On April 20, 2021, the Detroit Free Press broke the news that CEO of Activision Blizzard — one of America’s premier AAA game companies, publisher of juggernaut franchises like “Call of Duty” and “World of Warcraft” — Bobby Kotick gifted $4 million to the University of Michigan to establish an esports minor. Kotick, who studied Art History at the University, dropped out in the ’80s, supposedly based on the advice of Steve Jobs.
According to the Free Press, the minor was created in an effort to “help students get ready for a career in the esports industry.” The courses funded by Kotick are being jointly developed by the Schools of Kinesiology, Engineering and Information, with the first offerings expected by 2022.
However, on July 20, 2021, Bloomberg Law reported that the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing was suing Activision Blizzard.
A two-year investigation by the state agency found that the company allegedly had rampant workplace discrimination against female employees and allegedly consistently failed to combat discrimination, address harassment or prevent retaliation. Company president J. Allen Brack was named in the suit; Brack subsequently stepped down at the beginning of August to be replaced by Jen Oneal and Mike Ybarra. After only three months in the role, Oneal resigned at the beginning of November, leaving Activision Blizzard to “create better support, resources, and guidance to women in the gaming industry.”
In the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing’s complaint, the culture of the company was likened to a fraternity; a male-focused culture of excessive drinking, harassment toward female employees and crude jokes allegedly permeated the workplace. This culture allegedly degraded female employees, as the men allegedly cited concerns about workplace efficiency due to prospects of pregnancy and familial obligations. Female workers also alleged being constantly delegated work before being hit on by fellow male workers and supervisors, who would allegedly make vulgar jokes about rape and talk about desired sexual actions. The lawsuit mentions one worker taking her own life after her private, sexually explicit pictures were allegedly circulated around the company without her consent. Some men stepped forward as victims as well.
Although Activision Blizzard is not new to scandals (2019’s Blitzchung controversy being a prime example), the lawsuit broke a dam, causing massive walkouts and complex debates within fan communities. People questioned their comfort playing games developed or published by Activision Blizzard and how to best support the developers while denouncing the company itself. Lines were drawn, both in real life and on Twitter. If you bought the upcoming “Diablo II: Resurrected” or “Call of Duty: Vanguard” or even continued to play “World of Warcraft,” you weren’t an ally. Matters were made worse when a second lawsuit was filed, this time by investors who claimed the company purposefully failed to disclose its ongoing problems in regards to the allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination, leading to artificially inflated stock. The investors argue that if they had been aware of the alleged internal issues, they would not have invested. Kotick was personally named in the lawsuit as someone who was allegedly “instrumental in the spreading of false information.”
The initial lawsuit was then expanded, the state of California adding temporary workers under the suit’s purview and stating Activision Blizzard has allegedly obfuscated investigations through NDAs. Around the same time, the company was also accused of shredding evidence. The Securities and Exchange Commission started their own investigation in September, subpoenaing Kotick along with other senior executives. Things continued to get worse.
According to a recent report published on Nov. 16 from the Wall Street Journal, Kotick was allegedly aware of the sexual misconduct allegations for years. He purportedly hid information about incidents from board members, and allegedly personally had accusations of general misconduct that had been settled out of court. One terrifying account of Kotick’s alleged behavior states that “In 2006, one of his assistants complained that he had harassed her, including by threatening in a voicemail to have her killed, according to people familiar with the matter.”
The Wall Street Journal’s article also featured an interview with Kotick, who “described himself as transparent with the board and said he provides directors with as much information as they require and is appropriate.” “I am very committed to making sure we have the most welcoming, most inclusive workplace in the industry,” Kotick told The Wall Street Journal. Activision spokeswoman Helaine Klasky told The Wall Street Journal that Activision sometimes “fell short of ensuring that all of our employees’ behavior was consistent with our values and our expectations.”
The alleged problems facing Activision Blizzard and Kotick are simply too much to summarize in one piece, and the damaged groups too broad to accurately represent, but one thing should be clear: The alleged problems exist from top to bottom. Countless publications, employees, shareholders and other companies scream (and petition) for Kotick’s resignation, while his board of directors insists its trust in Kotick remains strong and that the recently introduced zero-tolerance policy on harassment will not apply to him. After days of clamoring, Kotick finally acknowledged the calls to resign but stated he will only do so after attempting to “fix” Activision Blizzard’s alleged problems in a timely manner.
Yet, the University, which stands $4 million richer, has made one thing clear in their comment on the matter: They are keeping the money.
“Acceptance of gifts from any individual does not mean the university agrees with the individual’s opinions or actions,” University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald told Sportico. “The important work related to this donation continues.”
The statement is unsurprising; the University is no stranger to ignoring scandals. One look outside University President Mark Schlissel’s house confirms that, as protestors and victims camp outside in a fight for acknowledgment from the University about Dr. Robert Anderson’s abuse. They have been there for almost two months.
Schlissel and the University have also been uniformly uncooperative in taking the blame for their mishandling of COVID-19 precautions over the past year and a half. Naturally, Schlissel plans to step down in 2023 and escape the problems he created, lining his pockets with money on the way out. None of this is to mention the graduate student strikes or the several previous allegations of sexual assault. Recent steps, such as the rebranding of the Office of Institutional Equity and a promise to disinvest from fossil fuels, are being taken by the current administration to prevent further issues, but these failures are still stains on the University as a whole.
So what is to be done with Kotick’s gift?
There are certainly merits to keeping the money and using it as planned. Academia focused on the still-nascent esports world will absolutely provide new generations opportunities to grow and learn alongside the industry. Yet, the decision to keep it is not easy, as this is money that Kotick has allegedly made at the expense of others, money earned by allegedly hiding abuse and assaults from the general public for years, money earned by allegedly allowing employees to get away with horrific institutions like the Cosby suite and peer-pressured intoxication. No matter how many name changes and female executives hired (Oneal, the first female executive at Activision Blizzard, resigned in part due to pay disparity between her and her co-leader Ybarra), the money Kotick and Activision have made over at least the past 15 years is tainted.
For all of the successful game launches, there were team members who were allegedly assaulted, harassed and demeaned. For all of the diverse hires, there were employees who left, their love burnt out and tarnished by an industry and culture that doesn’t care enough to protect them. It’s much the same at the University, as the legacy of esteemed football coach Bo Schembechler is now stained by the allegations that players told him of Anderson’s actions, and he was unable to get Anderson fired.
Can we still proudly proclaim to be about “the team, the team, the team” if, for nearly 40 years, parts of the team were irrevocably traumatized and no one with authority did anything to stop it? The failures of the University are in every way as despicable and horrific as the alleged disturbing affairs of Activision Blizzard, only we don’t have a lawsuit from the state of Michigan forcing us to accept accountability.
Accountability. That’s the main word here, the missing element that people are clamoring for in all of these cases. Accountability for letting Anderson continue his actions as the list of the abuse survivors grew. Accountability for those leading Activision Blizzard allegedly allowing a frat-boy culture to diffuse throughout the company, harming many while protecting the abusers, shuffling them around from studio to studio instead of out the door. Accountability for Kotick, a man who made millions for himself and billions for a company based on allegedly exploitative work. A man who, according to the Wall Street Journal, allegedly force-fed higher-ups emails to pass the blame, who would allegedly settle cases for himself and his untouchable male employees outside of court and hide their faults from investors. A man who gifted $4 million to the University he left, all in an attempt at goodwill, an attempt to quite possibly make a better industry than the one he’s found himself embroiled in. Or, in a more pessimistic view, an attempt to actually associate something positive with his name.
As a University, as a student body and as the future, it should be up to us to determine how Kotick and his gift are remembered around campus. Kotick should not be celebrated and he should resign from Activision Blizzard immediately, and we cannot forget where his money came from. Forgetting that means forgetting those he allegedly allowed to be hurt and exploited and that is what keeps change from happening. And we desperately need change to happen.
There is so much good that can and will come from the esports minor and the subsequent doors it will open. These students will be part of the future of an industry in need of restructuring and rebuilding from the ground up to make it a better place for everyone. That makes it doubly important that this next generation of esports announcers, players, trainers — whatever else this program may think up — stay well aware that they are the product of wrongdoings, the beautiful fruit yielded from tragedy. We should not simply salt the Earth here; some of the most gorgeous forests and parks were once the sites of bloody battles, but they do not let you forget that a fight indeed was there. We must do the same.
Bring Kotick’s alleged actions into context with every class he funds and paint him as the monstrous cautionary tale that every student should avoid. Craft each course around empathy and the ideals of a future full of love and respect rather than power and humiliation. We must do our best to make sure that another Bobby Kotick, another Jesse Mcree, another Luis Barriga, another person allegedly abusing their power to demean and harass their workers do not get into positions of leadership (or even employment) ever again. The dismantling of toxic workplace culture starts here at the university level, and there are decades of broken systems blocking our path.
So let’s get to work.
Digital Culture Beat Editor M. Deitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article, its headline and the accompanying graphic have been updated since publication to clarify descriptions of Bobby Kotick and Activision’s actions as allegations. The article also now includes Kotick’s comments to The Wall Street Journal.