The anti-discrimination lawsuit the state of California filed against Activision Blizzard in July has only grown more serious over time, with allegations of harassment and worker intimidation related to unfair labor practices. So much has happened since the suit was brought forward that it can be difficult identifying the various pieces and the implications it has for the company–and its workers and ex-workers. Below we try to give a brief timeline of the lawsuits and allegations against Activision Blizzard, tracking the beginning through to its more recent developments, including an investigation by the SEC.
We’ll continue to update this post with further developments as the situation progresses.
California sues Activision Blizzard
Things kicked off on July 21. The California Department of Fair Housing and Employment (DFEH) filed a lawsuit against Activision Blizzard, alleging that the company “fostered a sexist culture” in which women were paid far less than men and people of color experienced instances of discrimination. The suit went on to say that sexism has “plagued the male-dominated gaming industry for decades,” and brought forth this legal action to “remedy, prevent, and deter” Activision Blizzard from violating California’s civil rights and equal pay laws. Within the lawsuit are some salary breakdowns of the highest-paid executives at the company to illustrate the vast pay disparities, as well as examples of harassment that employees reportedly faced.
Not long after the suit was filed, Activision Blizzard responded to and dismissed the accusations, saying the “DFEH includes distorted, and in many cases false, descriptions of Blizzard’s past.”
Activision Blizzard executives respond–and apologize
In the wake of the lawsuit, Activision Blizzard executives–from president J. Allen Brack (more on that later) to a former World of Warcraft designer and others–addressed the allegations and apologized for the company’s initial statement, their complicity in workplace behavior, or both.
Games industry employees protest “frat boy” workplace culture
Thousands of Activision Blizzard employees signed an open letter condemning how the company responded to the lawsuit. And to take that criticism further, workers staged a massive walkout on July 28 to protest what they called an “abhorrent and insulting” response from the publisher. In solidarity with Activision Blizzard employees, Ubisoft workers penned a letter to their publisher decrying the “frat boy” culture at Activision Blizzard and Ubisoft’s negligence to make substantial changes amid its own allegations. In response to this criticism,, CEO Bobby Kotick issued an internal letter calling the company’s initial response to the sexual misconduct allegations “tone deaf,” and promised changes were coming.
Activision Blizzard executives exit the company
Following the lawsuit, several prominent leaders left their positions at the company. On August 3, 2021, Blizzard president J. Allen Brack stepped down, putting Jen Oneal and Mike Ybarra in charge as co-leaders. At the same time, Blizzard’s SVP of Global HR, Jesse Meschuk, also left. According to a company earnings call, Activision Blizzard said it will “terminate any manager or leader” that impedes the business’s integrity. Though both Brack and Meschuk have left the company, it’s unclear whether Activision Blizzard terminated either executive.
On August 11, 2021, Diablo IV game director Luis Barriga, Blizzard lead level designer Jesse McCree (who’s also the namesake for Overwatch’s cowboy hero), and World of Warcraft designer Jonathan LeCraft all left the company as well.
And Activision Blizzard gets sued again
Following the initial lawsuit Activision Blizzard then found itself facing a separate class-action lawsuit. This one, filed by a shareholders, alleges that the company failed to notify them about the DFEH’s two-year investigation. The company’s stock price plunged following the lawsuit’s filing and the lawsuit seeks damages.
Alleged worker intimidation
The controversies became great enough for federal government regulators to get involved, including the SEC with its own investigation. According to the Wall Street Journal, CEO Bobby Kotick–who has been at the company for about three decades–and several other executives were subpoenaed for files from six former employees and a variety of other documents. Prior to this, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing also accused the company of shredding evidence. Activision Blizzard denied this accusation.
Activision Blizzard says it’s working with regulators
Activision Blizzard responded to the investigation by saying it would work with the regulatory agencies to address concerns. Bobby Kotick said the company is “deeply committed to making Activision Blizzard one of the best, most inclusive players to work anywhere.” Agencies the company was said to be working with included the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the National Labor Relations Board, and the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. Several employees were also apparently fired around this time, while Blizzard’s chief legal officer left after three years, though there was no reason given for the exit.
Activision Blizzard agrees to $18 million gender discrimination settlement
In late September 2021, Activision Blizzard announced that it had settled a lawsuit by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that alleged gender discrimination and harassment. Per the terms of the settlement, the company is creating an $18 million fund to compensate claimants and any unused funds will go toward women-centric video game industry charities in an effort to improve diversity and inclusion. The settlement was subsequently approved by a federal court on March 30, 2022, paving the way for the fund to be created and distributed accordingly.
Activision Blizzard raises potential ethics violations concerns
In a move apparently meant to put a temporary halt on California’s lawsuit and investigation, Activision Blizzard objected to a “non-complex designation” for the case, saying in a court filing that there are allegations of the Department of Fair Employment & Housing’s attorneys violating ethics rules, including advising Activision Blizzard employees to not consult with their own lawyers. It also alleges some of the DFEH’s attorneys previously worked for the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an agency currently having disagreements with California’s agency. This information was obtained by GameSpot via court filings shown to us by Activision. However, the request was later denied.
Activision Blizzard says it’s making big changes
On October 19, Activision Blizzard’s executive VP for corporate affairs Fran Townsend emailed employees to detail steps the company has taken to improve its workplace culture and address allegations. These have included disciplinary action for “more than 20” people at the company as well as more than 20 others exiting it completely. There have also been multiple new positions added to the company’s Ethics and Compliance team with plans for far more in the future, as well as a reorganization of this team and a “tripling of investment into training resources.” This team is separate from both the business and HR teams.
In addition to these structural changes, the company has also addressed issues within its games. On August 26, Blizzard announced it would change the Overwatch character McCree’s name after his real life counterpart was revealed to be among the Blizzard developers pictured in the infamous “Cosby Suite” photo. The character’s name has since been changed to Cole Cassidy. The team behind World of Warcraft also vowed to remove “not appropriate” messages from the popular MMO. These messages also include references to former creative director Alex Afrasiabi, who was one of the only Activision Blizzard employees to be explicitly mentioned as someone engaging in harassment in the California lawsuit.
Bobby Kotick asks for pay cut
In late October, Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick asked the company’s board to reduce his salary to the lowest possible amount for a California employee and remove any of his bonuses as well. The number worked out to $62,500. Prior to the start of Blizzard’s public legal battle, the CEO was the second highest paid figure in gaming, taking home a staggering earned $154,613,318–or $77,306 per hour–back in 2020.
Activision said it is also waving mandatory arbitration in another move that should give affected or concerned workers more leverage when reporting on abuse.
Kotick accused of misconduct, threatening employees, and staying silent
Shortly after his pay cut request was announced, Kotick himself was accused of hiding what he knew about harassment and assault allegations dating back several years at Activision Blizzard. It was also reported via the Wall Street Journal that he had threatened to kill an assistant. Following his own statement denying the allegations, a group of employees announced a planned walkout. Employees–and shareholders–have also called for Kotick’s resignation.
Other companies weigh in on Activision Blizzard
Following the allegations made against Bobby Kotick, Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo each weighed in on the situation and expressed there might be changes to how they do business with Activision Blizzard in the future. President and CEO of Sony Interactive Entertainment Jim Ryan reportedly criticized Activision Blizzard’s lack of response in an email sent out to employees, as did Nintendo of America president Doug Bowser. Microsoft’s senior management admitted to being “distrurbed” by what happened at Activision Blizzard, though Xbox CEO Phil Spencer declined to explicitly call out Kotick, stating, “I would say in terms of individuals that are in leadership positions at other companies, it’s not obviously our position to judge who the CEOs are. Like, CEOs are chosen by shareholders and boards.”
Raven Software strikes and unionization efforts
After 12 Raven Software QA employees unexpectedly laid off late last year following their work on Call of Duty: Warzone, a number of employees at Raven Software staged a walkout in protest. In addition to Raven Software, a number of Activision Blizzard employees joined in, similarly frustrated by the company’s lack of transparency. On January 3, 2022, the former Raven QA team sent Activision Blizzard a letter outlining the conversations they hope to have with the company. Following the letter being sent to Activision Blizzard management, ABetterABK (A Better Activision, Blizzard, and King)–a Twitter group which was formed after reports of sexual harassment and sexism at the publisher surfaced earlier this year–shared the piece online.
Among the topics of discussion listed in the letter were the details of the Raven QA team’s demands (as well as what the expectations were from both sides going forward), relocation packages for the Raven QA team who had previously moved for their position, and additional context regarding the situation from the leadership’s side. After Activision Blizzard reportedly opted to remain silent, the team at Raven Software decided to try to unionize.
On April 25, 2022, 22 staffers at Raven Software voted, and the motion passed 19-3, creating one of the first video game unions in the United States and the first at a AAA studio. While Activision Blizzard attempted to refute the legitimacy of the union election, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that quality assurance workers at Raven Software were within their right to participate.
Microsoft acquires Activision Blizzard
In the midst of all this legal drama, games industry history was made when Microsoft announced its intention to purchase Activision Blizzard in a staggering $68.7 billion dollar deal earlier this year. While Microsoft Gaming CEO Phil Spencer had announced the company would be doing business differently with Activision Blizzard going forward, it’s safe to say this reveal was not quite what folks were expecting.
According to an SEC document released in February, multiple companies were eyeing Activision Blizzard before Microsoft entered into negotiations with the company a mere three days after the report came out about CEO Bobby Kotick reportedly covering up sexual abuse. Because of the speed of the transaction, however, Microsoft and Activision Blizzard have received a fair bit of scrutiny and additional lawsuits thrown their way.
On April 26, the New York City Employees’ Retirement System filed a suit claiming that CEO Bobby Kotick’s rush to sell Activision following accusations of workplace misconduct has negatively impacted the company’s value, ultimately devaluing the stock they own. An Activision Blizzard shareholder in California has filed a similar claim, alleging the deal is “unfair for a number of reasons” and that Activision Blizzard’s statement filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission on February 18 is “materially misleading and incomplete.”
In addition, Democratic Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Sheldon Whitehouse have expressed their “deep concern” over the purchase, writing a letter to the FTC urging it to find out if Microsoft’s proposed buyout of Activision Blizzard would “exacerbate the flurry of sexual-abuse, harassment and retaliation allegations at Activision stemming from recent federal and state investigations.” The US is also currently investigating three Activision Blizzard shareholders for potential insider trading following the announcement and subsequent stock fluctuations.
Throughout all of this, it is unclear whether or not current Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick will remain at the company if the deal goes through, as it’s likely to. Some reports claim Kotick will receive a “$15 million dollar golden parachute” following the purchase and his exit is imminent, while others remain unsure of what will happen following the acquisition.
Activision Blizzard lays out plans to increase diversity in staff
In March 2022, Activision Blizzard laid out plans as to how the company will increase the representation of women on staff and help put an end to discrimination and harassment. Among the actions taken by the company was the hiring of Stacy Jackson, who was brought on to become the company’s new EEO coordinator.
According to Activision Blizzard, the company’s Ethics and Compliance team has “quadrupled” in size since its legal battle began. Activision Blizzard also said it has “significantly increased” its investment in ethics and compliance training, and has a new in-house tool that tracks data on the representation and presence of women and underrepresented ethnic group candidates during the hiring process. The company currently has a goal of increasing the representation of women and non-binary workers by 50% in the next five years. Furthermore, Activision Blizzard has stated it will spend $250 million over the next decade to help “foster expanded opportunities in gaming and technology for under-represented communities.”
In May, Blizzard Entertainment hired Jessica Martinez as its first ever Vice President, Head of Culture to help make the Overwatch and Diablo company have a more “diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace culture.” Martinez will reportedly work with Blizzard’s communications, events, and the leaders of the company’s franchise teams to make “the values of our connections show up in what we do” and “bring humanity back” to the business.
Even more lawsuits
Since the start of this year, Activision Blizzard has faced even more legal woes. Back in March, a woman referred to only as Jane Doe filed a lawsuit against the company after management allegedly retaliated against her for reporting incidents of sexism and harassment. According to the lawsuit, Doe was pressured to take shots of tequila and share an embarrassing secret with her coworkers on her first day of work. She also claimed she was pressured to drink alcohol, participate in “cube crawls” around the office,” and was subject to unwanted advances, included being propositioned for sex and having a manager try to kiss her. Upon reporting the behavior to her managers, Doe claims she was repeatedly shrugged off until former Blizzard president Brack offered her a new role in a different department with a significant salary decrease.
Activision Blizzard was also sued by the parents of a woman who died by suicide allegedly brought on by the sexual harassment she experienced while working for the company. According to the lawsuit, working at Activision Blizzard was a “significant factor” in the woman’s death, which occurred shortly after her male co-workers circulated nude images of her. The suit also stated the victim was in a relationship with her boss that the company made an effort to hide following her death, going as far as to wipe her phone. The victim’s parents subsequently dropped the lawsuit but did not provide a reason for doing so.
Additionally, a group of 12 Activision Blizzard employees have formed an anti-discrimination committee to combat sex and gender discrimination at the company. According to Emily Knief, a senior motion graphic designer at Blizzard on the committee, it is the team’s hope that this organization will serve as a way to not “let the fervor die down until there is meaningful, long-lasting change.” The committee submitted a four-page-long list of requests to Blizzard, including an end to mandatory arbitration in discrimination cases, the introduction of private lactation rooms after there were claims of breastmilk being stolen, and the creation of an employee trans network, among other things.
As for the ongoing lawsuit against Activision Blizzard made by the state of California, the latest news is a report that the governor’s office has interfered with the investigation, causing one of the top lawyers handling the case to resign. Erin Mellon, communications director for Governor Newsom, said in a statement to Game Developer that “claims of interference by our office are categorically false.” Where all this leaves the lawsuit is still unclear.
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