Every few months big game companies hold investor calls in which one set of rich people reassures another set of rich people that they are both still rich and will, over the coming months, likely get even richer. Sometimes one of the rich people hints at a new game that’s in development. Other times they announce an upcoming game will be delayed. More often than not, they are soul-crushing rituals where there’s not a care in the world for anything that can’t be reduced to a number. Even by these standards, though, the latest Activision Blizzard investor call was particularly grim.
The company is currently at the center of a big California lawsuit alleging widespread sexual harassment and discrimination going back years. Since news of the lawsuit broke, many current and former Activision Blizzard employees have shared their own experiences of being mistreated at the company and held back by its male-dominated culture. The company’s initial response was to circle the wagons, calling the lawsuit “inaccurate” and the “irresponsible” work of “unaccountable State bureaucrats.”
It’s since taken a more contrite approach, but not before employees formed a worker group called the ABK Workers Alliance to demand things like an end to mandatory arbitration, greater pay transparency, and more diverse hiring. A week later, the group says management still hasn’t even acknowledged these demands. All the while, stories continue pouring out about the pain of what some current and former employees went through while working at the company.
That was the context in which CEO Bobby Kotick and his lieutenants went into the company’s most recent earnings call on Tuesday. During the call, there was the nauseating two-step of “we care, we’re listening,” yet at the same time “Call of Duty money machine go brrr.” We’re already seeing the Call of Duty hype machine ratchet back up to tease the announcement of the series’ fall 2021 release. Kotick and others repeatedly acknowledged how serious the allegations are, how behavior like that has no place at Activision Blizzard, and how maintaining a safe and inclusive workplace is their top priority—despite again, the company meeting zero of the biggest worker demands. Also Diablo Immortals is delayed, he said, but don’t worry, the rest of the games are coming along great. Overwatch 2 just passed an “important internal milestone.”
“We’ve seen a lot of headlines about the lawsuit and employee concern,” said Morgan Stanely’s Matthew Cost as he opened up the meeting’s Q&A session. “Can you talk more about what you’ve been doing and will do to address those issues? And then just secondly, can you expand on any expected impact to productivity as you work through the situation, and do you expect any impact on the pipeline?”
“Thank you for the powerful question,” responded chief operating officer Daniel Alegre, who noted that “our employees are truly our greatest asset” and pointed out the company recently hired a law firm accused of union-busting, WilmerHale, to lead an outside investigation. He maintained that the company remains committed to diverse hiring and equal pay for men and women. Also the “pipeline is progressing well” with a “strong lineup planned for the second-half of the year” and “several new titles across PC, console, and mobile from Blizzard, alongside more great experiences from Call of Duty, Candy [Crush], and Warcraft” coming in 2022.
“First off, there’s nothing more important to me than our people, and I know Mike Ybarra who is partnering with me to lead Blizzard feels exactly the same,” Jen Oneal, the new co-head of Blizzard following president J. Allen Brack’s sudden departure, said during the call. These were her first public remarks since taking on the role. “Since I joined the studio at the beginning of the year, I’ve had the privilege of working closer with the Diablo and Overwatch teams. I’m seeing great progress on Overwatch 2 and the multiple games in the Diablo universe.”
This was how the entire meeting went. Activision Blizzard investors and leadership posed the explosive lawsuit as something like, oh, people said some things, and they’re not good, but we’re actually doing everything we can to make this company the best place to work ever. And also, don’t worry, none of it will hurt our bottom line. There was no word on how continuing to employ an ex-Bush administration torture apologist in a top company role works toward creating a nice working environment. As GameIndustry.biz news editor Danielle Partis perfectly summed it up, “We’ve got mountains of lawsuits, comeuppance is due, but Call of Duty had a really fruitful Q2.”
Capitalism has trained us to expect the absolute minimum from companies and the mind-bogglingly wealthy people who run them. It’s infuriating and heartbreaking that a reportedly toxic and abusive culture at one of the world’s biggest gaming companies is only being reckoned with years too-late, and only then because of arm-twisting by public opinion, employee protests, and the threat of litigation by the biggest state in the country. And still, Activision Blizzard’s song and dance with investors managed to be even bleaker than I could have imagined.
When Assassin’s Creed publisher Ubisoft faced a similar reckoning over harassment and misconduct last summer (one which persists despite attempts by leadership to brush it aside), an investor asked CEO Yves Guillemot whether he was just oblivious or knew and did nothing. Guillemot rejected both options. While no single question by an investor or anyone else has the capacity to fix the systemic issues plaguing the games industry, the exchange provided a brief moment of catharsis in an otherwise hellish onslaught of secrecy and denials. Nobody was as similarly blunt with Kotick.
PR spin, propaganda, hypernormalisation—whatever you want to call it, we’re collectively told over and over by people in power that what we witness and experience is bullshit and the bullshit they serve us back is what’s actually true. That’s in part how a company with an increasingly documented history of not treating people right—be it Activision Blizzard or Amazon.com, Inc.—can say with a straight face that it really does care without being immediately laughed out of the room. It’s what we’ve come to expect but that doesn’t make it any less exhausting. And it doesn’t mean anyone else has to play along.