New allegations arise against Bobby Kotick, employees demand resignation

A new WSJ report shows that Kotick once threatened an assistant that he'd have her killed, among other new allegations.

The on-going case against Activision-Blizzard, which primarily revolves around a broad sexual-harassment lawsuit filed against the company by the California DFEH, just had an explosive new development. A deep-cut new report from the Wall Street Journal deals specifically with CEO Bobby Kotick, who until now only had to worry about poor crisis management.

This new report indicates that things have been a lot worse for much longer over at Activision-Blizzard than previously thought, and the allegations do not simply suggest that the CEO helped cover up many of the gross offenses and misconduct at the company, but was involved in perpetrating some as well.

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Ever since the Wall Street Journal published its report, a whirlwind of responses, reports and new developments ensued. As is to be expected, the company has denied these allegations in an awfully manicured corporate letter that means absolutely nothing, but that is just the start.

The meat of the allegations comes down to two major things - firstly, Bobby Kotick's own actions. He apparently sent an assistant a voicemail with a death threat stating that he will have her killed in 2006. The ensuing complaint was settled outside of court. Additionally, when a female flight attendant on a private jet Kotick co-owned complained to the CEO that the pilot sexually harassed her, Kotick fired the attendant.

Second, it seems that Kotick knew full and well - in graphic detail - about the harassment and assault happening at the company, and often pulled strings to defend those involved all the while downplaying these issues and taking absolutely no steps to improve the company culture.

This year has been a legal whirlwind for Activision-Blizzard.

Kotick personally stepped in to prevent Dan Bunting from being fired from Treyarch after he sexually harassed a female employee in 2017. Bunting remained at the company and was given counseling, but left recently as the WSJ began investigating.

Additionally, it became clear that several severe sexual harassment and assault incidents occurred under Kotick's leadership of Activision-Blizzard. In 2017 a rape was reported to have been committed by Javier Panameno of Sledgehammer games. The female employee who reported the assault first turned to the police and Sledgehammer, and later reported it directly to Activision. Panameno was removed from the company.

Over at Blizzard Entertainment, Ben Kilgore not only was accused of sexual harassment multiple times over several years, but also lied about a relationship with a lower level employee - an abuse of power - during an internal investigation. Kilgore was removed from the company.

The report also indicates that Kotick - who has been subpoenaed by the SEC - kept crucial information from the company board of directors about many of these issues, including the particularly high-profile tragic case of a suicide in the wake of sexual harassment.

The board of directors was blindsided by the California lawsuitโ€™s allegations, including that an Activision employee killed herself after a photo of her vagina allegedly was circulated at a company party, according to people familiar with the board.

-- The Wall Street Journal

This report comes hot on the heels of the surprise resignation of Jen Oneal, who was selected to co-lead Blizzard Entertainment alongside Mike Ybarra after the departure of J. Allen Brack. Oneal's appointment was initially lauded as the first real victory in this battle and a hope for change in the company, which is why her departure three months later hit just as hard.

It has since become clear from Oneal herself that the decision was motivated by a lack of change in the company - Oneal has stated in an email before her resignation that "it was clear that the company would never prioritize our people the right way", and since then the former executive - who moved onto a position at an organization fighting for women's rights in the games industry - came forward about having experienced sexual harassment at Activision-Blizzard herself:

I have been tokenized, marginalized, and discriminated against.

Since the news broke, the ABK Workers Alliance has issued formal demands from the company, including the immediate resignation of Bobby Kotick, and has organized a walkout. Throughout the on-going controversy, ABetterABK has been championing the rights and interests of the employees at the company.

Ever since the beginning of this entire situation, Kotick has been playing the PR game despite some other unsavory revelations. When the DFEH lawsuit was first filed, Fran Townsend sent a company wide email discrediting the testimonies of those workers who bravely came forward about their experiences as victims of harassment. The incendiary email drew major backlash both from within and without the company.

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As it turns out, the email itself was composed by Bobby Kotick, who then ordered Townsend to send the email in her name. In the ensuing backlash, Kotick called this very email "tone deaf" in an official statement. Townsend had to resign from a position at an internal women's' group, but retained her position at the company. That said, Townsend also blocked Activision Blizzard employees on social media who spoke out against a culture of harassment, and shared articles painting "whistleblowers" in a negative light.

Activision-Blizzard has seen a spike in reports of harassment since the lawsuit was filed.

While the DFEH and other authorities - which have sometimes sparred with each other, to the detriment of the overall case - have placed pressure on Activision Blizzard to be more transparent and observe more of its employees' rights, such as the abolition of forced-arbitration, there have hardly been real victories yet.

Not only has the company destroyed evidence relevant to the investigation, but ever since the lawsuit was filed in July, over 500ย new reports of "harassment, sexual assault, bullying, pay disparities and other issues" have been filed by current and former employees of Activision Blizzard. It is important to point out that during her three-month tenure, Jen Oneal had a lower salary than Mike Ybarra despite both filling the same position.

Despite all of this, the board of directors have released a statement in support of Bobby Kotick. In an immediate response, the ABK Workers Alliance stated that the board is just as complicit as Kotick in the numerous abuses at the company, and renewed demands for the CEO's resignation.

While the removal of Bobby Kotick should be a given at this point, even that wouldn't constitute a real 'victory' - it would be the bare minimum. Ever since the lawsuit was initially filed, high-ranking executives and employees in leadership positions have been leaving Activision Blizzard en masse, showing how much of an ingrained cultural issue harassment and misconduct is at the company. The rot starts at the top, but with a board of directors this complicit, Kotick's replacement can hardly be expected to be an improvement.

Even if the replacement would be a paragon of virtue, it would require massively drastic pruning to rid the company of the corruption that allowed decades of harassment and assault to happen without any changes instated to prevent it. The exact people that need to be sacked are the ones with the power and wealth, and the removal of Bobby Kotick would be performative at best.

For those curious, journalist Stephen Totilo posted on Twitter the payout Kotick would receive should he be removed from his current position. This man is already obscenely wealthy, and it is clear that being ousted is the worst he can really expect with no chance of having to actually face justice for his actions.

While Kotick has spent the past few months releasing manufactured statements about process, zero tolerance and inclusivity, Activision Blizzard has been cracking down on employees with stricter non-disclosure agreements while destroying evidence and wiggling out of other lawsuits with settlements.

The board of directors' support for Kotick is both surprising and expected - on the one hand, a large group of wealth executives are likely to sacrifice one CEO for their benefit, especially if said CEO kept key information from them and is now being subpoenaed. However, these corporate types usually have each other's backs in dirty deeds.

Kotick's removal from office is a necessary step at this point, but also far from enough.

Aron Gerencser
Gaming at least as long as he's been walking, Aron is a fan of all things sci-fi and lover of RPGs. Having written about games for years, he's right at home reporting most of the breaking news in the industry and covering the happenings of the e-sports world. When not writing, editing or playing, you can find Aron on Facebook.