A pleasantly arresting aroma of coffee and bourbon envelops visitors long before they walk into Bilgewater Brew.
The coffeehouse has cheery baristas and a pastry chef who prepares java-friendly snacks such as vegan, keto and gluten-free muffins. The theme is pirate nautical, complete with dripping water sound effects.
Coffee quaffers settle into tall booths assembled from old bourbon barrels still wafting their tangy caramel scent, adding smell to the sensory re-creation of Bilgewater, a dangerous port city in the mythical universe of video game “League of Legends.”
The game is an online juggernaut, played around the clock and around the globe by millions of fans since 2009 while spinning off popular related properties including esports tournaments and a television show for its creator, Riot Games.
But, like Bilgewater’s murky streets, the coffee shop isn’t a place you can drop by in real life because it exists inside the newly expanded Riot Games headquarters as a no-money-required perk for employees and guests.
The Los Angeles company has quietly grown into one of the region’s largest office tenants at nearly 1 million square feet, with more on the way as the video game industry evolves into a major economic player in Southern California. At the same time, Riot Games and the rest of the industry have been roiled by competition, a nascent labor movement and allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination.
Landlords eager to rent blocks of office space are courting nearly 150 gaming companies in the region including giants Riot Games and Activision Blizzard, maker of “Call of Duty” and “World of Warcraft.”
Los Angeles and Orange counties make up one of the dominant hubs of gaming content creation and esports, inhabiting 3.1 million square feet of offices in 2020. That total reflected growth of nearly 70% in five years, real estate brokerage CBRE said in a September report that estimated Riot Games annual revenue at $1.7 billion. Riot Games is a private company and does not disclose revenue.
Riot Games headquarters on Olympic Boulevard in West L.A. is nearly invisible to passersby, much of it a discreetly walled-off campus where security is tight to safeguard work that can mushroom far beyond gaming into the riches promised by TV and film.
The Times got a rare look inside Riot Games’ home base, which gives off distinct movie studio vibes; among its showbiz elements are three theaters, two of which were previously used by legendary movie directors James Cameron and George Lucas.
There’s also a dining commissary called Noms that includes one of the biggest commercial kitchens on the Westside, serving a wide range of fare that changes daily and is provided free to the company’s 3,100 employees, as are the drinks and snacks at Bilgewater and a smoothie bar. Also there for the taking are cereals, coffee, packaged snacks and other prepared fare at small food stations scattered throughout the sprawling campus.
A spot that does open to the public is a spacious auditorium built for esports competition, where audiences watch professional teams of gamers clash on the virtual fields of “League of Legends.” Championship banners for such winners as Evil Geniuses and powerhouse Team SoloMid adorn the walls.
Their competitions are broadcast internationally. More than 10 million players in China compete at “League of Legends” daily and the game is so popular in South Korea that it produces many of the world’s best professionals in the esport.
In tribute, the Riot Games campus includes a re-creation of a Korean gaming hall called PC Bang, where employees can play multiplayer computer games such as “League of Legends” for an hourly fee. Rioters, as company employees are known, can get a feel of how their games are experienced by many Asian fans. Sit-down Mario Cart games are there to hop on just for the heck of it, and there’s an old-fashioned arcade around the corner.
Rioters can also play video games going back to the dawn of the industry in a library with decades of titles famous and obscure that may hold useful inspirations for elements of new games. The game library includes fat, old-technology televisions to play them on, which is sometimes necessary with titles such as 1984’s popular shooter “Duck Hunt” that interact with their cathode-ray tubes.
Another room has a custom-built table for playing “Dungeons & Dragons” and other tabletop games. Giant statues of Annie and Tibbers, characters from “League of Legends,” guard the main lobby and statues of other well-known characters pop up elsewhere. Rooms have been set aside for meditation and yoga.
“The campus is sort of a balance between fun and productivity,” Riot Games President Dylan Jadeja said. “You’re trying to make sure people are able to get the most out of their time while they are here” without feeling like the company is trying to squeeze the most work out of them that it can.
“We need it to be organic. That’s the nature of our product,” he said. “It has to happen from the people.”
Other employee perks include indoor and outdoor gyms, a track and a basketball court that is now occupied by tented seating to increase outdoor dining capacity during the pandemic. Food-snatching pigeons are kept intimidated and at bay by swooping hawks Melvin, Maya and Mowgli managed by a falconer. The humane bird abatement method is also employed at the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.
For bike commuters and surfers who catch waves before work, there are lockers, showers and bike storage with repair facilities. For mothers, there are spacious lactation rooms.
New hires eventually stumble across the secret “library,” a lounge behind a hidden door with plush leather furniture and a faux fireplace. It can be used for relaxation or meetings, including gatherings of the beer club or the scotch guild, whose members gather for tastings and camaraderie.
Although the campus might strike workers who toil in conventional offices as unconscionably cool, Jadeja insists the features are appropriate for a successful tech company that wants to attract good talent.
It’s important that the office environment is a source of pride for Rioters, he said. “The flip side is, you also don’t want it to be a place that goes over the top, where there’s slides and swimming pools. We never went ‘massage parlor in every corner’ and all that stuff because we felt like that wasn’t authentic to who we are.
“We’re sort of still a well-funded startup,” he said of Riot Games, which is owned by Chinese technology and entertainment conglomerate Tencent. “Our aspirations are still sort of impossible,” he said. The engaging campus “helps us collaborate.”
As office campuses go, it’s a big one with 900,000 square feet spread among multiple buildings owned by different commercial landlords. The first buildings were identified with the letters on the keyboard used to play “League of Legends”: Q, W, E, R, D, and F.
Other letters were added as new buildings were rented, and prominently ahead is Y — offices in a mixed-use complex called West Edge nearing completion at Olympic Boulevard and Bundy Drive. The site was familiar to Westsiders for decades as a Martin Cadillac car dealership.
Near the Expo/Bundy Metro station, West Edge will have 600 apartments, a grocery store, shops, restaurants and nearly 200,000 square feet of office space that has all been rented to Riot Games. It is slated for completion by early next year.
After working remotely during the pandemic, Rioters returned to their offices last month on a Tuesday-through-Thursday schedule. They can also come in Mondays and Fridays if they want to.
The team managed to perform well outside of the office when they had to, Jadeja said, but it wasn’t the optimum way to operate.
“Strategically, we felt that the collaboration model, the creativity that we needed in our business and the spirit of our company necessitated in-office culture,” Jadeja said.
The company spent $100 million improving its rented spaces to create an environment that conjures pleasant aspects of college, he said, “the nostalgic elements of walking across the campus at any school and running into friends and stopping.”
There are also 240 conference rooms that can be reserved electronically with names referencing Riot Games fantasy properties including “Valorant,” a first-person shooter game launched in 2020 with more than 15 million monthly players.
“Valorant” competitions will include events for women and other marginalized genders, the company said in a February announcement.
Riot Games has labored in recent years to address allegations of a sexist “bro culture” at its headquarters that included women being passed over for promotions, unwanted sexual advances and men questioning women about the legitimacy of their video game fandom.
The company agreed in December to pay $100 million to settle a class-action lawsuit filed in 2018 alleging pay disparity, gender discrimination and sexual harassment.
In a statement at the time, Riot said the company “was at the heart of what became a reckoning in our industry” and it “hadn’t always lived up to our values.”
According to 2020 statistics in the company’s last diversity and inclusion report, 24% of employees are women and 29% of the executive team are women after new hiring practices were put in place.
Diversity and inclusion “is not meant to be a crisis function, but rather a business strategy, and we have to constantly be present and active in bringing it to the forefront of everything we do,” Chief Diversity Officer Angela Roseboro said in a statement.
One uncommon expense Riot Games took on building out its offices was laying power and data cables under the floor in large expanses of open offices. Portable walls and full-sized heavy desks with monitors are mounted on wheels and can be quickly rolled into clusters for team projects nearby or across the campus.
The setup costs as much as 15% more than a typical office and first seemed like an extravagant expense, Jadeja said, but the fluidity allows teams to rapidly huddle and work on urgent issues such as a glitch in a game that is frustrating players.
Video game companies have needs beyond those of typical office tenants, said Greg Lovett of real estate brokerage Cresa, who represents gaming industry tenants.
Among their needs are lots and lots of power, with enough circuits to prevent work-halting overloads and backup generators if they’re operating live games. Riot Games’ headquarters is a global broadcasting hub and has a backup generator for its backup generators, the company said.
Gaming tenants need to be able to operate heating and air conditioning around the clock, Lovett said, and have enough privacy to protect the secrecy of their projects, which can climb in value well beyond their gaming applications.
Fantasy worlds created for games have enormous fan bases that movie and television producers have grown eager to capitalize on, Lovett said.
Netflix streams the animated series “Arcane,” a spinoff of “League of Legends” with a 100% rating from Rotten Tomatoes and a second season in the works. Another recent hit for Netflix was “The Witcher,” a fantasy series based on a role-playing video game
“Halo,” a military science fiction television series streaming on Paramount+, is based on the popular “Halo” video game franchise created by Bungie.
“The big hit is when you take your original intellectual property and do multiple things with it,” Lovett said.