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Embattled gaming company Blizzard loses female co-leader after 3 months

(The Washington Post illustration; Activision Blizzard)
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Embattled video game company Activision Blizzard had a bad day Tuesday. In a flurry of announcements, the company said “Overwatch 2” and “Diablo IV,” sequels to popular franchises from the publisher, were delayed to unspecified dates. Additionally, Blizzard Entertainment co-leader Jen Oneal is stepping down amid continued turmoil at the company following a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a California state agency over the summer. Both the delays and Oneal’s departure were announced during Activision Blizzard’s quarterly earnings call.

Blizzard, a subsidiary of Activision Blizzard, promoted Oneal and Mike Ybarra as co-leaders in August after the former president, J. Allen Brack, was named in the California lawsuit. The filing alleged that Brack failed to mitigate harassment at the company despite being personally aware of multiple incidents. Brack resigned in August after a nearly three-year tenure as president, succeeding co-founder Mike Morhaime.

Shortly before the call, Oneal sent an email to employees stating, “I have made the decision to step away from co-leading Blizzard Entertainment and will transition to a new position before departing ABK at the end of the year.”

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Oneal wrote that she is making the move “not because I am without hope for Blizzard, quite the opposite.” She said she wants to make a bigger impact on the gaming industry as a whole but is “not totally sure what form that will take.” Activision Blizzard announced it would donate $1 million to Women in Games International, a nonprofit where Oneal is a board member. Ybarra will immediately replace her and take full responsibility of Blizzard, Oneal wrote.

“That’s a really bad sign for the state of things. Her and Mike were literally just hired,” said a current Activision Blizzard employee who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation.

“It’s suspicious to all of us,” added another current Activision Blizzard employee.

Both Oneal and Ybarra are relatively new to Blizzard, which develops and publishes popular video game titles such as “World of Warcraft” and “Overwatch.” Oneal joined the company in January from Vicarious Visions, another Activision Blizzard subsidiary, and had been overseeing development of Blizzard’s Diablo and Overwatch franchises. Ybarra came to Blizzard in November of 2019 after more than 19 years working for Xbox.

“Jen Oneal was always the perfect choice to replace [Brack],” a current Blizzard employee said in August following her appointment. “She’s run a diversity-focused company that touts good values.”

Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick said during the Tuesday earnings call that media coverage of the company has been “negative, despite our progress.” The company’s stock dipped by roughly 10 percent on Tuesday after the stock market’s closing bell.

The Overwatch League, the international esports circuit for the Overwatch franchise, will not be affected by the company’s decision to delay the release of “Overwatch 2,” according to an Activision Blizzard Esports spokesperson. In September, the league announced the 2022 season will start in April on an “early build” of “Overwatch 2.” Activision Blizzard still plans to start the league’s fifth season in the spring, and a precise launch date for the season will be finalized in “early 2022,” according to the spokesperson.

“As previously announced the Overwatch League 2022 season will run on an early build of Overwatch 2’s new 5v5 competitive multiplayer mode,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “The next season of the Overwatch League will give the community a fantastic view into the development team’s planned direction for the franchise before experiencing the content for themselves.”

Teams in the Overwatch League previously lobbied for the upcoming season to be played on “Overwatch 2,” hoping the excitement around the sequel will bring in new fans and viewers. The original “Overwatch” first released five years ago in May 2016.