As gaming industry scandals take center stage, a trickle of worried sponsors threaten to turn into a deluge

Gambling may be all the rage among advertisers, but as recent events have shown, there is a problematic side to the industry that they cannot afford to misjudge.

In recent weeks, revelations about Activision Blizzard’s toxic work culture have put the gaming and esports industry in crisis mode. A wave of stories from women and minority workers made it clear that the industry’s issues of harassment and unfairness are long-standing and widespread.

Following the allegations, Blizzard Chairman J. Allen Brack, accused of failing to respond to internal reports of sexism and harassment in the Lawsuit against the State of California against the company resigned on July 28. However, some industry experts believe that a more in-depth cleanup of the top management of large business developers is needed to trigger real change in these companies. While employee walkouts and player boycotts have drawn attention to the issue, most of the influence of the situation is in the anti-controversial brands sponsoring corporate game developers. Some of Activision Blizzard’s most important brand partners have already started pressuring the company – a trickle of worried sponsors with the potential to turn into a tidal wave.

Before the controversy, the official Overwatch League sponsor list featured a good breakdown of well-known brands like T-Mobile, Kellogg’s, State Farm, and Coca-Cola. Today, only Coca-Cola remains – and the aforementioned four companies expressed unease over reports of Activision Blizzard’s work culture in statements to Digiday. “We find these allegations disturbing and inconsistent with our commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion,” said Kellogg spokesperson Kris Bahner. “While Activision Blizzard plans to address the issues it faces, we will not move forward with new programs this year, but will continue to review progress against their plans.”

A visible loss of support from Activision Blizzard’s pre-existing partner brands could make potential new sponsors think twice before committing resources to a potential controversy magnet. “I think brands will put their foot down and say ‘we can’t work with you,’” said Margot Rodde, founder of creative agency WePlay.

The controversy began on July 20, when the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing sued the company over a two-year survey in its problems of sexual harassment and unequal pay. In response to the lawsuit, outraged Activision Blizzard employees staged a To go for a walk on July 28, and nearly 500 Ubisoft employees signed a open letter prompting Ubisoft management to recognize the company’s own misconduct issues.

Players of the Activision Blizzard games have also responded to the controversy, with many refusing to play the company’s games on the day of the walkout. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the company took things more seriously based on the number of people who haven’t logged into a single Activision Blizzard title. [on the day of the walkout]Said Amanda Stevens, Diversity and Inclusion Consultant. “You’ve seen very low concurrency on Steam, you’ve seen a lot of people not logging into World of Warcraft.”

It took two weeks after the lawsuit was announced for T-Mobile to pull out of its partnership with Activision Blizzard, with other sponsors falling like dominoes soon after. Perhaps one of the factors behind the sluggishness of these brands is that this is far from the first time that the gaming industry has appeared on the precipice of a #MeToo-style calculation. “I still think about all those pop-up moments we’ve had over the past couple of years,” said Gillian Linscott, COO of Queer Women of Esports. “We didn’t realize that behind closed doors Riot was one of the worst places to work for women – and then a year later in June we had the Dota 2 #MeToo movement. And then the [fighting game community], and it continues in this model.

The statements of all the sponsors were not as straightforward as those of Kellogg: a representative of Coca-Cola simply stated that “we are aware of the allegations regarding Activision Blizzard and are monitoring the situation closely,” and the logo of the company. he company remains on the list of official OWL partners.. If pressure from Activision Blizzard’s staff and player base eases, some of these sponsors could quietly resume their relationship with the company.

In 2020, for example, brands such as Capcom and Bandai Namco withdrew their support for the Evolution Championship Series following a sexual abuse scandal, to return without comment the following year. “These are all public relations movements, right?” Linscott said. “And that’s the problem with T-Mobile pulling out, but without saying anything because they’re worried about pissing off the fan base.” Yet the simultaneous release of these many brand partners is unprecedented for a major esports league.

Despite the ouster of Allen Brack, that of Activision Blizzard direction mostly white and male. According to Linscott and Stevens, additional heads will have to drop – and be replaced with more diverse heads across the board – for a paradigm shift to truly occur at Activision Blizzard and beyond. “A CEO who resigns or is replaced doesn’t change all the other little managers who perpetuate the exact same actions,” Linscott said. “So that’s great, but there’s a good chance we won’t have a woman to replace him; we’re not going to have a non-binary executive, we’re not going to have a trans woman in this position.

Among current and former Activision Blizzard employees, there is some skepticism that even a complete management reshuffle can undo a toxic culture they believe is hard-coded in the company’s DNA. Former Blizzard programmer Jeff Strain wrote a open letter declaring that the company “needs[s] unionization ”, but the hiring by Activision Blizzard of notoriously anti-union WilmerHale law firm is a signal that management would vehemently oppose such efforts. “Unionization is good, but unionization is the place to start,” said a former Activision Blizzard customer service specialist who requested anonymity. “It’s not the end, it’s the beginning. Unionizing and dismissing CEOs, people in power and boards of directors and putting the power in the hands of developers is a very good direction to take. ”

The gaming industry has become an important facet of the entertainment industry as a whole. Game developers and their sponsors can no longer sweep scandals under the rug, as some did in the game’s last #MeToo moments. “We’ve finally come to a point where everyone is sort of realizing that there’s a lot of money behind that, ”said Jason Chung, executive director of esports at the University of New Haven.

When controversy hits the gaming world these days, it hits hard and fast. Instead of dragging their feet, experts and industry watchers have said, brand partners from companies like Activision Blizzard need to be ready to tackle these issues and use their influence to make money. industry a safer place, both for women and for brands interested in getting involved.

“I think the big, traditional video game companies are about to change, although they haven’t changed yet,” WePlay’s Rodde said. “And there are a lot of people that are part of this older generation who still behave a certain way. But that’s really not acceptable today, and it’s good for people to speak out.

As the gaming industry’s scandals take center stage, a trickle of uneasy sponsors threatens to become a deluge

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