Activision Blizzard knows it has a bad reputation right now. It has been earned through continuous stories about the company’s efforts at union-busting, sexual harassment lawsuits, and misunderstanding what fans want from its games. But Mike Ybarra is trying to change the culture problem at Blizzard through his recent appointment as its President in February 2022. In a recent interview with The Los Angeles Times, Ybarra detailed his vision for the future of Blizzard. But all his talk just shows that change at Blizzard looks like more of the same.
Talk the talk
The interview hinges on the idea that Ybarra is an agent of change at Blizzard, having joined the company in 2019 after more than two decades at Microsoft (who, ironically, is in the process of acquiring Activision Blizzard).
“We’re listening to our employees. I’ve always firmly believed that when there’s a good culture across teams, creative excellence flows. So, I call our culture team ‘team zero,’” Ybarra told the LA Times.
This sounds like a good change of pace for a company that has left employees feeling so unheard that they staged multiple walkouts in the last months of 2021. Ybarra says he was out there talking with employees and trying to hear them out, and that some of the changes he has implemented at the company are an attempt to address these issues. These include “waived arbitration for individual claims of sexual harassment, unlawful discrimination, or related retaliation” in the company’s most recent SEC filing as well as banning alcohol in the workplace.
A key change Ybarra is looking to address is the lack of gender equality in the company. Lawsuits filed against Blizzard cited multiple cases of sexual harassment and gender discrimination, as well as reports from The Wall Street Journal that CEO Bobby Kotick knew about these incidents. Blizzard is currently 77 percent male, a company spokesperson told the LA Times.
Ybarra wanted to work at Blizard because of his own connection to the company’s games, sharing that he was a big World of Warcraft player. The reason Blizzard became the behemoth it is today is because of the amazing titles the company is known for putting out, and he wants to fix the company culture so the games can shine instead of continued controversies.
Same old story
On paper, Ybarra shows that Blizzard really does want to change. But the company’s continued actions don’t sync up with these talking points. Just this week, the ABK Workers Alliance called for a walkout of Activision Blizzard on July 21.
Employees believe that in the wake of recent legislation across the country that Activision Blizzard does not provide enough support for women and LGBTQ+ employees. The demands include employee relocation assistance, options for remote work, and cost of living adjustments for employees to move to safe states.
Ybarra assured the LA Times that he constantly is looking to take the feedback of employees who identify as female. “We have taken two or three key people who identify as women, across every team, and I meet monthly with them,” he said. Talking to women once a month is enough to inspire confidence in a cultural change?
Ybarra also quickly moved past a conversation about equal pay when former co-head Jennifer Oneal came up. The former equal to Ybarra left Blizzard in November of 2021 and a report later revealed that she was paid less than Ybarra.
But even if Ybarra can move Blizzard towards a better culture, the slate of games isn’t in a better place. The first game released from the company under Ybarra as President is the controversial Diablo Immortal. The game has a myriad of monetization features that Ybarra justifies as necessary to make a great Diablo experience where players can “do 99.5 percent of everything in the game” for free. This doesn’t fully track with reports that the full cost of maxing out a character costs $110,000, or the game’s hidden blockades that stop players who don’t want to pay a premium. This is consistent with the company’s trend of misunderstanding what its fans want in new games.
Ybarra’s interview with the LA Times reads as an attempt to rehabilitate hope in Activision Blizzard through the profile of one person (yet another cis white man) who cares about change, and Ybarra does seem to care. But one man is not enough to change the culture, and the holes in the interview highlight the company's continued hardships in listening to feedback, whether it is from employees or fans.