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Blizzard president Brack allowed toxicity to fester, according to lawsuit

(The Washington Post illustration; Photo by Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)
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Among the more startling allegations found in a sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuit filed against Activision Blizzard July 20 are two accounts stating that Blizzard President J. Allen Brack was personally aware of toxicity in his company and that he failed to take effective measures to protect his employees. The examples make Brack a key figure in the 29-page civil rights and equal pay act lawsuit brought by The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) agency against the video game publishing goliath.

Brack has presided over Blizzard Entertainment, one of Activision Blizzard’s largest subsidiaries and the maker of the massively popular Warcraft game series, since 2018. The suit, which alleges multiple instances of discrimination, inequality and harassment against women throughout Activision Blizzard’s network of companies, focuses heavily on toxicity within Blizzard and its Warcraft development team. In particular, allegations in the suit state that former “World of Warcraft” senior creative director Alex Afrasiabi would routinely harass female employees at the company’s annual convention, BlizzCon. The incidents were an open secret at the company, the DFEH alleges, and the suit claims Brack had “multiple conversations” with Afrasiabi and cautioned him over his drinking and being “too friendly” toward women employees.

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Afrasiabi continued to make unwanted advances toward women, according to the lawsuit, including groping them and trying to lead them back into his hotel suite. Afrasiabi, a well-known quest and level designer for “World of Warcraft” since its launch in 2004, left the company in June of 2020.

Attempts to reach Brack and Afrasiabi for comment were unsuccessful at the time of publication.

The DFEH also claims in the suit that Brack heard complaints in early 2019 of employees leaving Blizzard Entertainment due to sexual harassment and sexism, and that women on the team (the online platform that connects Blizzard games) were subjected to disparaging comments. Women who were not “huge gamers” or “into the party scene” were treated as outsiders in their own company, the lawsuit alleges.

Activision Blizzard responded Wednesday by describing the lawsuit’s claims as “distorted, and in many cases false.” Activision Blizzard is a global company with reportedly over 9,000 employees.

“In cases related to misconduct, action was taken to address the issue,” Activision Blizzard claimed in a statement shared with The Washington Post. The statement went on to say, “The picture the DFEH paints is not the Blizzard workplace of today. Over the past several years and continuing since the initial investigation started, we’ve made significant changes to address company culture and reflect more diversity within our leadership teams."

Activision Blizzard said it was disappointed that state regulators had not worked with the company in a “good faith effort” to investigate and resolve complaints before resorting to a lawsuit.

The court documents said mediation attempts were made in early July, but found no resolution.

In addition to Blizzard, Activision Blizzard’s studios include Infinity Ward, the creators of Call of Duty, as well as several other well-known studios like Sledgehammer Games, Raven Software and High Moon Studios, all of which now support the Call of Duty franchise. Studio Toys for Bob also helped develop the recent Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon remakes. Activision also owns the popular toys-to-life franchise “Skylanders.”

The broad, sweeping lawsuit from the DFEH claims women throughout the Activision Blizzard network suffered harassment and endured heavier scrutiny than their male colleagues, who would be more easily rewarded with promotions and pay raises. During “cube crawls,” a reference to pub crawls, male employees would drink “copious amounts of alcohol” and visit cubicle after cubicle while harassing the women they passed along the way, the lawsuit alleges.

Brack made headlines in late 2019 after Blizzard Entertainment suspended and fined a tournament-winning “Hearthstone” player for making comments in support of Hong Kong protesters, which prompted global outrage and an apology from Brack at BlizzCon that year. Brack said, “We will do better going forward, but our actions are going to matter more than any of these words.”

Activision Blizzard is only the latest in a string of high profile video game publishers and developers accused of systemic sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the workplace. In 2018, video game culture site Kotaku reported on a “culture of sexism” at Riot Games, makers of the world’s most popular esports game, “League of Legends.” Speaking with Kotaku a year later, more than a dozen Riot employees point out marked improvement in moving a way from what the article dubbed a “bro culture.”

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Earlier this month, Ubisoft, the French publishing house of the “Assassin’s Creed” series, was sued by a French workers union over “institutional harassment.” Ubisoft has faced numerous allegations over the past years, removing managers and directors.

“Management -- myself included -- have a responsibility to act as role models and be exemplary for our teams,” Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot wrote in a statement released in May. “I want to stress my personal commitment to continue to improve our workplace culture and create real, lasting and positive change at Ubisoft.”

Games industry analyst Michael Pachter, a nonpracticing attorney licensed in California, said Activision Blizzard’s biggest problem stems from what else the court could find as a result of this lawsuit.

“The far bigger problem is if there is a court finding of harassment and a toxic work culture, and if there are a significant number of employees who can demonstrate in court that they were sexually harassed,” Pachter wrote in an email to The Post. “The allegations are pretty specific (most appeared to have occurred at Blizzard) and if there are a lot of plaintiffs, there could be damages of as much as several million dollars per employee.”

Pachter stressed the likelihood of such a judgment isn’t known at this time, and that investors into Activision Blizzard may not be aware of the lawsuit and allegations at the moment.

The lawsuit was not overlooked by the gaming community, however. The specificity and breadth of the lawsuit prompted shocked and disgusted reactions from the Call of Duty community. Activision’s Call of Duty franchise is the third best-selling video game series of all time behind Mario and Tetris, and regularly hosts millions of players every month with its annualized releases.

“There’s really nothing more to say about the lawsuit other than it’s absolutely horrifying and disgusting,” tweeted charlieINTEL, the Dexerto Media-owned news blog that focuses on Call of Duty. “There needs to be accountability at Activision’s highest executive level for this.”

Asmongold, a popular Twitch streamer and co-founder of “World of Warcraft” content group One True King, tweeted that as a fan of more than 20 years, “it really hurts to see how things have devolved in such a way.” On Wednesday morning, he read and discussed the allegations on his Twitch channel of 2.1 million followers in a two-hour stream. The “World of Warcraft” Reddit community, with 2.2 million members (larger than Star Wars), is dominated with posts discussing the lawsuit.

Some posts on the Reddit, as well as Blizzard’s own online forum, are calling for a cleanup of content that involved Afrasiabi, including his questlines. One Reddit post simply states “kick this man out of the city,” portraying a picture of a non-playable character that was added into the game in 2005 and named Field Marshal Afrasiabi.

Shannon Liao contributed to this report.

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