Content warning: This article contains quotes and sources to blog posts that are sexist, misogynistic, and racist in nature.
Daniel Z. Klein, a lead game designer on Apex Legends, announced yesterday that as of last Friday he is no longer working at Respawn. The announcement comes after a number of Twitter users shared a sexist rant he’d posted on a DeviantArt blog in 2007, causing many in the Apex community to express outrage and discomfort.
In the unearthed blog post, Klein wrote that women were irrational, said that XX were “moron chromosomes,” and that his readers shouldn’t pay attention to a woman’s online posts because “it’s just her vagina talking.” Other writing from this period shows Klein making a racist joke about refusing to feed Africans, with a punchline about African people’s lack of hygiene.
The discovery of Klein’s disturbing, years-old posts occurred the same week news surfaced of Activision-Blizzard being sued by the state of California, for rampant harassment and discrimination behind studio doors. Blizzard president J. Allen Brack has since stepped down to pursue “new opportunities.” Frances Townsend, the company’s executive vice president of corporate affairs, has stepped down as the sponsor of the ABK Women’s Network after sending an internal memo that dismissed the lawsuit’s claims and accounts of workplace culture. Unlike Brack, however, Townsend remains employed by the company.
Klein, who has been enthusiastically expressing solidarity with victims of the recent reckoning at Activision-Blizzard, admitted to writing the blogs and apologized in a tweet. “I hope it is obvious that I don’t believe these things anymore,” he wrote. Afterwards, Klein continued to post content about the Activision-Blizzard news, burying the apology under dozens of retweets about the Activision-Blizzard walkout and the stories of former employees.
The initial response from Respawn did little to reassure the community. Replying to the creator of a now-private YouTube video that discussed Klein’s comments, Ryan K. Rigney, who is the director of communications at Respawn, commented: “I don’t think anything from 2007 reflects on a person in 2021. People grow up.”
But not everyone at EA shares that generous attitude, and the egregious material in the blog post speaks for itself. When Fanbyte reached out to Respawn/EA for a response, an EA spokesperson said on July 29th: “The comments are disturbing, and we certainly don’t condone the point of view expressed. Our [human resources department] is aware and investigating.”
The following Friday, August 6th, Klein was let go.
On a phone call with Fanbyte, Klein continued to express regret about the blog post and sympathy with those who were hurt by it. “I once did say these extremely harmful, awful things,” he says. “I absolutely did. And at the same time, I’ve also worked on myself and to try and become a different person […] both of these things are true at the same time.”
Speaking of his actions back in 2007, he says, “I was actively someone who would hurt other people emotionally. Because of my own insecurities. Right? That is what you saw on display there. And it took me so long to even understand that this was a problem I had to fix. I don’t think there’s any apologies for that. I was just an awful person.”
In recent years, Klein has become an outspoken advocate for marginalized people in the world of Triple-A game development. He credits his spouse — who identifies as non-binary, queer, and disabled — for encouraging his growth.
During Klein’s tenure at Riot and in the wake of Kotaku’s 2018 report about the company’s culture of sexism, for example, he was vocal on social media about the toxic aspects of his workplace and the misogynist environment in the League of Legends community. Later, his support of a Riot-run PAX event for people who identified as female or non-binary led to an acrimonious Twitter exchange with fans, who considered the event discriminatory for not being open to everyone.
“I blew up at this,” he tells Fanbyte. “Getting fired from Riot for calling misogynist players ‘manbabies’…and for telling a concern troll to ‘fuck off and sea lion somewhere else’.”
Soon after, Klein — along with another colleague — was fired from Riot for violating their social media policy. Fanbyte reached out to Riot to confirm this, and a spokesperson for Riot did not dispute Klein’s story — though the company added it wasn’t their policy to talk about HR decisions or personnel matters.
In a Twitter thread at the time, Klein stated misogynist fans did not belong in the gaming community. “They’re not welcome here, they’re not welcome in gaming anymore,” he wrote. “To strive towards justice, we sometimes have to be harsh and exclusionary. If they want to be welcome, hey, they could try not being absolute assholes to women.”
Klein stands behind what he said, adding that, “we need to give marginalized groups more accommodations, not fewer, and when there are bad faith attempts to shut down reasonable accommodations, we have to speak up.”
Many people in the Apex Legends community were shocked and disgusted by Klein’s statements in the DeviantArt blog. Eric “Snip3down” Wrona, a pro Apex player for Team SoloMid FTX, tweeted: “This is disturbing on so many levels…Not only am I bothered by his response to it, but saying ‘I hope it’s obvious I don’t feel this way anymore’ with literally 0 follow up of why it should be obvious to ANYONE, does not absolve you.”
Tom “Tsquared” Taylor, an esports veteran and broadcaster for pro Apex, tweeted: “I know this won’t stand at Respawn. Expecting a statement in the next 24hrs because this is NOT what our community stands for. I’m all for personal growth but if you have this mindset as a 30yr old (even in 2007) – that’s concerning.”
A member of the community who uses the online alias Saku, and preferred to keep her real name private, told Fanbyte through a chat on Discord that, “Apex is a wonderfully supportive community. The people at Respawn have all been wonderful and lovely beyond compare.”
Though she is friendly with Apex developers, that feeling hasn’t extended to Klein. “When I started using Reddit more, I came across Klein’s posts more and more. Always, it was bickering with the community or defending not his work, but himself.” Saku says judging Klein’s conduct from 2007 is “difficult.”
“The words were from 14 years ago, but he was also 27 at the time,” she says. “[…] It’s clear based on how he speaks to players that his attitude towards people as a whole hasn’t changed […] Whether he cares or not, the interactions are a terrible representation of everything that Respawn is.”
But while Respawn prides itself on its lack of crunch and good work environment, it is by no means immune to the endemic sexism of the games industry. Brusque and off-color communication has been a problem at Respawn in the past. In 2019, Respawn CEO Vince Zampella apologized for comments made by his employees in a heated exchange with fans on Reddit, writing that “some of our folks crossed a line.” But Zampella also defended their right to “speak out” against “toxic” and “nasty” social media users.
Klein sees his social media interactions with players as a core part of his professional identity — that of an accessible game developer who communicates with the player base rather than someone who is remote, silent, and opaque. However, Saku describes his interactions with Apex players as mostly negative. “I know many people who quit the game because of his attitude,” she tells Fanbyte. “I wouldn’t even say he has a relationship with the community beyond an intent to antagonize people.”
While Klein wrote in his apology that he was, “embarrassed, sad, and angry at my younger self for saying this stuff,” the caustic tone of his DeviantArt post is recognizable in some of his more recent social media use. In addition to his sometimes combative relationship with League of Legends players, earlier this year, Klein responded to fans upset about balance changes in Apex by calling them “nerds” who “scream into the void.”
One of the moderators of a popular online Apex community, who preferred to remain anonymous, tells Fanbyte in a conversation on Discord that the Apex community has been particularly critical of both Klein’s work as a developer and social media use. “Frankly, a lot of the stuff [Klein] wrote was terrible,” they say. “Despite his best efforts, no matter the game he works on, the community ends up really not liking him.”
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At the same time, they “see a lot of people bring up his firing from Riot as a way to point out his flaws, and it’s a scenario which I think requires a really nuanced perspective. I think it points to a man who has at least tried to change from what he said in those blog posts.”
On the phone, Klein acknowledges his sometimes impolitic use of social media. “Some days, it’s hard,” he says. “Some days you just snap at someone and you go, ‘but they deserve to be snapped at,’ right? It takes a lot of effort to stop bad impulses from taking over. And all I can say is that I’ve made progress for sure.”
Reflecting on his posts from 2007, he emphasizes, “I do not even remotely believe these things anymore, if I ever believed them. It was this edge-lordy thing of like, ‘oooh, I want to say this because it’s gonna get a reaction’, not because I had a deep ingrained belief in these things. But that doesn’t excuse it or doesn’t make a difference. The impact is the same. I harmed people.”
“It’s not for me to say if I’ve changed,” he says. “It’s for other people to say.”