Have you heard of Riot Games? I hadn’t before writing this newsletter. But while you may not have heard of the company, you have probably have heard of it’s most famous game — League of Legends.
The massively popular multiplayer battle arena game is a free-to-play offering that charges for customizable skins for its characters. In 2020, this generated a whopping $1.7 billion in revenue, and has been consistently generating over a billion in revenue for the last five years. League of Legends is also the most popular eSport in the world, with an international competitive scene of 12 leagues, and the 2019 championship generating over 100 million views.
How did Riot Games make a game that is often described as ‘the biggest niche in the world’, with an incredibly dedicated set of fans who rack up approximately 3 billion hours of play time per month? At the heart of their development approach was agile as a way of driving a relentless focus on the customer.
Riot Games initially set out with a standard Scrum approach to agile delivery. However, the team quickly discovered that this was not going to help them effectively deliver value to the customer. The roles and responsibilities varied greatly across teams despite all using Scrum. A second problem was that the Product Owner became the sole owner of the product, with complete power over direction, which did not allow for the wisdom of crowds within the team.
So Riot Games innovated and came up with their own model. They titled this the Agile Team Leadership Model, and it is a unique approach to building effective agile teams. The first thing they changed was the roles, creating a total of four roles:
- Team Captain — leading the overall effort
- Product Lead — leading product strategies and resonance with audience
- Delivery Lead — leading delivery and execution
- Craft Lead — leading on technical direction in a specific craft area
These were determined hats. One or more hats could be worn by a team member. Riot Games even showed their commitment to the idea with physical hats to hand out during the associated team workshop to decide these roles (pictured below).
Next, they decoupled roles from responsibilities. They outlined the 36 responsibilities in the team required to be successful. 11 of these were anchored to each of the four roles. The rest were up to the team to decide, which they collectively did in the same hat assignment workshop. Here is what the set looked like.
Once this was decided, the team had true trust to go and work on what they think is most important to the customer. No one can dictate to the team what they must do, instead the team can openly challenge all decisions and push to work on what they think is most important. This autonomy is key to an agile culture that delivers value.
The company mission statement is “To be the most player focused game company in the world”. The team’s keep this as a key guiding principle to all their decisions, thinking about how best to please the player. “This is part of our player promise, so we need to…” is a common example of discussions had amongst the teams to make sure they are delivering for the player.
What worked in this framework?
The leadership team proved more effective in this agile delivery leadership model. They were able to understand their shared responsibilities and hold each other accountable. This made them a more effective and cohesive team that was suited to their individual contexts.
The relentless focus on the customer and hardcore gamers has delivered consistent success in terms of dedicated costumers and revenue that has continued to make Riot Games a very successful company. Employees attribute this in part to the agile culture.
Riot Games has continued to be one of the most popular case studies as an agile success story. It’s been featured by Scrum Alliance, Harvard Business Review, Agile alliance and many more.
What can we take from this example?
Riot Games are truly agile in their culture, focussing on the customer above all else and delivering value to them. The rules matter less than developing this culture. Like Spotify last week, Riot Games created rules for their context that helped to develop this culture.
One of the key innovations for Riot Games was the idea of divorcing roles and responsibilities. I liked this approach that roles may mean different things in different teams depending on skillsets and experience. This may provide better flexibility for teams than the Scrum model.
Finally, in the age of digital teams it’s interesting to see the physical objects that Riot Games developed to support their agile framework. This shows a commitment from the company to their ways of working.
Riot Games sources