The chief executive of embattled video game company Activision Blizzard once reportedly threatened to have his assistant killed and has known for years about sexual-misconduct allegations at the company that only recently spilled into public view.
In 2006, one of Activision CEO Bobby Kotick’s assistants complained that he had harassed her and even threatened in a voicemail to have her killed, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing people familiar with the matter.
“Mr. Kotick quickly apologized 16 years ago for the obviously hyperbolic and inappropriate voice mail, and he deeply regrets the exaggeration and tone in his voice mail to this day,” an Activision spokeswoman told the Journal.
It’s just one of several episodes laid out in the Journal’s damning investigation, which comes months after Activision was slapped with an explosive lawsuit accusing the company of fostering a culture that allowed for sexual harassment that drove one female employee to suicide.
Kotick has long been aware of the allegations contained in the lawsuit — even though the company’s board of directors maintained that they had never been briefed on any matters related to the allegations, according to the Journal.
In 2018, for example, Kotick received an email from the lawyer for a former employee at Sledgehammer Games, which is owned by Activision, alleging that her client was raped in 2016 and 2017 by her male boss after she was pressured into drinking excessively at a work event, the Journal reported.
The former employee had reported the rapes to Sledgehammer’s human-resources department as well as other supervisors, but nothing ever happened, the Journal reported, citing the email.
The woman, by 2018, was threatening to sue, the report said, adding that within months Activision reached an out-of-court settlement with the woman, who had also filed a police report.
Kotick failed to tell the board about the alleged rapes or the settlement, the Journal reported, citing people with knowledge of the board, though the alleged assailant Javier Panameno was fired.
A group of Activision Blizzard employees staged a walkout on Tuesday and called on Kotick to resign.
“We will not be silenced until Bobby Kotick has been replaced as CEO,” the employee group, called ABetterABK, said on Twitter.
In a statement, an Activision spokesman did not dispute any of the factual allegations in the Journal’s investigation.
“We are disappointed in the Wall Street Journal’s report, which presents a misleading view of Activision Blizzard and our CEO. Instances of sexual misconduct that were brought to his attention were acted upon,” the spokesman said.
“We are moving forward with unwavering focus, speed, and resources to continue increasing diversity across our company and industry and to ensure that every employee comes to work feeling valued, safe, respected, and inspired. We will not stop until we have the best workplace for our team.”
Later on Tuesday, Activision Blizzard’s board said it stands by Kotick.
“Under Bobby Kotick’s leadership the Company is already implementing industry leading changes including a zero tolerance harassment policy, a dedication to achieving significant increases to the percentages of women and non-binary people in our workforce and significant internal and external investments to accelerate opportunities for diverse talent,” the board said in a statement. “The Board remains confident that Bobby Kotick appropriately addressed workplace issues brought to his attention… The Board remains confident in Bobby Kotick’s leadership, commitment and ability to achieve these goals.”
The Journal’s investigation sent Activision’s stock stumbling. It closed down more than 6 percent at $66.14 on Tuesday and has tanked more than 28 percent over the past six months amid turmoil at the company.
The report comes after the state of California sued Activision in July for subjecting female employees to “constant sexual harassment,” among other allegations.
The lawsuit immediately sent waves ripping across the male-dominated video game industry and the broader tech-entrepreneur community.
Kotick, who has told directors and other executives he wasn’t aware of many of the allegations in the suit, has since been subpoenaed by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which is investigating how the company handled disclosing the reports of misconduct, according to the Journal.
Whether Kotick failed to properly disclose the allegations to directors, other employees and investors is the focus of that investigation, according to the Journal.
But in the weeks following the California lawsuit, Activision scrambled to respond to backlash.
In October, for example, Kotick, one of the highest-paid CEOs of any publicly traded company with a pay package in 2020 valued at $154 million, requested a pay cut to $62,500.
But the request was only made after the Journal approached him about the story published Tuesday.
And in August, Activision named longtime employee Jennifer Oneal to be Blizzard’s co-head, making her the first woman ever to lead a studio at the company.
But a month later, she said in an email to Activision’s legal team that “it was clear that the company would never prioritize our people the right way.”
In the email, Oneal said had been sexually harassed earlier in her career while at Activision. She also said that she was paid less than the other Blizzard co-head, who was a man.
“I have been tokenized, marginalized, and discriminated against,” wrote Oneal, who’s Asian-American and gay.
She also described a 2007 Activision party that she attended with Kotick in which dancers performed on stripper poles and a DJ encouraged female attendees to drink more, according to another person who was present.
The company announced earlier this month that Oneal is leaving Blizzard at the end of the year.
The Journal report also alleged that Kotick protected at least one male employee who had been accused of sexual harassment.
Dan Bunting, co-head of Activision’s uber-successful Treyarch studio, had been accused by a female employee of sexually harassing her in 2017 after drinking heavily, the Journal reported, citing people familiar with the incident.
An internal investigation recommended that he be fired, but Kotick overruled the decision, the Journal noted. Instead, the report said Bunting was given counseling and allowed to remain in his role.
“After considering potential actions in light of that investigation, the company elected not to terminate Mr. Bunting, but instead to impose other disciplinary measures,” an Activision spokeswoman said.
Bunting left the company after the Journal asked about the incident.