Activision Blizzard’s Diablo IV is a success. The game sold more copies during pre-launch than any other Blizzard Entertainment title before it. Players have already spent 93 million hours playing the game and counting. Even before the full release this week, critics were praising the design and story. It’s a rare positive result for a company mired in controversy.
Since 2021, Activision Blizzard has made headlines alongside allegations of harassment and news of burgeoning union efforts. The video game industry doesn’t have a clear answer as to how to reconcile its successful AAA games – years of creative endeavors made possible by hundreds of teams – with the conditions in which they are made. Again, players will have to navigate when deciding whether or not to buy an Activision Blizzard title.
That certainly doesn’t mean the company isn’t trying to make it easy for players to forget. Prior to the release of Diablo IV, CEO Bobby Kotick ran the damage control rounds. In a recent interview with Variety, the CEO claimed that Activision Blizzard, which paid $18 million just last year to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, has no harassment issue. Instead, Kotick claimed, it was “media-reported misrepresentations” and “outside forces” – particularly the growing union effort at his studios – that made the company look bad. “We’ve never had a systemic issue with harassment,” Kotick, who has reportedly known about harassment for years, told the outlet. “But what we had was a very aggressive labor movement working hard to destabilize the company.”
On the same day that Variety published his story, Activision Blizzard’s board of directors released its first-ever transparency report, in which it claimed, “Even a single incident of harassment, discrimination, or retaliation is one too many.” According to the report, the year 2022 left received 114 allegations of harassment from the company. A total of 36 of these were justified; The company said that 29 of the claims “revolved around the behavior of our employees, two the behavior of contract workers, and five non-employees including, for example, esports players and testers.”
Harassment isn’t the only problem with the game development giant. A Washington Post report last year detailed the brutal crisis conditions at the company while the team behind Diablo IV waited hours to meet the game’s release date. This report came as Activision Blizzard was looking to complete its acquisition by Microsoft around the time Diablo IV was released. That acquisition has since been delayed due to concerns from US and UK regulators that could take months to resolve.
This also came as Activision Blizzard’s ongoing union organizing efforts got underway as workers grew tired of poor labor practices. These efforts resulted in the formation of two unions at the company (a third initiative emerged at a sister studio before the organizers withdrew their application to form a union).
“I’m not like other anti-union CEOs,” Kotick said in the Variety interview, citing his membership in the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) as proof of his feelings. (He joined the union as part of his cameo appearance in the 2011 sports drama Moneyball.) “If we have employees who want a union to represent them and they believe that union can offer them opportunities and improvements because of their work experience, I am.” I’m all for it.”
But Activision Blizzard has yet to negotiate a contract with its unions. Last October, the National Labor Relations Board found allegations that the company withheld pay increases from members of a bargaining committee at subsidiary Raven Software. In addition, some workers at these unions have reported a bitter struggle at every turn.
That brings us to the launch of Diablo IV. Despite all the turmoil at Activision Blizzard, the game’s developers met their deadline. And their work has spawned a critically acclaimed game. In recent years, the company’s developers have asked fans not to boycott games in response to events at the company. Leading up to Diablo IV’s release, there were questions as to whether fans would heed that call or whether the company’s controversies would impact sales. The former seems to be the case – the game’s makers are looking good, and Activision Blizzard is looking a little better.