Entrepreneur. Visionary. Dad. Marc Merrill, Co-Founder of Riot Games, dropped by to share his thoughts on modern fatherhood, masculinity, and the intersection of gaming culture and the mainstream.
Hey Marc! So to get things started, what was your first reaction when Ashley told you about her idea for Lunya? And come on – as her husband, you must have been the inspiration for Lahgo.
My first reaction was “go do it!” Ashley has had several great entrepreneurial ideas previously, but this time, she was ready to pull the trigger to go make it happen. Her past experiences of working in venture capital, online media and getting her MBA really helped prepare her to jump in with both feet to either sink or swim. It’s been really exciting to see her grow to respond to all of the challenges that have come her way and really help Lunya thrive.
Re: Lahgo, I do think that Ashley likely got some inspiration from watching me bum around the house in dirty, old sweatpants and cargo shorts and thought to herself, “I’ve gotta help these guys out.”
How does your environment – home, location, surroundings – impact your state of mind? Do you use a change of scenery to shift gears?
My environment has a subtle, but powerful impact on my state of mind. Different environments have different “moods” that can impact my emotional state. My favorite location at my home is the balcony off of our master bedroom that overlooks our slightly forested backyard. My home office puts me in the mood to hop on the computer to work or to play online games, whereas being onsite at Riot’s office campus immediately puts me in the mood to create and connect with developers.
For some of us, our homes have always included portals to other worlds, communities, and characters in the form of video games, but the pandemic has led many to discover them for the first time. Are video games and the digital experiences and relationships they create as meaningful as something "real"?
In my experience, the friendships you develop in online games and virtual worlds can be just as meaningful as relationships you develop in the physical world. As an example, Ashley and I traveled to England to attend the wedding of a friend I met playing online games in college and I still regularly play with some friends I met over 20 years ago playing games. We know each other well, talk about meaningful things in life, we trust each other and we “do things” together online. These experiences can form deep bonds of friendship.
You mentioned an old adage in a recent podcast interview – "If you want something done, give it to a busy person. They're busy for a reason". How did you come to identify as a busy person, and what does being busy mean to you?
My first three years of college, I didn’t apply myself to my full capabilities. I played a lot of games, I explored lots of different academic subjects and tried to live an exciting life with lots of different experiences. As I was entering my senior year, I realized that my resume didn’t tell a compelling story about who I was, what I was capable of and what I wanted to do, so I really needed to buckle down. That year, I got an unpaid internship where I was working 30 hours a week while taking more than a full load of classes. During that time, somewhat ironically, I got my best grades in college. All A’s and one A-. It made me realize that when I had momentum and created positive and productive habits, I was able to accomplish far more than when I had more time, less to do and was more idle.
I actually don’t like to identify as “busy” however, as busy isn’t exactly a differentiator. What I’ve also come to appreciate is that working hard is necessary, but insufficient. You also need to work “smart”. What I mean by that is focus on high value activities for the things that matter to you, your career and whatever else is important to you in life, be it family, giving back, etc. I am very motivated by impact. There are lots of “busy” activities that don’t meaningfully move the needle and I prefer to spend my time on activities that can change the trajectory of the project, person, company or cause that I think is important. The older I’ve gotten and the more exposure I get to the very successful people, the more I’ve seen this pattern. This often has to be “earned” however. If you are struggling with the early part of your career, to get a job or start to learn how to have impact to be able to grow your capabilities and career, then it is critically important to build a great foundation of hard work, managing yourself well, learning to add value to teams, etc. In my opinion, people should build great fundamentals in the early part of their careers to set them up for many more options down the road.
Gaming & Masculinity
From collabs like those between Riot & Louis Vuitton, to e-sport event sponsors like Mastercard and Mercedes Benz, has gaming hit the mainstream? How have you seen gaming culture change to enable such adoption?
I wouldn’t necessarily say that “gaming” has hit the mainstream. Gaming is such a massive industry and such a broad term that it includes very different experiences, such great mobile social games on one end of the spectrum like Candy Crush and Words With Friends and then deeply engaging games that are incredibly rich such as League of Legends, Valorant, World of Warcraft, etc. The cultures surrounding these two ends of the spectrum are also very different, with the social mobile side being more “mass market” and the other end of the spectrum being more the “enthusiast” side of the market. On the “enthusiast” side, there are millions of people that are deeply immersed into the nuances of the games and have developed thriving communities around them.
Many big brands have started to recognize that this type of gaming has evolved to become a lifestyle of its own, with a size, scale and quality that warrants experiential collaborations that has surprised and delighted millions of people. Gaming culture hasn’t really changed much to enable this, as these cultures are driven by a shared love of the experience, it is more that the brands have evolved to find ways to authentically connect with these nuanced culture, just as many of the best brands have done as media has evolved over the ages.
When thinking about gaming culture, it's certainly been male-dominated in the past – to the point that some would call toxic. In a general sense, what does healthy masculinity look like and mean to you? And in the world of online games and communities in particular, how can we promote that vision?
Let’s first align on the definition of culture. The way I’ve always thought about it is that culture is the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of a particular group. The way the dictionary defines it is: “the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.”
Online gaming communities are simply a reflection of humanity interacting with each other in a new medium. Competitive online games, the best of which have evolved thriving esports scenes, share a lot in common with offline sports. Fans at various live stadiums in real life sports can be rude and engage in name calling. Athletes can trash talk on the field or off the field. People of all genders and backgrounds can be brutal to each other via social media. These exact same dynamics exist in the esports world.
Thus, just like in the offline world, the solutions are the same. Athletes and fans need to learn about sportsmanship and engage in sportsmanlike behaviors. Publishers, teams, broadcast platforms, sponsors, influencers, event organizers and all the various stakeholders in these ecosystems have a role to play in nurturing a cultural ecosystem built on sportsmanship. Culture is an outcome of all of the various components of an ecosystem interacting with each other, and online gaming cultures are at their best when the competitive dynamics are driven by sportsmanship, just as they are in traditional sports in the offline world.
The challenge of course, is that helping people learn how to engage in sportsmanlike behavior takes a lot of time to develop. In traditional sports, kids start to learn this in little league. Parents and coaches help reinforce the values of having humility in victory and grace in defeat. Coaches help train star players how to engage professionally with the media while they’re still in high school. Thus, we need to continue to nurture the development of this healthy ecosystem and help all of the stakeholders learn how to navigate the complexity of this new media environment.
Parenting styles are often hereditary, whether we admit it or not. What's a lesson or strategy from your parents that you "recycle" for your children?
I think all humans benefit from balance. I was fortunate in that my mother was super loving, engaged and supportive. Her unconditional love helped me build self-confidence and emotional stability. My father was a great role-model who, from my perspective, did a great job of balancing the needs of a demanding career with his love and support for his family. He came to my football games and was there for me when I had a tough situation and wanted advice. He was more oriented towards letting my brother and I fail and scrape our knees so we can learn from the experience and do better the next time. Both of these styles were helpful and I am trying to model these types of behaviors for the benefit of my children.
Dads fall into no shortage of stereotypes – dad jokes, dad jeans.. the list goes on. What's one dad stereotype you live up to? And what's one way you defy conventionality?
I definitely am that dad who loves to play with his kids and be silly with them. I find it a fun way to bond and I love seeing their faces light up with delight while we roll around on the ground, wrestle, make faces or whatever. I also am that dad who loves sports and am trying to find ways to expose them to the great life lessons you can learn from them, whether it be organized sports, spectator sports, or just a healthy outdoor activity. One of the best lessons I think team sports teaches people is that “it’s not about you”, meaning, that in a team environment, while the individuals matter, it is more about sacrifice, compromise and hard work towards a shared goal than it is about solving for your every whim. I think this is a critical lesson to learn in life and I am always surprised when I encounter adults who have not learned this important lesson.
It's common for dads to set their interests aside and make the kids priority one, but what are some of the ways you treat yourself? (Aside from your Lahgo threads, of course).
I’d say the number one way I treat myself is by playing online games. They’re simultaneously a passion of mine, my career, and a way that I recover emotionally from stressful situations, so I try to make time to play games whenever I’m able.
At Lahgo, we view our clothing not only as an expression, but also an affirmation, an approach we carry into every day. From your business attire, to your at-home loungewear, what role do you think your clothing plays in defining you?
I think my clothes impact my image and mood. Lahgo is the perfect type of attire for me to wear while relaxing, gaming, and around the house. I feel like I can look comfortable and put together without “dressing up” or needing to worry about what to wear.