Activision Blizzard’s 2019 was a bizarre rollercoaster of ups and downs for what has long been the biggest third party publisher in video games. Despite continuing to knock it out of the park with their game releases, making for both critical and commercial successes, the company have found themselves mired in controversy and unexpected business decisions.
Activision Blizzard games released in 2019
- Call of Duty: Modern Warfare | Review
- Call of Duty: Mobile
- Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled | Review
- Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice | Review
- World of Warcraft Classic | Blog
The year opened with some real surprises from the company, as Activision and Bungie announced their decision to part ways, letting the celebrated developer retain the Destiny franchise in the process. Having first partnered in 2010, Destiny had become a key pillar of Activision’s business since the first game’s release in 2014, but there had been simmering discontent between the two over the business pressure to hit deadlines (not one of Bungie’s specialties) for sequels and expansions. The news, just days into the start of the year, was greeted by champagne corks popping at Bungie, but dismay from shareholders, 10% of the company’s value disappearing and two lawsuits being filed by investors.
Still, those investors would have had something to cheer just a month later when Activision could announce record revenues from 2018… only for Bobby Kotick to reveal that a huge 775 employees, 8% of the company was to be laid off. Despite being rumoured for some time, the scale of the redundancies was unexpected, especially after those record revenues. With the company focussing more on live service games through Blizzard, and hedging its bets around a smaller and smaller number of games (and without Destiny 2 on their portfolio), a lot of these layoffs came from the publishing side of the company, but it was still met with dismay at how the redundancies were announced.
From there, though, Activision were able to build a strong 2019 off the backs of the games they were releasing. FromSoftware’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice launched to critical acclaim as a fresh twist on their Soulslike genre, Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled was a fantastic reimagining of the PlayStation classic kart racer, while Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was exactly what fans of the series had been calling for over the last half decade.
Activision even had something to shout about on the mobile side of things, as the free-to-play Call of Duty: Mobile broke records. With 148 million downloads and around $54 million in revenue through its first month, it was the biggest mobile game launch in history.
The Blizzard side of the company had its own ups and downs. Having long insisted that fans didn’t want World of Warcraft Classic, the company finally released remaster and separate servers of the earlier forms of the game. Who could have guessed, but it turned into a huge success, forcing the company to add more servers to handle the load.
That ought to have given BlizzCon a rose-tinted glow, but instead Blizzard found themselves wrapped up in controversy. Pro Hearthstone player and streamer Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai was banned for making a pro-democracy statement in support of the protestors in his native Hong Kong. Blizzards reaction was to take away his winnings, ban him from competing and cut ties with the two commentators who had literally hid under their desks to try and disassociate themselves from his comments.
Though Blitzchung had broken Blizzard’s terms in making a political statement, they were widely criticised for the harshness of the penalty and what was seen as subservience to the Chinese government. Though they eventually reduced Blitzchung’s penalty, they still banned other players voicing their support for him, cancelling promotional events, and were written to by US Congressional Representatives an Senators.
With Chinese Overwatch character Mei ironically adopted as a pro-democracy icon by the protestors, it cast a shadow over BlizzCon, where Blizzard Entertainment President J. Allen Brack apologised for the manner of Blitzchung’s ban, if not the ban itself. Though ultimately very little has changed, it gave the company a small amount of breathing space in which to announce Diablo IV and the unexpected expansion-cum-sequel Overwatch 2.
2019 was a year that well and truly revealed the corporate side of Activision, especially as the company joined those in the tech industry of having awkward ties and reliance on China. Overwatch 2 and Diablo IV still have the potential to be hugely successful, and as ridiculous as it is for developers and publishers pretend their politically charged war games aren’t political in any way, the sales success of a Call of Duty set in the Middle East compared to one set in space with Lewis Hamilton in it shows that the mainstream audience aren’t that fussed.
Heading into 2020, the mask has been lifted once more, but will it matter?