Blizzard’s recently publicized sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuit filed by the state of California is just the latest in a long string of controversies. Between massive layoffs, numerous reports on its toxic workplace, and highly anticipated launches reportedly sabotaged by mismanagement, the last few years have dramatically altered the perception of what used to be PC gaming’s darling developer.
This timeline covers Blizzard’s most notable controversies and high-profile departures since 2018. These events help paint a broad picture of Blizzard’s recent turmoil over the past few years and can also give some useful context in its changing corporate culture and the recent allegations against it.
WoW players are pissed about Battle for Azeroth
The first half of 2018 was relatively quiet for Blizzard, but shortly after Battle for Azeroth launched in August, World of Warcraft players were up in arms. Early in its beta, players began complaining about new systems like Azerite Armor being too confusing and unrewarding, but it seemed like Blizzard wasn’t making any positive adjustments based on that feedback. Players were upset by the non-existent communication from the development team about long standing issues. By September, things were so bad that game director Ion Hazzikostas issued an apology to the community and promised to be more communicative and fix Battle for Azeroth’s many problems.
Mike Morhaime steps down after 27 years
Morhaime had been with Blizzard since he co-founded the studio in 1991. Replacing him as president was J. Allen Brack, who had previously served as World of Warcraft’s executive producer.
Diablo Immortal’s surprise announcement outrages fans
There was a lot of pressure on Blizzard to wow audiences at BlizzCon 2018. World of Warcraft fans were still upset about the state of Battle for Azeroth, and its developers rolled out an ambitious roadmap of updates in an attempt to right its course. But as the keynote presentation came to a close, players thought they were about to witness the reveal of the much-anticipated Diablo 4. But as soon as principal designer Wyatt Cheng mentioned “mobile,” you could feel the excitement evaporate.
It was an enormous misstep to position the Diablo Immortal reveal as the big finale to BlizzCon. Players who had been eagerly awaiting a proper Diablo PC game felt tricked. It seemed like Blizzard was more interested in chasing trends rather than giving its audience what it wanted. Things only got worse when Cheng later asked a booing audience “What, do you guys not have phones?” after clarifying that Immortal would not release on PC. That would later become an enormous meme wielded by bitter fans.
Blizzard unexpectedly kills Heroes of the Storm’s pro scene
In the month following BlizzCon 2018, things were beginning to quiet down until December 14 when Blizzard announced that it was trimming Heroes of the Storm’s development team and outright killing its esports league just before its 2019 season. With no prior warning, entire teams, commentators, and support staff were suddenly left jobless.
Though it wasn’t surprising that Heroes of the Storm was underperforming, fans and pros were infuriated that Blizzard would wait so late in the year to break the news. Even worse, teams and insiders weren’t even given advance notice—they found out that their Heroes of the Storm careers were over at the same time as everyone else.
Below: A tweet from former Tempo Storm head coach lamenting Blizzard cancelling its HotS esports league.
This is such bullshit and I’m so upset for everyone who has ever put a minute into this scene.https://t.co/oTPo7qNUuqDecember 14, 2018
Former Blizzard employee says HR did nothing to stop racist bullying
In early January, former Blizzard employee Julian Murillo-Cuellar posted a lengthy statement on Twitter detailing the bullying and discrimination he faced while working on the Hearthstone esports team starting in 2016. Murillo-Cuellar alleged that another employee repeatedly made racist comments and harassed him, and any attempts to resolve the issue with HR and management were largely ignored. Murillo-Cuellar also claimed that he was retaliated against for speaking out and even received negative performance reviews that described him as “not a team player” and “difficult to work with.” Shortly later, Murillo-Cuellar says he began suffering from anxiety attacks and major depression and was placed on medical leave in 2017. When he was later placed on unpaid leave in 2018, Murillo-Cuellar handed in his resignation.
Following the controversy, Blizzard issued a statement that didn’t specifically comment on Murillo-Cuellar’s accusations but reiterated its commitment to “inclusive and respectful work environment.”
Activision Blizzard lays off over 800 employees
Activision Blizzard set financial records in 2018. Despite this, CEO Bobby Kotick announced in a February 2019 earnings call that his company would be laying off around 8% of its employees. This amounted to an estimated 800 people across Activision, Blizzard, and King losing their jobs.
The contrast of significant layoffs against a backdrop of record financial performance drew widespread condemnation from all corners of the industry. In a Kotaku report, employees expressed outrage at Kotick’s comments and the chaotic nature of the layoffs—which were reportedly much more extensive than anyone was anticipating. Departments like IT and esports were reportedly “gutted,” while core development teams were largely untouched.
Over the following year, Activision Blizzard sparked even more criticism when it began rehiring for many of the roles which it had initially cut, culminating in a 2020 announcement that it still needed to hire 2,000 employees to meet new demands.
Frank Pearce steps down
In July, another Blizzard co-founder announced he was leaving the company after 28 years. Though one of the less visible faces of Blizzard, Pearce led development on Warcraft 3 and was an executive producer on WoW’s Burning Crusade, Wrath of the Lich King, Cataclysm, and Mists of Pandaria expansions.
Blizzard bans Hearthstone pro over “liberate Hong Kong” message
Blizzard created international outrage when it suspended Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai for calling for Hong Kong’s liberation from the Chinese government during a post-match interview at the Asia Pacific Hearthstone Grandmasters tournament. At the time, Hong Kong was enveloped in chaos as hundreds of thousands of protestors fought against an extradition bill that would allow for the transfer of criminals to mainland China. Blitzchung was initially suspended for a year and stripped of his prize winnings. The two Taiwanese casters who were present during the interview were also fired.
Though Blitzchung did break one of the rules of the tournament, Blizzard’s decision to suspend him drew widespread condemnation and became a national news story. Employees staged a walk-out in protest of the decision while outraged players organized boycotts across all of Blizzard’s games. Major Hearthstone casters resigned, sponsors like Mitsubishi pulled their support from future events, and American politicians penned a bi-partisan letter condemning Blizzard’s actions. Subsequent Hearthstone tournaments stopped conducting player interviews or using webcams to show players after teams held up signs supporting Hong Kong and Blitzchung, while human rights advocacy groups called on Blizzard to overturn the suspension.
Many questioned if Blizzard’s decision was motivated by a desire to stay in the good graces of the Chinese government. Over the years, China had become an enormous part of Blizzard’s business, but government regulations are notoriously fickle, and many accused Blizzard of silencing free speech in order to protect its business interests.
Free speech protests take over BlizzCon 2019
Tensions and outrage over Blitzchung’s ban grew in severity for weeks before spilling over into BlizzCon 2019. Long before the doors opened to the Anaheim Convention Center, hundreds had gathered outside in protest.
Just before the keynote presentation began, Blizzard president J. Allen Brack took the stage to apologize for how Blizzard reacted. Brack initially didn’t specify whether Blizzard would undo its suspension, but in a PC Gamer interview later that day at the event Brack confirmed that Blizzard would be reducing Blitzchung’s ban to just six months. The two Taiwanese casters would still be fired, however. Brack denied claims that Blizzard’s decision was influenced by its Chinese publishing partner NetEase.
Warcraft 3: Reforged is a disaster
First announced during BlizzCon 2018, Warcraft 3: Reforged was an ambitious remaster that would update the original 2002 real-time strategy game with HD graphics, re-recorded cutscenes, as well as an upgraded user interface and world editor. But when it finally launched in January of 2020, Reforged had failed to deliver on many of its promises.
Maps looked significantly worse than the 2018 reveal, the re-recorded voice overs were scraped entirely, and—most upsetting of all—features that had been present in Warcraft 3 for decades, like clans and offline play, were missing. The new EULA also gave Blizzard full ownership of any mods that were made in Reforged, which greatly upset Warcraft 3’s modding community. And because Warcraft 3: Reforged effectively replaced Warcraft 3 entirely, there was no way to go back and play the original without buying a physical copy.
Players were incensed. The outrage grew so enormous that Brack finally addressed it a few weeks later and apologized for how thoroughly Blizzard missed the mark and promised that it would keep working to improve the game. A Bloomberg report released in 2021 claims that much of Warcraft 3: Reforged’s failings were due to mismanagement and Activision aggressively cutting its budget late in development, forcing the team to abandon features entirely.
Hearthstone pro claims he’s been blacklisted by Blizzard after his wife was laid off
In June of 2020, a popular Hearthstone player named Savjz claimed he had been blacklisted from competing in official tournaments because his wife, Christina Mikkonen, was one of the 800 employees laid off in 2019 and had publicly criticized Blizzard multiple times on social media. According to Mikkonen, Savjz was blacklisted after she criticized a community manager on Twitter for advertising a job opening back in July.
Blizzard responded to the accusations by clarifying that Savjz was not blacklisted but hadn’t been invited because he didn’t agree to a “request for confidentiality” about information regarding the tournament. Savjz claimed Blizzard didn’t want him sharing information with Mikkonen, which he refused. Blizzard eventually apologized to Savjz and the two reached an agreement where he could participate in future events.
Alex Afrasiabi quietly leaves Blizzard
As one of the biggest faces on World of Warcraft’s development team, Alex Afrasiabi’s sudden departure from Blizzard in June was initially a mystery. He had served as creative director for a number of years and had reportedly led development on Titan, Blizzard’s cancelled MMO. Blizzard made no statement about his departure, with players only noticing it after Afrasiabi updated his LinkedIn page to confirm he was no longer with the company.
Afrasiabi is one of the few people directly named in the sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuit against Activision Blizzard, which alleges he repeatedly groped and harassed women employees. An Activision Blizzard spokesperson confirmed to Kotaku in July 2021 that Afrasiabi had been terminated “for his misconduct in his treatment of other employees.”
Blizzard employees share spreadsheet documenting salaries in protest over low pay
In August of last year, Bloomberg reported that Blizzard employees were anonymously sharing their salaries after discovering large wage disparities. According to sources that spoke to Bloomberg, an internal company survey revealed that many employees were unsatisfied with their pay—especially in contrast to how much Activision Blizzard executives like Kotick make. To advocate for better pay, employees created a spreadsheet and began documenting their salary and recent pay increases.
Activision Blizzard hires controversial Trump and Bush-era government officials
Activision Blizzard raised eyebrows earlier this year when it hired Frances Townsend, who had served as a homeland security advisor to president George W. Bush where she became one of the biggest political faces in America’s War on Terror. Townsend also served as a national security analyst for various news organizations, and has also been criticized for defending acts of torture like waterboarding and sleep deprivation. Townsend would serve as Activision Blizzard’s chief compliance officer, working to ensure its games didn’t run afoul of government regulators in foreign countries.
A few weeks later, Activision Blizzard also appointed Brian Bulatao, a former Trump administrator, as chief administration officer. As Kotaku reported, Bulatao became the subject of public scrutiny after a probe into Trump’s firing of an independent watchdog in the State Department. In testimony during a probe into his firing, that watchdog claimed he was fired without cause and Bulatao “tried to bully” him on multiple occasions when investigating the Trump administration.
Jeff Kaplan quits Blizzard
In April, Overwatch lead designer and Blizzard vice president Jeff Kaplan announced he was leaving the company after 19 years. The announcement was shocking, as Kaplan had become the face of Overwatch and was working on its sequel.
Activision Blizzard is sued for discrimination and sexual harassment
In July, The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing revealed it had filed a lawsuit against Activision Blizzard claiming that employees had faced “constant sexual harassment, including groping, comments, and advances” due to a “frat boy workplace culture.” The lawsuit was the result of a two-year investigation, in which the department claims to have uncovered many instances where employees—particularly women and minorities—were discriminated against, sexually harassed, and denied opportunities that were instead handed to less qualified candidates.
The lawsuit includes anonymous testimonies, including one instance where an employee allegedly committed suicide on a work trip after being subject by sexual harassment from a manager. Blizzard president J. Allen Brack and former creative director Alex Afrasiabi were two managers named directly in the suit. It alleges that Afrasiabi sexually harassed several women while Brack allowed toxic behavior to fester within the company and did little to stop it.
Activision Blizzard leadership vehemently denied the lawsuit and called its claims “meritless,” which outraged many current and former employees who felt that they were being silenced. In the week following news of the lawsuit, dozens of former and current employees began speaking up and sharing their own experiences of harassment and toxicity at the company. Over 2,500 employees signed an open letter condemning Activision Blizzard leadership and demanding accountability, and employees also staged a walkout in protest.