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Commentary: Does every voice still matter at Blizzard Entertainment?

What good are "company values" if they're thrown away in pursuit of profits?

Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

March 6, 2023

8 Min Read
A photograph of the orc statue on Blizzard's Irvine campus.
Image via Blizzard Entertainment

About three weeks ago, Blizzard president Mike Ybarra shocked employees during a company town hall, where he and other executives attempted to defend a number of controversial company policies. These included a new mandate to return to in-person offices, the news that Blizzard employees would only receive a fraction of their promised profit-sharing bonuses, and comments about how the company views some of its "temporary" disciplines.

The barrage of surprisingly antagonistic comments left Blizzard employees appalled, and drove many to call out leadership on social media. In the midst of our conversations with Blizzard developers, we learned about other comments that seemed to downplay the values that supposedly drive Blizzard Entertainment's company culture.

At one point during the town hall, employees apparently submitted a question asking why Blizzard was not adhering to one of the company's core values: "every voice matters." Sources told us this was in the context of the return-to-office mandate.

What employees wanted to know was, if employees were raising complaints about being forced back to the office, why wasn't Blizzard management listening to them?

Ybarra's response was described as "the most shocking" by developers we spoke with. A Blizzard spokesperson confirmed that Ybarra stated that "We are not going to let [a value like] 'every voice matters' hold us back from making [those] decisions."

The spokesperson provided a statement from Blizzard, where the company stated that Ybarra's intent was to state that "we cannot only make decisions everyone agrees with.

"Like any large company, we have to balance different factors," the statement continued. "Blizzard is a place where people respectfully share their perspectives, agree, or disagree and come to compromises. ‘Every voice matters’ means we listen to feedback, which we always will do."

They added that the company has moved to clarify Ybarra's statement internally.

For some employees, this was one of Ybarra's most alarming comments. Different people can have different opinions about return-to-office policies or how profit-sharing plans are structured, but this statement was described by some we spoke with as "the worst" of his responses to employees.

It doesn't help that in the intervening weeks, Blizzard 's parent company Activision Blizzard seems to be continuing to clamp down on employee attempts to speak up. The conglomerate fired two QA testers were fired after using "strong language" to protest the company's return-to-office plan, prompting the Communication Workers of America (the union under which QA staffers at Raven Software and Blizzard Albany have unionized) to file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.

"Company values" can hold different weight at different studios, but Blizzard's core values are literally carved into the ground surrounding a statue of an orc from Warcraft on Blizzard's Irvine campus. For this company—and any other developers who institute company values—a comment like this can take a very high toll on employees. Here's why.

Blizzard's company values helped build its prestigious image

For plenty of game industry veterans, a studio's "company values" may or may not carry any impact. They're a practice taught in plenty of business 101 classes, but if you asked developers to rattle off what their employer's are, they might have to go look them up.

Blizzard Entertainment however, has turned its company values into a public communications asset. They're publicized on its website and as mentioned, engraved into a runed compass surrounding a statue at its home campus.

What may not be entirely obvious to those outside of Blizzard's orbit is that for over a decade, Blizzard employees have touted these values when discussing the company either in interviews, recruitment pitches, or GDC presentations. They've even crept into the company's games. Overwatch champion Farah has an unlockable voice line that riffs on the company's value of "play nice, play fair" (it's "play nice, play Farah." It's a fun pun).

When professional Hearthstone player Blitzchung was banned from tournaments after he used a post-game interview to voice support of protestors in Hong Kong, then-president J. Allen Brack cited the company's values in a response to anger over the ban. He'd then apologize for how Blizzard handled the ban a month later at BlizzCon.

For anyone who's heard or read about these values over and over again, it puts Ybarra's comments in a startling light. It's understandable that Ybarra himself may or may not have yet internalized those values (he only joined the company after J. Allen Brack stepped down in 2021), but to employees at the studio who've endured controversies about games, the Blitzchung ban, and now allegations of sexual harassment and abuse at the company, those values may have helped some get through those moments.

And it's not just employees who can see the damage—business experts should recognize them as well.

What value do "company values" have?

Instead of clawing back into my memory of organizational management classes from college, I wanted to check in with an expert on the subject. Dr. Rebecca Heino is a professor of clinical management and organization at the University of Southern California's Marshall school of business, and when I described the context of Ybarra's comments to her as we chatted on the phone, she seemed dumbfounded.

Heino couldn't comment directly on what Ybarra said since she wasn't in the meeting, but she did attempt to reiterate that for company leaders, core values aren't something to be taken lightly. "The purpose of these values is to guide behavior and communication in a company," she explained. "They're what create the culture in the workplace."

Company leaders can have "an outsized impact" on those values she said, and guide what employees see as important or critical in the workplace. In moments like February's town hall, she said there's a danger in exposing a gap between "espoused values" and "enacted values."

If a company leader downplays a value when speaking to employees, it can communicate that there's another, sometimes unspoken value that's more important."

Ybarra's reported comments give us an unfortunate example of that. When you tell employees that you can't let let a company value get in the way of "making decisions," it might signal that said value is being treated as an obstacle, not a guiding principle.

And when that value is "every voice matters," it seems to suggest that "'not' every voice matters."

A protesting Blizzard employee holds a sign showing off three of the company's values:

If comments like Ybarra's drive down employee morale and engagement (and it seems like they did, based on sources we spoke with), it might work against the stated goals of implementing a return-to-office policy. "If you want to have a successful company, you need people to be motivated and committed" Heino stated. If decreased engagement leads to turnover, that can lead to additional financial and emotional costs.

What's unusual about Ybarra's comments was that in the same meeting, he seemed to express that Blizzard was prepared for the possibility of turnover. He made additional comments that suggested if employees weren't happy with the state of affairs at Blizzard (seemingly in context with the return-to-office policy), they might need to leave.

"If decisions about about being happy don't align with where we're going, and you won't be happy, then you'll have to do what will make [you] happy," he said. In February, Blizzard confirmed that Ybarra made this comment in the town hall, and clarified that the company is planning to honor agreements made with all-remote workers, and make accommodations for those unable to return to the office for "medical or religious reasons."

Heino suggested that such a comment might indicate Blizzard has already accounted for the costs of employees leaving the company, or that this might have been an offhand remark.

In our chat, Heino tried to stress that companies don't live and operate in a perfect world, and business leaders often have to speak with employees in hard times. "You might have to make difficult decisions and deliver bad news," she said, "but tone is very important."

What matters more—people, or profit?

Ybarra's foot-in-mouth moment makes for a fine opportunity to look back on the state of Blizzard for the last decade.

From the banning of a Hearthstone pro player for voicing support of pro-democracy protestors, through the allegations of sexual harassment and abuse, to this moment, Blizzard leadership (and possibly Activision Blizzard leadership) has made major missteps that put them at odds with employees and the public at large.

At the same time, in conversations with Blizzard employees, it sounds like the company culture described in Blizzard's values is alive and well. The people making the company's games we've spoken with regularly express love and affection for their team members and often their immediate managers.

Demands for better pay, a more humane return-to-office policy, and collective action in unionization seem to better reflect values like "every voice matters" better than actions ostensibly made to protect the financial state of the business.

If Ybarra or other game industry leaders consider those values expendable, then the people that are attracted to them might have reasons to feel expendable as well.

And without those people, how can you actually make exceptional games?

Update: This story previously described Blizzard Entertainment fired two QA testers for the use of strong language. The two workers were fired by parent company Activision Blizzard. This story has been updated accordingly.

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About the Author(s)

Bryant Francis

Senior Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Bryant Francis is a writer, journalist, and narrative designer based in Boston, MA. He currently writes for Game Developer, a leading B2B publication for the video game industry. His credits include Proxy Studios' upcoming 4X strategy game Zephon and Amplitude Studio's 2017 game Endless Space 2.

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