft. Even if one didn’t play StarCraft, almost everyone knew of the game regardless of age and gender.
I landed a dream job. As a gamer, Blizzard’s games brought so much joy to me. As a business professional, I believed that video games would lead to future entertainment, and Blizzard was at the forefront. Blizzard was not just developing games, but it was building a lifestyle and culture. I spent endless days, weekends, and nights just working and gave my all. A few years later, I was promoted to the Managing Director of Korea.
In 2009, another opportunity came my way. Blizzard was opening an office in Singapore to enter Southeast Asia. The fact that I could open a new market and build a business from scratch was so exciting. Moreover, I had fond memories of Singapore. While I was in elementary school, my family briefly lived in Singapore, thanks to my father’s work. It was the first time we lived abroad, and it opened my eyes to an exciting world beyond my imagination. Singapore’s subtropical warm air created positive memories of my childhood. Having this opportunity to return to a country that made so many positive childhood memories felt like a sign. My wife and I had been trying to have a child for a long time, and my wife felt mentally exhausted and wanted a change of environment from the hustle and bustle of Seoul. As my wife also welcomed the opportunity, there was no reason to hesitate.
In January 2010, we moved from Seoul to Singapore. When we landed at the Changi Airport, the unique scent of Southeast Asia and the year-round heat and humidity surrounded us. We checked in at the hotel and grabbed a bite to eat. We talked about how excited and thankful we were to go on a new adventure as we toasted with our beers. While Seoul was frozen with sub-zero weather, it was warm where we were both inside and outside. We still reminisce and remember the smell and feel when we walked around Orchard with our short sleeves clothing, glowing with gratitude and anticipation.
It was spring in 2010. I had lunch with an industry acquaintance at an Italian restaurant. “Have you heard about Riot Games?” he asked as the meal was almost over. “Of course. It is a US company that developed League of Legends,” I answered. He told me that Riot Games was currently looking for the Country Manager of Korea and recommended me to Riot. I was a little surprised, but I was also flattered that he’d think of me.
He continued to share more about Riot. I attentively listened, and I thanked him for the opportunity, but I told him that I recently moved to Singapore to focus on my new job and was not yet ready to move back to Korea.
A few months later, I met my acquaintance again at the same Italian restaurant. At the end of the meal, he asked if I had further considered his proposal about Riot Games. I respectfully declined like the last time, but he did not give up. Instead, he asked me if I’d be open to a casual meet-and-greet. Riot wanted advice on the Korean market, and the request seemed simple to do, so I agreed.
Meeting the Future Industry Leaders
A few months passed, and I had an opportunity to visit the Riot Games office located in Culver City, California. Riot Games was in an office complex that you’d see in any city. However, it was plain compared to the impressive Blizzard campus in Irvine.
I approached the reception desk and asked for Brandon Beck and Nicolo Laurent. Brandon was the co-founder of Riot Games, and Nicolo was the Head of International. Marc Merill, the other co-founder, was on a business trip, so I connected with him via Skype later. After a few minutes, Brandon and Nicolo greeted me. My first impression was that both looked like young Hollywood actors (I remember when the legendary esports caster, Jeon Yong Joon, first saw Nicolo, he said, “Wow, you look like Tom Cruise!”).
After brief introductions, we went into Brandon’s office. We talked about the Korean video game market from the latest trends, popular games, game regulation, and the characteristics of Korean players. Brandon and Nicolo also shared a lot about Riot. Next, they talked about how League of Legends was doing in North America and Europe. Finally, they shared their vision and ambitions for the Korean market. It was so fascinating and exciting. Riot was a vibrant start-up with so much energy and a positive vibe.
What I planned to be a 30-minute meet-and-greet turned out to be over two hours. As we were walking out of the office, Brandon mentioned, “It would be great to have some like you running Korea. I hope that we have an opportunity to work together.” I was surprised by the comment but thankful that they thought of me so positively.
A few days after I returned to Singapore, Nicolo emailed me asking to chat. When we spoke, he offered me the Country Manager of Korea position. I was highly impressed by Marc, Brandon, and Nicolo, so I was attracted to the opportunity. But it wasn’t the right time, so I had to decline.
The Decision of a Lifetime
It was winter, although it felt like the middle of summer in tropical Singapore. Nicolo asked to have a follow-up call. He strongly urged me to reconsider. This time, things felt different. After the meeting in Culver City, I kept thinking about Riot’s vision to be the most player-focused game company in the world. As a gamer, it resonated with me to the core.
Most importantly, the three leaders left a deep impression on me. Having worked at a few companies, I learned that what matters most is who I work with. My interest grew the more I interacted with them.
It is still a mystery to me how I made that leap of faith back then. My decision could have been wrong, and it was a bet. I went from the most successful video game company to an unknown start-up. In 2010, Riot was slowly getting its name out there, but it was far from a success.
What I know is that I had a conviction about the leaders. They were trustworthy people with character that I held in high regard. I felt that our values were aligned. I also believed in the vision, the culture, and League of Legends.
Another critical factor was Nicolo’s vision to create a truly global company. He firmly believed in the empowered model of hiring talented local professionals, giving them clear guidelines, and empowering them to make and own their decisions. Nicolo made promises that he kept.
While I was having discussions with Riot, my father was diagnosed with cancer. I went back and forth between Singapore and Korea to support my parents, and I wanted to be closer to them.
My wife was initially hesitant about Riot. At the time, I was a leader at the most successful video game company, and my wife and I were blessed with our first child that we had been waiting a long time for. It was a period in which we reached stability in our lives, and significant changes were a risk. There was no guarantee that Riot would be as successful or even come close to Blizzard. There were countless cases where foreign video game companies launched or opened offices in Korea, only to shut down shortly afterward. This was not out of the question for Riot. Korea was considered the “cemetery of foreign video games” at the time. The market was dominated by top Korean game companies such as NCSoft, Nexon, Neowiz, and NHN. As a result, almost all foreign games shut down. The only foreign company to survive was Blizzard.
My wife was worried that Riot could end up like the other foreign companies and that I could lose my job when we had a newborn enter our family. But at that most critical juncture, my wife put aside her worries and said, “I trust you and your decision. We are going to make bold decisions that we are proud of.” With those words, I said “Yes!” to Riot.
A year and four months after our stay in Singapore, my family moved back to Seoul in May 2011. It was challenging the make the over-the-ocean move so soon once again, especially with a baby who was only a few months old. But on June 13, 2011, I started at Riot Games. It was the day after my birthday. “I am going to give it my all as if I had a new life,” I promised myself as I entered the Riot office.
I Can’t Forget the First Riot Seoul Office.
When I first started, there were already three Rioters in the Seoul Office. The office was in a dark back alley. It was quite different from the offices that I worked in in the past.
I still vividly remember my first impression. The building was small, worn out, and old. Unlike what I commonly experienced in my previous jobs, this one didn’t have any lobby, security kiosks, and an information desk. Instead, there was just a tiny space for a security guard and a small elevator that tightly fit four people. The Riot office was on the second floor, so I took the stairs, but the stairs were so tight that I had to twist my body against the wall if someone was coming down.
When I opened the door, I could smell the old musky scent from the air conditioner. The office was disorganized, slightly dirty with coffee stains and pen marks on the tables and chairs, and a world apart from the experience that I enjoyed at my previous job. I had to ask myself, “Did I come to the right place?”. When I asked my colleagues why we decided to rent this space rather than a WeWork-type space, they explained it was an easy way to save money. They informed me that the previous company that utilized the space left the desks and chairs when they moved, which was a big plus.
Although I was taken aback by the Riot office, the reasons resonated with me. We were a start-up, and the humble, hungry mindset was necessary. I strongly felt that the approach of starting low without being flashy and moving up with progress was the right one. If it were my money, that is precisely how I’d use it.
However, the office made recruiting difficult. At first, we invited the applicants to our office. Even though they tried, they could not hide their surprise when they entered. The conversion rate was low. It was understandable that top candidates who worked at premium offices with top-tier benefits did not want to downgrade.
After learning from our failures, we changed our strategy by meeting at a Starbucks close to the office. We bought them blue muffins, espresso drinks, and even sparkling water. As a result, applicants seemed more at ease, and the conversion rate increased. I was just relieved that the candidates were not running away. Also, I was thankful to my colleagues who interviewed at the office and accepted the offer. When we built rapport and trust as colleagues, I’d joke, “I guess you were desperate for a job, huh?” with a grin on my face.
Fast forward several years, Riot Games Seoul Office is at a brand-new building that is considered one of the best office buildings in the country today. The interior looks something out of a magazine overlooking the Han River. The benefits and features of the office are at least at par with companies in Silicon Valley with a barista and even a soundproof music listening room with speakers that BTS would use. We used to tell each other, “We will one day move to a much better place from this old building.” That came to reality. I am grateful. Progress is more precious because we had a humble beginning. We cannot forget those days … days when we were hungry and humble.
Whenever I went on a business trip to Seoul, I’d always take a walk to the old building. I’d eat at the ox bone soup (Seol lung tang) restaurant across the building and reminisce about the good old days. I vividly remember Rioters entering the building. I feel fortunate that those old memories give me a feeling of warmth and put a big smile on my face.