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Activision Blizzard is using ‘Diablo IV’ to argue against unions

(Washington Post illustration; Blizzard Entertainment; iStock)
8 min

Video game publisher Activision Blizzard’s lawyers and employees were back in front of the National Labor Relations Board this week, arguing over who should get to vote on a potential Blizzard Albany union. Activision Blizzard’s lawyers have framed much of their argument in the Blizzard Albany hearing around the highly anticipated upcoming Blizzard game “Diablo IV.”

At stake in the hearing is which Blizzard Albany workers will be able to participate in a unionization vote. Speaking at a virtual hearing over the video conference platform Zoom, the company’s lawyers stated the position that anyone at the Blizzard Albany studio working on Diablo games should get a vote. Meanwhile, employees’ counsel asked for a group of 20 quality assurance testers to constitute the bargaining unit. The testers at Blizzard Albany seek to unionize to bargain for improved working conditions and higher wages.

“I think it’s very cut and dry,” said a current Blizzard Albany quality assurance tester, speaking on the condition of anonymity, referencing a document lawyers showed of employees’ salaries and hourly wages. "[It’s] obvious that QA is a valid unit. [Activision Blizzard] introduced the pay bands, which indicate that we are the lowest paid members of the studio by a long shot.”

Quality assurance testers at Blizzard Albany are paid between $33,000 and $53,000 annually, according to a document shared by the QA testers’ lawyers during this week’s hearing. The group of 20 quality assurance testers at the Albany, N.Y.-based studio requested recognition of a union in July, but management did not voluntarily recognize them.

Blizzard Albany, formerly Vicarious Visions, announces unionization bid

“The instinct to delay unionization efforts is always there on the part of employers,” said Wilma Liebman, former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board under former president Barack Obama. “The reasons for wanting the delay may be manifold, including not only the obvious — delay what may be inevitable — but for possible transactional reasons [with Microsoft.]”

Microsoft is purchasing Activision Blizzard for nearly $69 billion in an all-cash deal, pending regulatory approval. The Xbox and Windows maker previously said in June it would respect the rights of Activision Blizzard workers to join a union.

Activision Blizzard wants to increase the eligible voting group for a union election at Blizzard Albany, arguing that additional — but not all — workers at the studio should be included.

“We believe all our employees should have the right to choose whether or not to join a union in a fair and confidential vote,” Activision Blizzard spokesman Rich George said. “Given our tightly integrated Albany operations, we believe strongly that no employee should be disenfranchised and that creativity, inspiration and the free exchange of ideas work best when all nonsupervisory employees in Albany working on Diablo get to participate in the vote, not just 20 quality assurance testers identified by the union.”

Increasing the size of the voting pool could dilute the voting power of the 20 QA testers, labor lawyers say, potentially causing the unionization vote to fail.

Microsoft enters agreement to respect Activision Blizzard unionization

Blizzard Albany is the second Activision Blizzard studio that has attempted to unionize at the company, which is facing multiple investigations over sexual harassment. Known for its work on franchises including Guitar Hero and Crash Bandicoot under its former name, Vicarious Visions, the studio officially merged with Activision Blizzard in April to become Blizzard Albany. The studio’s quality assurance department there took cues for its organizing campaign from Raven Software, another Activision-owned studio in Madison, Wis., where on May 28 QA testers won their bid to unionize. They are currently undergoing bargaining efforts for a contract.

While counsel for management has revisited many of the arguments it used against Raven Software quality assurance testers, there’s one notable difference: As part of an opening speech, Reed Smith lawyers representing Activision Blizzard played a “Diablo IV” trailer to explain what the company does. When the video began, a voice-over stated the game was not for the faint-of-heart and was both gory and creepy.

“How are we going to put this into the record?” asked Ruth Basantes, the National Labor Relations Board hearing officer overseeing the Monday meeting. Reed Smith lawyer James Polk responded by spelling out the YouTube link for the court reporter using a series of letters and symbols.

The upcoming dark fantasy action role-playing game, in which players battle various hellspawn, is slated for release sometime next year. Throughout the labor hearing this week, Activision Blizzard lawyers supplied internal conversations, spreadsheets and other notes that shared insights on what gamers can expect in “Diablo IV.” One document described feedback given by gamers on “Diablo IV,” including one person saying the game was difficult but not in a fun way, as retrieving gear from one’s own dead body after dying was tough.

“It is darkly ironic that if an employee wants to be able to update their portfolio or do something that might help them find better employment elsewhere, they have to wait until the game is released,” said one current Blizzard Albany employee, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. “But when the company wants to argue against what the majority of employees in a given unit have stated is in their best interest and what they want, it’s totally fine for them to just share stuff.”

From May: Raven Software employees win union election

A list of quality assurance testers working on “Diablo IV” was also publicized in the hearing, as were the cover letter, LinkedIn and social media account of a quality assurance tester. While quality assurance testers are usually recognized in a game’s credits, along with thousands of others who helped create the game, the singling out of the testers and public disclosure of the QA tester’s information angered some employees concerned with online harassment.

“Given how toxic a lot of fandoms and gamers can be, it’s pretty upsetting to see [everyone’s names] publicized when it didn’t really have to be like this,” the employee said. “This didn’t have to be a fight that went to the NLRB. [Management] could’ve just chosen to recognize the unit.”

During the hearing, Activision Blizzard’s lawyers argued that while employees working on Diablo games at Blizzard Albany should be eligible to vote in a union election, those at the studio working on “World of Warcraft” or “Overwatch” should not. It’s unclear why the lawyers took a different approach from February, when they argued all of Raven Software should vote on a union — not just their quality assurance testers. A majority of votes (50 percent plus one) is needed to form a union.

George, the Activision Blizzard spokesman, said in a statement that “some employees working at Albany are not included in our proposal, as they either work on non-Diablo projects or are ineligible (for example, they might manage people).” The Post asked specifically why workers on other games should not participate in the Blizzard Albany union vote, but the company had not replied at the time of publication Friday.

Employees said the “Diablo IV” team at Blizzard Albany is integrated with the Irvine, Calif.-based team that is also working on the title, while those working on other games at Blizzard Albany interface more regularly with other teams.

“Diablo IV” is a title slated for later next year, and takes place after the events of “Diablo III” when demons and angels killed millions. The “Diablo IV” documents were shared by lawyers while elsewhere online, players trying the game in a beta test have been leaking footage.

On Monday, employees across Activision Blizzard executed a protest during the virtual hearing, with several dozen workers attending the Zoom hearing with their pictures saying “ABK Stop Union Busting,” or changing their display name to “stop union busting,” which irked Activision Blizzard’s lawyers. Polk, the Reed Smith lawyer, objected to the protesters, calling them potentially “disruptive” and asking that the NLRB remove those images and have people change their names. In response, the board hearing officer Basantes said the virtual hearing was akin to an in-person one, where anyone could attend and those in attendance wouldn’t know others’ names on sight. Basantes then allowed protesters to rename themselves to “Guest,” which allowed more than one Activision Blizzard employee to rejoin the meeting without worrying about their employer noting their real names.

On Thursday, Basantes revisited the protest incident, saying: “As I recall, no one was being disruptive. So there was no need to kick anyone out of the meeting.” She made an analogy that if people had been wearing shirts with slogans to an in-person hearing, they wouldn’t be asked to give their real names or to change their shirts.

Kayla Blado, press secretary for the NLRB, said to expect a decision in the coming weeks. Activision Blizzard still has to submit its briefs by Aug. 25 before the hearing officer can make a decision.