“We’re gonna be lost in the shuffle.”
What a difference a day makes.
On January 18, Microsoft announced plans to acquire Activision Blizzard in a staggering $70 billion deal that’s bound to have a profound effect on the gaming industry. But as dramatically as the gaming landscape has changed overnight, Activision Blizzard remains mired in controversy for reports of toxicity, with numerous employees currently on strike.
In the coming weeks and months, we’re sure to hear more about the potential antitrust and monopoly questions this acquisition raises, but there are far more immediate concerns for the employees at Activision Blizzard. Many are coming from Quality Assurance workers, most of whom are employed on short-term contracts despite the vital role they play in game development.
Both on social media and in conversation with Inverse, Activision QA workers expressed disappointment that controversial CEO Bobby Kotick will remain in his position — at least until the deal closes sometime in 2023. (Kotick could personally take home $375 million from the deal, even if he’s asked to leave the company immediately after it’s finalized.)
“It would be a lot easier to be excited about this if Bobby Kotick were stepping down,” says a Raven Software QA worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the ongoing strike.
They also say the deal came as a complete shock to employees and claim even the studio head at Raven Software was unaware of the acquisition until it was announced publicly.
Jason Schreier of Bloomberg noted on Twitter that he’d heard similar sentiments from employees he’d talked to: “Optimism about management changes and the positive culture at several Xbox-owned studios, fury toward Microsoft for giving Bobby Kotick a big payday and soft exit, and determination to keep organizing.”
Kotick’s leadership has long been a point of contention for Activision employees, particularly since a 2021 Wall Street Journal report revealed that he knew about sexual assault allegations for years.
“It would be a lot easier to be excited about this if Bobby Kotick were stepping down.”
According to a new report from the Journal, Kotick will leave after the finalization of the deal. But Kotick is a figurehead for a larger, more pervasive problem at the company. That’s why employees of Raven Software are still on strike over working conditions and what they claim is the unjustified termination of their coworkers.
Paul Henderson, a contract QA worker at Raven, said on Twitter after the January 18 announcement, “HEY STRIKE IS STILL ONGOING BTW, I’m back at work but a lot of my colleagues aren’t and are still waiting to hear about their demands which have still gone unanswered.”
Kate Anderson, a QA worker at Activision and member of ABK Workers Alliance, said in a January 18 tweet that “ABK Worker’s Alliance will still be advocating for employees, no matter who our leadership is. Whether it’s Bobby Kotick or Phil Spencer, we will keep addressing the issues that we see within the gaming industry.”
Current Activision employees are wary that new ownership will bring about the changes they’re hoping to see in a timely fashion. Another anonymous Raven QA tester tells Inverse, “I’m not upset about the announcement because, from my understanding, this will be an improvement to the company’s culture. Internally, however, people are discussing how Microsoft exploits contract workers the same way that Activision does, so there is some worry about that.”
“Pretty worried we’re gonna be lost in the shuffle.”
Acquisitions on this scale often result in big day-to-day changes for employees. So it’s no surprise that the already beleaguered employees at Activision Blizzard are concerned.
Matthew Rathbun, a QA employee at Activision, tweeted, “My biggest concern is where everyone is going to land after this and what sort of shuttering they’ll be doing to fit with their own teams.”
Another QA employee at Activision, who goes by noctflugel on Twitter, wrote “We are super nervous. Pretty worried we’re gonna be lost in the shuffle and just told to deal with it.”
“Microsoft exploits contract workers the same way that Activision does.”
Microsoft hasn’t specifically commented on the workplace abuses or Activision Blizzard, or any tentative plans it may have to reform its problematic workplace culture. The nearest thing to a statement on the situation comes from a January 18 blog post where Microsoft Gaming CEO Phil Spencer said “As a company, Microsoft is committed to our journey for inclusion in every aspect of gaming, among both employees and players.”
Spencer has been hesitant to criticize Kotick in recent weeks, saying “I would say in terms of individuals that are in leadership positions at other companies, it’s not obviously our position to judge who the CEOs are,” on a January 10 episode of The New York Times’ Sway podcast.
A member of the QA team at Microsoft, who spoke on condition of anonymity, has a different perspective on the deal. This Xbox Games Studios employee tells Inverse they’re optimistic about the merger.
“It’s a very exciting step for our organization, and one of tremendous opportunity,” they say. “BK [Bobby Kotick] is only one part of the pervasively toxic culture in gaming. He can’t be the scapegoat. We’ve seen reports from many orgs across the industry of abuse and harassment. It will require widespread cultural change to make this a better and safer working environment for everyone. I’m hopeful about Xbox rising to the challenge.”
While Xbox has a better — if still imperfect — track record compared to Activision Blizzard, there’s legitimate concern this deal will give Activision an excuse to continue to deny its ongoing problems. Microsoft executives and senior developers have praised the company’s tendency to allow acquired studios to maintain their own identity in recent years, but that approach won’t yield a good outcome here.
Change needs to come to Activision, and it needs to happen well before the summer of 2023. Whether Xbox can be a force for that change remains to be seen.