Blizzard Entertainment workers throughout the World of Warcraft and Overwatch 2 publisher say they are demoralized, outraged, and upset after a meeting held Thursday by Blizzard president Mike Ybarra. Shortly after that meeting, Blizzard staff began tweeting about what they called a disappointing showing from leadership, and publicly challenged Ybarra’s statements. Their outward show of solidarity comes as some video game industry workers — including those at Activision Blizzard itself — continue efforts to organize the industry’s first labor unions.
Game Developer on Thursday published a detailed account of the meeting, describing a Q&A that intended to address an “employee satisfaction survey.” Blizzard leadership pre-screened questions about its “stack ranking” process for evaluating employees, reduced profit-sharing, and the company’s return-to-office mandate. Polygon has since spoken to several Blizzard developers who described the low morale that followed the meeting.
Blizzard spokesperson Andrew Reynolds confirmed many points made during the meeting, and told Polygon the company stands by Ybarra’s statements and “leadership in tough moments.”
Game Developer said the reduced profit-sharing plan, which would see workers receiving just 58% of their promised bonus, came as a shock; two weeks ago, Activision Blizzard announced quarterly financial results that it called a kickoff to a “strong financial performance in 2023.” At Blizzard Entertainment specifically, sales and operating income nearly doubled — a staggering 90% — as Warcraft, Overwatch, and Diablo all generated more than $100 million in net bookings, Activision Blizzard said.
Ybarra spoke about profit sharing at the meeting, suggesting that workers who believe executives are making more money are “living in a myth.” The profit-sharing cut to 58% applies to executives the same as it does employees, Ybarra said. Still, that doesn’t account for extreme salaries differences among executives and employees. A functional tester in Santa Monica is paid between $14 and $26 an hour, while a chief of staff’s salary is upwards of $270,000 a year. (These numbers are furnished by job postings on Indeed.) They are markedly different jobs, but a profit-sharing cut no doubt impacts those workers differently.
Pay came up again when Ybarra spoke on the company’s return-to-office mandate, which begins in a few months and requires workers to come back the office for three days a week after two years that accommodated work from home. King, the Activision Blizzard subsidiary that makes Candy Crush, has already returned to office, for example. Each of the publisher’s subsidiaries is making its own decisions on work-from-home, Activision Blizzard spokesperson Joe Christinat said.
Whatever the case, commuting to work adds on another significant expense for employees, not to mention the costs of moving for those hired from out-of-state during the pandemic. Blizzard spokesperson Reynolds said that Blizzard will honor its current long-term remote agreements, and make exceptions “for medical or religious reasons.” Customer service workers will continue to work remote, too.
“We will make decisions at times that not everyone will agree with — like any other business leader would with a team of over 4,500 individuals,” Reynolds said.
Game Developer also reported that Ybarra made comments that workers interpreted as meaning those who don’t agree with the return-to-office policy should quit the company. Blizzard confirmed to Polygon that Ybarra’s statements were correctly quoted, but added that Blizzard is “listening to the team’s feedback.”
Labor experts have suggested that return-to-work orders are also a way for employers to cut their workforce without resorting to layoffs, and the bad publicity and morale that follows. Matthew E. Kahn, an economics professor and author of Going Remote: How the Flexible Work Economy Can Improve Our Lives and Our Cities, suggested that Tesla may have taken that approach earlier this year.
“During this extraordinary time when some firms want to cut their workforces, rather than firing people, if you have this return to office, the boss can strut around that he or she is a captain of industry and you’ll get people quitting who were on the fence,” Kahn told Polygon. “Can we agree that if people quit, that’s less ugly than firing people?”
After addressing the return-to-work orders, Ybarra talked about “some” of its disciplines not being “long-term” roles. Blizzard rep Reynolds confirmed those comments, but said it didn’t specifically reference any roles, and wasn’t targeted at QA or customer service.
But developers didn’t see it that way — many on social media took it was an insult to QA and customer service, two fields that are widely undervalued in the video game industry — and also among the first to unionize. These roles, while essential, are vulnerable to low pay and crunch, and treated as if they’re expendable. Ybarra’s comments, workers suggested, underline that misconception.
Behind the scenes, QA workers at multiple Activision Blizzard studios are organizing unions in a bid to wrest back agency over their roles. Two QA departments have successfully unionized — at Diablo 4 studio Blizzard Albany and Call of Duty: Warzone studio Raven Software. Both are represented by Communications Workers of America; the next step is contract bargaining for better benefits, compensation, and workplace protections.
The influx of social media postings from Blizzard workers on Thursday can be seen as a form of solidarity, and it’s unusual to see this in an industry as secretive as video games. After the California Civil Rights Department filed its lawsuit against Activision Blizzard was filed in 2021, workers were quick to call out CEO Bobby Kotick; many even walked out and callied for his resignation.
But this moment feels different, as workers contend with their leadership at individual studios.