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Over 100 Activision Blizzard employees stage walkout, demand CEO step down

(Drew Angerer/Getty Images/The Washington Post)
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This story has been updated from a previous version.

IRVINE, Calif. — Employees at beleaguered video game company Activision Blizzard walked out Tuesday following a Wall Street Journal report that CEO Bobby Kotick knew about sexual misconduct claims at the company and didn’t inform its board of directors for years.

In response to the story, a number of Activision Blizzard employees gathered in front of the campus of Blizzard Entertainment, one of the major studios that make up the Activision Blizzard family, beginning at noon Pacific time. The protesting employees issued several demands, including that Kotick be replaced as CEO and that the company undergo a review by a worker-appointed third-party.

In an internal video message ahead of the walkout Tuesday morning, Kotick responded to the news.

“There’s an article today that paints an inaccurate and misleading view of our company, of me personally, and my leadership,” Kotick said in the video. He added that, “Anyone who doubts my conviction to be the most welcoming, inclusive workplace doesn’t really appreciate how important this is to me.”

In a statement to The Post, Activision Blizzard disputed the Wall Street Journal’s report.

“We are disappointed in the Wall Street Journal’s report, which presents a misleading view of Activision Blizzard and our CEO,” the statement read. “Instances of sexual misconduct that were brought to his attention were acted upon. The WSJ ignores important changes underway to make this the industry’s most welcoming and inclusive workplace.”

This is the second employee walkout the company has seen in the past four months following a July lawsuit against Activision Blizzard by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing alleging sexual harassment, gender-based harassment and pay inequality in the workplace. Among other claims, the filing alleged that former Blizzard Entertainment President J. Allen Brack failed to mitigate harassment at the company despite being personally aware of multiple incidents. Brack resigned in August after a nearly three-year tenure as president.

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A head count by a Washington Post reporter in Irvine topped 110 protesters gathered outside of the Blizzard offices. Activision Blizzard staff involved in the walkout said the number reached 150, with as many as 50 more participating by halting work from remote locations.

In a statement to The Post regarding the walkout, Activision Blizzard wrote, “We are fully committed to fostering a safe, inclusive and rewarding environment for all of our employees around the world. We support their right to express their opinions and concerns in a safe and respectful manner, without fear of retaliation.”

Jessica Gonzalez, a senior test analyst for Battle.net at Blizzard, first posted to Twitter at 9:43 a.m. Pacific time that she was walking out and calling for the resignation of Kotick, Chief Administrative Officer Brian Bulatao and Corporate Affairs Vice President Frances Townsend.

“We all think Bobby’s not leading like he should be leading,” Gonzalez told The Post in a phone interview last week. “He’s trying to do the minimum possible to get people off his back. I just don’t feel that he’s in touch with game development and having this weird crunch and exploitation of labor in this industry, it’s just not how you make a good product.”

According to the WSJ report, Activision Blizzard’s board of directors was surprised by the suit’s allegations and that Kotick had not informed them of the full details. The article claims Kotick knew of sexual misconduct allegations at the company, and in some cases fought to keep employees accused of harassment in positions of power while keeping the board of directors in the dark. The article also included a 2006 accusation that Kotick threatened his female assistant by leaving a voice message saying he would have her killed. Activision said in a statement to the WSJ that Kotick “quickly apologized 16 years ago for the obviously hyperbolic and inappropriate voice mail.”

The Journal’s story also stated that Jen Oneal, the woman appointed to co-lead Blizzard after Brack’s resignation, emailed Activision’s legal team in September to discuss her resignation, saying that she had been discriminated against and underpaid compared to her male counterpart, Mike Ybarra. Oneal announced her departure earlier this month.

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Current and former Activision Blizzard employees said they are fed up with management’s response to stories of misconduct.

During the walkout, Valentine Powell, a senior engineer on “World of Warcraft” who uses they/them pronouns, told The Washington Post, “We were all pretty horrified about the things that we read. We all loved and supported Jen Oneal. And we’re heartbroken to hear everything that’s happened to her. Myself as a queer person … to see somebody who’s so visibly representing the queer community be treated the way that she was, I take a lot of issue with that.”

“These repeated attempts to deny and ignore the reality of the situation [are] pushing employees to the brink. I’m seeing lots of references to it damaging morale and productivity,” said Jennifer Klasing, a former “World of Warcraft” quest designer who left the company in October 2020 but attended the walkout.

Activision Blizzard’s board of directors stated in a news release Tuesday that it remains “confident in Bobby Kotick’s leadership,” and that Kotick has addressed the workplace issues brought to his attention.

“Nothing in Activision Blizzard’s statement challenges the facts in our reporting,” wrote Steve Severinghaus, senior director of communications at Dow Jones, which publishes the Wall Street Journal, in response to Activision Blizzard’s statement.

A current Activision employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation said they’d been afraid of returning to the office because they believed Kotick had "threatened or used intimidation tactics in the past. Seeing it in text from other people? [It] validates everything.”

Hawken Miller in Irvine, Calif., contributed to this report.

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