Brian Birmingham, who previously served as technical lead director on World of Warcraft Classic, has left Activision Blizzard in protest of employee review policies at the Overwatch 2, Diablo 4, and Call of Duty creator. An alleged ranking system implemented at Activision Blizzard in 2021 reportedly demands that at least 5% of employees be categorised as low-performing, which can affect their end-of-year profit share and opportunities to work within certain development teams. As one of the people responsible for completing reviews, Birmingham has left Activision Blizzard after refusing to downgrade employees’ status in order to meet the 5% quota.
Activision Blizzard’s stack ranking system allegedly categorises employees as ‘successful’ and ‘developing,’ with the company seeking to create a bell curve of varied ratings. In an internal email, Brian Birmingham, a Blizzard employee responsible for conducting performance reviews, says that the policy, rather than incentivise low-ranked employees, leads to “sabotage of one another’s work.”
“When team leads asked why we had to do this, World of Warcraft directors explained that while they did not agree, the reasons given by executive leadership were that it was important to squeeze the bottom-most performers as a way to make sure everybody continues to grow,” Birmingham writes in the email, obtained by Bloomberg. “This sort of policy encourages competition between employees, sabotage of one another’s work, a desire for people to find low-performing teams that they can be the best-performing worker on, and ultimately erodes trust and destroys creativity.”
Following their departure, Birmingham says that, to their knowledge, the stack-ranking policy is instigated by Activision Blizzard King, also referred to as ABK – the wider corporation which owns and operates Activision Publishing, Blizzard Entertainment, and mobile development company King. Birmngham says that, to their understanding, the policy does not originally come from Blizzard, and has been implemented since the company’s acquisition.
“I’m told the forced stack-ranking policy is a directive that came from the ABK level, above [Blizzard president] Mike Ybarra,” Birmingham writes. “I don’t know for sure, but I suspect it’s true. Everybody at Blizzard I’ve spoken to about this, including my direct supervisors, expressed disappointment about this policy.”
Birmimgham says that employees at Blizzard “pushed back pretty hard” when the stack-ranking policy was reportedly implemented in 2021, and says that “I truly believed we had reversed the developing-quota policy.”
“The realisation that there’s still a minimum quota for ‘developing,’ despite our objections and sternly worded letters leads me to believe I was operating under an illusion,” Birmingham says. “I hope Blizzard’s positive culture can overcome ABK’s poison, but it isn’t succeeding in doing that yet.”
“If this policy can be reversed, perhaps my Blizzard can still be saved, and if so I would love to continue working there,” Birmingham says. “If this policy cannot be reversed, then the Blizzard Entertainment I want to work for doesn’t exist anymore, and I’ll have to find somewhere else to work.”
PCGamesN has contacted Activision Blizzard for comment. In a statement to Bloomberg, the company says that its employee evaluation policies are intended to drive “excellence in performance.” The policies are also designed to “ensure employees who don’t meet performance expectations receive more honest feedback, differentiated compensation, and a plan on how best to improve their own performance.”
The Activision Blizzard spokesperson also says employee evaluations are conducted by a number of managers and that “sometimes ratings move up or down” based on discussions between those involved.
In other Activision Blizzard news, Netease, the publishing company which previously oversaw distribution for games such as World of Warcraft and Overwatch 2 in China, has protested against a proposed extension of its publication deal by smashing a World of Warcraft statue. Meanwhile, managers at Proletariat, an Activision Blizzard-owned studio which co-develops World of Warcraft, have refused to voluntarily acknowledge a new employee union.