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A&E >  Entertainment

Game On: Blizzard faces avalanche of controversies and now a discrimination lawsuit

Aug. 5, 2021 Updated Thu., Aug. 5, 2021 at 3:23 p.m.

"Overwatch" is a competitive "hero shooter" known for its eclectic cast of characters and emphasis on teamwork. The game's sequel, pictured, is set to release sometime in 2022.  (Activision-Blizzard Inc.)
"Overwatch" is a competitive "hero shooter" known for its eclectic cast of characters and emphasis on teamwork. The game's sequel, pictured, is set to release sometime in 2022. (Activision-Blizzard Inc.)
By Riordan Zentler For The Spokesman-Review

I’ve been hesitant to write about all the drama at Blizzard Entertainment, a video game developer and publisher whom older readers might know for the “Diablo” or “Warcraft” series – “Overwatch” and “Hearthstone” are a couple of their more recent projects.

Despite Blizzard’s legendary status in the gaming world, the studio has been pummeled with one controversy after another over the past two years, and now Activision-Blizzard is facing a lawsuit filed by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing alleging gender-based discrimination and harassment.

The suit follows a two-year investigation by DFEH, and it alleges Blizzard to have a “pervasive frat boy workplace culture,” where numbers of male employees “banter about their sexual encounters, talk openly about female bodies and joke about rape.”

The document also describes “cube crawls,” wherein “male employees drink copious amounts of alcohol as they ‘crawl’ their way through various cubicles and often engage in inappropriate behavior toward female employees” – and these behaviors are allegedly known by top executives at the company, who have failed to take action.

Most troubling of all, the court document claims a female employee committed suicide while on a company trip due to a sexual relationship she was engaged in with her male supervisor. According to DFEH, the woman had been suffering continuous sexual harassment at work, most notably an incident at a holiday party where male co-workers passed around a nude photo of her.

The company’s initial reaction was to deny the legitimacy of the lawsuit, but following a sizable employee walkout, Blizzard changed its tune, promising to right the wrongs of the past and hiring law firm WilmerHale to review the company’s policies and promote a respectful and inclusive workplace.

But even this seems like a half-hearted response given the firm’s pre-existing relationship with Activision-Blizzard’s executives and prompted employees to form a coalition criticizing the choice of law firm, suggesting a neutral third-party be selected instead.

The court case was filed in July, and on Tuesday Blizzard President J. Allen Brack departed the company, followed by the company’s head of PR, Jesse Meschuk. Neither employee stated the reason for their departure – just the usual “pursuing new opportunities” line.

Suffice to say, the pot has certainly been stirred, and in a few short years Blizzard has gone from one of the most respected game studios to one of the least. The fallout from DFEH’s lawsuit seems to confirm the rumors surrounding Blizzard’s workplace culture, but the company has been making notable public faux pas for years.

After a majority stake in the company was sold to Chinese tech giant Tencent, Blizzard predictably began putting a much greater emphasis on creating mobile games – mobile is the predominant gaming platform in China and India but is seen as a shallow platform by many gamers in the U.S.

The unveiling of mobile-exclusive “Diablo Immortal” at BlizzCon 2018 was met with a negative audience reaction, leading principal game designer Wyatt Cheng to say, “Do you guys not have phones?”

While taking audience questions minutes later, one disgruntled Blizzard fan asked if the game was “an out-of-season April Fool’s joke.” The fiasco was streamed publicly and cringe-inducingly awkward, so it dominated video game headlines for weeks.

Worse and no less embarrassing was Blizzard’s response to competitive “Hearthstone” player Ng Wai Chung “Blitzchung” publicly voicing his support for Hong Kong’s 2019-20 protests.

For speaking the slogan “liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times,” Chung was banned from the tournament, forced to forfeit his prize money and banned from Hearthstone Grandmasters tournaments for one year, with Blizzard’s public statement referencing a rule prohibiting players from offending the public or hurting the company’s image.

The public outcry against Blizzard for this move was impossible to ignore, with #BoycottBlizzard trending on Twitter worldwide. Two Hearthstone Grandmasters announcers quit their jobs, and Mitsubishi Motors withdrew its esports sponsorship days later.

U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Marco Rubio co-signed a letter with Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Mike Gallagher and Tom Malinowski requesting the company reverse the ban on Chung, stating that Blizzard’s decision “could have a chilling effect on gamers who seek to use their platform to promote basic human rights and freedoms.”

All of this led to Brack reducing the penalty to a six-month ban and reinstating Chung’s winnings, saying the true issue was keeping the broadcast’s focus on games, not politics. He said the ban was “not about the content of Blitzchung’s message” and that the company’s “relationship in China had no influence on our decision.”

Between justified public backlash and constant workplace discrimination, it’s no longer a surprise that several prominent veteran employees have been leaving one after the other. The likes of Jeff Kaplan, Chris Metzen and Ben Brode were likely fed up with the Blizzard culture and may have been alerted that the hammer was soon to drop.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise, but the company’s stock (ATVI) has dropped by 12% since the DFEH lawsuit was made public. Between that, the public’s renewed and fresh distrust in Blizzard and no big game releases on the horizon until 2022 at the earliest, the company could be in serious trouble.

They’re unlikely to go under but could be forced to downsize considerably if things don’t look up soon. I won’t be buying any Blizzard products for a long time. Although I’ve sunk hundreds of hours into “Overwatch,” I stopped playing months ago, and no amount of hype for the impending sequel can make me turn a blind eye to abhorrent and tone-deaf company practices.

Riordan Zentler can be reached at riordan.zentler@gmail.com.

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