WoW Classic lead Brian Birmingham leaves in protest due to Activision management practice

He may have just taken one for his team.

Image via Blizzard Entertainment

If you play World of Warcraft Classic, you’ve likely heard his name before or seen his face. Brian Birmingham is—or should we say was—the lead software engineer for Blizzard’s WoW Classic games, but today he reportedly is no longer with the company after a kerfuffle with executives.

Bloomberg’s Jason Schreier reported on Jan. 23 that Birmingham claims to have been let go by Blizzard because of a moral stance he took regarding the company’s management practices.

“Stack ranking,” also referred to as a “vitality curve,” is a management practice that has managers evaluate employees based on a curve against one another. While Birmingham has reportedly been able to circumvent the practice in previous years, an internal email he wrote to staff (obtained by Bloomberg) suggested he has been forced by executives to lower his grading of some employees to meet a quota meant to help manifest the vitality curve.

“When team leads asked why we had to do this, World of Warcraft directors explained that while they did not agree, the reasons given by executive leadership were that it was important to squeeze the bottom-most performers as a way to make sure everybody continues to grow,” Birmingham said in the email to staff.

“This sort of policy encourages competition between employees, sabotage of one another’s work, a desire for people to find low-performing teams that they can be the best-performing worker on, and ultimately erodes trust and destroys creativity.”

Some of the benefits of using stack ranking include the fact that management can clearly see ways for employees to improve and recognize top-performing workers. It is a tactic that can be useful when a management team might think workers aren’t pushing themselves or are overly complacent. Noting the obvious potential pitfalls of the employee evaluation method, Birmingham doesn’t seem to believe his staff is suited for such a policy, and he appears to be concerned about the future of Blizzard if it continues such a practice.

“If this policy can be reversed, perhaps my Blizzard can still be saved, and if so I would love to continue working there,” Birmingham said in his email. “If this policy cannot be reversed, then the Blizzard Entertainment I want to work for doesn’t exist anymore, and I’ll have to find somewhere else to work.”

Update 3:30am CT: Brian Birmingham himself spoke on the subject on Twitter, confirming he’s no longer an employee of Blizzard and he’d happily return to the company if allowed. He also said he’d continue fighting against the stack-ranking policy from the inside.

The ex-Blizzard employee explained the stack-ranking policy is a directive that came from the ABK level, above Mike Ybarra. In this context, ABK refers to Activision Blizzard King, a parent company to three different companies—Activision Publishing, Blizzard Entertainment, and King.

Birmingham by no means believes Blizzard is to blame and instead thinks ABK as a parent company is incredibly toxic and continuously has a negative influence on Blizzard as ABK imposes minimum developing quota despite the employees’ objections.

The ex-Blizzard employee concluded that the email from the Bloomberg article is accurate, but he did not supply the information or speak to any member of the Bloomberg crew.