Blizzard boss navigates controversy, changing gaming culture

Mike Ybarra is a man chosen to lead in a historic moment.

His Blizzard Entertainment has been singled out as a symbol of the male-dominated gaming community’s worst impulses, specifically those that include boorish, frat-boy-like traits. Alleged inequities and harassment at the company were the centerpiece of an ongoing 2021 lawsuit filed by the state of California that painted the firm and its Activision Blizzard parent as paragons of a broken, sexist industry.

Even Blizzard’s attempt at damage control blew up in its face. Ybarra’s August 2021 promotion to help right the ship was met with controversy when the first female co-leader of the company left amid reports of unequal pay.

Making games is time-consuming, costly and difficult. But changing a culture? Perhaps that’s a near-impossible task.

“No doubt this has impacted people,” Ybarra, who was named president this February, says of Blizzard’s recent history. “It has impacted morale.”

Ybarra, who calmly answered questions for 45 minutes about Blizzard’s reputation and how to change it, says he welcomes the challenge. He’s soft-spoken but direct in his words, nodding, smiling and eager to talk about his game obsessions. He begins a conversation by praising “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge” and says the art style of the action genre mash-up “Neon White” has him smitten.

For now his non-Blizzard game opinions will have to wait. His company is in a crisis.

“We’re committed to changing our culture,” says Ybarra, 47, who has the unenviable task of restoring stature to a firm whose atmosphere was forged long before he joined in 2019.

“We’ve had a tough two and a half years,” Ybarra says. “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 is eager to talk about said culture team and the new hires leading it, as well as the tweaks and pledges Blizzard has made in his first few months as president. He hopes the new measures will once again make the company worthy of the plaques outside its Irvine headquarters pledging inclusivity, trust and personal responsibility — phrases that surround a giant statue of a “World of Warcraft” orc.

At stake, however, is more than whether one of the best-known names in gaming — also home to “Diablo” and “Overwatch” — can show it understands the meaning of the word “maturity.”

People hold signs including, "Women's voices matter."

Several hundred Activision Blizzard employees staged a walkout last summer in response to a lawsuit highlighting alleged harassment, inequality and more within the company.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Workplace and popular cultures in recent years have been put on blast, spurred in part by the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements. The lawsuit levied at Activision Blizzard is one of the biggest entertainment stories of this young decade. It showed that the gaming industry could no longer operate below the radar of more established Hollywood peers. The case was seen as forcing the game community to have more open discussions about its hiring practices, salaries, once rebellious reputation, sexual harassment and workplace abuse.

“Talk about walking into a fire,” says Andrew Uerkwitz, an interactive media analyst with investment firm Jefferies, of Ybarra’s assignment.

Activision Blizzard has at various points been seen as dismissing the allegations, most recently in a mid-June Securities and Exchange Commission filing in which the company’s board of directors stated they found no evidence that executives “intentionally ignored or attempted to downplay” harassment claims. Such a statement contradicted a bombshell Wall Street Journal report that argued Activision Blizzard’s top leader, Bobby Kotick, was aware of egregious sexual harassment allegations, including the protection of an executive whom human resources recommended be terminated.

“They could have been industry leaders in addressing entrenched issues that are industrywide and not specific to that company,” says Carly A. Kocurek, a video game historian and author who is an associate professor of digital humanities and media studies at Illinois Institute of Technology. “But they took a more defensive posture.”

The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing‘s 2021 lawsuit would be seen as the impetus that drove Microsoft to seek to acquire Activision Blizzard, a pending deal worth $68.7 billion that could see Kotick walk away from the company with millions.

Ybarra often steers the conversation to optimistic statements for the future rather than squarely addressing the past. But he’s aware that some charges in the lawsuit were already public opinion.

For example: a video from a 2010 Blizzard convention that went viral on social media in the wake of the lawsuit. In it, a female fan asked for women in “World of Warcraft” to not look like “they stepped out of a Victoria’s Secret catalog.” A panel of Blizzard men, including former chief J. Allen Brack, laughed at the question, joking that they would look at other catalogs.

“It saddens me to see that video,” Ybarra says.

“It reminds me of how important the culture work we have is,” he says. “It represents what I hope we are growing beyond. I know we will grow beyond. I don’t think it ever ends. There’s no high-five that we met our commitments. This is something that is going to be in our DNA forever.”

A portrait of Mike Ybarra in a beam of light in a dark room.

“Blizzard needed different leadership. Blizzard needed more transparency and a focus on culture,” says studio head Mike Ybarra.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

‘THIS IS MORE PERSONAL FOR ME’

Ybarra is vocal in his video game fandom. He’s active on Twitter, where he’s just as likely to discuss retro video game box art as he is new Blizzard initiatives. On his Twitch channel one can find him talking “World of Warcraft” or offering light commentary for video game hype events such as Microsoft’s recent showcase of upcoming Xbox titles. He gleefully answers fan questions about the first game he ever played — “Ultima Exodus” on Commodore 64. “It was the first game that made me go, ‘I know what my life is all about,’” he said.

Before joining Blizzard, Ybarra spent more than two decades with Microsoft, where he was instrumental in developing the Xbox brand and expanding its game portfolio.

This could have been a celebratory moment for Blizzard. Ybarra has just overseen his first major launch as president. The release of the mobile-focused “Diablo Immortal” racked up more than 15 million installations. Although not without criticism, initial reviews leaned positive. The game provides a swift and approachable introduction to the franchise, presenting a heavily detailed hellscape that’s full of life — and death.

Bringing a game like “Diablo Immortal” to market is why, in part, Ybarra joined the brand, founded by three UCLA students in Irvine in 1991. He says that when he joined Blizzard as a senior executive he recognized, even then as an outsider, that a change needed to come.

“It’s not about the position, the money or anything like that,” Ybarra says. “This is more personal for me.

“These games,” Ybarra says, “have connected me with my best friends, lifelong friends. I have such incredible memories playing with [‘World of Warcraft’] guilds 10, 15 and 20 years ago. I saw an opportunity where Blizzard needed different leadership. Blizzard needed more transparency and a focus on culture. We needed, frankly, to serve our players with more content on a more frequent basis. When the phone rang, it gave me an opportunity to do that. How can I make an impact? How can the games and Blizzard as a company make an impact for the next 20 years like it has for me? That’s why I’m here.”

“Diablo Immortal” won’t become one of those impactful games without some hitches. Since launching, the game has reignited a debate t over monetization efforts and whether randomized items encourage predatory, gambling-like behavior. The central argument is that it can be expensive to progress deep into the game, especially if one desires to compete with other players.

An image of a fiery being in the game "Diablo Immortal."

“Diablo Immortal” brings the action RPG franchise to the mobile game space.

(Blizzard)

“When we think about monetization, at the very highest level it was, ‘How do we give a free ‘Diablo’ experience to hundreds of millions of people, where they can literally do 99.5% of everything in the game?’” Ybarra says.

In a follow-up email a Blizzard spokesperson noted that the vast majority of players are not spending money, although the company declined to offer specific stats. Ybarra says Blizzard is well aware of the gripes but will defend the title by citing its high rating and 110,000-plus user reviews on Apple’s App Store, implying the complaints are not reflective of the broader game-playing community. Additionally, the company says it has collected data that tells it about 50% of “Immortal” players are new to the Blizzard ecosystem.

“The monetization comes in at the end game,” Ybarra says. “The philosophy was always to lead with great gameplay and make sure that hundreds of millions of people can go through the whole campaign without any costs. From that standpoint, I feel really good about it as an introduction to ‘Diablo.’”

Where Ybarra is critical is the length of time between 2012’s “Diablo 3″ and “Diablo Immortal.” He says the company missed out on nearly a generation of gamers. He says that Blizzard teams are being realigned to deliver content more consistently across devices, including PC and console and, today, mobile. A pipeline of “Diablo” product is in development, with the fourth core edition arriving next year.

Blizzard recently acquired Boston studio Proletariat in an effort to expand its “World of Warcraft” team and content. Blizzard says it intends to hire “hundreds” of developers in the wake of the purchase.

“My hope is we evolve these franchises to deliver great experiences to players on a more regular basis but also expand our universes across devices,” Ybarra says. “Just releasing games on PC doesn’t serve people playing games today.”

Ybarra has also committed to relaunching BlizzCon, the company’s yearly fan-focused event at the Anaheim Convention Center. A digitally focused 2022 BlizzCon was axed shortly after the filing of the DFEH suit.

“We previously announced we’re taking a pause on BlizzCon while we reimagine it for the future but do want to return to a live event that enables us to celebrate the community,” Ybarra says.” We recently hired a new leader of BlizzCon, April McKee, who is hard at work on that plan. … We are committed to bringing back BlizzCon in 2023.”

A close-up of Mike Ybarra

Mike Ybarra was a fan of Blizzard games before he joined the company. “I had to cold turkey stop ‘World of Warcraft’ to focus on my family,” he says.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

‘CULTURE WAS REALLY AWKWARD TO TALK ABOUT’

The discourse surrounding “Diablo Immortal’s” monetization schemes signaled that Blizzard products still hold sway over the public.

No doubt when “Overwatch 2″ is released this fall, Blizzard would like the narrative to be focused on the game’s content rather than its culture. For now they’re intertwined.

However, the allegations of sexual harassment, says gaming analyst Uerkwitz, “may be tough to overcome,” adding that fans were previously growing weary with trickling content from the company. “Over the last several years there’s been a broader discontent,” Uerkwitz says.

Current and former Activision Blizzard staffers were contacted for this story. One question that came up was what actions Ybarra would take, specifically, in regards to working with those who report to him, to ensure that the accusations that permeate the lawsuits will no longer occur.

““We have taken two or three key people who identify as women, across every team, and I meet monthly with them,” Ybarra says. “We talk about what will make Blizzard great for women. Our hope is that employees recognize these changes, and people start feeling more safe and more comfortable here.”

Ybarra stresses that these meetings are not executive-level staff.

“There’s a brand-new hire in one. There’s director-level people in there. I can still tell that emailing the president is a big deal.”

Activision Blizzard employees stage a walkout

Staffers walked out in response to a state of California lawsuit alleging harassment and pay inequities at Activision Blizzard. Chief Mike Ybarra stepped out to talk about concerns.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

In the days following the DFEH lawsuit, employees staged a walkout at Blizzard’s Irvine headquarters. Ybarra was there as staff compiled a list of actionable items — a change to hiring and promotion policies to increase the number of women at the company, the publication of compensation and promotion data for all employees, a third-party audit of the company’s management and human resources department, and ending mandatory arbitration clauses in all employee contracts.

“In order to lead this organization effectively, I need to be out and understand all the perspectives here,” Ybarra says. “I was out there to talk to the employees and show that I hear them and I understand their feedback.”

Ybarra believes Blizzard has addressed — or is in the process of addressing — the employee demands within his control. Activision Blizzard, as outlined in its most recent SEC filing, has “waived arbitration for individual claims of sexual harassment, unlawful discrimination, or related retaliation” occurring after Oct 21, 2021. It also banned workplace alcohol consumption, as one of the key contentions of the suit was a frat-like office atmosphere.

Speaking directly of Blizzard, Ybarra says recent hires at the company — namely Disney veterans Jessica Martinez as vice president of culture and Makaiya Brown as diversity, equity and inclusion lead — are altering everything from its hiring practices to its approach to game content, ensuring games more accurately represent the breadth of the audience playing them.

“There was a time where culture was really awkward to talk about because, frankly, Blizzard didn’t talk about it enough,” Ybarra says. “We talk about it every single staff meeting now. In our battle plans [all-staff meetings], we lead with culture and then we get to product.”

Of new hires, 30% identify as women, Ybarra says. “I wish it was 50/50. We strive to represent what the world looks like,” Ybarra says, adding that it’s no longer acceptable to simply be interviewing “white men.” At the time the DFEH lawsuit was filed, the papers claimed Activision Blizzard as a whole was 80% male. Blizzard is currently 77% male, says a company spokesperson.

Ybarra says he’s committed to ensuring men and women receive equal pay, a central tenet of the lawsuit and an embarrassing moment for Blizzard when the Wall Street Journal reported that Jennifer Oneal, once Ybarra’s equal, received lesser pay. (Oneal declined to comment for this piece.)

“I loved working with Jen,” Ybarra says. “She’s a great leader, and some of the things Jen and I talked about late at night in our office have been implemented across culture and across product. I can’t comment, nor would I, on someone else’s pay, but I can say it’s critical to me that here at Blizzard that we pay equal for equal work.”

Activision Blizzard says in its SEC filing that it found that “female employees on average earn about $1.01 for every dollar earned by men doing comparable work.” Some staff have criticized the salary audit as vague and embellished. Ybarra pushes back, citing privacy concerns. “I would say there’s a segment of people that wishes everybody’s pay was on a spreadsheet somewhere,” Ybarra says. “There’s obviously reasons we can’t do that, but we are listening to employees.”

When current and former staff were asked if they believed Ybarra could lead a culture revamp, they were hopeful but skeptical, although that skepticism appeared less to do with Ybarra and more about perceived long-standing missteps. Activision Blizzard has pledged other changes, such as a centralized ethics and compliance team and a third-party operated confidential site to anonymously report grievances.

“This is a systemic issue,” says video game historian Kocurek. “And the problem with systemic issues is you can have individual people trying to do good things but they’re in a bad system. It takes a lot to disrupt a bad system, and a lot of people working together, and it’s not fair to lay it on one person’s feet to fix that.”

Less than a year on the job as a president, it’s too soon to think about legacy. But it’s on Ybarra’s mind. When asked to describe his leadership style, Ybarra speaks to the moment, describing his role as a “stabilizer.”

“It’s really about me getting out of the way and making sure culture here is cultivating in the way we want it and people feel like they belong,” he says, adding that he wants his team to feel as if they’re making “an impact on the industry.”

And he again alludes to the concept that restoring Blizzard’s name is more than good business. For him, he repeats, this is a personal mission.

“I’ve played these games too much,” Ybarra says. “I had to cold turkey stop ‘World of Warcraft’ to focus on my family. I’m kind of an introvert, so my closest friends are online and we play together. I’ve always looked at Blizzard like, ‘Wow, this is the perfect place.’ But there’s challenging things happening.”

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