Inside Blizzard Developers’ Infamous Bill ‘Cosby Suite’

Inside Blizzard Developers’ Infamous Bill ‘Cosby Suite’
Former World of Warcraft developer Alex Afrasiabi and other current and former Blizzard developers allegedly posing with a portrait of Bill Cosby at BlizzCon 2013. (Screenshot: Kotaku)

Since news broke last week of widespread allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination at Activision Blizzard via a legal complaint from the state of California, many top male developers there, both current and former, have responded with shock and dismay.

But while many claim they weren’t aware of the problematic “frat boy culture” leading to accusations of sexual harassment and assault at the hands of male Blizzard employees, comments and images shared on social media paint a different picture. Based on photographs and screenshots of Facebook posts obtained by Kotaku, it’s clear that people beyond Alex Afrasiabi — the man named in the lawsuit, and a long-time World of Warcraft developer — were aware of the “Cosby Suite” mentioned in the lawsuit. That was apparently a nickname for Afrasiabi’s BlizzCon 2013 hotel room, and seemingly a reference to the name of previously convicted rapist Bill Cosby.

Afrasiabi worked on World of Warcraft beginning in 2004, designed some of its biggest quests, and eventually became a creative director on the 2016 Legion and 2018 Battle for Azeroth expansions. He is also the only person, outside of Blizzard President J. Allen Brack, outright named in the lawsuit — a fact that’s made it easy for many to try and distance themselves from Afrasiabi’s actions.

“During a company event (an annual convention called Blizz Con [sic]) Afrasiabi would hit on female employees, telling him [sic] he wanted to marry them, attempting to kiss them, and putting his arms around them,” the complaint reads. “This was in plain view of other male employees, including supervisors, who had to intervene and pull him off female employees. Afrasiabi was so known to engage in harassment of females that his suite was nicknamed the ‘Crosby Suite’ [sic] after alleged rapist Bill Crosby [sic].”

But the “Cosby Suite” was more than just a nickname or a joke. Based on images and comments Afrasiabi posted on his Facebook supplied to Kotaku by a former developer at Blizzard, it was reportedly a booze-filled meeting place where many, including Afrasiabi, would pose with an actual portrait of Bill Cosby while smiling. It was also a hot spot for informal networking at BlizzCon, three sources told Kotaku, where people looking to make inroads at the company would go to meet and hangout with some of its top designers.

Screenshot: Kotaku Screenshot: Kotaku

Some faces in the images have been obscured because Kotaku was either unable to immediately identify them or could not reach out for comment in time for publication.

Afrasiabi did not respond to Kotaku by press time, and has deleted most of his social media presence. But Afrasiabi can clearly be seen in a number of pictures, surrounded by a variety of unidentified people sitting on a bed. The captions on the screenshots suggest the album hails from gatherings held for BlizzCon 2013, in a hotel room that was repeatedly referred to as the “Cosby Suite” in comments. The captions and comments are both written by and refer by name to other Blizzard employees, the pictures show. One ex-Blizzard source familiar with the people presented in the pictures identified an HR representative as one of the Blizzard employees present in the hotel room.

Another image from the same Facebook album shows a screenshot of a 2013 group chat called the “Blizzcon Cosby Crew.” In it, former Blizzard designer David Kosak writes, “I am gathering the hot chixx for the Coz.”

“Bring em,” replies Afrasiabi. “You can’t marry ALL of them Alex,” Kosak writes. “I can, I’m middle eastern,” responds Afrasiabi. Jesse McCree, currently a lead game designer at Blizzard, then writes, “You misspelled fuck.”

Cory Stockton, currently a lead game designer at Blizzard, and Greg Street, former Blizzard developer currently working on a new MMO at Riot Games, were also present in the chat. The chat was provided as a series of screenshots depicting a wide array of Facebook posts by Afrasiabi, all under a 2013 photo album. The album contained a picture exclusively dedicated to the amount of alcohol procured in “preparation” for the Cosby suite, according to the captions. The album showcases the large, framed Cosby photo from a variety of angles, held by a number of different people.

“Possibly the greatest group chat in the history of mankind,” Stockton wrote in a Facebook comment at the time, based on the screenshot.

Stockton and McCree did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Street and Kosak declined to comment.

Screenshot: Kotaku Screenshot: Kotaku

By 2013 there were already multiple allegations of sexual assault against Cosby, even if a conviction, which was later overturned on a technicality, wouldn’t come until 2018. According to one source with knowledge of the hotel room, the “Cosby Suite” name was a play on the comedian’s iconic ugly sweaters, and didn’t have any sexual connotation — at least, not when the joke began. Instead, they suggest, the running joke was that the rooms in question looked dated, like the sweater.

One source said they were told it was a reference to an ugly boardroom room back at Blizzard’s main office, which reportedly had similar patterns to the sweater. Another said they understood it to be a reference to an ugly hotel room during a different gaming conference. But in all pictures of the 2013 BlizzCon hotel room reviewed by Kotaku, the walls were largely white and blank and the decor was nondescript. The rug visible in some of the photographs does have a pattern, but it looks nothing like the sweaters in the framed picture everyone is holding.

Another ex-Blizzard source pushed back on claims the “Cosby Suite” was a joke about ugly boardrooms or sweaters, noting that when Blizzard moved to its new Irvine, Californai campus in 2008, the office had been freshly painted and, to their knowledge, there was no infamous ugly boardroom.

Moreover, regardless of the source of the joke, many of the captions and comments posted on the 2013 Cosby Suite album are sexual in nature. During discussions with Kotaku, sources who suggested that the joke was an innocent play on an infamous room somewhere else also insisted that, despite this apparent widespread notoriety that was memorable enough to commemorate with a framed picture, they did not know the room belonged to Afrasiabi specifically.

Two other former Blizzard developers told Kotaku that when they heard about the “Cosby Suite” through whisper networks they clearly interpreted it as a reference to the allegations against him.

In one image procured by Kotaku, a group of women are sitting on a bed in the room with the Cosby portrait. One of the women appears to have a hand on another’s breast, which is cheered on by the men in the comments. The images procured by Kotaku, and two sources with knowledge of Afrasiabi’s alleged predatory behaviour, Cosby’s reputation was apparently the point of why the group of men gathered around his picture in the photos.

“It was such a boys club that creating something like the ‘Cosby Suite’ was seen as funny,” one source told Kotaku. “Only you could get an efficy laid, Alex [Afrasiabi],” reads one of the Facebook comments on the picture. “#CozApproved,” reads another written by Kosak.

However, one source told Kotaku that Kosak was one of the few people who intervened in the past when another Blizzard developer was sexually harassing them.

The “Cosby Suite” and “Blizzcon Cosby Crew” chat also call into question recent statements by current and former high-ranking Blizzard developers. While Street recently apologised for a sexist panel response to a World of Warcraft fan at Blizzcon 2010, he did not give any public indication that he was aware of or involved in something like the “Cosby Suite,” despite it being publicly mentioned in California’s current lawsuit.

Afrasiabi mysteriously left the company sometime last year, without an official announcement by Activision Blizzard. Up until the filing of the lawsuit becoming public, many of his contributions to the game persisted, including multiple non-player characters and items that reference his name. After some fans demanded that references to him be removed, the World of Warcraft team said on Tuesday night that inappropriate references would soon be pulled from the game. While Blizzard did not specify what, exactly, is going to be axed, the post mentions the “brave women” who have come forward to share their stories following the lawsuit.

“An employee brought these 2013 events to our attention in June 2020,” a spokesperson for Activision Blizzard told Kotaku when asked about the “Cosby Suite” images and allegations against Afrasiabi. “We immediately conducted our own investigation and took corrective action. At the time of the report, we had already conducted a separate investigation of Alex Afrasiabi and terminated him for his misconduct in his treatment of other employees.

Last week, current Blizzard president J. Allen Brack called the allegations in the legal complaint “troubling” in an email to staff, but ignored the fact that he was also named in it for allegedly failing to sanction Afrasiabi for allegedly sexually harassing female coworkers. Brack also hosted a BlizzCon developer panel in 2010 alongside Afrasiabi and others in which Afrasiabi made sexist remarks to a fan in the audience who had questioned the “Victoria’s Secret catalogue” appearance of World of Warcraft’s female characters.

Screenshot: Kotaku Screenshot: Kotaku

When the news of the lawsuit first broke, Activision Blizzard issued a statement largely denying regulators’ framing of the allegations as “distorted, and in many cases false, descriptions of Blizzard’s past,” and that past claims of misconduct had already been addressed. That statement, and recent comments by Brack and other Activision Blizzard leaders, have many current and former developers feeling like the company is at best in denial, or at worst intentionally seeking to obfuscate the truth and shirk responsibility for how people who work there are treated.

As a result, over a quarter of Activision Blizzard’s current staff, as well as many former employees, have signed on to an open letter rebuking the company’s current handling of the allegations against it. Many are also planning a walkout on July 28 in support of demands like an end to mandatory arbitration agreements, transparency around compensation, and more diverse hiring. Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick announced last night that the company’s previous statements had been “tone deaf” and pledged to make some changes to the company going forward, including investigating all managers currently at the company to see whether they ever impeded “the integrity of our processes for evaluating claims.”

“You have to be willing to look at the ugly side of things in order to get better,” one former Blizzard developer told Kotaku. “Denials aren’t going to help.”

Any current or former Activision Blizzard developers who want to talk about their experiences at the company or share other information about it can reach Kotaku at [email protected], or the author of this report securely over email at [email protected].

Comments

  • Good to see someone kept some receipts. I expect there’ll be more. This is what it means that there’s a problem with the company/industry culture, not ‘just a few bad apples,’ spoiling the barrel.

    If they thought they were doing something wrong, they’d have hidden it. They didn’t think they were doing anything wrong. That’s what a culture of abuse and harassment does: it normalises the shit behaviour and signals clearly that at least in that environment, the unacceptable behaviour is in fact accepted, or worse.

    You can’t fix that with ‘verbal counselling’ or annual sensitivity training workshops. Culture starts at the top. They can’t fire a few expendable middle managers and see a change.

  • Men really are the worst. I used to work in an environment like that, every single moment was embarrassing. All I could do to fight it was to actively refuse to be part of it, at the cost of my own advancement. At least I could sleep at night, be happy in my job, and being able to look the woman I worked with in the eye and not be known as ‘that’. Withing time the amount of dinosaurs in my work place was replaced by function adults, and the remnants of that culture was turfed on the ear.

    That was ten years ago, its depressing to think workplaces and the patheticness of those type of men still rule some work places.

    • Don’t kid yourself, women say similar things. Call out toxic behaviour regardless of gender/race or remain silent. Actually, it sounds like all you did when the opportunity to stand against that behaviour presented itself was remain silent.

      • I have to believe this post is satire. Do some woman sometimes say things and act a little poorly, of course but weighed against the sheer scale of misogyny they have face and CONTINUE to face, the whole over is absolutely nothing compared. No I have no idea why you think ‘well woman do it too’ is anyway a defense for such widespread institutional sexism but I think it has way more to say about you, that them.

        And no, I did not remain silent, far far from it.

        • I’ve been to parties with female friends who got smashed and promptly sexually harassed anyone with a penis who walked past (who are no longer friends, I’ll add). That’s well beyond “a little poorly” and is demeaning that people still think we’re angels purely because we’re 51% of the population who happened to be born with a vagina. To pretend that the behaviour doesn’t exist widely among women, when arguably the worst sexual harassment I’ve experienced from from a bisexual woman who was convinced that she could “fix” me, is brazen ignorance of reality. Men and women alike can be massive, foaming at the mouth arseholes and sex is not a mystical barrier to entry. The difference is that men are far less likely to discuss it happening to them than women, which distorts reporting.

          In an ideal world, everyone would come forward and talk about it, but that’s not how humans are wired. Sexism in all forms is bad and throwing in the word “institutional” is irrelevant when scumbags and those hiding said scumbags should be dealt with harshly regardless of the nature of the spread or their sex. Pretending that sexual harassment from one sex is worse than the other only insults victims and nothing else, since it’s traumatic and causes damage to the victim anyway. It’s much more productive to catch and punish everyone involved and call it a day.

        • Never said it was a defence, simply calling you out on your hypocrisy. It is evident you harp on so much here to make up for your silence when it actually could have made a difference. We get it, you hate that you a male. It’s current year, go fix that.

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