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'There Are Two Companies, Really': Silence on Abortion Adds to Activision's Workplace Woes
Employees at Activision Blizzard are growing increasingly frustrated with the game publisher’s refusal to issue any guidance about how the potential repeal of federal abortion protections could impact workers in its offices across the nation.
Several current Activision Blizzard employees told dot.LA the Santa Monica-based company has refused to communicate with staff about the issue. The employees asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing their jobs.
Activision’s alleged failure to protect female employees from being sexually harassed or discriminated against at work has led to a bevy of lawsuits from government watchdogs, current and former workers and the family of one former employee who died by suicide on a company outing five years ago. This is all being sorted out as the “Overwatch” publisher struggles to complete a $69 billion merger with Microsoft.
An Activision spokesperson shared the following statement with dot.LA Thursday: "We are committed to an inclusive environment that is supportive of all of our employees. As a company, providing fair and equitable health care is a top priority, and we will closely monitor developments in the coming weeks and months."
In a May 5 Slack message shared with dot.LA by an Activision employee, Blizzard President Mike Ybarra did address some of his team’s concerns. “I realize we are late and I am sorry,” Ybarra wrote. “It has been incredibly stressful for Blizzard (and me personally) as we read the news.”
Ybarra added in his message that leadership at Blizzard met and discussed the leaked SCOTUS draft early last week and “outlined some actions and we are working with ABK to express our views and requested a path forward.”
“These are real time conversations and we're part of a 10,000+ person company and I want to help the broader employees we value and have across organizations. I realize this isn't very helpful but I'm being honest with where we are and what we are discussing across the company,” Ybarra’s message concluded.
Employees who received Ybarra’s message said they felt it was an underwhelming response given that Activision operates offices in several states where abortion is already under attack at the state level, including Arkansas and Texas – where it has a sizable presence of support staff, designers, engineers and producers. One worker said the response from Ybarra only came after employees began asking directly about the issue at work.
“There’s been no communication from the top down,” said Emily Knief, a senior motion graphics designer who’s worked for Activision Blizzard for over 15 years. Knief added there’s been “lots of support from within,” but nothing from executives yet.
“It's completely irresponsible that they continue to remain silent, as the very lives of their employees hang in the balance,” Knief said.
Knief told dot.LA she’s seen a shift in messaging in her cumulative decade-plus at Activision Blizzard. She said in the past “we used to get communication internally, sometimes within hours” related to similar issues.
ABetterABK, the workers group that’s advocating for change and a company-wide union at Activision, issued a statement Wednesday: “We believe there's never been a more urgent time to support those who rely on that care, not just with words, but actions, and that starts with us standing firm on our positions towards these issues,” the group tweeted.
Kate Anderson, a quality assurance tester for Activision working in Minnesota, told dot.LA employees are upset at a lack of communication.
Anderson, who uses gender neutral pronouns, said they’d feel supported if Activision offered to match donations to pro-abortion organizations that employees support, as it’s done with past issues. They also noted Activision could offer to cover the costs for going out of state for reproductive care, which Microsoft, Amazon and some smaller gaming firms have already promised.
Earlier this week, game producer Javiera Cordero began keeping a public running thread of studios that have publicly taken a stance on abortion, and the list so far is mostly indie developers – though Bungie, the gaming firm Sony bought for $3.6 billion earlier this year, issued its own statement in support of workers last week.
Two workers who requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation told dot.LA they speculated Activision’s silence could be a reflection of its conservative leadership.
Last year CEO Bobby Kotick donated at least half a million dollars to Republican super PACs through a secret side company called Norgate, including contributions to a political action committee run by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has said a nationwide ban on abortion "is possible."
In a statement emailed to dot.LA May 13, a spokesman for Kotick disagreed with that assessment.
"The idea that Norgate is 'secret' is preposterous and false. It is a legitimate limited liability corporation lawfully incorporated in the state of Delaware whose records are public," the spokesman said. "Mr. Kotick has donated roughly the same amount to of money to Democrats and Republicans, generally to candidates who share his passion for supporting the country’s military veterans and their families."
In a report last December, Activision said 26% of its executives are women. Still, it admitted that last year it lost nearly as many women as it hired because of retirement or resignation.
“The reality is that the C-suite is far divorced from the general ethos of the company at large,” Knief said. “There are two companies, really: The C-suite, with what's allowed to be publicly stated, and everyone else, the people that make and support the games... and they are often at complete opposite ends of the spectrum on issues and how we should proceed.”
Update, May 18: This story has been updated to reflect additional comment from Activision CEO Bobby Kotick. It has also been updated to more accurately reflect the company's “alleged failures to protect female employees from being sexually harassed or discriminated against at work.”
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Samson Amore is a reporter for dot.LA. He previously covered technology and entertainment for TheWrap and reported on the SoCal startup scene for the Los Angeles Business Journal. Send tips or pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org and find him on Twitter at @Samsonamore. Pronouns: he/him
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Whether it's Amazon’s enormous investment in electric vans or Starship Technologies’ autonomous food transport rovers, there’s no shortage of tech companies looking to electrify last-mile deliveries and cut carbon emissions.
URB-E, a Los Angeles-based startup, may have the simplest solution of all: electric bicycles. With its fleet of souped-up, battery-powered custom e-bikes equipped with collapsible box trailers, the company is ferrying meals, groceries, ecommerce orders and other packages to doorsteps in L.A. and New York City.
Now, the mobility and logistics company is returning to its roots in California to partner with the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI) and the city of Santa Monica on a pilot program that establishes zero-emission delivery zones. Santa Monica has established itself as the cradle of micromobility in recent years, and the city’s initiative—described as the first of its kind in the U.S.—aims to live up to that reputation by carving out priority curb space for electric delivery vehicles in certain high-traffic corridors. In addition to luring new operators, the program should also lower air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and noise pollution in some of the busiest parts of Santa Monica.
The pilot will feature 10 URB-E e-bikes that will service zero-emission delivery zones along Santa Monica Boulevard and Colorado Boulevard, with plans to expand the pilot to 20 URB-E vehicles in the near future. The startup will share the curb space with electric vehicles from the likes of Coco, Fluid Truck, Maxwell Vehicles and Nissan, as well as vendors like Ikea and Shopify. The pilot will run until the end of the year.
“I think we've already seen an enormous amount of excitement in this space,” LACI president and CEO Matt Petersen told dot.LA. “We know that URB-E is going to just crush it as they hit the streets.”
Courtesy of LACI
URB-E is no stranger to LACI: Founded in 2015 by former Ford and Fisker engineer Sven Etzelsberger and business development veteran Peter Lee, the startup joined the incubator in 2018—a stint that helped propel its business forward. Back in those days, URB-E was focused on developing e-scooters; initially, the company wanted to use its scooter technology and to deliver packages around the Burbank area, but quickly discovered that, to be cost-efficient, it needed to carry more weight than the scooters could handle.
“[The scooters] could pull around 300 or 400 pounds, which is not actually that much,” recalled URB-E CEO Charles Jolley, an Apple and Facebook veteran who now leads the startup. “In order to get that good balance of efficiency, you needed to carry around 800 pounds.” So URB-E went back to the drawing board and revamped its designs—moving on to e-bikes that can haul up to 800 pounds and a completely new container system.
In addition to its hometown, the company has also cut its teeth in New York City, where delivery riders pedal across neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Jolley said the length of a delivery run depends on the shape of the neighborhood, but it usually takes five-to-nine miles of riding to unload a full container of goods. The startup was boosted by a $5 million Series A funding round led by UBS Group early last year.
Another week, another new neighborhood for URB-E! Where is it?pic.twitter.com/VmLa2O1bNe— URB-E (@URB-E) 1650992421
While bikes and containers are core to URB-E’s platform, the company is also collecting logistics data every step along the way. With a custom software app that riders use to navigate and deliver packages, URB-E is actively mapping the infrastructure needs of neighborhood-scale electric delivery. As the startup has grown, it’s gained insights into where to position charging stations and staging areas and how to efficiently execute deliveries.
That will help it support whatever electric contraptions may show up down the road as the delivery vehicles of the future, according to Jolley. “The vehicles can evolve over time, and we actually now have all of this infrastructure to support [them],” he said.
David Shultz is a freelance writer who lives in Santa Barbara, California. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Outside and Nautilus, among other publications.
On a Zoom call last week, Gene Nubla was explaining the name and origin story he gave “Nicky Nickels,” his Bored Ape NFT who will be a character in a forthcoming novel.
Nubla’s Bored Ape Yacht Club #6717 wears a leather vest and orange beanie hat, but the cartoon ape’s most distinctive feature is the silver coins covering his eyes. The 39-year-old Nubla—an associate vice president for a flower delivery service—imagined his Bored Ape as a member of a biker gang called the “Apes of Anarchy” who died during a botched cargo heist. Loved ones sometimes place silver dollars over the eyes of the dead during funerals, but Nicky’s family used plain old nickels, Nubla told dot.LA. That somehow barred the ape from properly entering the afterlife, rendering him undead.
It may not be the best ghost story to come out of Los Angeles, but Nicky will soon haunt the pages of a book written by bestselling author Neil Strauss, who has penned autobiographies for the likes of Marilyn Manson and Jenna Jameson. Nubla has licensed Nicky to an NFT storytelling project called Jenkins the Valet, which is backed by Creative Artists Agency and will see Strauss cobble together stories from various Bored Ape holders.
Nubla’s Bored Ape Yacht Club #6717, which he affectionately named "Nicky Nickels."Photo courtesy of Gene Nubla
“This goes into the philosophy of Web3—like, I can participate as an owner now,” said Nubla. “I'm in the door now, versus on the outside looking in and just watching the movies [and] paying the ticket.”
These days, there are scores of artists, startups and entertainment companies—as well as ordinary NFT holders—who are parlaying non-fungible tokens into commercialized intellectual property. Santa Monica-based Universal Music Group, one of the world’s largest record labels, has created a “metaverse group” consisting of four Bored Apes who ostensibly make music, while crypto exchange Coinbase is using Bored Apes as characters for a film trilogy. Talent agencies like WME and United Talent Agency, meanwhile, have added Bored Apes and other NFT characters to their client rosters.
These creative works are possible because blockchain firms like Yuga Labs, the company behind Bored Ape Yacht Club, have attached broad commercialization rights to NFTs, which are unique digital assets verified using blockchain technology. Granting those rights could boost the value of NFT collections by making them more culturally relevant, according to experts, though it remains to be seen whether such projects can appeal to audiences beyond NFT adopters.
A lot of legal questions remain, too, as actor and producer Seth Green just learned the hard way. Green is developing a hybrid live-action/animated comedy called “White Horse Tavern,” in which the creator’s own Bored Ape—whom Green affectionately named “Fred”—comes to life as a friendly neighborhood bartender. The project was almost sabotaged last month when a scammer duped Green in an online phishing scheme—stealing four of his NFTs, including Fred. Since Bored Ape NFTs come with a license to commercialize the art, Green may have momentarily lost the rights to produce the show (Fred has since returned home safely). The drama turned Green into a poster child for how sketchy the world of NFTs can still be—the “Wild West” of digital assets, as some observers have put it.
Ready for Primetime?
Jeremy Goldman, a Los Angeles attorney who leads the blockchain group at law firm Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz, credits companies like Yuga Labs for generating immense value for their NFT collections. The problem, as he sees it, are the collections’ relatively brief terms and conditions that don’t spell out what happens in certain situations, like when an NFT is stolen. That has the risk of killing projects and productions if investors or distributors are uncertain of the consequences.
“All of these NFT projects, including Bored Ape Yacht Club, are highly experimental and in some ways were never meant for primetime,” Goldman told dot.LA. “A lot of questions about the license are sort of unanswered.”
That hasn’t stopped some entertainment tech firms from sticking NFT avatars in their stories. L.A.-based Invisible Universe is developing an animated parody called “The R3al Metaverse,” which will include characters from five NFT collections. (Disclosure: dot.LA co-founder and executive chairman Spencer Rascoff is an investor in Invisible Universe).
Promotional art for the "The R3al Metaverse."Photo courtesy of Invisible Universe
The startup bought three NFTs and secured licenses for two more that fit well with the story, CEO Tricia Biggio told dot.LA. Just to be sure, Invisible Universe approached the creators behind the NFT projects, as well. While those organizations had varying views on using the IP, they all saw the value of Invisible Universe’s project, she noted.
“It was funny—some of them would be like, ‘Well, you actually don't have to run it by us,’” Biggio said.
In “The R3al Metaverse,” NFTs who live in the digital world come over to the real one after they’re cast in a reality TV show and move in together. The parody pokes fun at the debate around the value of NFTs, as well: In one episode, the characters stare at a painting and are confused by its lack of “real-world application” besides being a wall decoration. (“Like zero utility,” one observes, according to a storyboard of the scene.) Invisible Universe will release around 40 episodes of the program on social media platforms starting in late July, with each episode running between 45 and 90 seconds.
Who will watch a show about NFTs—which, for all of their recent hype, are still owned by just a tiny fraction of the population? Biggio said that the audience for “The R3al Metaverse” will primarily be holders of its featured NFT communities: Bored Ape Yacht Club, Cool Cats, Doodles, World of Women and Robotos, which collectively have roughly 50,000 tokens in circulation. That said, Biggio believes the show can build an audience outside the not-yet-mainstream NFT market and, in turn, boost the value of those collections.
“Because we aren't gating the content, we have a unique opportunity to onroad people into the Web3 space who enjoy the content, fall in love with the characters and want to be a part of the collaborative storytelling experience,” Biggio said.
‘A Unique Opportunity To Create Wealth’
At their most basic level, NFTs—like artwork at large—generate much of their value from their scarcity and cultural relevance. Yet companies like Yuga Labs have popularized the idea of giving NFT holders commercial rights as well, allowing Bored Ape holders to put their ape’s face on a t-shirt or other merchandise and sell it. That not only makes the NFT itself more lucrative, but may well make the entire collection more valuable as Bored Apes are plastered on storefronts or featured in films.
“By giving broad IP rights—either making them public domain or granting commercial rights to holders—you're increasing the chances, potentially, that these items are going to get out there and go viral and become culturally relevant, and therefore sought after,” said Goldman, the attorney.
Bill Starkov, a real estate developer who lives near Calabasas, “right by the Kardashians,” in his words, is the founder of another primate-inspired NFT project, Apocalyptic Apes. (The collection’s zombified primates look like scarier versions of Bored Apes.) Starkov said his team gave NFT holders the right to do “whatever you want” with the artwork—so long as they don’t use the Apocalyptic Apes brand name. “We have to make sure they use it properly enough and it's used to promote our project and our brand in a good way,” he explained.
Apocalyptic Apes have been featured on the shorts of mixed martial arts fighters. Photo courtesy of Bill Starkov
Apocalyptic Ape holders have placed their simians on hot sauce bottles, exercise equipment and sunglasses, he noted, while on the entertainment side, a car-racing game, comic books and movies depicting the apes are all in the works, too. Starkov, who goes by Fity.Eth online, has also partnered with Nicky Diamonds, the owner of clothing company Diamond Supply, on licensing deals with Ape holders to create merchandise. Those deals are generating tens of thousands of dollars for ape holders who collaborated with Diamond, he said.
“One thing that people are sleeping on is the understanding of IP rights,” Starkov said of some people in the NFT community. “They think it's a quick flip, but it's not. It's something long-term. It's something that's here to stay. It's a unique opportunity to create wealth.”
Nubla is among the NFT holders who have taken advantage of those IP rights. Speaking through an augmented reality filter on his computer that made him look like Nicky Nickels, Nubla said he’s earned some cash by allowing artists to make works based on his Bored Ape, including one artist who sells lapel pins bearing NFT art. A street painting of Nicky also adorns the side of a brick building in Brooklyn—part of a mural by the graffiti artist Masnah, who was paid for his work by NFT holders.
"Nicky Nickels" was featured in a Brooklyn street painting. Photo courtesy of Gene Nubla
When the Florida-based startup Tally Labs launched the Jenkins the Valet project last June, Nubla was one of the 69 lucky people to randomly mint a rare “Yacht” NFT. That allowed him to license his Bored Ape as a character in Strauss’ novel and receive a share of the book’s royalties. Nubla debated selling the Yacht NFT as its value reached six figures, but ultimately decided to keep it and build out Nicky’s IP “just to see where it goes.”
Nubla does see some risk in NFT collections decentralizing their IP; he noted that there isn’t much stopping another Bored Ape holder from using their NFT to promote ideas or views that others may disagree with or find offensive. But like a lot of people involved in the space, he’s enamored with the idea of Web3—a decentralized vision for the internet that runs on blockchain-powered applications.
“It'd be nice to be able to benefit off the royalties of anything that comes off this,” Nubla said of the Strauss novel, which is coming out this summer. “But I'm doing it mainly just for the vibes.”
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Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.