Activision Blizzard: The Wages of Sin is Death

Activision Blizzard RIP

Let’s talk about Activision Blizzard and its current troubles. This was a long time coming, yet no one could’ve expected that the rabbit hole went as deep as this. Sexual harassment, Cosby suite, nudes being passed around, employee committing suicide—a nightmare workplace. This was the final form of the company that brought so much joy to so many in their youth. And now, the best we can hope for is that they pay for their transgressions.

Sunlight is truly the best disinfectant. Perhaps what I feel bad about was not getting off the sinking ship much sooner, when I was already noticing that Blizzard didn’t have the same magic as they did before. Their more recent games in the 2010s didn’t have the same polish, like Diablo III and the StarCraft II expansions. Having played StarCraft II semi-seriously for five years, I had to sit through so many of their questionable design choices.

However, we could’ve never known that likely at the root of it all was a rotten internal culture, where money fueled ego and power had corrupted absolutely. When it becomes more about the power and the perks that come with it than the games they make and its players, that’s when they start treating their community like trash and their own employees like slaves while misrepresenting their own image.

NOTE: Most of this is old news at this point, with at least a month having passed before this post. I went ahead and made this post as I’ve written about my disappointment with Blizzard before on this blog and would like to keep it going.

What Happened to Activision Blizzard?

On 20 July 2021, a lawsuit was filed by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) against Activision Blizzard for sexual harassment, gender discrimination, unequal pay, and more against its female employees after a two-year-long investigation. It details instances of horrendous actions brought on by the company’s “frat boy” culture. It also dropped the names of two former company executives—J. Allen Brack and Alex Afrasiabi. 

Details include cube crawls, which are episodes of drunk guys crawling through the office space to engage in inappropriate behavior toward female employees. There’s also the female employee who was driven to suicide during a work trip due to repeated sexual abuse by a male supervisor, who had brought sexual items with him on that trip.

Another story is the breastfeeding room having no locks, so men could just walk in and only leave if they’re screamed at by the occupants. There’s also the Cosby Suite, Alex Afrasiabi’s hotel room occupied during a BlizzCon that was named as such due to the executive’s infamous reputation and the presence of a portrait of the disgraced comedian which was brought in to decorate the room. 

The company responded to this lawsuit with an infamously abhorrent statement that vehemently denied the charges despite overwhelming evidence and shifted the blame to the state of California for being irresponsible with their handling of their investigation. It even had the gall to quip that “state bureaucrats are driving businesses out of California.”

Blizzard employees didn’t agree with the company’s response and staged a walkout to show their distress and frustration. Activision Blizzard executives then dug deeper by hiring a law firm known for busting unions, letting it be known that their main interest is in maintaining the status quo and keeping their employees in check while dealing with the lawsuit.

It’s now a month later, and we’re only seeing more discouraging signs. After the first few weeks of token statements, former Blizzard executives are now hiding while waiting for the heat to die down. There’s even news of shredding evidence to save their own skin. Whatever justice could be gotten from this whole debacle will likely be lacking if left to resolve on its own.

Timeline of Blizzard’s Decline

Blizzard didn’t become garbage right away. It took years of its culture undergoing decay for the company to arrive at this point. Here’s a video detailing their greatness, then their gradual descent to how they are now.

A “brief” timeline is as follows:

In 1998, Blizzard Entertainment was acquired by Vivendi, a French media conglomerate, becoming a part of the Vivendi Games group of companies. During this time, they would release StarCraft, Warcraft III, Diablo II, and the genre-defining and globally-successful World of Warcraft.

By the early 2000s, Blizzard was bringing in $1.1 billion a year in subscription fees with the continued success of World of Warcraft, which caught the eye of Activision CEO Robert Kotick. In July 2008, the merger between Blizzard and Activision was complete and Vivendi Games was dissolved. The parent company is renamed Activision Blizzard.

StarCraft II was released in July 2010, with two more expansions planned for release over the next five years. The game’s esports scene hits a peak in 2012, then goes into a decline as games other genres like MOBAs and first-person shooters start to take over.

Diablo III was released in May 2012, kicking things off with an infamously bad launch and topped off with the ill-advised auction house. Even after the release of Reaper of Souls two years later, the game would never pick up steam and other action role-playing games like Path of Exile would take its place.

The Mists of Pandaria expansion for World of Warcraft was released in November 2012, and it turned out to be the start of the game’s slow decline. It picked up a bit with Legion, but went back down again with Warlords of Draenor and never truly recovered.

Hearthstone was released in March 2014 to tremendous success. But since it was a free-to-play game, they had to find a way to continually generate money. Soon enough, the metagame would have cycles of stagnancy and frustration due to RNG and the occasional exploit.

In June 2015, after a long and drawn-out battle with Valve for the rights over DotA, Blizzard settled with Heroes of the Storm, a game that would’ve been better if they didn’t feel like they had to be different from the original formula. While it still has a passionate community to this day, it didn’t do as well as it could have. More on that six paragraphs later.

Overwatch came out in May 2016 to tremendous success. But since it was a salvage project in the first place, there seemingly was no long-term roadmap. New content was sporadically released, then occasionally recycled. They then announce a sequel a couple of years too early.

Blizzard sunk huge amounts of money into the game’s esports league, then proceeded to burn it down thanks to the GOATS meta. While not directly their fault, the release of the hero Brigitte that made it possible was not rectified soon enough with nerfs or reworks.

The year 2018 was really when Blizzard’s problems truly started to rear their ugly head. They released Battle for Azeroth, which continues to be World of Warcraft’s most hated expansion due to all the systems it tried to implement that ultimately failed in execution. It didn’t help that the Mary Sue character Sylvanas Windrunner continues to wear plot armor so impervious, it makes Tony Stark’s Iron Man armor look like a piece of paper.

Blizzard has also been suffering from brain drain. Much of the old guard started leaving, such as Chris Metzen. But the biggest name was Mike Morhaime, co-founder and president. His exit didn’t feel like an abrupt exit since he had been in the company for 27 years, but he left shoes so big that J. Allen Brack could never fill them. With him gone, there was not much of the old Blizzard left to hold the fort down. Morhaime wouldn’t be the last of the old guard to leave.

We then had the announcement of Diablo Immortal, a project that could’ve been announced on the side without incident. But since they had nothing else from the Diablo franchise to show in BlizzCon 2018, they had to shove poor Wyatt Cheng out to take all the incoming fire. The revelation that it was being co-developed by NetEase didn’t help soften the blow.

A month after that infamous BlizzCon, they pulled the plug on the development and professional scene of Heroes of the Storm. Entire teams, commentators, and support staff were left out to dry. The community had to fend for themselves and do their own thing, devoid of official Blizzard support. There’s still a competitive scene, but they’re forced to remain grassroots.

Allegations of discrimination was already being reported during this time. A former employee, who worked on the Hearthstone esports team, released a statement detailing racism and harassment from as far back as 2016. Despite all the proud declarations of diversity and inclusivity in their marketing, Blizzard looked to be a hellscape for many employees.

Upon setting financial records in 2018, the company saw it fit to min-max their cash flow by terminating 800 employees. Bobby Kotick announced in a February 2019 earnings call that 8% of its workforce had to be let go. A year after that, they then announced the need for an additional 2,000 employees to meet new demands—a slap in the face to everyone who lost their jobs.

And then, the straw that broke the camel’s back for many former Blizzard faithful. Hearthstone pro Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai stated his pro-Hong Kong stance in a post-match interview in the Asia Pacific Hearthstone Grandmasters Tournament. The Hong Kong protests had been going on, and it’s a topic that hits a sore spot for many Chinese—myself included.

My mother is very pro-China and anti-democracy; I’m of the opposite persuasion.

Blizzard saw it fit to suspend Blitzchung, fire the commentators who allowed him to say his piece on live broadcast, and vehemently maintain that the loose cannon broke the rules in the event. Being an American company, you’d think that they would jump at the chance of being pro-freedom. But since they likely didn’t want to piss off the mainland Chinese market, the company seemingly adopted the country’s stance on free speech.

This incident is what exposed Blizzard’s true colors. Their socially-conscious messaging was nothing more than virtue signaling, and it has become such a crutch for them that it’s their only defense against the lawsuit and other accusations of toxicity and discrimination.

BlizzCon 2019 saw free speech protests outside the venue, and J. Allen Brack gave a weak and vague apology. The same guy who told World of Warcraft fans who wanted to have a vanilla server, “You don’t want that. You think you do, but you don’t,” is fine with both doing the thinking for customers and having his thinking done for him. He’s a mindless android with a smug face and reins for a ponytail.

Ok, this is no longer a “brief recap,” but a lengthy rundown of all the sins of Blizzard that we know of. Here are a few more:

They pulled the plug on StarCraft II, they somewhat failed the launch of StarCraft Remastered with bad networking issues that killed the possible renaissance of the scene in Korea, Warcraft III: Reforged was dead-on-arrival at launch, more blacklisting of Hearthstone players, Alex Afrasiabi was allowed to walk out scot-free, more employee discrimination over pay, they hired a Republican warhawk as their chief compliance officer, Jeff Kaplan finally leaves after being the pincushion for Overwatch, and here we are today.

It Did Not Take Just Three Years

While the last three years was when the real shit started hitting the fan, that shit was slowly being pushed out back in 2008. When the merger first happened, it was said that the Blizzard forums were full of doom and gloom due to the prospect of the company becoming more corporate. After a month, things calmed down as people saw that the sky didn’t fall.

Of course, it didn’t. As it is in the real world, these events don’t result in immediate apocalyptic scenarios, but more of the boiling frog like with climate change. It took a bit over a decade for the infection to fester. It further confirms my opinion that once a company goes public, the shift in priorities from serving customers to serving shareholders makes it rot from the inside.

Blizzard isn’t alone in this. Aside from other video game companies like Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, 2K Games, and so on, there’s also WWE, Facebook, Uber, and so on. You can look them up and see a stark contrast to their public reputations before and after their IPOs.

Burn It All Down

I think this is the only way to truly make amends. Yes, I understand that it means their employees will have to go elsewhere for work. However, it’s already proven to be a hostile workplace, so why stay? The reply to this would be that destruction is never the answer when change is a more feasible solution. Why destroy something that could be made beautiful again?

While I mostly agree with that, I don’t see how it can be sustainable as long as Blizzard stays merged with Activision like Siamese twins. As long as Blizzard is under Bobby Kotick’s control, there’s no possible way that any change for the better will live past the company’s need to repair their reputation. Everything they do at this point is too little, too late.

Whether it’s changing the cowboy hero’s name in Overwatch, finally fulfilling requests long ignored in previous years, or releasing another remaster, all of them are futile attempts at rectifying the image of the company. None of them come close at making amends for having betrayed the trust of gamers who once proudly considered themselves faithful to Blizzard.

Conclusion

The overall tone of this post is due to my overriding disappointment with one of the video game companies that shaped my youth and early adulthood. Perhaps posting this at this time is like serving a day-old steak, but I thought I still had to put it out to get it out of my system.

Despite everything, I still played the Diablo II: Resurrected open beta and had fun. I may be tempted to play Diablo IV when it comes out, but only after waiting a week for player reviews. Blizzard games are like heroin to me, and I can’t help but have it injected into my veins.

I wish I could relive my experience with Diablo II during high school, StarCraft II from 2010 to 2015, and playing Overwatch with my friends from 2016 to 2018. Those were good times I likely won’t have again with games made by Blizzard.

Got Feedback?

Have something to say? Do you agree or am I off-base? Did I miss a crucial detail or get something wrong? Please leave whatever reactions, questions, or suggestions you may have in the comment section below.

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