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Microsoft acquisition drama continues, as Activision subsidiary’s QA group votes to unionize

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(Activision press image)

The quality-assurance department at Wisconsin-based Call of Duty developer Raven Software has voted to unionize, which could significantly impact its parent company, Activision Blizzard, with potential ripple effects for Microsoft’s Activision acquisition, and for the video game industry as a whole.

The move by Raven QA to unionize started last January, after roughly a third of its team was laid off in early December 2021. The team hit by the layoffs was primarily responsible for testing on the free-to-play mobile title Call of Duty: Warzone, which reportedly earned Activision Blizzard as much as $5.2 million in revenue per day in 2021.

The layoffs also followed months-long promises of increased wages. Many of the affected workers were asked to relocate to Raven’s hometown of Madison, Wis., without financial assistance from Raven or Activision Blizzard.

As a result, 60 employees at Raven participated in a strike on Dec. 6, 2021. The strike was subsequently resolved on Jan. 22 with the announcement that the QA team intended to unionize.

The union vote was held Monday morning, via mail-in ballots filed at the Milwaukee office of the National Labor Relations Board, and passed 19-3. The new union, operating under the name Game Workers Alliance, will now enter into contract negotiations with Activision Blizzard.

This marks the second major union movement in a North American video game company (the first appears to have been at Vodeo Games in Dec. 2021), and the first in the high-budget, high-visibility part of the industry that’s often referred to by the baseball term “AAA.”

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Activision Blizzard, for its part, has fought the unionization push from the start, via internal staff memos and a failed petition at the NLRB. In response to today’s vote, a representative of the company expressed regret when speaking to the Washington Post, saying that “an important decision that will impact the entire Raven Software studio of roughly 350 people should not be made by 19 of Raven employees.”

This is likely to be a seismic event in the American video game industry, particularly as it relates to QA. Game testing is often seen as a disposable job in the field, and is often farmed out to contractors or temps, despite its overall importance to production.

Activision Blizzard and Raven Software are only famous examples of an endemic problem. If Raven’s QA team could take on its billion-dollar parent company and win, it’s possible this may be the spark that fuels widespread unionization drives across North America.

Further, the Raven Software controversy serves as an example of the issues at Activision Blizzard that Microsoft will be forced to confront if and when its acquisition of the company becomes final.

That acquisition, a $68.7 billion deal that instantly became the biggest purchase in Microsoft’s history when it was announced in January, would give Microsoft control over some of the highest-profile franchises and development studios in American games development.

That deal is currently moving through antitrust review at the Federal Trade Commission, and has reached a point that Microsoft’s Brad Smith recently called “the beginning of the middle.”

Raven’s successful unionization isn’t the worst thing that could’ve happened here. In fact, it was a long time coming, and if Raven QA hadn’t taken the wheel here, it could’ve been a number of other departments at a dozen other developers. There’s been enough union talk in games development and related fields over the course of the last four years that it was a question of when and where, not if.

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The issue at hand is that Raven, in reacting to an untenable situation, serves as another example of the deep-rooted dysfunction at the heart of Activision Blizzard. This includes multiple sexual harassment lawsuits, one of which was settled in March for $18 million, and a gradual “brain drain” at Blizzard that’s left many of its franchises in poor shape. When and if the acquisition finally does go through, Microsoft may have a lot of work on its hands to rehabilitate Activision Blizzard, if it’s worth doing at all.

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