Activision Blizzard’s employees are fighting against a broken system
According to various sources, the company didn't just tolerate abusers, it protected them
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Amy Morhaime was engaged when she originally met Mike Morhaime. That statement is incorrect. She was single when they met while working at Blizzard.
Cake, balloons and laughter filled a kitchen in the esports department of Blizzard’s Irvine, California office in late 2018. It was a going away party for one of the founders of Tespa, Tyler Rosen.
Tyler Rosen started Tespa with his brother, Adam Rosen, in 2012 as a collegiate gaming club at the University of Texas, Austin. It expanded as a platform to host tournaments globally in 2013 before Blizzard acquired the organization in 2014. Then Blizzard president Mike Morhaime was impressed with what the Rosens put together, according to one former employee who, like many others in this story, requested anonymity for fear of reprisal.
Tespa became a part of Blizzard as Adam Rosen and Tyler Rosen worked with schools from the office in Irvine. Other employees in the esports department said they were mostly nice, though they didn’t know the brothers too well. But, according one source, Tyler Rosen took part in one of those cubicle-to-cubicle crawls in 2018. This involved employees drinking and playing games as they walked around the office. While most employees had left as the work day came to an end, Tyler Rosen and a handful of others remained.
The source said a department wide internal memo went out a few days later. Tyler Rosen — referred to as “Touchy Tyler” by several people around the office according to a source — was leaving the company that week in a sudden departure.
A broken system at Activision Blizzard
“Something didn’t feel right to me,” one employee close to the situation said. In July 2020, Bianca, a college student who had worked with Tespa, accused Tyler Rosen of sexually assaulting her in a hotel room in 2014. Several other accusations from other students followed soon after.
“It’s clear now with the allegations against him that he was completely protected and allowed to leave quietly,” another employee close to the situation said. “It’s worth pointing out that his two biggest supporters were the Morhaimes. They should not get a pass in all this.”
Rosen left the company and started his own esports startup, Rally Cry. He’s since taken “a step away” from operations there.
Enough stories of sexual assault and harassment became common within Activision Blizzard that the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) conducted a two year investigation, culminating in a lawsuit filed on July 21, 2021 in response to a “pervasive ‘frat boy’ culture that continues to thrive,” according to the suit. A culture where high-level employees allegedly abused other workers with little to no punishment has festered beneath the surface of a company that many considered a dream workplace in the games industry.
“I’ve seen stories from every branch I’ve worked with,” said one anonymous Blizzard employee. “I don’t think it’s about individuals. They exist in a system that allowed them to get away with things for more than 20 years.”
Upcomer spoke with 10 employees from across Activision Blizzard’s divisions and studios. Many of them described the culture at the company as hostile, inappropriate and unsafe.
Much of that culture itself extends from the original founders of Blizzard, including Morhaime and Frank Pearce, according to sources. Morhaime was known to hire people that fit well in the “frat boy” culture the Activision Blizzard lawsuit describes.
“It is the responsibility of leadership to keep all employees feeling safe, supported and treated equitably, regardless of gender and background,” Morhaime, who declined multiple requests for us to speak with him, said in a statement. “It is the responsibility of leadership to stamp out toxicity and harassment in any form, across all levels of the company. To the Blizzard women who experienced any of these things, I am extremely sorry that I failed you.”
Morhaime repeatedly said he wants to “hear” the stories of women who had terrible experiences, but our sources said there is no way Morhaime and others didn’t know what was happening around them. Morhaime was close with the Rosens and other bad actors within Blizzard, visiting each other’s houses for parties and barbecues often, an employee said.
In many cases, the founders and leadership enabled and protected abusers before leaving for greener pastures at new studios, according to employees.
The lawsuit was a tipping point
The company’s “frat boy” culture was an inherently exclusionary one – particularly to women, who, according to the Activision Blizzard lawsuit filed by the DFEH, only make up 20% of Activision Blizzard’s workforce.
The company’s Human Resources department, sources said, was notoriously unhelpful and often left female employees unprotected. It was one of the major points of interest when examining misconduct within the company according to the suit. As a result of the lawsuit and mounting pressure to make changes, senior vice president of HR Jesse Meschuk recently left Activision Blizzard.
Several sources alleged a toxic environment fostered by Activision Blizzard employees that led to women not receiving the same career advancement opportunities as their male peers, which contributed to the eventual lawsuit. Harassment and sexual misconduct was also commonplace in the company, and women were frequently discouraged from bringing it up.
One ex-employee said when she joined the company, one of the first questions she received was, “Do you even play the game?” The comment was met with laughter from the men who were present.
“About 10 months in, I landed a new role,” said the ex-employee. “Later that day, I overheard two male coworkers joking about who I must have slept with.”
In some cases, HR allowed men who allegedly sexually assaulted their female coworkers to continue working for weeks after a report was filed before anyone took action. Cher Scarlett, who worked at Blizzard as a software engineer, said that in many cases, harassment claims were resolved by just moving either the accuser or the accused to a different team.
Bad actors were untouchable
“I was told several times that HR wasn’t safe when I first joined,” Scarlett said. “My first harasser was a serial harasser. My first dealing with HR was a sexual harassment claim filed against me by the person who’d been harassing me, and they said that they’d found that the allegations were true, but they weren’t going to reprimand me because the person had put in their two weeks notice. I assumed that this was true and that I had become so ingrained in this culture that I was also doing something that would be considered harassment.”
Scarlett later discovered that it was her harasser and his girlfriend who had filed the claim against her. When she brought the evidence to HR, they said they couldn’t really tell if it was him or not. Even so, no action could be taken because her harasser had already left the company.
The following month, while attending a Heroes of the Dorm event, Scarlett found out someone she knew was posting on Twitter that they were going to take their own life. Being from the area where they lived, Scarlett notified emergency dispatchers to make sure they were safe.
The next day, the person began posting derogatory things about Scarlett and claimed they were going to physically harm her. Scarlett contacted event security and included then-CEO Mike Morhaime in the email. She’d built a relationship with him when she worked as a games journalist and figured that his “open-door policy” meant he’d want to hear about something like this.
When she returned from the event, the company did annual performance reviews. Scarlett was marked a “low performer.”
“I only got a cost of living raise and essentially no bonus,” she said. “All because of this incident, and the previous sexual harassment complaint that was filed against me.”
Discrimination was widespread at Activision Blizzard
Brissia Jiménez, who joined the company in 2013, shared an account of her experience at Blizzard and how she was targeted by a colleague of hers. HR, she claimed, did nothing to help.
“I requested a meeting with all the women in HR that had been looped into my situation,” Jiménez wrote. “Again, the response was that I was ‘too emotional.’ Four women. Four peers of my gender. Four people that were supposed to be there to help. No response.”
Even though many of the women who were mistreated at Blizzard have since left the company, they continued to be impacted by what they experienced there for a long time after.
“I knew a handful of things I witnessed and experienced were really wrong,” Scarlett said. “But even with my case and my performance being lowered because of something that I didn’t do wrong, I still believed that I was not a good software engineer at the end of that. It really affected me personally.”
Multiple sources from across esports, QA, marketing, development and other departments said the issues with Blizzard’s culture ran deep. Outside of the sexism, employees were berated and discriminated against for their background.
In mid 2011, LGBTQ youth were committing suicide at increased rates. A small group of employees went to Mike Morhaime requesting the company’s support in making ‘it gets better’ videos to show that Blizzard was a place that supported LGBTQ causes.
“We don’t make political statements,” Morhaime said to the group. The group, with employees from across the company, asked what was political about preventing teen suicide. Morhaime told them they had more important things to do than make videos, like work on their individual projects.
“We just wanted to throw our names out there,” one member of that group said. “What if our video helped one person feel better; prevent one person from taking their life?”
LGTBQ employees also cited an instance where company chose an anti-gay Death Metal singer, George Fisher, to perform at BlizzCon 2011. They introduced Fisher by showing a clip of him using homophobic slurs and telling Alliance players to “f****** die, you f****** emo c*** suckers.”
The video they posted of the event was censored and doctored to bleep out the curses and completely remove the homophobic slurs, but they still chose to introduce him that way for the live audience.
“The video caused a lot of backlash,” one source said. According to them, Blizzard leadership didn’t seem to care much. “The company released a boilerplate apology.”
Inequality in hiring, pay and promotions
Many of Blizzard’s employees are hired due to references from other employees, which can at times reduce diversity and create a homogenous, self-rewarding culture. One ex-employee described Blizzard’s hiring practices as “incestuous,” recounting the hiring of a specific manager who was married to another manager at Blizzard.
“A lot of us thought the wife who got hired was the worst person to pick out of all the people who interviewed,” they said. “But I think because that person’s word has strength and power within the office, it was kind of hard to overrule that.”
A male, ex-employee of color spoke about salary disparity among different people in his division. The job he applied for required five years of experience, and he was offered $45,000 a year despite being well qualified and needing to relocate to Irvine, where the average rent was more than $2,000 a month in 2019, according to the Orange County Register. When he commented on the low salary, his hiring manager had a simple response.
“Think of how good this will look on your resume,” they said.
A little while after he was hired, his department hired a white man with considerably less experience for nearly $55K. The ex-employee of color was even required to train this new hire despite the salary discrepancy. When the ex-employee approached his manager to ask how he could bump his salary up to match his trainee, he said he was told the other person made more because he “carries a better image of himself.”
He was told to be patient and they’d have a meeting about his salary later. That meeting never came. He never received a raise.
Eventually, the ex-employee left due to frustration around pay disparity and Blizzard’s lack of upward mobility, particularly for women and people of color. Now, a couple of years after leaving, he makes $80,000 at a much smaller studio in a lower level position.
When it came to getting promoted at Blizzard, there were only a few ways in which employees could stand out. Multiple sources said they were passed up for promotions in favor of less qualified men. One ex-employee, for example, said five of the six people in his department’s leadership were white.
Diversity wasn’t a priority
“Many people didn’t want to speak up for fear of losing their jobs, but also a lot of people who participated in the culture just wanted to be ‘in,’” Scarlett said. “Even something like not drinking would make you not be ‘in,’ and you had to be ‘in’ to get promoted.”
Dating a manager often led to promotion, according to one ex-employee who told Upcomer that several higher-ups were dating others in positions of power.
“As soon as one person in [an internal Blizzard couple] got promoted to a high-level position,” the source said, “their significant other would often get promoted to another team at a similarly high level position.”
Those most affected by Blizzard’s broken system were women of color — especially Black women — with one source describing them as “particularly vulnerable targets” of workplace discrimination. Though Blizzard eventually started hiring more non-white applicants, sources said they did not set those employees up for success once they began their employment. Many non-white employees would leave the company after less than a year.
With the lawsuit becoming public news, there has been mounting pressure on Activision Blizzard to make drastic changes – both from inside and outside the company. Employees staged a walkout on July 28 in protest of the company culture.
Internal efforts work towards change
On Aug. 3, Blizzard announced that president J. Allen Brack would step down and be replaced by Jen Oneal and Mike Ybarra. The two are relatively recent hires; Ybarra joined the company in October 2019, while Oneal joined in January 2021. According to sources, both were present at the walkout.
Their joint appointment has been met with tentative optimism from some. Oneal, who started out in the games industry as a quality assurance tester before working her way up to executive, has been called the “best studio head [they] ever worked with” by some employees. She’s also championed Pride events at Activision Blizzard before.
Ybarra, who worked at XBOX for 20 years prior to joining Blizzard, has a reputation of being more open-minded than other executives. According to a source who has worked with him in the past, while at XBOX, Ybarra played a big part in implementing rollout in regions that most Western publishers wouldn’t normally consider a priority, such as the Middle East, India and other lesser-tapped markets.
“I know that whole ‘the door is always open’ thing is a cliché, but he’s definitely a listener,” said the source. “And he’s not really a yes man. He would probably fight a lot of difficult situations.”
Despite the warm reception by some, the new leadership situation may not be so simple. Though both Oneal and Ybarra are relative newcomers to the company, Ybarra’s previous connection to certain Blizzard executives has raised some red flags. Just before he joined the company, he tweeted about having dinner with former Blizzard CIO Derek Ingalls and former CTO Ben Kilgore. According to a report by Vice, Kilgore was fired in 2018 for multiple allegations of sexual harassment against female employees. Subsequently, when informing employees of this, Ingalls made a joke about sleeping with female assistants.
Activision Blizzard employee coalition demands have not been met
“Not much has changed with Jen and Mike stepping up, they’ve been with the company,” an anonymous Blizzard employee said. “No other leadership changes have occurred anywhere else. Nothing has changed there. Nothing has changed with us.”
Organizers released a list of demands before the walkout on July 28. They include the end of forced arbitration for employees, worker participation in oversight of hiring and promotion policies, the need for greater pay transparency to ensure equality and employee selection of a third party to audit HR and other company processes. No one from leadership at Activision Blizzard has responded to these demands yet.
“Oneal and Ybarra will only be able to make improvements at Blizzard,” the anonymous employee continued. “We’ve asked for an end to force arbitration, which makes it so women have no legal protection when they come forward. This policy and a lot of others are set at the corporate level.”
One sentiment was clear throughout all of our conversations with employees at Activision Blizzard: they almost all had a story to share. Several described their experiences as “an internal clock” beginning to tick down until they left.
“The fact is that when the people who never witnessed these stories hear them, they believe the victims,” an anonymous Blizzard employee said. “What makes the situation unique, people who haven’t been privy to these behaviors now have the opportunity to listen.”
Hundreds of employees that left the company joined a Facebook page started by Mike and Amy Morhaime. What started as a post Blizzard networking group has become a space to vent all the poor experiences employees went through while with the company. Morhaime had been responding to individual posts, but they became so frequent he and his wife stopped.
The fallout from the lawsuit has been far-reaching. It has impacted fans of every Blizzard game, players in the Overwatch and Call of Duty Leagues and current and former employees of any of Activision Blizzard’s studios. Development has slowed on some games, sponsorships have ended and — for a few — lives have been ruined.
“The frustrating thing is that we all work, we’ve started and run diversity committees and other initiatives to make it better. We wanted to leave it better than we found it,” one source said. “I left almost a decade ago and to see these stories come out now, all these things happen now, it’s devastating.”
Organizers are pushing for change throughout the industry
Deeply rooted cultural issues aren’t exclusive to Blizzard. Companies from all over the gaming and esports industries have similar issues of sexism and abuse come to light. Riot Games was sued in 2018 by workers alleging gender discrimination and harassment. The class action lawsuit ended in 2019 with a $10 million dollar settlement. French workers union Solidaires Informatiques sued Rainbow Six Siege developer Ubisoft in July for enabling a culture of “institutional sexual harassment.” Those are only two examples of behavior that is endemic within esports.
“I really want people to understand that sometimes there isn’t a specific villain,” Scarlett said. “It’s literally the culture, and it’s not just one studio. It’s not just Activision Blizzard. It’s not just Riot. It’s not just Ubisoft. It’s all of them, because it is gaming culture.”
The gaming industry is still small according to nearly every source Upcomer spoke with. Many employees left Riot after the 2018 lawsuit to join Activision Blizzard and vice versa. Workers from across different companies are working together to address the problems that have become commonplace at studios across the industry. Current and former Ubisoft employees have signed an open letter in support of Blizzard employees, for example.
Sources were hesitant to share what their next steps in organizing were due to fear that company—and industry-wide—leadership could get ahead of them. They don’t have plans to wait for Activision Blizzard to work with them. They’re “well past waiting and seeing” what leadership does.
They said they’re working on their next steps; steps that could take years to see realized with tangible results.
“We’ve spent decades learning how to normalize this behavior, we have a lot to cope with,” one current Blizzard employee said. “I don’t expect it to come undone overnight. I expect it to take years and that may even not be enough. But what we can do is take the next step, the demands are the next step.”
Aron Garst, Bonnie Qu and Parkes Ousley contributed to this report.