Baron of video games caught up in the controversy

A businessman rather than a programmer, the CEO of Activision Blizzard Bobby Kotick built a strong video game empire of flagship titles like “Call of Duty” or “World of Warcraft” before being overtaken by a harassment scandal and a possible departure after the takeover by Microsoft, announced on Monday. Legend has it that part of Robert Kotick’s destiny was traced by Steve Jobs himself, one day in 1983. The co-founder of Apple advised him to leave the University of Michigan, where he was an art student, to devote himself to the young company he had just created, as Robert Kotick himself told several times. It was enough to convince this native of Long Island, in the suburbs of New York, organizer of parties for teenagers in New York while he was still in high school, and an outstanding salesman. Launched, the young man convinced casino magnate Steve Wynn to write him a check to start developing a cheap graphical interface for Apple, associated with a friend, Howard Marks, the programmer of the project. Old-fashioned entrepreneur, Bobby Kotick thus differs from many big names in computing and video games, more interested in business than “geek”. According to Forbes, he would have even confided, during the 80s, that “gaming” was for him a waste of time. After trying to buy the computer giant Commodore in 1987, he managed to get his hands on Activision, on the verge of bankruptcy, in 1991, for a pittance. He restructured the publisher, raised fresh money and changed strategy. The idea was to integrate small studios without absorbing them, in order to give them the necessary latitude to create and develop original content. It is this logic that presided over the merger with Vivendi Games, which included Blizzard, and the acquisition of King, creator of Candy Crush. This functioning in autonomy, on which was superimposed a very old school style of management, dominated by men, often white, could have been fertile ground for the abuses that caused a series of scandals last year. A California state agency, the DFEH, took legal action at the end of July, reporting accusations of sexual harassment and ethnic discrimination within the group. Questioned by investigators, most of the female employees compared, according to the agency, Activision Blizzard to a “club of guys”. “Male employees proudly arrive at work drunk, play video games for long periods of time during office hours and delegate their work to women”, details the document. Overwhelmed, Bobby Kotick apologized on behalf of the group, implemented a “zero tolerance” policy, while dozens of employees were sanctioned or dismissed, including Blizzard boss J. Allen Brack. But these concessions have failed to calm his critics, with nearly 20% of employees having signed a petition demanding his departure, in tune with several major investors. According to the Wall Street Journal, the 58-year-old executive, whose fortune is estimated at several hundred million dollars, had been aware of reports of harassment for several years, but sought to keep the incidents quiet rather than take the issue head on. The takeover of Microsoft, itself in the midst of a crisis over harassment complaints, could offer Bobby Kotick an honorable exit. Assured of keeping the head of the group at least until the finalization of the acquisition, he could then leave with a huge check, which American media estimated at around 300 million dollars. An outcome still uncertain, but already denounced by many critics.