Bobby Kotick was aware of serious sexual allegations made against employees in 2017 and 2018, according to an investigation by Kirsten Grind, Ben Fritz and Sarah E. Needleman, published in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ). The story relates to a female employee at Sledgehammer Games, an Activision-owned publisher, who states she was attacked on more than one occasion after being pressured into over-drinking at office events she attended.
The article claims that the employee reported both incidents to the Human Resources department at Sledgehammer, which prompted Activision to settle with the alleged victim out of court. People with knowledge of the board allege that Kotick was aware of the case and its outcomes, but decided not to tell shareholders about it, and has since stated that he was unaware of many of the allegations made against Activision employees that have subsequently come to light.
Given that Kotick has been subpoenaed in a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation, which will in part look to discover how aware he was of the incidents at the time they occured, this new evidence could be damning for one of the most powerful men in western gaming. The WSJ allege the documents in the case in question show not only that Kotick was aware of allegations in ‘many parts of the company’, but also that he purposefully and willfully withheld information from the board and shareholders.
Sexual allegations catching up with Kotick
According to the lawyer for the alleged victim, one Harmeet Dhillon, the person responsible for the attacks was Javier Panameno, who the accuser also claims had sexually harassed a second woman at the studio. The assaults were reported to the police, who took no action, while Activision’s spokesperson said the company investigated the two assault reports after executives received the 2018 email, and fired Mr. Panameno two months later. As part of their investigation the WSJ sent some questions to his subsequent employer Zynga Inc, which led to Panameno resigning his post following an internal investigation at that firm.
Other allegations to have emerged in the WSJ investigation include Kotick’s attendance at a 2007 party with female dancers, where female attendees were encouraged to drink more so ‘the men would have a better time’, as well as other allegations being covered up. Dan Bunting, the co-head of Treyarch, was accused of harassment in 2017, but allowed to remain at the company, as Eduard Roehrich, a Sledgehammer employee accused in 2017 who Activision requested ‘keep the matter confidential’ before giving him two weeks of paid leave and allowing him to return in a different role.
These accusations, in combinations with Kotick’s claims that the allegations contained in the lawsuit filed by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing represent a ‘distorted and untrue picture of our company’ will make it increasingly difficult for Kotick to maintain his position that he is an innocent victim, or was ignorant of the issues. He has also apparently stated that the cultural issues were centred in the Blizzard portion of the company, something that has now been called into question with the stories emerging from Call of Duty developers Treyarch and Sledgehammer Games.
The relevance of Kotick’s knowledge extends beyond simply his criminal liability, with his severance package from the company dependent on the nature of his departure, if he is indeed to leave the company. If Kotick is let go with Cause or Good Reason, he stands to be paid off roughly $250k, while leaving the company without either of those could see him net a payoff between $265m and $292m, which many have suggested could be a strong motivating factor in Kotick’s desire to prove his own ignorance and innocence in relation to any cover-ups that may have occurred.
With the news that Jen Oneal, the newly installed co-lead who took up her position in the wake of the initial swathe of allegations is set to leave the firm at year-end, things are not looking good for Activision’s face-saving efforts. Little more than a month after Oneal’s promotion, she emailed a member of Activision’s legal team to profess a lack of faith in Activision’s leadership, stating that in her view “it was clear that the company would never prioritize our people the right way.”
Oneal went on to claim she had also been a victim of sexual harassment during her time at Activision and incredibly that she was being paid less than her male counterpart at the helm of Blizzard. In the email, she stated that she wanted to discuss her resignation, telling the legal expert, “I have been tokenized, marginalized, and discriminated against.”