Microsoft blindsided the world by purchasing publisher and developer Activision Blizzard in the biggest acquisition deal in video game history. This surprise buyout resulted in a slew of questions, such as “Which franchises does Microsoft own now?” and “Is Call of Duty now an Xbox exclusive?” However, the most prominent question was the simplest: “Why?” Why did Microsoft purchase Activision Blizzard given the ongoing investigation into the company’s alleged history of employee abuse and harassment and the numerous lawsuits that the investigation has resulted in?
Activision Blizzard’s legacy as not just one of the most successful studios in video game history but the makers of some of the most beloved and influential games of all time has forever been compromised by that investigation and the many revelations it has resulted in. It’s a story that has already changed the gaming industry and will certainly continue to do so.
Where and when did this harassment controversy start? This article should help get you up to speed.
California Files a Lawsuit Against Activision Blizzard
On July 20, 2021, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a lawsuit against Activision Blizzard after a lengthy two-year investigation. According to Bloomberg Law, the agency accused the company of promoting a “‘frat boy’ culture” that put female employees in the crosshairs. While women only made up approximately 20% of Activision Blizzard’s employee population, they experienced “constant sexual harassment, unequal pay, and retaliation.”
One of the biggest discoveries was the pervasiveness of what the lawsuit dubbed “cube crawls,” where male employees got drunk, crawled their way through cubicles, and participated in “inappropriate behavior toward female employees.” Many male employees also allegedly openly joked about rape and passed off their responsibilities to their female coworkers just so they could slack off and play video games. Moreover, female employees claimed they were passed over for promotions because “they might become pregnant.” However, arguably the most troubling accusation listed in the lawsuit is the reveal that one unnamed female Activision worker committed suicide while on a company trip with an unnamed “male supervisor.” She was allegedly the victim of “intense sexual harassment” to the point where nude pictures of her were circulated during a company holiday party.
While women were the main targets, nobody was safe. According to Kotaku, male employees were also the target of sexual harassment.
Former Blizzard President J. Allen Brack Addresses the Harassment Allegations Before Leaving the Company
Shortly after the sexual harassment allegations came to light, many prominent figures in the gaming industry expressed how much the news distressed them. One such person was then-Blizzard President J. Allen Brack. He claimed to know nothing about the harassment and wanted to help ensure the wellbeing and safety of Blizzard’s employees, which is all well and good save for one crucial detail: He was mentioned by name as having prior knowledge of the harassment and reportedly did nothing about it, all while acting “too friendly” to female employees. The other prominent Blizzard figure directly named in the lawsuit is Alex Afrasiabi. He reportedly told women he wanted to marry them and tried to kiss them, among other actions, and his supervisors had to “pull him off” his victims multiple times.
While Brack and Afrasiabi left Activision Blizzard (or, in Afrasiabi’s case, was fired) due to their connection with the lawsuit, they weren’t alone. Diablo 4’s Lead Designer Jesse McCree, World of Warcraft designer Jonathan LeCraft, and Lead Game Designer Cory Stockton were all fired after their part in the company’s sexual harassment scandal came to light.
Frances Townsend (or Bobby Kotick?) Sends a Troubling Internal Email
Controversial Activision Blizzard Vice President Frances Townsend (who formerly worked for the Bush administration) disturbed many people in and outside of the company when she reportedly sent an email that called the allegations outlined in the investigation a “distorted and untrue picture of our company” and generally attempted to downplay the validity and severity of the situation.
Later, the Wall Street Journal reported that the email was actually written by Activision CEO Bobby Kotick. Author aside, the tone-deaf nature of the email caused many Blizzard employees to immediately respond in their own way…
Activision Blizzard Employees Stage A Walkout
As news of the lawsuit and its allegations spread through Activision Blizzard’s workforce, many employees staged a walkout in response. Tempers didn’t calm down afterward. If anything, emotions rose after reports hit that many higher-ups knew about the accusations and did nothing about them. Over 100 employees walked out in protest and shared a clear demand: Fire CEO Bobby Kotick. Moreover, well over 2,000 employees signed a letter that called the company out on their response.
According to the organization behind many of the employee protests, ABK Workers Alliance, many of the employees’ demands have not been met. That was true back in August of 2021, and it is still true today. Moreover, the Communication Workers of America labor union called Activision Blizzard’s $18 million settlement deal over sexual harassment allegations, “a slap in the face” since the company is worth $72 billion.
Fans and News Outlets Refuse to Play and Cover Activision Blizzard Games
Shortly after the sexual harassment lawsuit came to light, a huge portion of the Blizzard fanbase boycotted the company and its games. Many gamers and streamers, including those who were known for playing titles like World of Warcraft and Hearthstone, refused to touch the games. They weren’t alone, as sites such as The Gamer, Prima Games, and GameXplain elected to cease all coverage of Activision Blizzard titles. No good news, no bad news, just deafening silence until, as The Gamer Editor in Chief Kirk McKeand put it, “there’s some real change.”
Allegations Against Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick Are Made Public
Recently, many allegations regarding Activision Blizzard’s CEO, Bobby Kotick, have come to light. For instance, according to the Wall Street Journal, he once sent an intimidating voicemail to one of his assistants, threatening to kill her. And yes, he also allegedly knew about the sexual harassment in his company and did nothing about it. Well, that’s not entirely true — he apparently protected the perpetrators and refused to report the incidents to the company’s board of directors. This led to another lawsuit filed by investors angry over Kotick’s “issuing materially false and misleading statements during a class action period.”
It’s little wonder the internet is celebrating Microsoft’s purchase of Activision Blizzard. Many people see it as an opportunity to finally have Kotick fired and held accountable for his alleged crimes and misdeeds.
Some of Activision Blizzard’s Worst Offenders Frequented a Hotel Room Known as the “Cosby Suite”
Back when BlizzCon was a large, live expo, many Blizzard employees slept in a local hotel to stay close to the convention center. Each employee had his or her own assigned room, including Alex Afrasiabi. Unfortunately, Afrasiabi’s harassments were so notorious and purportedly well-known as far back as 2013 that his BlizzCon hotel room was nicknamed “the Cosby Suite.”
For those unaware, the hotel room’s name allegedly references the ex-comedian Bill Cosby, who was also convicted of sexual assault (at least until the ruling was overturned). Since many of Afrasiabi’s sexual abuse activities occurred during BlizzCon, his hotel room was assigned the moniker. According to a Kotaku report, the Cosby Suite was a hotspot for Blizzard employees to meet, drink alcohol, and pose with a portrait of Bill Cosby.
While one anonymous source told Kotaku that the nickname was originally a bad joke meant to link the room’s dated appearance to Cosby’s signature ugly sweaters, the suite eventually became synonymous with sexual harassment. Many employees who have been photographed in the room with the Cosby portrait, including Cory Stockton and Jesse McCree, have since been fired.
Activision Blizzard Begins to Change In-Game Content Related to Accusations and the Investigation
As of late, many gamers have noted changes in various Activision Blizzard titles. For instance, Overwatch hero Jesse McCree (originally named after the Diablo 4 director of the same name who left the company following the Cosby Suite scandal) now goes by Cole Cassidy, and many achievements and images in World of Warcraft have been censored to appear less racy.
While opinions are split on the exact changes, many see them as a way for the company to cheaply change its public-facing content while remaining silent regarding the history of their culture and what changes they intend to make to help their employees.
Activision Blizzard Employees Fight For Unionization
Once Activision Blizzard employees started organizing in a show of solidarity over the sexual harassment lawsuit, some wondered if they could take their organization one step further and unionize. As Bloomberg points out, the gaming industry displays a distinct lack of unionization, but many Activision Blizzard employees have taken the first tentative steps by signing a union authorization card to join the Communications Workers of America. According to the ABK Workers Alliance, hundreds of employees have already signed up.
Unfortunately, Activision Blizzard executives have been less than receptive to its employee’s attempts to unionize. The company has been accused of union-busting due to hiring the law firm WilmerHale (which helped Amazon and other companies avoid unionization), as well as Donald Trump’s former Under Secretary of State for Management, Brian Bulatao. One of Bulatao’s first actions at Activision Blizzard was to send employees an email that asked them to “consider the consequences” of unionization. Many outlets have laughed at Bulatao and Activision Blizzard’s tactics, viewing them as a last-ditch, desperate (and according to NPR, borderline illegal) effort.
Reports Suggest Activision Blizzard Tried to Destroy and Hide Evidence
According to Axios, the Department of Fair Employment and Housing claimed that Activision Blizzard did everything it could to derail investigations. This ranged from forcing employees to wade through Activision Blizzard’s own bureaucratic red tape before they can contact the agency to shredding “documents related to investigations and complaints.”
Activision Blizzard representatives denied the allegations and claimed that they took “appropriate steps” regarding the relevant information.
The Securities and Exchange Commission Launches an Investigation Into Activision Blizzard
The Wall Street Journal reported that the SEC has begun an official investigation into Activision Blizzard’s workplace practices that will focus on “the company’s disclosures regarding employment matters and related issues.”
The SEC’s investigation will primarily focus on whether Activision Blizzard’s executives lied to investors by trying to hide and destroy evidence related to the harassment allegations.
Top Activision Blizzard Employees Continue to Leave the Company
In the weeks and months following the public reveal of California’s investigation, top Activision Blizzard employees (including Overwatch director Jeff Kaplan, Overwatch 2 director Chacko Sonny, Diablo 4 director Luis Barriga, and studio co-head Jen Oneal) announced their decision to leave the company.
While some employees have been fired from Activision Blizzard due to their alleged involvement in the harassment allegations, many of the company’s recent high-profile departures are believed to be related to the individuals’ decisions to leave following what they learned about the company’s practices.
Bobby Kotick Allegedly Considered Buying News Outlets to Control the Narrative
Given the updates and bombshells regarding Activision Blizzard and its lawsuit, it’s difficult to find any positive coverage of the company, let alone its CEO Bobby Kotick. Instead of winning people over by fixing Activision Blizzard, Kotick may have been interested in controlling what certain outlets could and could not say.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Kotick floated the idea of purchasing sites such as Kotaku and PC Gamer to “change the public narrative.” Currently, Kotaku is owned by G/O Media, which also controls sites such as The Onion and Gizmodo, while PC Gamer is under the wing of Future plc (which also manages news outlets like Edge and Games Radar).
In the spirit of fairness, the Wall Street Journal article notes that an Activision Blizzard representative denied the allegations against Kotick, and neither Kotaku nor PC Gamer (or their parent companies) responded. While the veracity of the claim is up in the air, many gamers believe it matches Kotick’s modus operandi.
Microsoft Purchases Activision Blizzard
On January 18th, Microsoft purchased Activision Blizzard, giving it access to the publisher’s expansive library of games. Once the deal is complete, Activision Blizzard will report directly to Phil Spencer. While this decision seems divorced from the lawsuit, The Wall Street Journal confirmed that because Activision Blizzard’s bargaining power had been severely diminished due to the scandal, it was essentially the perfect time for Microsoft to buy the flagging publisher.
Since Microsoft only recently announced its acquisition, it is too early to tell if the company’s newfound ownership of Activision Blizzard will result in any tangible changes for the better. However, according to The Wall Street Journal, Bobby Kotick, who has been a major player and target in the sexual harassment accusations, will potentially leave Activision Blizzard “once the deal closes.” Moreover, the ABK Worker’s Alliance announced on Twitter it will continue its unionization efforts even after Microsoft assumes full control of the company.
We should all consider the investigation, lawsuits, the Microsoft deal, and the many stunning revelations that have come to light as a result of all of this to be an ongoing story.