What’s Going On With Blizzard’s Gender Discrimination Lawsuit?

Activision Blizzard can’t seem to stay out of the headlines lately, but what’s going on? Let’s go through the highlights step by step, starting with the explosive gender discrimination lawsuit levelled against Blizzard in July, along with high-profile staff changes and million-dollar settlements.

Blizzard gender discrimination lawsuit cover

Over the last few months, it’s felt like Activision Blizzard hasn’t been able to keep its name out the headlines. The saga kicked off with a gender discrimination lawsuit earlier this year and it’s only spiralled for Blizzard from there. Article after article has been published revealing some new twist in the story. Just trying to keep track of it all has only gotten more difficult as time has gone on. So, what are the important points? What was the lawsuit actually about? Let’s work through it.

The Beginning

The public first became aware of the emerging problems at Activision Blizzard on 20th July when the company was hit with a lawsuit. The Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) filed a suit in California, claiming that the company had violated the Fair Employment and Housing Act and the Equal Pay Act.

The filing outlines a wide range of concerning incidents and broader trends identified across a 2-year investigation. Some of these relate to the company as a whole, such as highlighting that only around 20% of the 9,500 staff are women and that top leadership positions are exclusively fulfilled by white males. This is in part, the suit alleges, because Blizzard fostered “a pervasive ‘frat boy’ workplace culture”. It goes on to list grievances such as male staff behaving inappropriately towards women, passing off their own workload to female employees, bantering about sexual encounters, and making rape jokes.

Blizzard, formerly known as Chaos Studios, recently celebrated its 30th anniversary

Blizzard, formerly known as Chaos Studios, recently celebrated its 30th anniversary

In cases where such behaviour led to complaints, appropriate actions were rarely taken and the situation was not kept confidential. As a result, the staff members who did complain received retaliation that included being preferentially selected for layoffs.

Other statements in the suit refer to more specific violations. One such incident tragically involved the suicide of a female employee while on a business trip with a male supervisor, who had brought sexual paraphernalia with him. The lawsuit also names names in places; of particular note is the mention of former World of Warcraft (WoW) creative director Alex Afrasiabi, who was terminated in 2020 for his treatment of employees.

The allegations were severe and extensive. The lawsuit rapidly made headlines and it’s stayed there ever since.

Poor Reception

As with any highly-publicised allegations of this nature, a company’s first response is crucial to determining its position in the court of public opinion. Unfortunately for Blizzard, they didn’t come out of things looking good. In the few days after the lawsuit was filed, company executives released a statement criticising the investigation as ‘irresponsible’. Blizzard’s Chief Compliance Officer then followed up with a letter doubling down on that sentiment, as well as dismissing the suit’s allegations as ‘factually incorrect’ and, perhaps more damningly, ‘old’.

The statements were, unsurprisingly, received with tremendous negativity from both the public and Blizzard employees. On the following Monday, staff released an open letter that called the executives’ response ‘abhorrent and insulting’; by the end of the following day, it had been signed by over 3,200 former and current employees. The letter also included demands for staff members to have more power in cases of harassment and for greater equality within their work environment.

The next day, a staff walkout was organised at the Activision Blizzard office in Irvine, California. The event ended up drawing in around 500 attendees and prompted a much more considered response from the company. Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick released a statement to apologise for the ‘tone deaf’ response and detailed a plan of action moving forwards to improve company culture.

Changes at the Top

Understandably, a lot of the negative sentiment towards Blizzard in the wake of the lawsuit was aimed at the top executives. Even though the problems are alleged to have been present across all levels of the company, it is the responsibility of the people in charge to make sure their staff are cared for.

As a result, several staff members in prominent positions have either been terminated or willingly stepped down from their roles. First and foremost among these was J. Allen Brack, Blizzard’s President. In his absence, the company will be headed up by two new co-leaders, Jen Oneal and Mike Ybarra.

Alex Afrasiabi was terminated from Blizzard in 2020

Alex Afrasiabi was terminated from Blizzard in 2020

Brack’s departure was announced by Activision Blizzard President and COO Daniel Alegre on 3rd August. In it, the exact nature of his split from the company is not expanded upon; all the statement says is that he was leaving Blizzard ‘to pursue new opportunities’. A separate statement released directly by Blizzard shed a bit more light on the subject, announcing that Back was ‘stepping down’ and including a message from Brack himself that praised his successors.

Brack’s Presidency

Brack was originally named President of Blizzard in 2018. Since then he has acted as the face of the company, particularly in difficult times. In 2019, he opened BlizzCon, the company’s yearly convention, with a live apology for how Blizzard had handled the controversy surrounding the banning of a pro-player who spoke out in support of Hong Kong.

Blizzard President Addresses Hong Kong Controversy - Blizzcon 2019

In some respects, his recent elevation to the presidency put him in good stead with regards to the lawsuit. Many of the specific allegations listed took place before he assumed the role and thus, could not really be held against him. Far more damningly, however, shortly before the announcement of his departure, a video from a now-infamous Blizzcon panel in 2010 resurfaced. In it, Brack is seen in an all-male panel, which includes Afrasiabi, laughing in response to a fan questioning the over-sexualisation of female characters in WoW.

The video was not mentioned by either statement announcing his departure from Blizzard, but his popularity was severely harmed following its circulation.

More Lawsuits Pile On

Things only got worse for Blizzard in September. First, a number of employees worked with the Communication Workers of America to file an unfair labour practice suit on the 14th. Then, an article in the Wall Street Journal revealed that the SEC was in the process of investigating Blizzard over how it had handled discrimination complaints. As part of the process, several company executives were subpoenaed, including CEO Bobby Kotick.

The World of Warcraft series has long been criticised for its hypersexualisation of female characters

The World of Warcraft series has long been criticised for its hypersexualisation of female characters

Strangest of all, however, was the announcement on 27th September, which revealed that the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was also launching action against Activision Blizzard. They accused the company of violating their employees’ civil rights, as evidenced by an investigation that began in September 2018. The exact nature of the allegations was very similar to those raised by the DFEH, citing sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination, and retaliation against employees who complained, amongst other things.

While the suit itself wasn’t necessarily unexpected, the announcement that Activision Blizzard had settled the case just a few hours later certainly was. The company had been informed of the EEOC’s investigation in June, and evidently they had used that time to come to an agreement.

Under the settlement, Activision Blizzard agreed to set aside $18 million to compensate all eligible claimants. Any money that doesn’t end up going to a claimant will be divided between charities that support women in the video games industry or those that tackle gender equality issues, subject to the EEOC’s approval. Blizzard also committed to improving its internal practices to prevent similar incidents from occurring again.

“We will continue to be vigilant in our commitment to the elimination of harassment and discrimination in the workplace,” said Kotick. “We thank the EEOC for its constructive engagement as we work to fulfill our commitments to eradicate inappropriate conduct in the workplace.”

Infighting Starts

It’s notable that the DFEH and EEOC lawsuits are both very similar to one another in terms of scope. This, unfortunately for the DFEH, poses a bit of a problem for the former; so much so, in fact, that on 6th October, the DFEH objected to the $18 million settlement.

The objection was based on the grounds that the settlement could cause ‘irreparable harm’ to their own case. The DFEH alleged that the EEOC didn’t properly notify them of their case against Blizzard and, that by settling, information relevant to the earlier case could become sealed and unavailable. They continued by arguing that the settlement was not in the best interests of all affected employees.

As a result, they asked the court for permission to file an official objection to the settlement by the end of the month, with a hearing to take place in December.

Things Get Stranger

Needless to say, the EEOC wasn’t exactly happy with the DFEH’s new filing. As you might expect, they responded just five days later by filing an opposition of their own, but the reasoning they gave took everyone by surprise.

In their suit, the EEOC claimed that two of the DFEH’s attorneys had previously worked for the EEOC and had been involved in building the case that led to the settlement. Beyond it being a slightly underhanded tactic to bring inside information of a lawsuit with you when you switch employers, acting as these attorneys allegedly did is prohibited under the California Rule of Professional Conduct.

The names and EEOC roles of these attorneys have been redacted from public record, but this information would have been accessible to the DFEH. It stands to reason, therefore, that the organisation either didn’t thoroughly screen its own legal team or that they actively disregarded the legal infraction. If the answer is the former, it suggests a certain level of incompetence on behalf of the DFEH’s team; if the latter, then serious questions could be raised about the DFEH’s internal policies.

One of the surprising casualties of the lawsuit was Overwatch's cowboy hero Jesse McCree

One of the surprising casualties of the lawsuit was Overwatch’s cowboy hero Jesse McCree

Further, when the DFEH was informed of their attorneys’ conflict of interest, they replaced them with new counsel. However, as this was only a few hours before they filed their initial motion in July, the EEOC has argued that the lawsuit is the work of the two attorneys in question. Worse still, the EEOC suggested that as the attorneys had guided the rest of the team, the DFEH’s entire legal department should be barred from continuing to pursue their objection.

Blizzard Tries To Take Advantage

While the EEOC and the DFEH were busy taking shots at each other, Blizzard took the opportunity to try to win some ground back for themselves. If the claims of malpractice are confirmed, then it could be sufficient to have the DFEH’s case thrown out altogether. Using that as leverage, Blizzard asked the courts to put a hold on the July filing. This, they argued, would give them time to thoroughly investigate the EEOC’s allegations themselves.

Brack has been president of Blizzard Entertainment since 2018

Brack has been president of Blizzard Entertainment since 2018

Unfortunately for Blizzard, their attempt was unsuccessful. On 26th October, LA County judge Timothy Patrick Dillon rejected the request without giving a reason. While the refusal means that the July lawsuit will continue to progress as planned, it likely won’t stop Blizzard’s legal team from using the EEOC’s accusations in their defence strategy.

The Cowboy Problem

The wide range of allegations have certainly had and will have a major impact on the way that Blizzard works in the real world, but they’ve also had a surprising impact in the company’s games, too. One of the most high-profile of these is the status of Jesse McCree, one of the 32 playable heroes in online shooter Overwatch.

Released with the original game in 2016, McCree has since become a firm fan favourite. What many players were likely unaware of, however, was that the character was named after one of Blizzard’s lead level designers. While initially harmless, the namesake came to prominence in August when real-life McCree was terminated from Blizzard alongside two other long-term employees as a result of the lawsuit.

Following his departure, Blizzard announced that they would be renaming the character on 26th August. They also committed to stop naming game characters after real people. The McCree debacle is actually the second time the company had faced this problem; they had to make similar changes with regard to references to Afrasiabi in the World or Warcraft series after he was named in the suit.

Overwatch’s McCree received his new identity on 22nd October. In a Twitter post, the team unveiled the story of Cole Cassidy, making good use of the pre-existing vagueness in the character’s backstory to tie the change into the game’s canon. They also recorded new in-game voice lines to reflect the change, although the company has confirmed that existing cinematics will stay the same.

As a bit of a tongue-in-cheek joke, Blizzard also offered players the chance to follow their example and change their BattleTag – their username – for free.

What’s Next For Blizzard?

At present, it’s hard to know how Activision Blizzard will emerge from this scandal. They have committed to changing their company culture, and the staff changes certainly seem like a step in the right direction. With new people at the helm and much greater visibility, it’s hopeful that the company may be able to move towards a much healthier work environment.

However, there are still investigations and a lawsuit pending that could have vast implications for the company. The DFEH vs. EEOC argument remains ongoing, and it’s unlikely that the original filing will be resolved until that gets wrapped up. Even with those set aside, the sheer range and severity of allegations floating about are indicative of wide institutional failings that will not be an easy fix.

Fellow-LA developer Riot Games faced very similar accusations and legal action in 2019

Fellow-LA developer Riot Games faced very similar accusations and legal action in 2019

Blizzard certainly isn’t the first video game company to face such challenges. Back in 2019, Los Angeles-based Riot Games agreed to pay at least $10 million in damages to female employees over alleged gender discrimination. The class-action lawsuit also led to changes being made at the company meant to enable a better work environment. The situation was so similar to Blizzard’s current crisis that employees at Riot have reached out to those at Activision to offer advice and support.

In Riot’s case, the lawsuit doesn’t seem to have hindered their progress all that much. Their flagship, League of Legends, is still going strong and the release of Valorant last year was met with positive reception. For Blizzard, this is ultimately good news; while the situation has done considerable damage to their reputation, it’s unlikely to severely damage their commercial prospects.

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