Insight on Latest Cycle of Video Game Industry Layoffs


by | Mar 27, 2019, 11:00AM PDT

On February 12th, Activision-Blizzard held its quarterly earnings report wherein CEO Bobby Kotick joined in to tell shareholders the great news of a “record year” at one point, then later dropped the bombshell that they would be reducing their workforce by 8%. For a company that had approximately 9,600 employees in 2018, this means they recently laid off likely close to 800 workers, with more than a quarter of that at legendary local game development studio Blizzard Entertainment according to the California Employment Development Department (as reported by Variety). The largest departments cut were IT, then Marketing and Live Experiences, followed by a global insight department.

If you love watching the Overwatch League, maxing CPM in Starcraft II, dropping cards in Hearthstone, defeating bosses in World of Warcraft, warring in the Nexus or banishing Diablo back to the Burning Hells, some of the people who contributed to the development and support of those interactive masterpieces are no longer working at Blizzard. Massive layoffs are notorious for happening without warning. There are (at least) two strongly opposed perspectives as to the pros and cons of this. One of these perspectives can be compactly examined via the website of Game Workers Unite (GWU), one apropos source of the pro-labor side.

The other (pro-business) side, unless one has experience (or access to people) in positions of upper management or business ownership, can be more complex or difficult to relate to for most. For example, imagine if it were your job to decide the answer to these two tough questions: with Blizzard set to release no new titles in 2019 nor hold its annual set of global “Heroes of the Storm” championship tournaments, what work is there to do for those hundreds of employees? What amount of reorganization or retraining would be viable and good business? Cuts hurt, but not cutting can be worse in the long run.

Organized Labor

When many think “labor unions” and what gave rise to them in modern America, what images come to mind? Soot-covered faces, mine cave-ins, and crippling accidents with limbs caught in machinery may be common responses. With the Industrial Revolution long in the rear-view mirror, the mental picture of unions needs updating. As U.S. child labor laws first passed in Congress 101 years ago, and manufacturing as a major middle class industry has been declining since the 1990s, so too has the outcry for unionization largely dissipated into a faint echo of the distant past.

But despite far more humane working conditions today, it remains true that only through unionizing can strong collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) come into existence. CBAs are a uniquely powerful tool to help level the massive power imbalance between employers and employees. One single worker fed-up with terrible working conditions (e.g., not being able to spend any quality time with their family, physical and mental illness from stress and exhaustion) threatening to not go to work is similar to a small ripple in a pond trying to tip over a rowboat. But if their demands for better treatment are not met, unions can threaten to strike en masse, and such a threat is like a tidal wave swelling to flip over that same rowboat.

Thus CBAs give workers leverage to negotiate for protections against employers to defend themselves against the worst sides of the industry: onerous crunches (working 10-16 hour days for weeks or months, possibly without overtime pay if salaried) or massive layoffs without guaranteed warnings, severance, retraining, or resume and interview training to find new jobs. On a related and positive note, massive credit to Blizzard for having a Career Crossroads program that offers much of these, softening the blow and rate of terminations–such a thing is rarely heard of (in any industry), perhaps due to its volitional existence.

The Voice of Experience

Founded in 1955, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), representing more than 12 million workers in the United States across more than 50 labor unions, recently published an open letter through Kotaku in support of unionizing game workers shortly after the major layoffs at Activision-Blizzard. This was the first major public statement they have ever made about the topic.

Talk of unionizing has come and gone like the ocean tides for at least a couple decades in the video games industry’s modern history: most recently after Red Dead Redemption 2 came out last October, Rockstar was under major fire; before that, in Q2 2011, there was “L.A. Noire” makers Team Bondi–Rockstar was the publisher. Now could be the time for change. Now can be an inflection point where the right circumstances and forces converge into a flash point to break a cycle of fruitless upset. (For more regarding the AFL-CIO’s position, see Polygon’s conversation with secretary-treasurer Liz Schuller, author of their letter.)

But no single thing is a panacea for all ills. You can read about 13 Advantages and Disadvantages of Labor Unions here–spoiler alert, the article lists one more disadvantage than advantages.

Past and present extensively covered, we will look to thoughts about the future (and other things) from outspoken gamer, writer, and ex-NFL player Chris Kluwe in my next article.

Those impacted by the layoffs at Blizzard, Arenanet, and others can find a depth of empathy, solace, and reasons to hope in the 14 years of perspective from Christine Brownell, who knows exactly what it’s like.

UCI Partners with Hyperice For Esports Scholarship


by | Apr 3, 2019, 2:01PM PDT

UCI Esports is proud to announce its partnership with Hyperice Inc. to create the first ever health and wellness esports scholarship. Hyperice is a leading sports technology company best known for their development of portable ice compression devices, designed to heal damaged tissue and enhance muscle performance. In November 2018, Hyperice named Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster as its esports ambassador, branching out into a wellness campaign dedicated to promoting physical fitness in esports. Now, as a part of this campaign, UCI Esports and Hyperice are collaborating on a scholarship designed to integrate the sports company’s revolutionary fitness technology and methodology into the school’s esports community. Prior to this partnership, UCI Esports has employed a fitness program for its scholarship players conducted by exercise physiologist Hayesh Patel; the collaboration with Hyperice is the next step in ensuring that the physical wellness of its gaming student athletes is a top priority.

UCI Esports joins organizations such as San Francisco Shock of the Overwatch League by partaking in Hyperice’s esports wellness campaign.

The organizations will also be designing gaming-related sports medicine content and curriculum, with a focus on improving playing conditions, increasing athletic longevity, and optimizing player performance. Mark Deppe, Director of UCI Esports, provided a quote for the Hyperice press release on the importance of the partnership and collaborative program. “Health and wellness are crucial for UCI Esports as we try to push the boundaries of human performance within esports. This visionary gift from Hyperice will provide the necessary people and equipment to keep all of our students healthy and fit. These scholarships are also notable as they will be the first for non-players and demonstrate that a successful program relies on talented people in many different roles.” UCI Esports and Hyperice will be selecting two qualified individuals with a background in sports medicine and a passion for esports for the health and wellness esports scholarship in fall of 2019.

Feature image courtesy of Adam Fitch.

Varsity Overwatch: Season in Review


by , Nathan Dhami | Apr 3, 2019, 11:04AM PDT

The UCI Esports varsity Overwatch team’s run in the Tespa Overwatch Collegiate Championship came to a close this past Tuesday after a climactic game with Grand Canyon University (GCU).

The Tespa Overwatch Collegiate Championship consisted of three separate and concurrent leagues, where UCI Esports had a powerful performance in the Swiss and Round Robin brackets, going 5-0 in the Regional League, 4-0 in the Varsity League, and 7-0 in the National League.  Unfortunately, UCI Esports was unable to defeat GCU in the top 16 of the single elimination bracket in the National League; having previously lost to UCI Esports 3-2 and 3-0 in the earlier brackets, GCU was able to make the necessary adaptations and overcome our scholarship team in the end, with a 3-2 victory.

We want to thank our prolific scholarship players:

Andy “Genos” Nguyen
Brenden “tildae” Alvarez
Isaac “IzakBirdie” Jimenez
John Nick “Learntooplay” Theodorakis
Patrick “Pat” Phan
Sebastian “Selectt” Vasquez
Seong “Stadium” Park
Xuanyi “Devilswill” Wang
and Zuhair “Zeerocious” Taleb

for an excellent performance during the season. We also want to thank our team’s support staff:

Coach, Ronald “Renathera” Ly
Coach, Michael “The” Kuhns
Team Manager, Angie “Scarletwktk” Batth
Team Psychologist, Milo “PhDodson” Dodson
Team Physiologist, Haylesh “Haylo” Patel
and Player Support Services Coordinator, Hillary “Hillabeans” Phan

for working with our players and bringing the most out of them through a challenging season. The 2019 Overwatch season has been long and hard fought, both for our teams and our opponents. Despite their run ending, the UCI Esports scholarship team had an excellent performance and the fact that they made it so far in the bracket is a testament to their skill.

In a closing message addressed to the Overwatch scholarship team, Renanthera lauded the players and their performance throughout the 2019 season. “What I’ve had to learn is that victory will come and go, and victory isn’t what defines us. What separates winners and losers aren’t the trophies, or the medals, or the accolades. It’s the perseverance through adversity. It’s that we don’t stop trying.”

“[Even though] no one was happy with the result….I’ve never seen the team more driven to prove themselves until the morning after,” Renanthera additionally noted. The UCI Esports Overwatch team will continue to play and perform in the future, rising to the challenge and continuing to push themselves to be the best they can be, both in and out of the game.

Insight on Latest Cycle of Video Game Industry Layoffs


by | Mar 27, 2019, 11:00AM PDT

On February 12th, Activision-Blizzard held its quarterly earnings report wherein CEO Bobby Kotick joined in to tell shareholders the great news of a “record year” at one point, then later dropped the bombshell that they would be reducing their workforce by 8%. For a company that had approximately 9,600 employees in 2018, this means they recently laid off likely close to 800 workers, with more than a quarter of that at legendary local game development studio Blizzard Entertainment according to the California Employment Development Department (as reported by Variety). The largest departments cut were IT, then Marketing and Live Experiences, followed by a global insight department.

If you love watching the Overwatch League, maxing CPM in Starcraft II, dropping cards in Hearthstone, defeating bosses in World of Warcraft, warring in the Nexus or banishing Diablo back to the Burning Hells, some of the people who contributed to the development and support of those interactive masterpieces are no longer working at Blizzard. Massive layoffs are notorious for happening without warning. There are (at least) two strongly opposed perspectives as to the pros and cons of this. One of these perspectives can be compactly examined via the website of Game Workers Unite (GWU), one apropos source of the pro-labor side.

The other (pro-business) side, unless one has experience (or access to people) in positions of upper management or business ownership, can be more complex or difficult to relate to for most. For example, imagine if it were your job to decide the answer to these two tough questions: with Blizzard set to release no new titles in 2019 nor hold its annual set of global “Heroes of the Storm” championship tournaments, what work is there to do for those hundreds of employees? What amount of reorganization or retraining would be viable and good business? Cuts hurt, but not cutting can be worse in the long run.

Organized Labor

When many think “labor unions” and what gave rise to them in modern America, what images come to mind? Soot-covered faces, mine cave-ins, and crippling accidents with limbs caught in machinery may be common responses. With the Industrial Revolution long in the rear-view mirror, the mental picture of unions needs updating. As U.S. child labor laws first passed in Congress 101 years ago, and manufacturing as a major middle class industry has been declining since the 1990s, so too has the outcry for unionization largely dissipated into a faint echo of the distant past.

But despite far more humane working conditions today, it remains true that only through unionizing can strong collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) come into existence. CBAs are a uniquely powerful tool to help level the massive power imbalance between employers and employees. One single worker fed-up with terrible working conditions (e.g., not being able to spend any quality time with their family, physical and mental illness from stress and exhaustion) threatening to not go to work is similar to a small ripple in a pond trying to tip over a rowboat. But if their demands for better treatment are not met, unions can threaten to strike en masse, and such a threat is like a tidal wave swelling to flip over that same rowboat.

Thus CBAs give workers leverage to negotiate for protections against employers to defend themselves against the worst sides of the industry: onerous crunches (working 10-16 hour days for weeks or months, possibly without overtime pay if salaried) or massive layoffs without guaranteed warnings, severance, retraining, or resume and interview training to find new jobs. On a related and positive note, massive credit to Blizzard for having a Career Crossroads program that offers much of these, softening the blow and rate of terminations–such a thing is rarely heard of (in any industry), perhaps due to its volitional existence.

The Voice of Experience

Founded in 1955, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), representing more than 12 million workers in the United States across more than 50 labor unions, recently published an open letter through Kotaku in support of unionizing game workers shortly after the major layoffs at Activision-Blizzard. This was the first major public statement they have ever made about the topic.

Talk of unionizing has come and gone like the ocean tides for at least a couple decades in the video games industry’s modern history: most recently after Red Dead Redemption 2 came out last October, Rockstar was under major fire; before that, in Q2 2011, there was “L.A. Noire” makers Team Bondi–Rockstar was the publisher. Now could be the time for change. Now can be an inflection point where the right circumstances and forces converge into a flash point to break a cycle of fruitless upset. (For more regarding the AFL-CIO’s position, see Polygon’s conversation with secretary-treasurer Liz Schuller, author of their letter.)

But no single thing is a panacea for all ills. You can read about 13 Advantages and Disadvantages of Labor Unions here–spoiler alert, the article lists one more disadvantage than advantages.

Past and present extensively covered, we will look to thoughts about the future (and other things) from outspoken gamer, writer, and ex-NFL player Chris Kluwe in my next article.

Those impacted by the layoffs at Blizzard, Arenanet, and others can find a depth of empathy, solace, and reasons to hope in the 14 years of perspective from Christine Brownell, who knows exactly what it’s like.

UCI Esports at SXSW


by | Mar 23, 2019, 11:00AM PDT

From March 8th through the 17th, the city of Austin, Texas hosted South by Southwest (SXSW), a massive conference over a week long which celebrates “the convergence of the interactive, film, and music industries.” Journalists and industry professionals from various fields and companies converged in the Austin Convention Center to promote ideas, technology, new media, films, games, and everything in between. Even UCI Esports got in on the action — on March 16th, Mark Deppe and Constance Steinkuehler hosted the panel, “How High School Esports Lead to Thriving Industry.”

Deppe is the director of UCI Esports and the commissioner of the North American Scholastic Esports Federation (NASEF), an organization dedicated to promoting esports in public high schools across the continent. Steinkuehler is currently an Informatics professor at UCI and has a varied history of gaming and esports research under her belt. Her expertise ranges from advising the White House on gaming-related policy from 2011-2012 as a Senior Policy Analyst for the Office of Science and Technology Policy, to her current mixed-methods research with NASEF. (Returning readers will remember Alice Lee’s article on Maria J. Anderson-Coto, a grad student who works with Steinkuehler at the UCI Esports Lab on games research.)

Deppe (left) and Steinkeuhler (right) begin their SXSW panel.

Deppe and Steinkuehler’s panel centered on preparing high school students for the esports industry, not only as players but in other roles such as analysts, journalists, game developers, engineers, and so on. The success of the UCI Esports collegiate team was used as a model for how these high school esports organizations could function and help prepare young students for roles in esports that suit their interests. Since esports teams and the events they partake in are not solely run by players, the goal of the scholastic esports pipeline should be to prepare students to take on crucial roles that interest them. One slide of the presentation highlighted this clearly by analyzing the reality of physical sports such as hockey — even though there are only twenty players on the ice at an Anaheim Ducks game, there are a thousand different employees working at the venue in some capacity to make sure game day runs smoothly.

Beyond preparing students for roles in the esports industry, the panel also discussed how games function as learning tools. The second segment of the presentation focused on the various ways games develop students’ cognitive ability: by improving their visual acuity, increasing their problem solving skills, accelerating their literacy and language learning, and more. Steinkuehler and Deppe furthered the connection between esports and student learning by arguing that high school sports have been shown to aid students in their pursuit of education, as participation in sports is often associated with higher GPAs and higher degree completion. Likewise, the benefits of esports on a high school campus would be plentiful, as students would participate in an environment that stimulates their cognitive abilities while also encouraging the same attitudes as physical sports.

Steinkuehler explains her research on games and education.

The third part of the presentation explored NASEF and its mission to support high school clubs and esports organizations in order to foster the aforementioned learning environments and encourage students interested in the industry. The panel went in-depth into the NASEF state-approved high school curriculum, designed to connect students to STEM, humanities and language, career pathways, social and emotional learning, and school affiliation. NASEF’s model achieves this by providing a network of mentors (teacher GMs, online coaches, industry and higher education pros) providing camps for underrepresented groups and clubs (such as UCI Esports’ own summer camps) and allowing events to be run by both coaches and students.

Deppe and Steinkuehler’s talk at SXSW discussed the importance of high school and collegiate esports organizations and how UCI Esports and NASEF could serve as a model for these new groups. UCI Esports offers dozens of student jobs and prepares both these students and their scholarship players for careers in esports and the broader games industry. Esports teams and related clubs on campus also foster a greater connection between the student and their school, and games can be employed as a creative learning tool. NASEF’s mission statement is “to provide opportunities for ALL students to use esports as a platform to acquire critical communication, collaboration, and problem-solving skills needed to thrive in work and in life.” By supporting groups on high school campuses, NASEF hopes to encourage students interested in esports as the industry continues to soar towards greater heights.

Photos courtesy Kathy Chiang, Mark Deppe