The major Activision Blizzard sexual harassment lawsuit was one of the most talked about gaming industry stories in 2021, and repeatedly served as a stark reminder about how hard it is to enact meaningful, positive change against dug-in upper echelon corporates. The tale already had its share of twists, but nothing quite like the bombshell announcement that Microsoft is moving in to acquire the company - however, just before that news broke, there was a bit of house cleaning.
Initially reported before we knew about the acquisition - valued at $68.7 billion - news broke that Activision Blizzard "disciplined" 44 employees while 37 others have "exited" the company, all due to issues with misconduct. While the sexual harassment lawsuit and ensuing controversy has already led to several high profile employees - specifically named as harassers and abusers in the documents - leaving the company, this was the largest exodus so far.
It isn't clear what disciplining entails regarding those employees who have committed some manner of offense pertinent to the lawsuit. Considering some of Activision Blizzard's recent moves to stifle criticism in-house with draconian new NDAs forced on employees, and our general level of trust towards a corporation like this, we wouldn't be surprised if those "disciplined" included victims of harassment that reached out to authorities, too...
In any case, even the reporting of these actions had to be done in some shady manner - Activision Blizzard's own disclosure stated that 20 employees were let go and 20 were disciplined, with the higher numbers originating from a different company report. This other report was apparently scheduled to be made public before the holiday season, but CEO Bobby Kotick reportedly stepped in to hold it back because it would make the problems at the company "seem bigger".
On that note, approximately 700 internal reports or complaints of harassment were made by Activision Blizzard employees in the months following the lawsuit, which most likely had a galvanizing effect on victims who chose to remain silent for fear of reprisal - during this whole, terrifying saga, reports arose that victims of harassment would be fired upon contacting HR, with the perpetrators protected from any fallout on multiple occasion.
The company's response to this was that the number was inaccurate and inflated. After their own reports showed inaccurate and deflated numbers about those employees who were disciplined, these statements ring hollow - and as Activision Blizzard's own initial response to the lawsuit so helpfully indicated, the issues with workplace culture have been around for over a decade, so 700 might even be low-balling it.
Kotick has reportedly also held back a detailed press release about the steps the company is taking to solve the prevailing issues regarding harassment and 'frat boy culture' at Activision Blizzard. According to a previous report Kotick had known about these issues for years and was convinced he could "fix" them, though his idea of fixing seemed to revolve around silencing victims, sweeping problems under the rug and 'fixing' the company image rather than the problem itself.
One of these plans, revealed in the turbulence following the announcement of Microsoft's acquisition deal, had Kotick considering buying up a major video game media site like PC Gamer or Kotaku, presumably to push a narrative painting Activision Blizzard in a positive light onto their sizeable readership.
It seems like the CEO was keen on finding absolutely any solution except dealing with the actual, you know, harassment. Apparently the move to fire the 37 employees and discipline the 44 recently came as a result of shareholder pressure, as investors and the board of directors were hit hard by the drop of Activision Blizzard's stock - naturally that spurred them to action. Despite this, and reports that Kotick tried to conceal issues from them, they released a statement during the height of the controversy in support of the CEO.
The recent bombshell news of Microsoft moving in to acquire Activision Blizzard recontextualizes some of the most recent motions of this entire situation. Talks regarding corporate mergers require a lot of time, even more so when they're of this magnitude. The two companies have had to be discussing the deal for months.
It's possible that these sudden and - in comparison to a previous lack of tangible steps being made - drastic steps was Microsoft mandating a bit of housecleaning over at their newest subsidiary. The deal won't go through until 2023, and isn't guaranteed, but considering that the acquisition is essentially an 'easy out' for the upper management of the company, they are likely to oblige nearly any request from Microsoft.
Microsoft's acquisition plans also paint another phenomenon related to the lawsuit in new light - while several gaming companies shared their soft-spoken condemnation of Activision Blizzard's workplace culture issues regarding harassment (as well as some non-gaming companies; The Lego Group announced the cancellation of an Overwatch 2 set), Xbox's Phil Spencer was one of the most vocal and candid.
Incidentally, it will be to Spencer that Activision Blizzard's current employees are going to answer as CEO after the merger - minus, of course, everyone who was fired. This whole Microsoft situation really served as the biggest plot twist in what is still a developing story. We're curious to see how things play out.