For video games, 2021 was about growth and the arrival of new frontiers, like the metaverse and NFTs. But, the sector also struggled with lingering problems that cast a pall over the entire industry, from supply chain constraints to the persistent issue of workplace misconduct.
Despite the furor over systemic harassment, abuse, and assault in 2020, Activision Blizzard, the maker of Call of Duty and Overwatch, would garner a lion's share of attention in 2021 over issues of misconduct going right up to the top. The scandal roller coaster took off in July when the state of California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) revealed it was suing the company after a two-year probe into allegations of a toxic "frat boy" workplace culture.
The mess seemed to spiral from there after a written response from company leadership was widely criticized, employees walked out, and even more disturbing details emerged about behind-the-scenes problems, including the existence of a "Cosby Suite" nickname for an alleged abuser's hotel room during the company's major fan conventions, BlizzCon.
Workers would begin to organize as shareholders began bringing lawsuits. Blizzard Entertainment President J. Allen Brack was out, Mike Ybarra and Jen Oneal were named co-leaders in his place, and California expanded its lawsuit. This was just in August.
In September, while the company would find itself under an SEC investigation, all while settling with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to the tune of $18 million, CEO Bobby Kotick tried to shore up confidence by taking a paycut in October. Alongside some changes to policies, including getting rid of mandatory arbitration, it looked like things were trending in a better direction for the gaming giant.
But the situation exploded again in November as the recently installed Jen Oneal announced her departure at the end of the year. A bombshell Wall Street Journal report alleged that Oneal was being paid less than her male co-lead. On top of that the report said Kotick was both more knowledgeable about incidents of harassment and assault at his company and culpable of his own history of abusive behavior. The article would lead to another employee walkout and calls for Kotick's resignation, and even more ominously for the chief executive, public criticism from major partners at PlayStation, Microsoft, and Nintendo. Kotick then allegedly claimed he'd be willing to step down if he is unable to turn things around quickly.
While the legal woes continue and workers have begun unionization efforts, the company's stock has seen a more than 30 percent decline over the year. A diversity report issued on December 16 was accompanied by a press release where Chief Operating Officer Daniel Alegre proclaimed that Activision Blizzard "will do better."
The Hunt for the PlayStation 5
Have you gotten your hands on the hottest holiday gift item of 2020 and 2021, the PlayStation 5? No? Well, it looks as though throughout the year, despite doing big numbers in sales anyway, there still aren't enough consoles to satisfy the number of people who want them, in part due to the semiconductor chip shortage which has undermined everything from automotive manufacturing to iPhone production.
In November, before the holiday shopping season was to get underway in earnest, Sony reportedly cut its expectations of producing 16 million units for the financial year ending in March 2022 to 15 million. Its manufacturing partners expressed doubts of hitting the bigger target due to the lack of chips and problems rolling out COVID vaccines across the developing nations where many of the factories are located. Signs are pointing to 2022 being as tough as 2021 to snag a console, according to Bloomberg.
Metaverse of Madness
As someone who was around for early virtual worlds like Everquest, Second Life, and World of Warcraft, it was always clear that the metaverse (coined as a dystopian concept in Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash) was well on its way. But there were tech limitations that prevented the idea of shared virtual worlds from being fully realized.
Fast forward to 2021, and Facebook is rebranding as Meta, leaning hard into the idea of shared metaverse branding across its networks, which includes its Oculus VR headset. Plus, Fortnite, the Epic Games epic hit, features a cartoon-y shooter game filled with cross-promotional brands, events, characters, and artists like Ariana Grande doing virtual concerts. Then there's Roblox, a game platform for kids that allows user-created content, announcing plans to expand into educational programming that incorporates the metaverse concept. Plus, virtual real estate is making big strides on platforms like Decentraland.
It's becoming a safe bet that physical retailers also are putting muscle behind these virtual offerings, with Roblox having partnered with the skater brand Vans on Vans World, an online skatepark featuring digital skateboards and apparel offerings, and with Nike to recreate the sneaker brand's headquarters as Nikeland, presenting a product showroom, games, events, and possibly future virtual versions of their apparel and goods. Holiday wishlists from 2021 and beyond may feature a lot more metaverse-only gifts for your loved ones.
Electric Daisy Carnival Becomes the First Music Festival in the Roblox Metaverse (Graphic: Business Wire)
Around the Blockchain
Speaking of digital property, you'd have to be living off the grid to avoid headlines about non-fungible tokens or NFTs in 2021. Whether you think the digital assets are a bubble, the future, or even a scam, they're becoming joined at the hip with the very idea of gaming and the metaverse as Play-to-Earn (P2E) games platforms receive major backing. Companies like Mythical Games received a $150 million fundraise, and CEO John Linden explained the concept to Cheddar. "[Players] can own the items they buy in the game. They can upgrade those items. They can merge them together, do all the things they do in games, but they have the right now to transfer and sell that to somebody else," he said.
For Rainmaker Games, which received seed funding in the amount of $6.5 million, the player empowerment concept goes a little further by offering initially-free games to overcome a potential barrier to entry. The players can then "level up," borrow NFT-assets for improving their play, join guilds, and eventually sell their owned-assets with Rainmaker receiving fees in the process. "The most important thing here is that we can onboard hundreds of millions of players trying to get into this landscape, and so the business model initially is that we're almost a lending company," said CEO Will Deane."