The Adulation of Bobby Kotick

The usually reticent Activision Blizzard CEO calls the shots in the latest issue of Variety.

Hi, and welcome back to The Jacob Wolf Report. I’m Jacob Wolf, a former ESPN, award-winning investigative journalist and now the CEO of media company Overcome, who over the past decade has covered gaming and esports, the power players driving those industries, and some of the biggest scandals shaking them up.

Today, we’re discussing Bobby Kotick, the ultra-powerful CEO of Activision Blizzard. Kotick’s one of gaming’s most controversial figures and yet, this week, he received some very complimentary coverage in a big Hollywood trade magazine. We also highlight some important stories happening in gaming and esports.

As Microsoft’s $68.7 billion acquisition of game publisher Activision Blizzard works to clear regulatory hurdles both domestic and abroad, one figure sits front and center in the maelstrom: Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick.

Since news of the record-setting deal for gaming emerged in January 2022, Kotick has kept an unusually low profile, limiting his access to journalists and letting his Microsoft counterpart, industry beloved everyman and Xbox lead Phil Spencer, take the public-facing reigns. But every now and then, over the past 18 months, Kotick has emerged from the shadows for the odd TV appearance or digital media interview.

Now, he’s gracing the cover of Variety Magazine.

In a new profile, aptly titled “Modern Warfare,” a nod to the Call of Duty series that kingmade Activision Blizzard in the late aughts and grossed billions in sales this last fall, Kotick granted unprecedented access to the magazine’s co-editor-in-chief. The result? A favorable, if not complimentary, take on one of the gaming industry’s most controversial figures.

Over the past 18 months, since the Microsoft–Activision Blizzard deal came to terms, the narrative around Kotick has mostly been negative, in part due to actions such as union busting and repeated deflection of legitimately founded issues of sexual harassment by multiple regulating bodies within the game publisher he runs.

The Variety piece gives Kotick a unique voice, letting him dismiss those allegations and blame the unions for much of the company’s inherent workplace disagreements. It also uses Kotick’s two-decade-long run as Activision Blizzard’s top executive and visionary to seemingly outweigh the severity of what is presently happening within the company.

Kotick is a shrewd businessman, and to his credit, he has been among a small number of senior executives who’ve led the charge taking gaming from a niche hobby to the most dominant form of entertainment. But Kotick is also quite Trumpian. He flatters reporters, but then attacks. He routinely swats away negative media coverage. And he surrounds himself with yes men and women who do not often disagree with him.

When I interviewed Kotick in December 2017, he spent the first 20 or so minutes of our blocked half-hour conversation asking me about my personal life and journey—cordial, sure, but also slightly invasive. Every interview I did for that eventual summer 2018 story, from New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and his son Jonathan to endemic esports team owners, illustrated one thing: Bobby Kotick knows how to talk the talk.

The Variety piece both flatters Kotick and gives him an out, letting him rebut damaging reporting from The Wall Street Journal in November 2021.

The WSJ piece alleged that Kotick knew of systematic sexual abuse issues within Activision Blizzard and also left a voicemail in which he threatened to have his then assistant killed. In the Variety story, Kotick says the media has painted an unfair, inaccurate and “inflammatory” narrative around Activision Blizzard and that the blame lays on the hands of workers unionizing within his company. Kotick says that regulators such as the California Civil Rights Division have gotten it wrong and that forthcoming transparency reports will set him—and the company—free.

Here’s a quote from high up in the story:

The executive says he has been both humbled and outraged by what he considers malicious distortions about the company that he has taken to great heights over 32 years. He makes no apologies for Acti­vision or its culture. He says that the company is preparing to release a slew of data drawn from the EEOC investigation that he hopes will combat the perception that Activision was run as a ‘frat house.’

The rest of the story goes on to complement, both directly and via third-party sources, Kotick’s track record of driving Activision to new financial heights. That much is true. Bobby Kotick is a good executive for shareholders’ wallets. But that’s not the issue at hand here.

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The issue is that, for some time, workers at Activision Blizzard have allegedly faced gender discrimination and sexual harassment, and instead of being an honest, apologetic boss, Kotick has hired sycophants to manage the fallout. One even let him ghostwrite her statement about her short time at Activision Blizzard and how she hadn’t personally faced any gender discrimination.

It’s not lost on me that since the Microsoft–Activision Blizzard deal was announced in January 2022, Kotick has limited his press exposure significantly, and mainly to non-endemic reporters and TV hosts who aren’t connected to some of the victims of alleged sexual harassment and union-busting within the company. His one notable endemic interview is with GamesBeat reporter Dean Takahashi, a notorious softballer called when a powerful person in gaming needs some crowd cover. The Variety piece is no different.

If all the complaints about Kotick and his senior leadership’s character were a farce, it’d be confounding why then the body behind many of Activision Blizzard’s newly-formed labor unions are championing regulators to push the Microsoft deal through. Microsoft, many of those groups believe, will be a much fairer adversary at the negotiating table. Microsoft has already recognized a union formed by some of the quality assurance (QA) testers at one of its game studios, and consummated a labor neutrality agreement to recognize future unionizing bodies.

Activision Blizzard has done the opposite. The National Labor Rights Board found in October that Activision Blizzard illegally withheld raises from unionizing QA workers at Raven Software, one of the developers behind Call of Duty, after it couldn’t stop those workers from speaking for the entire studio. Another group of developers behind Diablo also accused Activision Blizzard of union busting.

That’s why the Communications Workers of America is publicly backing the Microsoft acquisition of Activision Blizzard.

“Microsoft’s binding commitments will give employees a seat at the table and ensure that the acquisition of Activision Blizzard benefits the company’s workers and the broader video game labor market,” CWA president Chris Shelton said in a press release in June 2022.

Kotick’s contract as Activision Blizzard’s CEO runs through March 2024. It’s expected he’ll stay on in the short term should the Microsoft deal go through, to help with the transition. When his time is up, he’ll get a golden parachute—with approximately $15 million in severance pay, should Microsoft terminate him before that March 2024 expiration, as previously reported by the WSJ, and another $619 million in a stock buyout at Microsoft’s agreed sale price.

Surely if the media are “unfair,” he can wipe those tears with dollars.

Around the Industry

  • “Riot delays, and threatens to cancel, League of Legends’ NA esports season amid player walkout” (Nicole Carpenter, Polygon)

    • The League of Legends Championship Series Players Association (LCPSA) voted on Sunday to walk out after Riot Games, the developer of League, removed a manadate for each pro team to field a development team.

    • With the news, seven pro teams dropped their teams, leaving roughly 35 players unemployed, in addition to some support staff.

    • The walkout has put Riot and the LCSPA at severe odds. But negotiations are now “productive” as of Thursday night, LCSPA executive director Phil Aram told former Washington Post gaming editor Mikhail Klimentov.

  • “Inside the Making of Redfall, Xbox’s Latest Misfire” (Jason Schreier, Bloomberg)

    • Released in early May, Redfall, a new first-person shooter from Arkane, the developer of the popular Dishonored series, faced immense criticism for bad and buggy gameplay.

    • Xbox head Spencer acknowledged the mishap in an interview with Kinda Funny shortly after the game’s release. “There’s nothing that’s more difficult for me than disappointing the Xbox community,” he said.

    • In the latest from Schreier, gaming’s most notable reporter, he breaks down how it all went wrong at Arkane.

  • “Massive FaZe Clan Drama Over Stranger Things Actor Turns Even Uglier” (Ethan Gach, Kotaku)

    • I’m reluctant to even cover this news, because it outright sucks.

    • To catch you up: FaZe Clan, the historically male-dominated brand known for its crudeness and toxicity toward women, signed Stranger Things actor and Twitch streamer Grace Van Dien on May 25.

    • In reaction, one of the company’s original owners, Nordan “Rain” Shat, spoke out and attacked the organization—accusing current leadership of mismanagement and reckless spending, and one of his fellow OGs of “selling out” the company.

    • After online back-and-forth, with Shat making misogynistic comments about Van Dien and her responding with his history of drug abuse, the two met up and filmed a video that quickly went awry and ended with her in tears.

    • Gach does a good job summing up what has ultimately been a huge mess in the creator economy the past week.

That’s it for this edition of The Jacob Wolf Report. Thank you for reading. This post is public so feel free to share it.