In a brief statement released earlier today, Blizzard confirmed that J. Allen Brack will be stepping down as the “leader of the studio” and will be replaced by Jen Oneal and Mike Ybarra who will serve as “co-leads” of Blizzard moving forward. There’s no word on what Brack will do next, but a separate statement published by Activision notes that Brack is “leaving the company to pursue new opportunities.”
What you won’t find in either statement (beyond vague references to “integrity and inclusivity” as well as Oneal and Ybarra’s reported commitment to “all” Blizzard employees) is a direct reference to California’s lawsuit against Blizzard over the company’s practices and policies, the controversy over certain Activision Blizzard executives’ responses to the state’s investigation, or the fact that players are staging protests against Activision Blizzard as part of their own responses to these stunning allegations.
So what does Brack have to say about all of this? Well, he previously addressed the lawsuit in an internal email that was leaked to various media outlets, but his official statement on his “decision” to step down is significantly shorter and frustratingly generic:
“I am confident that Jen Oneal and Mike Ybarra will provide the leadership Blizzard needs to realize its full potential and will accelerate the pace of change. I anticipate they will do so with passion and enthusiasm and that they can be trusted to lead with the highest levels of integrity and commitment to the components of our culture that make Blizzard so special.”
You know, there’s quite a bit to talk about here, but I can’t get over that “components of our culture that make Blizzard so special” line. When Brack references that culture, I don’t imagine he’s talking about the toxic culture of abuse, sexism, harassment, and employee demoralization that apparently existed behind the scenes for far too long. I assume he’s instead talking about the years that Blizzard spent making all-time great games while convincing so many of us that they were a loving and caring company made of passionate gamers who would do anything for their fans and each other.
But you know what? I don’t think Brack deserves to be able to reference those days, even if we do choose to believe they ever really existed. He is, after all, the man who had this to say in response to a fan’s question about whether or not Blizzard would ever add legacy servers for World of Warcraft:
“No. By the way, you don’t want to do that either. You think you do, but you don’t.”
At a time when the much-maligned Warlords of Draenor expansion sunk WoW‘s reputation lower than it had ever been before, Brack had the audacity to tell fans that one of the features they’d been asking for the most was something they only thought they wanted.
While it’s certainly at least a little funny that Brack was forced to reveal WoW Classic just one year later (and that Classic‘s subscriber numbers proved that he was wrong), there are many fans who will always remember him as the guy who not only seemed to fundamentally misunderstand what WoW fans wanted but was bold enough to think that he could gaslight them into somehow believing that WoW‘s then-modern days were so clearly better than what had come before. I’ve spoken before about how the Final Fantasy 14 team’s commitment to their fans is a big part of the reason why that game is pulling ahead of World of Warcraft, and clips like that only help sell that argument.
However, I don’t want to make it sound like J. Allen Brack was somehow the only person on the WoW team who believed that they knew what fans wanted better than fans did. There’s a very good chance he was simply the figurehead on that day and that other members of that panel would have expressed similar (if perhaps better worded) views that were in line with the “passionate” thoughts of one of the team’s leaders.
Honestly, it feels like Brack is playing a similar role now. He may be stepping down, but does anyone believe that Brack was the last member of the Blizzard team who represented the company’s darkest days? We know for a fact that there are other toxic executives at Activision Blizzard based solely on recent statements made by those executives, but we don’t know how many people were put into the positions of power over the years because they too bought into the culture that Brack and others cultivated, contributed to, and, at times, simply let slide.
Blizzard is now in a position where they have to convince everyone but diehard fans that things really have changed. While I’d like to believe that they’ll do that by forcing more executives out the door, implementing serious culture/policy changes, and promoting the next generation of great Blizzard creators, my fear is that people will be willing to overlook all of that and simply judge Blizzard by the quality of their upcoming games. Of course, with World of Warcraft at a low point, Hearthstone sometimes struggling to chase its glory days, Overwatch 2 navigating the early levels of development hell, and Diablo 4‘s release nowhere in sight, it’s honestly not clear whether even good games can save Blizzard in the near future.
Mostly, though, I feel sorry for those Blizzard employees who never did anything but their jobs (and were perhaps even victims of abuse at one point) and are now tasked with solving a problem that they inherited. J. Allen Brack was given a golden parachute just as those who remain at Blizzard were handed the keys to a crumbling empire. If we’re to believe that Blizzard’s incoming leadership has nothing but good intentions regarding the future of the company, then it is a shame that they’re only being elevated now that the company is in this situation while others before them were able to coast by on misguided public perception, legacy works, and whatever sense of self-worth their egos provided.
There’s little doubt that a small army of incredibly talented people with good intentions remains at Blizzard. It’s just a shame that their efforts will now be judged based largely on how they navigate the sins of their predecessors. As someone who would have previously called themselves a long-time fan of most of Blizzard’s games, I truly hope that they’re able to make the most out of what could most generously be called a stacked deck. However, as others have pointed out, the sad truth of the matter seems to be that Blizzard may become the next BioWare and serve as little more than a brand name.