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After layoffs and a PR disaster, some Blizzard employees are dreading BlizzCon

Suhauna Hussain, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

Fight for the Future, a digital rights advocacy group, declared a protest at BlizzCon and called for a blanket protest of companies that acquiesce to the Chinese government's interests. A Facebook event titled Raid Blizzcon 2019 Dressed as Winnie The Pooh started as a joke but developed into plans for a real protest as hundreds of people RSVP'd. (Winnie the Pooh is a protest meme in China, as Chinese President Xi Jinping is said to bristle at the supposed resemblance.)

Brack's statement helped to dissipate some anger internally, and discussion shifted in Slack channels from debate about the company's actions to managing repercussions for BlizzCon, as staff have busied themselves with preparations for the event.

One current employee and two former employees described Blizzard as a workplace where political discussions are mostly reserved for private conversations, not played out in public forums as they famously are, or at least used to be, at Google and other Silicon Valley companies that encourage employees to "bring their whole selves to work."

Against that backdrop, the idea of asking gamers to keep politics out of official streams did not seem absurd to everyone.

Some employees also saw Blizzard as unfairly singled out for its Chinese ties. Tencent, a massive Chinese company, owns a partial stake in Activision Blizzard, fueling unsubstantiated social media claims that Tencent was behind the decision to punish Ng. But competitor Riot Games is fully owned by Tencent, which also owns a 40% stake in Epic Games.

"Blizzard is not the only company that has a lot of ties to China," one employee said. "Blizzard is just the first one that got their hand caught in the cookie jar."

 

The tough punishment meted out to Blitzchung was less a sign of obeisance to China than a symptom of a subtler shift in company culture, said three current and former employees who believe Blizzard has become increasingly corporate and less focused on its values and its people since Morhaime's departure. One former employee pointed to the way Morhaime took a stand against the #GamerGate movement, a harassment campaign against a female game developer and a proxy for backlash against inclusion and diversity in the gaming community.

Lingering nostalgia for Morhaime and his more accessible leadership style has contributed to a feeling among some employees that Blizzard is no longer run by Blizzard executives, but rather controlled by its Activision parent, based in Santa Monica.

Andrew Reynolds, publishing director of Global Esports at Blizzard Entertainment, declined to comment on the company's leadership style but pointed to a tenet in Blizzard's mission statement that reads "Every Voice Matters," and encourages every employee to "speak up, listen, be respectful of other opinions, and embrace criticism as just another avenue for great ideas.

With BlizzCon looming, Blizzard management has made some attempts to ease mounting employee concerns in messages reviewed by the Times. In early October, Chief Security Officer Mark Adams sent an email notifying employees of increased security guards and patrols because of protesters gathered outside the campus. Executive producer of BlizzCon Saralyn Smith sent a follow-up on Oct. 18 to assuage concerns about potential security threats at BlizzCon. Smith wrote that she and Adams would host a town hall in the coming weeks, although it couldn't be confirmed whether the town hall happened.

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