Riot Games’ Head of Social Impact

Riot Games Jeffrey Burrell in the center of a blue background with the Take This knight logo on the left and Riot Games logo on the right.

The Social Impact team at Riot Games recently partnered with nonprofit Take This to further their efforts towards promoting mental health within the gaming community. The developer behind games like League of Legends, Teamfight Tactics, and Valorant has long been interested in getting the company involved with various charities, raising money through in-game fundraisers for good causes. In recent years, particularly after the pandemic, it’s become an even larger focus for Riot Games, which lead to a collaboration with video-game centric charity Take This.

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In 2021, Riot Games began providing mental health outreach resources for players through a partnership with Public Good Projects, and also launched a separate Social Impact Fund which has distributed over 17 million dollars in grants to 400 organizations across 25 countries since its inception. Head of Social Impact at Riot Games Jeffrey Burrell has also collaborated with the Executive Director of Take This, Eve Crevoshay, to create a free mental health curriculum with a focus on helping streamers with burnout, as well as a video series of panels on different mental health topics that are both by and for the BIPOC community.

Related: Eve Crevoshay Interview: 10 Years Of Mental Health Non-Profit Take This

Riot Games’ Head of Social Impact Jeffrey Burrell sat down with Screen Rant to discuss the partnership with Take This, promoting mental health within the gaming community, and creating meaningful social change.

Screen Rant: Can you talk about what first sparked the partnership between Riot Games and Take This?

Jeffrey Burrell: I’ve known of Eve [Crevoshay] and Take This for several years, and I’ve always thought really highly of her and her team’s ability to combine their deep knowledge and expertise with a deep devotion to the space of the games industry and what gamers need and want. I’ve had multiple conversations with them through the years, and they have a great reputation.

Specifically, what led to this grant was that we identified a growing need within our community regarding influencers and people going into online communities. There was a pretty large Washington Post article that came out on young people actually going to these digital spaces for mental health support, rather than through traditional means of finding help. That actually aligned with what I’d been seeing with our own research, and we really wanted to understand how we could support these influencers and streamers, both with their own mental health burnout as well as the communities that they’re a part of and help lead.

You’re the head of Social Impact at Riot, which must encompass so much. What does the day-to-day look like for you? Is it mostly larger-scale projects, or are there smaller things that tend to come up as well?

Jeffrey Burrell: First and foremost, I have the privilege of leading one of the best teams that I’ve ever had the privilege of being a part of. A large part of that is different every day, especially in the last few years, as there have been completely unexpected things that change everything. But at the end of it, there are always a lot of meetings, and a lot of understanding of what complex problems we can help be a part of and authentically lend our either expertise or Riot involvement to; ways that we might be able to get involved and make our communities just a little bit better.

One thing that we’re working on right now, which has already been announced, is an in-game fundraiser coming through Valorant. This will be our second one for the Give Back bundle, and that’s pretty exciting. There’s actually a lot that goes on behind the scenes to pull one of these off, and we’re working on that. And then, of course, it’s a season of giving that’ll be coming up. We’ve got a lot of internal programs that we’re working on, with our donation matching and involving Rioters, one of which is my personal favorite. It’s the charity bake sale, where we create boxes of treats and goodies. Rioters can buy those, and then we’ll double those donations to nonprofits.

Additionally, we just closed a campaign for an open IDEO Innovation Challenge with a design from IDEO, and we partnered with the Fair Play Alliance and Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. We invited an open call for submissions on any organization, nonprofit, for-profit, or research institution, on their ideas to make digital spaces more inclusive and thriving. I’ve got 179 submissions to get through, and the coolest thing is that half of them are actually outside of the United States. That’s going to be pretty cool to dive into and to help highlight some of the best ideas that are out there to give them funding and support.

It’s a little bit of everything, both in terms of the big picture stuff, but then also putting together big treat boxes and everything.

You mentioned that there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes with something like Valorant’s upcoming fundraiser. Could you go into that a little bit more?

Jeffrey Burrell: Yeah, and this is something that I don’t think that players really understand. It’s surprisingly challenging to take an item, and then to say, “We’re gonna take all proceeds of this and donate it to a charity.” You actually run up against a lot of legal considerations; a lot of pricing, taxing, timing, and all of these other things. On average, each one of these campaigns that we do, takes about four to six months to pull off. There’s a lot that we need to do to make sure everything is compliant, and that we work with the right nonprofit to be able to support them and have those contracts in place. It’s not as easy as flipping a switch and saying we’re going to do something; we want to make sure that everybody involved is up to date, protected, and understanding of what’s going on and how the calculations are made.

You’ve written in the past about how people are more likely to support causes that are close to them, which was a really big hurdle for Riot to overcome because you’re so global in the audience that you reach. What was that process like when it first began, and what does it look like now in terms of finding charities?

Jeffrey Burrell: One thing that we really strive to do is to say, “What are the ways that we as a game company can make a meaningful difference in players’ lives?” That’s really important, and a lot of companies look at it with this internal-external type of framework. But early on, I really wanted to understand what our players care about. What keeps them up at night? How do they define a successful life, and is there something that we can do to meet them where that is? It’s more of this outside-in perspective.

We’ve done a lot of our own first party research; talking with them and holding interviews and surveys. We reheat this research every few years, and that’s actually what led us to understand the deep need for mental health. Because that was a topic that kept coming up as one of the top three areas that players cared about, regardless of culture, backgrounds, and stigmas. What we found in private was that this was still a big issue, and then when we cross-referenced that with World Health Organization (WHO) data, we realized that was actually a big deal for young people the world over; whether they’re a gamer or not. That’s where we started saying, “How can we get meaningfully involved in those types of things?”

How we really try and bring that home is by working with all the regions and countries where we operate to understand the top three issues that are going on within that region. What’s different in Brazil versus Germany versus the United States versus Korea? We try and then let players choose three hyper-local nonprofits to support with the money that they raise through these fundraisers. I can neither confirm nor deny, but that is definitely a campaign I would like to repeat in the near-ish future.

Since joining Riot Games and seeing all this research come in, what have you noticed are some of the biggest mental health issues that seem to come up time and time again?

Jeffrey Burrell: It’s a great question, and it’s a really broad answer. It looks a little bit different for everybody, quite honestly. But one thing that we have noticed is that it seemed to have really accelerated with the pandemic, where people were no longer getting that in-person sense of community and support and interaction, so they were trying to move towards more virtual environments. It definitely came with a lot more social isolation, and you saw that across the board, with folks languishing.

Regardless of what the actual classification is for some, as it could be a whole host of different areas, the biggest thing that we were trying to focus on was how we could help them reach a place they were already going. Within these gaming communities and within these influencers and our own ticketing systems, we were trying to find some of those solutions rather than us getting into human clinical trials or anything like that. There’s a way that we could actually help remove barriers to finding and getting access, and that’s what we were really focused on.

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Jeffrey Burrell: Two thoughts come up with that. One is that, while folks stop getting that in-person sense of community and connection with the pandemic, they actually found a lot more through virtual environments and through games. A lot of folks created these new gaming communities that they weren’t able to before. Personally, I started a game night with my brother and two friends every Friday, and now it’s the highlight of my week, even though he lives in Florida.

But then I also think that what we have learned over the years is really to be much more articulate and specific about how and why we talk about toxicity. Because for the longest time, we would just use toxicity as an overarching theme or word. A couple of years ago, we partnered with the Fair Play Alliance and the Anti-Defamation League to really define what disruptive behavior is holistically. When we talk about toxicity, or this type of disruptive behavior, or this type of hate speech, what are then the mentions there that we could begin to measure, to mitigate, and to reduce in order to help folks on their path to becoming a better player?

One really interesting thing that actually did come out of that was the misconception of overall toxic player pools. It turns out that 95% of players are what we call “occasionally disruptive,” which means most folks have the best intentions, but sometimes you have a hard day. You’re late to the office, or your baby’s screaming at you at 4 in the morning, and you step out of bounds of what’s normal. So ,for 95% of players, one intervention is enough. Saying, “You know what? That was kind of out of bounds,” they get some kind of punishment, and, “I won’t do it again.” For 95% of players, that’s enough for them to not repeat that type of disruptive behavior.

It’s that 5% that are continually disruptive. And that’s where we really look at banning and understanding how we remove them from the system, because they’re ruining the experience for others. But it’s sort of a myth that full communities are really toxic; most people are just a little bit toxic maybe once, and then with the right intervention, they’re actually not disruptive again. And to tackle this problem, we think that the best practices are learning from each other. We’re one system, but others have really done some incredible work as well. It’s really encouraging to see what the Fair Play alliance is doing, and how we’re able to help and support that to understand collectively the best practices for the industry. Here’s how we can actually share this research, or these tools, or these systems and ways of measuring to make it a rising tide for all boats.

Riot Games Social Impact Fund infographic showing how the fund supports nonprofits in 5 geographic regions.

What do you think are the best ways to motivate these communities for overall positive social change?

Jeffrey Burrell: You’re talking about something that I think a lot about. To me, the question of adaptive leadership is how you mobilize communities of folks to address the hardest problems around them. It’s one thing, back where I was before, to shovel billions of dollars out the doors every year to try to make the world better. But there’s something really powerful about saying, “We can take 190 million players, and have them give a damn about something.” Whatever that is personally to them, that is real social change.

There’s two factors to that. One is giving players the option to join us. We are a venue for them to create an outsized impact in the world, and that’s why we look for these hyper-local nonprofits that are really resonant with them. It not only shows the power of what happens if we can direct and funnel their money towards issues that really matter to them, but then they can also get involved in their own communities. They can say, “That is a nonprofit that is in my backyard, and I want to continue to help and support it.” That’s number one, and that is really powerful.

Number two, I think that there’s a tremendous opportunity for game companies in particular to start the conversation around what it is to purposefully design for good. It’s this concept of digital thriving, because removing bad doesn’t necessarily make it good. A lot of tech companies are focusing on that, but games can actually think about that and design the rules of the system with these feedback loops. There’s a lot of opportunity there, so I love talking to organizations like the Fair Play Alliance or Take This to really understand what those little nudges and behavioral adjustments are that we could help foster for people to be more inclusive online, and to really help develop more resilient communities so that everybody has a place for them.

In your partnership with Take This, you’ve also helped fund a series of educational panels about different mental health topics with BIPOC groups. I think it’s really awesome, but I’m curious how that particular partnership came about and what things led you to that place.

Jeffrey Burrell: A couple of ways that came about were during my conversations with Eve and the Take This team. I started from a place of deep understanding and trust that they knew what would be really meaningful for the audience. Oftentimes as a funder, or someone who is speaking with nonprofits, I’m not the closest to the work. I do my best to be very on top of the issues and know what the right levers and buttons are, but at the end of the day, I very much want to trust those who are closest to knowing the problem.

Eve was the one to say, “Actually, this is a really big deal,” because one of the problems that we’re finding is that there aren’t enough mental health practitioners for people to address those who are like them. She’s like, “We need to really start to get that out there. We could use this, and it might not have this immediate result that a lot of funders for nonprofits like, but it’s vastly important.” That’s all I needed to hear. If the work that needed to be done was that important, then we were more than happy and willing to support it.

In 2019, Riot also started a Social Impact Fund. Can you speak a little bit to how that started, and how the fund works?

Jeffrey Burrell: I’m happy to, because it is a little bit confusing and a little bit outside of the norm of what a lot of other game companies have done. Earlier, I was talking about how difficult it is to pull off these in-game fundraisers and one reason that is so hard is giving grant money internationally. If you wanted to take a US fundraiser to a US nonprofit, it’s a little bit more straightforward. But internationally? Hoo, boy.

We learned a lot of lessons over time, and we created the Social Impact Fund because it allows us to hold these in-game fundraisers, to collectively pool the efforts and fundraising from our players, and then give it back to those communities that they’re a part of internationally. It’s a separate legal fund from Riot Games, the publisher, and it’s only a one-way street. We can never take that back or support anything that we do in there. That helps us to pretty much hit any legal country around the world. I believe we’ve hit over 400 organizations to date across probably 25 countries.

Is there anything else you want readers to know about Riot Games’ work with mental health, or the partnership with Take This?

Jeffrey Burrell: I would just tell folks that if you have that little scratch in the back of your mind that something’s not really right, talk to somebody, and I would say not to worry about what other people might think or might say. Taking care of yourself is number one.

And then I would say for folks who are interested in what we’re doing, you can check out our social impact report. I’m happy to talk to anybody who is wanting to do some good in the world.

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More information about Riot Games’ social impact efforts can be found on the developer’s website.

Author: Jack Cook