Activision Blizzard workers protest outside the entrance
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Will Bobby Kotick survive the Activision Blizzard crisis?

Protocol Gaming

This week in Protocol Gaming, your weekly guide to the business of video games: Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick is under fire, Rockstar bungles its GTA remaster, and Halo Infinite arrives earlier than expected.

Is this the end for Activision CEO Bobby Kotick?

This story contains a mention of sexual assault.

One of the video game industry's longest-serving and most powerful executives, Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick, is on thin ice, with calls for his resignation growing louder by the day. But Kotick, who has steered the publisher since the early '90s and made himself and stockholders fabulously wealthy in the process, is refusing to let go of the wheel, setting up a messy showdown unlike any power struggle the industry has seen before.

The crisis at Activision Blizzard took a drastic turn last week, thanks to an explosive investigation from The Wall Street Journal that revealed the extent to which Kotick was aware of the company's rampant sexual harassment and discrimination issues. That includes settling out of court with a former employee who had twice been raped by her manager at Activision-owned Sledgehammer Games and keeping the story quiet.

  • The report detailed how Kotick himself has committed misconduct, ranging from threatening the life of an assistant in 2006 to stepping in to protect harassers within the company's top ranks.
  • Condemnation has been swift. A group of more than 1,000 employees has called for Kotick's resignation. Investment group SOC also said if Kotick and his two longest-serving board members didn't step down, it would refuse to reelect the current directors next year and stage a boycott of the vote with other shareholders.
  • Since the article's publication, Activision's handling of the situation has been nothing short of disastrous. The board said it would stand by Kotick without question, while the company said its zero-tolerance policy for harassment doesn't apply to Kotick's past actions.

The most threatening revocations have come from Kotick's peers. The heads of both PlayStation and Xbox sent emails to staff last week condemning the company. While Kotick has deftly ignored employee demands with placating gestures like a pay cut, losing the support of platform owners like Sony and Microsoft creates a potentially dangerous situation.

  • Jim Ryan, the head of PlayStation, sent an email to Sony staff last Wednesday where he said the company reached out to Activision immediately after the WSJ report "to express our deep concern and to ask how they plan to address the claims made in the article." Ryan went on to say: "We do not believe their statements of response properly address the situation."
  • A day later, Xbox chief Phil Spencer told staff in an email he was "disturbed and deeply troubled by the horrific events and actions'' at Activision Blizzard, adding that "this type of behavior has no place in our industry." Spencer said Microsoft would, going forward, evaluate its relationship with the publisher.
  • Ryan and Spencer are among the most prominent and well respected figures in the game industry, and losing their support could spell disaster for joint marketing efforts and partnerships on games like Call of Duty between Activision and the platforms.

The Kotick story has refocused the Activision Blizzard saga. It's been months since California filed its lawsuit against the company, and there were signs the controversy had died down after a federal settlement with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the smooth release of the newest Call of Duty game.

  • But the story has now become about Kotick, and in particular his handling not just of the lawsuit and the revelations it contained, but also his entire stewardship of the company.
  • That company leadership has fallen in line so quickly behind Kotick has galvanized employee organizing efforts. "It's almost as if they're begging us to unionize," an Activision employee told Axios. "I don't know if I'd be ready to trust corporate again without a union behind me," another said.

How long can Kotick hold on? The company's major shareholders are enormous wealth management funds, including Vanguard, BlackRock and Fidelity, which tend not to get involved in any form of corporate controversy of this kind.

  • It would also be expensive to fire Kotick; as of December 2020, Kotick's contract stipulates a payout of up to $265 million if he is ultimately terminated.
  • Kotick has also run the company since 1991, a year after he purchased a 25% stake of the then-bankrupt Mediagenic and restructured it under its original name as Activision.
  • He's one of the longest-running CEOs in America and has been instrumental in turning the company's games into household names through strategic acquisitions, mergers and buyouts with major companies like Vivendi and Blizzard Entertainment.

The depth and severity of the company's toxic workplace issues now has a face and a name, and it belongs to Bobby Kotick. Whether he thinks he can navigate through this crisis and repair his company's reputation is now up against the board's perception of how much damage he's doing to the company.

Activision's stock was down nearly 10% at the end of last week and more than 30% in the past year. And losing the faith of leadership at Microsoft and Sony is perhaps the most damning evidence yet that keeping Kotick onboard could cost more than he's worth.

A version of this story first appeared on Read it here.


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"What I'd say today on NFT, all up, is I think there's a lot of speculation and experimentation that's happening, and that some of the creative that I see today feels more exploitive than about entertainment." ―Xbox chief Phil Spencer expressed some rare skepticism of gaming NFTs in an interview with Axios last week. Numerous other game executives, including the heads of publishers like Take-Two and Electronic Arts, have praised NFTs as a promising new financial boon for the industry.

"The Grand Theft Auto series — and the games that make up this iconic trilogy — are as special to us as we know they are to fans around the world. The updated versions of these classic games did not launch in a state that meets our own standards of quality, or the standards our fans have come to expect." ―Rockstar Games apologized to fans on Friday over the poor performance of Grand Theft Auto: The Definitive Edition and said the games will "reach the level of quality that they deserve to be" through ongoing updates. Rockstar briefly pulled and then reinstated the PC version of the remastered trilogy earlier in the week.


On Protocol: Video game remakes and remasters are on the rise and more lucrative than ever. That's thanks to an aging console gaming population eager to re-experience classic games from their childhoods and game publishers turning to the past to mine old products for new revenue streams.

Andreessen Horowitz gets serious about gaming. The venture capital firm, which has been pouring money into new gaming startups, has named two general partners, Jonathan Lai and James Gwertzman, to spearhead its gaming investments.

Tencent invests in Yooka-Laylee. Playtonic, the creators of Banjo Kazooie-inspired Yooka-Laylee, announced last week that Tencent is now a minority investor. The goal is to help the U.K. studio develop more games at a faster pace in the 3D platformer genre.

A controversial Iraq War game is pushed. Six Days in Fallujah, a realistic military game set during the Iraq War, has been delayed to late 2022, Eurogamer reported. The game, from a group composed of ex-Bungie devs at the studio Highwire, has generated significant controversy for its setting and tone regarding the conflict.

The delays keep coming, this time for Saints Row. The year of the delay carries on, with developer Volition announcing a delay till 2022 for the reboot of open-world game Saints Row, Polygon reported.

PS5 owners prefer boxed products. At least in the U.K., owners of PlayStation 5 consoles with disc drives are preferring to purchase their products on discs, according to market research firm Global Sales Data. The firm says 51% more boxed PS5 games were sold than digital downloads purchased between November 2020 and August 2021.

Discord plans to unleash the bots. The gaming chat platform hosts more than hundreds of thousands of bots used by more than 30% of its servers, and the company now plans to launch an app and bot discovery tool next spring to make it easier to find automated software to use, The Verge reported last week.

Halo Infinite's multi-stage launch feels like a new era

Microsoft surprised the gaming world last week by dropping half of Halo Infinite. It was only the game's multiplayer, and in an open beta phase. But the move was effectively a soft launch of Infinite ahead of its official Dec. 8 release. Hundreds of thousands of players have jumped in early to experience the new multiplayer from 343 Industries and to buy (and complain about) its battle pass, which 343 has already adjusted to address complaints.

That the game will experience a second, "real" launch next month when the campaign mode goes live feels like a turning point for big-budget game releases. Halo Infinite was always going to be a weird hybrid release, given its free-to-play multiplayer mode and availability on Xbox Game Pass. But with this multi-stage release approach, Microsoft is setting a new, experimental standard for testing, tweaking and then releasing a game of this size and scope. The bad news in all this: The co-op campaign mode now won't launch until May 2022.

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