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Game On: Activision Blizzard’s settled sexual discrimination lawsuit continues to haunt company

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 28, 2021

Diablo II: Resurrected launched to mostly favorable reviews Sept. 23, but it hasn’t reinvigorated Activision Blizzard’s player base, which has dwindled from 46 million to 26 million monthly active players in four years.  (Activision Blizzard Inc.)
Diablo II: Resurrected launched to mostly favorable reviews Sept. 23, but it hasn’t reinvigorated Activision Blizzard’s player base, which has dwindled from 46 million to 26 million monthly active players in four years. (Activision Blizzard Inc.)
By Riordan Zentler For The Spokesman-Review

Activision Blizzard announced Tuesday that it would not be going forward with BlizzCon 2022, which was scheduled to be held online in February. The first conference was hosted 16 years ago, and it was streamed digitally for 2020 and 2021 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The video game publishing giant known for hits like World of Warcraft, Diablo, Starcraft and Overwatch has never been one to shy away from the spotlight until recently.

Growing rumors of a toxic frat boy culture came to a head when the Department of Fair Employment and Housing and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rallied lawsuits against Activision Blizzard in July and September, respectively. The suits were based on a three-year investigation.

Ultimately, the company settled the EEOC lawsuit by creating an $18 million fund to compensate employees who claim damages. But in the public eye, of course, a settled lawsuit and the well-received September launch of Diablo II: Resurrected don’t exonerate the company’s mistakes.

So, in an apparent effort to focus on what Blizzard does best, the company explained that its annual convention was canceled because “the energy it would take to put on a show like this is best directed toward supporting our teams and progressing development of our games and experiences.”

Focusing fully on game development makes some sense given that most of Blizzard’s franchises have slowed to a crawl. For better or worse, the publisher has a lot of reorganizing to do following the recent rapid-fire departure of various key employees.

Even still, the reason given for the convention’s cancellation seems corporate and deceptive. It’s fairly obvious that BlizzCon 2022 was canceled for the sake of damage control. The company is actively struggling to shake its negative image, so offering an easy focal point for gamers to bemoan Blizzard’s public mishaps would be a bad move for the publisher.

BlizzCon itself is not free of scandal. The aforementioned lawsuit alleged that longtime World of Warcraft developer Alex Afrasiabi would walk around BlizzCon year after year hitting on female employees, “telling them he wanted to marry them, attempting to kiss them and putting his arms around them.”

The lawsuit further alleges that while supervisors would intervene, no further action would be taken – instead, his hotel room at these conferences became jokingly known as “The Cosby Suite” in reference to convicted rapist Bill Cosby.

This particular complaint is likely to be true given the existence of an image circulating the internet depicting Afrasiabi alongside seven other male Blizzard employees posing with a large photo of Cosby. Alcohol is present, and they appear to be drunk. Afriasabi was fired in June 2020 following internal reports of sexual misconduct.

That’s the trouble with Blizzard today – everything it does seems to be tainted some way or another. On the same day the company canceled BlizzCon 2022, it also renamed Overwatch character Jesse McCree to Cole Cassidy in-game.

The Western gunslinger was named after a developer at Blizzard because “Jesse McCree” sounded like a stereotypical cowboy name. The real-life McCree actually had to sign a contract with the company permitting the use of his name.

It was a benign decision that came back to haunt Blizzard when McCree left the publisher following the DFEH lawsuit – he’s one of the employees visible in the aforementioned “Cosby Suite” photo.

While Blizzard had no choice but to publicly acknowledge the conundrum, the company took it a step further by penning in-game lore explaining that McCree was actually an alias Cole Cassidy had to use during his time as an outlaw. I can’t decide whether this elaborate damage control is clever and endearing or cringe-inducing.

It remains to be seen whether the once-legendary publisher will be able to shake its negative image and outrun its past. The gaming community can be shallow, but Blizzard seems to have struck a nerve with its long-term failure to address sexual harassment.

Then again, Riot Games was sued for gender-based discrimination in 2018, but the company’s games are thriving, and people seem to have moved on. Only time will tell if Blizzard will manage to do the same.

Riordan Zentler can be reached at riordanzentler@gmail.com.

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