A computer image of a woman with her hands raised up, looking victorious, emerging from a flame
Breaking down walls: Women such as Debbie Bestwick are aiming to shift the perception of leadership in a male dominated sector © Erik Carter/Tom Stockill

The end of this year sees Debbie Bestwick step down as the chief executive of Team17, the UK-based video games developer and publisher. When she does, it will bring to a close a career spanning more than 30 years running the £500mn company best known for the hit titles Worms and Overcooked.

It will also deprive the $200bn video games industry of its longest-serving female CEO — and one of the few women running a public company in the sector, at a time when discrimination and abuse towards women remains widespread, both inside gaming companies and among players.

“One of the hardest things being a woman in games, and probably in business, is we do have to prove ourselves much harder — much, much harder,” Bestwick says. “We are put on a much higher pedestal. It adds extra pressure on your shoulders.”

After Hollywood’s #MeToo moment in the late 2010s, the games industry has in the past two years been roiled by allegations of toxic environments for women at some of its biggest companies, including Activision Blizzard, Ubisoft and Riot Games.

Nonetheless, Bestwick and other female games executives, such as President of EA Entertainment, Technology & Central Development, Laura Miele, insist that the status of women in the industry is slowly improving. While the chief executive role is still proving elusive for many, more women are reaching senior management positions and boardrooms, they argue. 

“I see change happening at the leadership layers,” says Miele, in contrast to earlier in her 27-year career in games where she was “oftentimes the only woman in the room”. “It was lonely . . . But my passion and excitement about the potential and future of games carried me through.”

Laura Miele created an “inclusion framework” for creative leaders as COO of EA © Cayce Clifford

Bestwick says the contrast between the industry she joined in the 1990s and the industry now is “night and day”, in terms of how women are treated. But she adds: “The day we say we’ve done enough [to make women feel safe] is the day we fail.”

When Team17 went public in 2018, Bestwick was one of just a handful of women running companies on the London Stock Exchange. But that wasn’t the only thing that marked her out. “Let’s be honest, I am more quirky than most people,” she says, reflecting on her unusual path to the top of one of the UK’s most enduring independent games businesses. 

Bestwick began her career in games as a teenager before even finishing her A-level examinations at school.

“I love video games,” she says, recalling how Pac-Man and Space Invaders, then later Football Manager on the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, piqued her “natural curiosity”. “But I absolutely love the business of video games,” she adds, having read books by businessman and financier James Goldsmith and Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson, as a teenager.

She took IT and business studies at A-level for a year, before a summer job at a local independent games shop in Nottingham quickly turned into a full-time role. At 17, she packed her clothes in a bin bag and moved out of her family home on a council estate, where five children shared three bedrooms. “I was a survivor,” she recalls.

Within months of dropping out of school, she was running the store. Then, she helped to sell the business to Microbyte, a retail chain, where she soon became a sales manager.

“It was the best experience I had in my life,” she says now of her time at Microbyte. “A lot of success I have today is thanks to that retail experience . . . appreciating the importance of knowing your customers.”

Microbyte’s main owner, Michael Robinson, also owned a games publisher called 17-Bit Software, whose titles were distributed through his stores. In 1990, in the heyday of the Commodore Amiga computer, Robinson merged the publisher with a small software developer called Team 7 to create Team17, giving Bestwick and 17-Bit’s Martin Brown a 15 per cent stake each to run the new venture.

Commodore Amiga 2000 PC from 1980s, which includes a CRT monitor, CPU and mouse
In the early to mid-1990s, video games were loaded on to computers such as the Amiga 2000 using a floppy disk © Soundsnap/Getty Images/iStockphoto
The popularity of the Worms franchise expanded to handheld platforms including the Game Boy Color © Lenscap/ArcadeImages/Alamy Stock Photo

The name Team17 was derived from the 16-bit chip that powered the personal computers of the time. “We were one bit better than the rest,” Bestwick explains.

Team17 found success in the Amiga market, but nothing prepared the company’s young management team for the phenomenon of Worms in 1995. The combination of cartoon characters, inventive weaponry and chaotic competitive gameplay made Worms a big hit, selling millions of copies in its first year and creating a franchise that has remained popular for more than 25 years.

The original Amiga Worms was one of the first multiplayer games allowing friends or siblings to compete using the same home computer. Taking turns, rival teams of tiny militarised invertebrates fire machine guns, grenades and bazookas at each other until their opponents are blown off the map — all infused with a very British strain of anarchic humour. “Worms changed my life overnight,” says Bestwick. “We went from working with lots of different developers to being ‘the Worms company’.” 

Worms’ breakout also coincided with the birth of Bestwick’s daughter. “I was back at work two weeks after she was born,” she says, without enthusiasm.

The game’s success came with a “double edge” for the company too, she adds. Most of Team17’s management were in their early 20s. “We were kids,” she says. “If you want to know what people are like, look at how they manage success . . . We weren’t prepared for it. A lot of money was wasted.”

For the next 15 years, according to Bestwick, Team17 was run “pretty much as a lifestyle business”, investing in several games that never saw the light of day and with growth “yo-yoing” as it churned out Worms sequels and remakes.

In 2009, after the birth of her son prompted her to take stock of what she called a “painful” few years professionally, Bestwick launched a management buyout, paying £4.5mn in 2010 for Robinson and Brown’s stakes.

It turned out to be a good moment for Team17 to transform itself. Development tools such as Unreal Engine and Unity were making it easier to create games. Digital storefronts, from the iPhone’s App Store to Xbox Live Arcade, were accelerating distribution. After decades as a niche form of entertainment, gaming was starting to hit the mainstream.

An ipad shows  the Worms video game
‘Worms’ sold in its millions when released in 1995

Team17 began to return to its pre-Worms roots by publishing games by other developers, as well as those it had made itself. Bestwick says she modelled the approach on the music and film industry’s ability to assemble the right support team, through both staff and contractors, behind key talent, such as the former roofer who created 2015’s indie gaming hit, The Escapists.

By the time Team17 floated on London’s junior Aim market in 2018, its revenues had grown to £29.6mn, with Worms generating an average of £5mn a year between 2009 and 2017. The initial public offering valued Team17 at £217mn, while Bestwick netted almost £27mn by selling half of what was then a 44 per cent stake in the business.

Today, her stake is worth more than £100mn, but Bestwick insists she “hasn’t spent any” of her IPO proceeds. “I haven’t sold a single share since the day we floated. The most expensive thing I’ve bought in the past five years is a second-hand car,” she says.

That attitude, however, did not stop complaints from some of Team17’s junior staff in certain divisions about “terrible” pay and demanding working conditions, which surfaced in the games industry publication Eurogamer last year. The company has stated that its salaries are “competitive” and benchmarked against industry peers. Bestwick says any reported issues have been “fully investigated”.

Bestwick’s total remuneration rose 30 per cent last year to £858,000, including a £392,000 annual bonus. Still, she says, “money was never my driver. I’ve never flown business class . . . I’ve lived a non-materialistic life.”

With Team17 one of a dwindling number of tech companies listed in London, Bestwick argues that UK plc needs a “different approach” to remuneration if more founders are to be persuaded not to decamp to the US. “If you want to keep the best entrepreneurs here in the UK, you have to incentivise them.”

Bestwick says she plans to retain a “significant” shareholding in Team17 after she steps down at the end of 2023, when she will be succeeded by Steve Bell, former CEO of marketing agency Iris. She says her two children have made “huge sacrifices”, especially over the past decade, and hopes to spend more time travelling with her teenage son — an avid gamer — next year.

She also plans to continue mentoring and chairing the company’s women’s leadership group.

In the UK, a 2022 “census” by industry body Ukie found that only 30 per cent of the overall gaming workforce is female, with another 3 per cent identifying as non-binary — a marginal improvement on 2020. 

A screencap of a video game featuring women football players
EA Sports’ Fifa 23 series now includes Barclays Women’s SuperLeague © EA

At EA, only four of its 15-person top executive team are women, mirroring the wider industry’s demographics. Nonetheless, its Miele believes that progress is being made: half of her own leadership team is female, as is that of the chief technology officer, Marija Radulovic-Nastic, who is one of Silicon Valley’s few females in that role.

“It takes years to change a [company] culture and establish safety,” says Miele. EA’s Women’s Ultimate Team ERG, a mentoring and education programme, now has more than 2,000 members. “I believe that having a sense of belonging, safety and community within the entire industry is important.”

Miele also believes changing how women are portrayed in games themselves is vital. At EA’s development studios, she created an “inclusion framework” for creative leaders to help ensure games had diversity of characters and balanced dialogue. “It was really a carrot and not a stick,” she says. “If it were for me to be directional or prescriptive, I don’t believe you would end up with the best outcome.”

Despite Bestwick’s and Miele’s optimism about the future of women in gaming, the number of female CEOs in the industry has in fact declined in the five years since Team17 went public, after Ebba Ljungerud and Kati Levoranta left the top jobs at Paradox Interactive and Angry Birds creator Rovio respectively. Bestwick says this is “concerning”.

“If you want change, change has to come at the top,” she says, “and I do think there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done at that level.”

This article is part of FT Wealth, a section providing in-depth coverage of philanthropy, entrepreneurs, family offices, as well as alternative and impact investment

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