Bobby Kotick is a weasel of the highest order. And while he may finally be facing a reckoning for some of his actions as CEO of Activision Blizzard, it’s been a long time coming.
Kotick has spent three decades at the top of Activision, now Activision Blizzard, in a tenure that has consistently proven evil and exploitative. New reports say that Kotick has been more than happy to ignore systemic issues, especially the abuse suffered by its female employees, as long as it didn’t affect the company’s bottom line. We now also know that Kotick threatened to kill an assistant via voicemail, and that he allegedly fired a flight attendant on his private jet after she reported being sexually harassed by the pilot.
But these recent allegations are predated by numerous, equally grim reports that illustrate the actual human cost of those profits, if not Kotick’s leadership overall. While the business world is happy to offer Kotick unending praise for transforming a debt-ridden failure to the largest, most profitable company in the video game industry, reports from last year revealed that underpaid employees at Blizzard were known to share tips on how to skip meals and use the company’s free coffee to quell their appetites. These workers were staving off hunger while also working at a company that was home to the United States’ highest-paid chief executive.
Kotick’s notoriety among video game fans can be traced back to a late 2009 presentation at the Deutsche Bank Securities Technology Conference, where he took pride in his desire to “take all the fun out of making video games” and his ability to cultivate a “culture of thrift” at Activision Blizzard. The perceived ruthlessness painted a picture of a man who either did not understand or did not care about the industry lining his pockets. Back then, there was concern among fans about Kotick having more influence on game development than the people who actually made them.
“Thrift” in this instance didn’t extend to Kotick, of course, whose base salary increased by over $200,000 from 2008 to 2009. And he’s continued to rake in larger and larger payouts ever since, even as Activision Blizzard experienced periods of massive layoffs. More recently, Kotick was poised to make close to $200 million earlier this year due to a pandemic-adjacent rise in the company’s stock while at the same time Activision Blizzard was sending pink slips to hundreds of employees across various departments.
Of course, Kotick’s exploitation isn’t just confined to Activision Blizzard proper. The ominously named internal initiative known as Project Icebreaker saw his company also make a desperate attempt to wrest control of the Call of Duty series from its creators in 2009.
When former Infinity Ward executives Vince Zampella and Jason West negotiated lucrative contracts for themselves and their studio on the back of Call of Duty’s success, Kotick made sure to include a clause that ownership of the franchise would shift to Activision should the two leads be fired. Work then began immediately after to “dig up dirt” on Zampella and West, the tensions surrounding which resulted in their removal from Infinity Ward for a supposed breach of contract. Zampella and West then sued Activision for wrongful termination, prompting a countersuit from Activision for attempting to “hijack” the company’s assets.
While this was all eventually settled out of court, several of Zampella and West’s Infinity Ward colleagues jumped ship for a new venture known today as Respawn Entertainment.
“It does sort of sour you on the industry,” West told Vanity Fair in 2013 as Respawn worked to get Titanfall out the door. “It’s tough. If we can’t get treated well, what possible chance does a newcomer have? How do they prevent themselves from being strong-armed by the guys with the money? I wish I had the answer to that question, but I don’t.”
A year after the Project Icebreaker plans went public, Kotick found himself in a public war of words with Double Fine Productions’ Tim Schafer, who criticized the executive’s focus on making shareholders happy. Kotick shot back, saying that during the development of Brütal Legend—which was originally in production at former Activision owner Vivendi before moving to EA—Schafer “was late, he missed every milestone, the game was not a particularly good game.” This was all despite Activision going through the trouble of suing Double Fine when it managed to find a new publisher for Brütal Legend.
Kotick’s acumen for personal enrichment was perhaps displayed best in 2013 during Activision’s restructuring with its then-majority stakeholder, Vivendi. Kotick and chairman of the board Brian Kelly engineered the deal in such a way that a separate, Cayman Islands-based shell company they established received Vivendi’s shares rather than Activision itself, giving the two men a massive controlling stake in Activision Blizzard. This scheme saw Kotick and Kelly successfully sued by a group of the company’s shareholders to the tune of $275 million, the largest settlement of its kind at the time.
And how has Kotick utilized this money and power? By throwing support behind right-wing politicians, of course.
While Kotick, a self-described libertarian, has dallied with centrists like Hillary Clinton, Cory Gardner, and Kamala Harris, his biggest contributions often go to the most vile ghouls in American politics. Kentucky senator Mitch McConnell, for instance, received Kotick’s support even as the politician propped up Donald Trump’s far-right, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ+ agenda. So did Paul Ryan, the former Wisconsin rep and vice-presidential candidate who made it his life’s mission to defund institutions like Medicare and Medicaid, which would devastate this country’s most vulnerable citizens.
Not only should Kotick resign, but he should have resigned years ago. The world has become so desensitized to the everyday evil being done in the name of capitalism that it takes something as heinous as ignoring the constant sexual assaults happening under your watch to remind everyone of the true costs of Activision’s success. Kotick is exploitation made flesh and for that he is handsomely rewarded, both with immense financial compensation and a seat at the table in so-called “polite” society.
Sadly, what we commoners think of Kotick is of no concern to him, Activision’s board members, or even a vast swath of the company’s shareholders. The people at Activision Blizzard who could feasibly remove Kotick are sticking by the slimy executive, probably because they’re all old friends and just as shitty as he is. Being in convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein’s contact book, as Kotick and board member Casey Wasserman both are, must inspire an odd sort of camaraderie.
If Kotick manages to weather this storm and Activision Blizzard replaces him for a different reason at a later date, he stands to make upward of $300 million just for leaving the company. A true parasite to the end.