Working in Video Games Without a Coding Degree

By Anna Qiu
Header graphic created by Wesley B. Tseng

Brian Cho is the Director of Business Development at Riot Games where he is responsible for managing partnerships, investments, and acquisitions. He graduated from University of California Irvine in 2007 with a BA in Economics and a Minor in Management and has been working his way to success ever since. In 2013 and 2014, Brian was recognized as a rising star in Games and Apps by Forbes magazine's "30 Under 30".

As the eSports world is rapidly expanding and as working in the video game industry is becoming a more acceptable career, students at UCI who are passionate about video games may be considering their options for the future. With Blizzard HQ located right here in Irvine, and Riot HQ located close by in West Los Angeles, the prospect of working at one of these huge eSports companies is not far fetched at all. With 72% of UCI students identifying as gamers, UCI is a prime recruiting spot for many of these companies.

So how would a student at UCI get a job at a video game company? Brian Cho proves that a major in Computer Game Science is not the only way.

Hi Brian. To start off, I’ll just ask you a few easy questions so everyone can get to know you. What are your favorite video games? What year did you graduate UCI and what was your major?

“This is a pretty tough one to answer, as I’ve always been a passionate gamer and could easily go on for awhile answering this question.

Some of my favorite franchises include the Souls Series (Dark Souls 1, Demon’s Souls), Mega Man (MM2 specifically), Metal Gear Solid (original still the most memorable), practically all of Blizzard’s games, old school Lucas Arts PC games, (Tie Fighter, Dark Forces), Counter-Strike 1.6, and Zelda (just finished Breath of the Wild, amazing game).

I’m currently a passionate League player who mains ADC in 2k17 lull ;) (took me 3 years to climb from bronze 4 to plat 5 for context) and spent a ton of time on Hearthstone few years back (proud to say I hit legend a few times as a control warrior one trick).

I majored in Economics with a minor in Management, and graduated in 2007.”

So while you were a student, what were some career paths you were looking into post grad? Were you already thinking about eSports?

“Honestly as much as I loved games, I never dreamed of having a career in this field. I planned on something more “practical,” like finance or medicine, but my love for games led to a career in it. As for eSports, it wasn’t as nearly big as it is today when I was in school, so it wasn’t much of an option for me (although of course it would have been amazing).”

Can you start off by giving a brief summary of your path at UCI, such as why you chose it, and any major involvements you were in?

“When I was in school, I focused a lot around building work experience rather than grades (but made sure they were still in decent shape). I invested most of my time on internships across various fields (marketing, finance, tech, etc.), which gave me a glimpse of different career options and helped me build out my resume. I also was very active in the campus’ co-ed business fraternity, Alpha Kappa Psi, and took on leadership roles there. It helped me realize good grades alone wouldn’t get me my entry level job as a business major and I had a lot of leveling up to do (i.e. resume, interview prep, networking, etc).
I chose UCI because it was the best school I got into, I’m grateful that the school gave a chance to a student who struggled a bit in high school. I guess you can say I was a late bloomer. I had some focus issues and didn’t get the best grades or have the drive when I was in high school. What changed for me was in college was I had friends, mentors, and professors / career advisors who were highly encouraging and supportive of my career ambitions. Reflecting back on it, it was pretty amazing what positive reinforcement did for my life and I’m always be indebted to those folks. They made me try much harder in college when it came to investing in my future.”

Can you also give a brief summary of your employment history, before you started working at Riot?

“I started my career out at Deloitte Consulting then, jumped into game production / publishing at Ubisoft. I joined a venture-funded mobile app startup called Booyah in Silicon Valley as an early business hire. After that, I joined a venture capital firm called Andreessen Horowitz focused on consumer software investing. That was the first seven years of my career before I joined Riot Games.”

Many people who love video games and who want to work on video games in the future want to major in CGS, but you majored in Business Economics and still work at a video game company right now. What is the range of jobs that your co-workers at Riot do, other than coding the game?

“There’s a ton of jobs in gaming that’s not tied to development or engineering. Some examples include finance, marketing, legal, game design, game production, audio, esports, community, and none of them are computer science specific roles or require that degree.”

Do you have any tips for people who want to work at a video game company? How does someone get involved in working for a video game company?

“I think undergraduate internships are extremely important in college and would highly recommend students apply to ones that can help you land an entry level role. Get actively involved with the career center, take on leadership roles in organizations, and do things that will differentiate you from your peers aside from getting good grades.

To break into games, I’d do my research ahead of time and see what it takes to get a formal summer internship at companies like Riot and Blizzard. I would also see if there are any UCI alum who interned at gaming companies while they were at school and ask for their recommendation on how to get an internship (they could potentially refer you).”

What do you do at Riot Games? What is your job like? Are there any special perks that you really enjoy, in addition to getting a League account with all the content unlocked?

“I am responsible for business development, which in a nutshell is working with external partners and companies to create value for Riot and our players. I typically spend most of my time talking to other tech companies, startups, and founders trying to see if we could create a partnership and/or deal that will create value for both parties. An example was the acquisition of Radiant, where we both were mutual fans, and felt that by joining forces we could create something special for players.

As for perks, Riot treats our employees incredibly well. One activity that’s near and dear to my heart would be participating in Riot Rumble, which is a studio-wide internal tournament for League. We take Rumble seriously at Riot and aside from experiencing League in a setting that is closest to being a professional with organized play (we scout, draft, run team scrims, etc.). Most importantly, you end up developing really strong bonds and fun memories with your teammates (who are your co-workers). It’s such a special experience the lead for League of Legends has referenced it in posts to players.”

How would you say working at Riot has changed since you’ve started? Has the explosion of the eSports world changed Riot as a company?

“I’ve only been here for three years and personally we’ve grown a lot as a company in that short time. As a player, the quality of some of the stuff we are putting out (from skins, new champs, to eSports production) has dramatically improved.

As an employee, although we are a bigger company now in terms of staff, I personally feel Riot has done a great job of maintaining our player-focused culture. I would say the vast majority of our employees are core gamers, and play League, which helps build empathy and respect towards the players who we are trying to serve.

I think the explosion of eSports has also been very humbling to most of us at Riot and that it makes us feel like we have more to live up to for our players.”

With the explosion of eSports would you say it’s harder to get a job or easier to get a job related to eSports/video games?

“I wouldn’t say it’s easier as the industry is always changing but there are certainly lots of opportunities for smart, passionate people. The bar for someone to get into games is rising, but there will continue to be opportunities as gaming is a fast-growing international industry.”

I know you talked a lot about failure in your presentation. Is there a way you stay motivated despite all the failures that have occurred?

“I used to see failure as a bad thing, but I now see it as an opportunity to grow and learn.

I’m a sucker for video game analogies so let’s use one here. Take climbing the ranked ladder in League of Legends as an example: I got placed in Bronze 4, almost three years ago and it was pretty demoralizing.

I learned in order to climb, you’re probably going to lose a ton of games and may even get demoted a tier or two. But if you learn from your mistakes and focus hard on learning and improving rather than your current rank, you’ll eventually get better and climb. Just like in real life, there’s things outside of your control in each game that you play (i.e. what happens when one of your teammate feeds their lane?), but rather than blaming them for the loss, focus on yourself, try to learn from people who are better at the game than you (ask for advice and take coaching!), and try to find ways to play better each game. I personally found this to be the fastest way to climb.

Professionally, there were some parallels to this approach in the working world. I made mistakes early in my career, and there were times I felt over my head, but I didn’t give up or, blame others or things outside my control. An example of this was when I took on a leadership role at a startup early in my career and to be blunt, the startup failed. It was my first public experience of failing and I used to beat myself up over how I could have done things differently there to affect our outcome. Rather than focusing on the short comings, I reflected on my experience there and those learnings became extremely valuable during my years as a VC.

Another example was how honest feedback from my managers and mentors became a valuable tool to improve one of my weaknesses. I used to hate hearing how I needed to improve my public speaking skills and dreaded doing so. As a result, I took a mentor’s advice and made it a point to take on bunch of speaking opportunities at universities and industry conferences to help me overcome this. It made me realize if you open yourself up to feedback from folks who are more experienced and care enough about you to give feedback, you often push yourself out of your comfort zone and eventually get better.

Personally speaking, I owe all the good in my life to my mother, family in Korea and especially my amazing wife Yvonne, who all have always been unconditionally supportive of my decisions.”

What are some of your plans for the future of Riot? What are some of your plans for your own career?

“Riot has easily been the best company I’ve worked for. As an employee, I want to continue creating value through working with partners who can help us achieve our goals and mission. I strongly believe business development has a ton of potential to positively impact Riot’s future growth/plans.

As a company with one major game, Riot has much left to accomplish and achieve. Aside from trying to build new games to delight players, I’m most excited to be part of a company that aspires to be the most player-focused company in the world.

As for my own career, it’s honestly tough to say as I try not to think too far into the future. Long term, I’ve always wanted to start something from scratch and become a founder CEO and leave a positive impact in the games industry. As long as I continue to love games as a player and as an industry professional, I’d love to spend the rest of my life in this space.”

Do you have any final words of advice or anything else you want to say?

“For personal advice, you often hear something cliché from alumni like “enjoy college while it lasts” or “your life won’t ever be the same once you leave school”. It’s true that things change, but changes can often be good and it’s what makes life interesting . So I wouldn’t stress too much about the future.

And if there is one career advice I can give, it’s that no career path is one and the same and success is a personal thing. Don’t try to replicate others’ success or measure yourself against their success because that’s a sure path to discontent. Try to figure out what matters to you, and you only, then relentlessly pursue it.”