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Blizzard president out in wake of discrimination lawsuit and employee walkout

The Activision Blizzard booth with purple lighting and Activision and Blizzard in big letters on a wall
The Activision Blizzard booth during the 2013 Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles. Blizzard President J. Allen Brack is leaving the company amid a cultural reckoning at parent Activision Blizzard Inc.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Less than two weeks after California regulators filed a lawsuit alleging years of sexual discrimination and harassment at Activision Blizzard, the president of the company’s Blizzard division is out.

J. Allen Brack stepped down Tuesday as leader of the video game studio, maker of the “Warcraft” and “Diablo” games, according to a statement on the company’s website. He will be replaced by Jen Oneal and Mike Ybarra, both relative newcomers to Blizzard, who will jointly lead the company.

For the record:

11:36 a.m. Aug. 4, 2021An earlier version of this article carried an incorrect byline.

The move came the same day as the company’s second-quarter earnings report. Activision Blizzard Chief Executive Bobby Kotick opened a conference call with investors by saying that there is “no place at our company for any type of harassment, discrimination or unequal treatment of any kind.”

The lawsuit filed in late July by the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing, however, alleges that unequal treatment has found a place at the company for quite some time. The suit largely focuses on the Blizzard division of the company, depicting a workplace where sexual harassment is rampant and often goes unpunished, and where women are paid less, denied promotions and retaliated against when they raise issues with managers. Brack was one of only two Blizzard executives specifically named in the suit, which alleges that he knew about harassment, discrimination and retaliation but failed to take appropriate action in response.

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Activision Blizzard employees walk out a week after California sued the video game giant alleging sexual harassment, retaliation and discrimination.

Activision Blizzard took an aggressive line against the lawsuit at first, with spokespeople calling it “irresponsible behavior from unaccountable state bureaucrats” and executive Frances Townsend writing that it presented “a distorted and untrue picture of our company.”

Brack took a softer tack, writing in an all-staff email that he found the allegations “extremely troubling,” adding that feminist Gloria Steinem was a “revered saint of the Brack household” and that he disdained “bro culture” and had spent his career fighting against it.

But employees organized to demand stronger action. A letter calling the official company response “abhorrent and insulting” and calling for broader acknowledgment of the company’s problem — and for Townsend to step down from her leadership of the women employees group — gained more than 3,100 signatures in days.

On Wednesday, employees staged a global walkout centered on four demands: a change to hiring and promotion policies to increase the number of women at the company, the publication of compensation and promotion data for all employees, a third-party audit of the company’s management and human resources department, and an end to mandatory arbitration clauses in all employee contracts, which, the organizers wrote, “protect abusers and limit the ability of victims to seek restitution.”

Ahead of the walkout, Kotick issued a statement admitting the response was “tone deaf” and pledging a number of changes, including a policy review by the law firm WilmerHale, the termination of managers who have suppressed harassment and discrimination claims, and changes to sexist content in the company’s games.

Brack’s resignation was not among the employee demands, but his brief tenure at the top of the game studio has been marked by public crises.

After joining the company in 2005 to work on “World of Warcraft,” he took over the top spot in 2018 from Mike Morhaime, one of the studio’s co-founders. Barely a year later, Blizzard drew political fire for punishing a Hong Kong player who won a tournament in “Hearthstone,” a card battle game, for expressing support for protests against the Chinese government in a live postgame interview. The decision was ultimately reversed, and Brack apologized onstage at BlizzCon, the company’s annual convention.

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‘I accept accountability,’ Blizzard Entertainment’s President J. Allen Brack said at BlizzCon 2019.

Brack’s past comments on sexism in Blizzard games also drew the ire of employees and company critics in the days after the filing of the California lawsuit, including one video from the 2010 BlizzCon showing Brack and a panel of male colleagues laughing off a question from a woman in the audience about female “World of Warcraft” characters wearing skimpy outfits.

In a statement published alongside the news of his departure, Brack said that the new co-leaders of the company “will provide the leadership Blizzard needs to realize its full potential and will accelerate the pace of change.”

A spokesperson for the employees leading the open letter and walkout campaign declined to comment on Brack’s departure.

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But on Monday, the employees — now calling themselves the ABK Workers Alliance, for Activision Blizzard King, a name that includes the King Digital Entertainment subsidiary, maker of “Candy Crush Saga” — issued a letter asserting that the company’s actions to date had not meaningfully addressed their requests issued before the walkout.

The letter also rejected the company’s choice of WilmerHale as a third-party auditor on the grounds that the law firm and the company have a preexisting relationship and the firm has a reputation for opposing employee activism and labor organizing.

“We call on you and your executive leadership team to do better, and to fully address our list of demands,” the letter stated. “We will not abandon our cause.”


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