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At TSM and Blitz, staff describes toxic workplace and volatile CEO

(Washington Post illustration; TSM; iStock)

In March of 2021, employees at the esports organization TSM were summoned to a virtual all-hands meeting to discuss the termination of the company’s recently hired head of human resources.

When the new executive was brought on board, employees’ early reaction was positive. “Everyone was super, super excited to finally have someone in HR who seemed to really understand the employees,” said one former TSM employee.

But just weeks after the new executive assumed his role as head of people operations (TSM’s human resources analogue), employees learned that he had been let go after an apparent disagreement with Andy Dinh, the organization’s CEO and founder, over a recruitment practice the new executive wanted to implement. During a question-and-answer portion of the all-hands call, one employee asked Dinh to explain what had prompted the firing.

“That was when [Andy] told the whole company that the HR person was let go because he asked a question that Andy didn’t like,” said a former TSM employee. “I think he kind of realized how ridiculous it sounded, so he followed up by saying, ‘Well, he asked two questions that [I] didn’t like.’

“No one wants to ask any questions after that.”

Since 2009, Dinh has built TSM into one of the premier esports organizations in the world. Competing in a variety of esports and partnering with popular streamers, TSM was labeled by Forbes as the “most valuable” esports organization at an estimated $410 million in 2020. The following year, the company inked a 10-year naming rights deal with the cryptocurrency exchange FTX for $210 million.

However, allegations of workplace abuse have long circulated around the 30-year-old founder. In videos dating back almost a decade, Dinh can be seen yelling at TSM’s esports athletes. That behavior extended far beyond the esports teams, though, according to over a dozen current and former employees of companies founded and run by Dinh who spoke with The Washington Post. Members of teams ranging from sales to programming to content said they witnessed other workers get called out by Dinh in calls or intra-office chat rooms and publicly shamed. Some said they experienced that treatment firsthand.

“Nobody wanted to be in a one-on-one meeting with Andy because you had no witnesses,” said Anthony Barnes, a former senior program manager at Blitz. “I mean that literally. Who knew if Andy was going to scream or yell at you, degrade you, be friendly, or just be confused or inquisitive? You weren’t sure what Andy you were going to get. But the more people on the call, the more likely Andy wasn’t going to be a complete volcano.”

Furthermore, multiple workers at Los Angeles-based TSM and Blitz, a company headed by Dinh that develops a coaching and statistics tracking app for gamers, believe they were misclassified as contractors rather than employees. The distinction between employees and contractors defines, among other things, how a worker is paid and the benefits to which they’re entitled, as well as what taxes are owed by the employer. Misclassifying employees as contractors, in turn, would run afoul of California employment laws, which are some of the strictest in the United States, according to legal experts.

“We won’t be commenting on confidential personnel issues, especially complaints made by anonymous individuals who feel they were misclassified in their employment status,” TSM and Blitz spokesperson Gillian Sheldon told The Post.

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Late last year, both Riot Games, which operates League of Legends Esports, and TSM began separate investigations into allegations of bullying and verbal abuse made against Dinh, as first reported by Wired. The investigations began shortly after Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng, a former star player at the organization, described Dinh as a “bully who gets away with being a bad person because he’s powerful” in a live stream.

Most of the employees who spoke with The Post did so on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of retaliation. Many specifically highlighted fear of reprisal from Dinh, citing his temperament and influence in the esports industry.

TSM shared a statement with The Post, echoing its statement to Wired in January.

“As we stated publicly late last year, upon learning of allegations against Mr. Dinh, TSM immediately hired an independent investigator to begin a thorough internal investigation,” reads the statement. “Andy recused himself from any oversight of the scope, nature and conclusions of the investigation. Those results are pending. Until finalized, we can’t comment on specifics.”

Some workers at TSM and Blitz told The Post they made a policy of not speaking in meetings with Dinh for fear of angering him. On several occasions, the targets of Dinh’s outbursts — which often included high-ranking staff at the company — were fired or departed shortly thereafter, throwing projects and entire teams into flux, according to numerous former TSM and Blitz employees. Sheldon said TSM could not comment on these departures since they related to “confidential internal personnel matters.”

“The number of executives that were let go … is massive,” one former TSM employee said. “If I was a VP, I would not want to be working there.” The result of these departures, that former TSM employee said, was a “culture of fear” fostered by the young CEO.

In response to questions sent by The Post, TSM shared Dinh’s statement to Wired, which was published in January.

“I have exceedingly high expectations for myself, and I share those same high expectations with everyone I work with,” reads the statement. “I have zero tolerance for underperformance. I am intense, passionate, driven and relentless in the pursuit of winning — it’s my nature. I set an extremely high bar, and when I feel that someone is not delivering, I directly and bluntly share that feedback.

“I do acknowledge that when I look back, my vocabulary was at times too harsh and ineffective. I know I need to work on my delivery, and I am working to improve the way I communicate with my team and those around me. I support and am fully cooperating with the independent investigations that are already underway and will gladly embrace any recommendations from the investigators.”

The statement rankled some TSM employees. “It’s funny that his most recent quote was ‘I have high expectations,’ because I think his expectations are just ridiculous,” said a former TSM employee. “Andy would come in after everyone would work super hard … and just say, ‘That’s not what I want.’ We were basically chasing after this goal of trying to read his mind.”

“It was honestly one of the worst run companies I’ve ever been in,” Barnes said.

Contracting in California

Andy Dinh co-founded TSM (originally called Team SoloMid) with his brother, Dan Dinh, in 2009. Nearly a decade later, he acquired Blitz (he and another TSM employee, Adil Virani, now bill themselves as its co-founders). Both companies work out of a 25,000-square-foot facility in Los Angeles; in an announcement video released in April 2020, the company touted the $50 million space as the “most expensive gaming facility in the world.” TSM and Blitz have 123 full time employees, while the number of contractors “varies,” Sheldon, the spokesperson, told The Post.

Former workers described the atmosphere at TSM and Blitz as start-up-like, where hierarchies were fluid and staff was expected to wear many hats at once. But experts who reviewed contracts for some former workers at both companies believed that the categorization of those workers as contractors may have run counter to California labor law.

“I would not be surprised if the state felt that it was a misclassification,” said Brandon Huffman, a founding attorney at Odin Law and Media, a firm specializing in video games, technology and media, after reviewing contracts between TSM and two former workers.

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Two contractors’ tenures at TSM and Blitz exemplify the companies’ approaches to contracting. One former Blitz contractor who worked remotely recalled being told they couldn’t be brought on as a full-time employee because they were working from outside of the state. Despite this, they said they were expected to work a standard 40-hour week and report to work at 9 a.m. Eventually, they said, they moved to California anticipating full-time employment.

“They were basically telling me that you need to be in California if you want your career to go forward. And so I said, ‘Oh, well, I’m making the move to California. Could we possibly talk about making me an employee now that I’ve been working 40 hours a week full time for six months?’ ” the former contractor said. “What kind of happened is they left me in the dust, basically.”

After another half year of contracting from California, the contractor was let go from the company. TSM declined to comment on the worker’s characterization of their time at Blitz.

Two stringent legal tests in California, the ABC test and the manner and means test (also known as the Borello test), set an exceedingly high bar for someone to be categorized as a contractor working for a company based in the state, according to employment lawyers who spoke with The Post. The ABC test, for example, says that for a worker to be classified as a contractor, they must meet three criteria. First, the worker must be free from the direction of their employer, meaning they can set their own schedule, work without supervision and use their own tools. They also have to do work that is meaningfully different from that done by employees — and dissimilar from the hiring company’s usual business. Finally, the contractor needs to have an independently established business through which they do the kind of work for which they’ve been contracted.

It is up to the employer to prove that all three of these criteria are met if they classify someone as a contractor, legal experts said. Further still, signing a contract that identifies a worker as a contractor does not legally make them one in California.

Another contractor, excited to work in esports, signed on to join TSM’s content team. They worked from the company’s Playa Vista office in what was functionally a producer role, liaising with talent and talent managers, securing venues and coordinating schedules. To that end, they recalled frequently receiving phone calls as late as midnight.

“No matter what I was doing, I was on the clock,” they said. “At first it was exciting, when I was young and I was happy working in esports. The longer it went on, the more, you know, I started to experience some burnout and it felt kind of exhausting.”

Eventually, they felt that the pay — more than $5,000 below the $54,080 legal annual minimum for somebody designated as a contractor in California in 2020 — wasn’t commensurate with the work. But efforts to secure full-time employment kept hitting dead ends.

“Go ahead, try yourself in the market, see how you do,” said the contractor, characterizing their manager’s response to a request for a raise. “If you don’t think somebody else will be willing to do your job for this amount of money, then go ahead, be my guest.

“I said, ‘Sure, go ahead, find some kid you’re going to underpay, but it’s not going to be me.’ ”

Experts who reviewed this producer’s contract said the fact they were paid on a monthly basis raised concerns about the worker’s designation as a contractor. “The government views anything other than pay based on milestones/completion as more like an employee than a contractor,” said Huffman, the Odin Law and Media attorney. “Paying a per month rate looks like a salaried employee rather than a contractor paid for deliverables.”

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Employment lawyers who spoke with The Post explained that beyond just taxes at the state and federal level, there are meal, rest and overtime laws that apply to employees but not contractors in California; violation of these could result in legal scrutiny and subsequent penalties, including remuneration for missed payments to improperly classified workers. One former contractor in TSM’s content department described working with approximately eight other contractors on a day-to-day basis.

“There is a parade of horribles that come from misclassification,” said Robyn Coltin, a California employment law attorney. “There are so many laws that apply when you have an employee that do not apply when you have an independent contractor that you may not think about at first.

“The employers think that they’re saving money, and they are in the short term because they’re not paying certain employment taxes, and they don’t have to abide by all the insurance requirements and the wage and hour laws,” Coltin said. “But if they get caught, it gets really ugly.”

In time, though, both contractors realized that the safety net of full-time employment at TSM and Blitz was illusory.

“Some people who had salaries would be fired the next day just on the snap of a finger,” said the remote contractor who moved to California. “So it kind of just didn’t really matter either way.”

‘I’m afraid of being fired’

The start-up-like atmosphere at Dinh’s two companies meant that processes that would be standard at other companies — such as onboarding for new workers, or a system for employees to improve or respond after receiving negative feedback — were often absent. (Sheldon disputed this characterization, saying TSM and Blitz “have specific procedures in place to handle any issues.”) The result was what TSM and Blitz employees characterized as a dramatic turnover rate. Besides the human resources executive, they pointed to the sudden departures of multiple VPs at both companies, as well as several managers and team leaders. At TSM, the VP of programmatic sales lasted just over one year at the company. At Blitz, a VP of design lasted eight months. One VP of product at Blitz lasted a mere four months in the role.

In many cases, departures went unexplained and unremarked upon, former TSM and Blitz workers said — with the notable exception of the all-hands meeting that followed the departure of the HR executive. Sometimes, workers told The Post they would stumble upon their co-workers’ deactivated Slack accounts or find emails to department heads bouncing back and piece things together.

A number of the employees at TSM and Blitz who were witnessed leaving the company after disagreements with Dinh declined to comment for this story, or did not respond to The Post’s repeated requests for comment. But TSM and Blitz workers who spoke with The Post were able to recount many details surrounding these departures, which often played out in remarkably public fashion: across open Slack and Discord channels, in person and in sight of witnesses, or on video conferences including numerous employees.

“I had seen other people contradicting either [Blitz co-founder] Adil [Virani] or Andy and being mysteriously fired a couple days later,” one former Blitz employee said. “It was definitely not a company where conflict led to good things.”

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Some TSM and Blitz employees described teaming up with co-workers to take calls with Dinh, so as to avoid one-on-one meetings with the CEO. Others deliberately organized their days and reporting structures in order to speak primarily with other executives and managers, rather than Dinh. Still, they said Dinh’s behavior was hard to avoid. In public chat channels, Dinh sometimes called out entire teams for work he deemed bad or wrong. Sometimes, he would zero in on specific workers, calling them incompetent in public channels, or warning other employees not to trust information coming from particular people in the company.

His frustration could often be difficult to work around, former employees say. As CEO, Dinh frequently dropped in on meetings. (“Quite literally, I’d say every other meeting,” one former Blitz contractor said.) In one instance, he joined a Blitz design call on his phone while hiking to a lodge during a ski outing. According to Barnes, the CEO grew increasingly irate as the call went on, repeatedly characterizing the work as worthless and a waste of time. Efforts to seek clarification about Dinh’s complaints or to explain that the work aligned with previously approved design standards only appeared to frustrate him further.

“He took the call where we’re screen sharing detailed design information and mock-ups on his phone,” Barnes said. “By that medium, that’s going to be inherently challenging. I wouldn’t make that decision. Or I would be cognizant that that would impair my ability to make decisions and evaluations. Andy didn’t seem to do either or value doing so.”

In late 2020, after TSM’s “Valorant” squad lost in the finals of that game’s First Strike North America tournament, Dinh sat in on numerous work calls and verbally tore down some of the speakers and the updates they were presenting, according to one attendee. In one meeting, for example, while reviewing work he had assigned a few weeks prior, Dinh started questioning why the work was being presented at all, saying it wasn’t a good use of anyone’s time, according to the attendee.

“Andy has obviously always had a short temper,” said the attendee, who worked at Blitz. “But that day you could just tell [something was different] because it was like he was hunting you. Like, if you talked during that meeting, you were just reamed and ripped apart as much as possible, especially if you were even higher up.”

Dinh’s outbursts made employees unwilling to speak up in meetings or bring bad news to their managers.

“There were definitely a lot of times where I was afraid of bringing up points that Adil would be unhappy about,” one former Blitz employee said, referring to Blitz’s co-founder. “I was a little bit afraid of being let go because I had seen that happen around me.”

“I was very loud as I was leaving,” a former TSM contractor said. “I distinctly remember being in a call with [my manager], being, like, I have all these problems with how our teams run. And he was like, ‘Why didn’t you bring this up sooner?’ And I was like, ‘I’m afraid of being fired.’ ”

The esports industry’s frontierlike quality drew a number of workers to Blitz and TSM. But that Wild West quality had its downsides, and some of the former employees who spoke with The Post have since left esports.

“I can’t recall any instances where I really felt any sense of compassion or genuine interest in the well-being of the employees there,” one former Blitz employee said. “I did not get the sense that they care about people.”

clarification

This story has been updated to note that Andy Dinh and Adil Virani have billed themselves as the founders of Blitz since their acquisition of the company, which was originally founded by others in 2015.

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