This week, as many new allegations were leveled against Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick, and the company as a whole, a surprising figure emerged as a vocal critic of the situation. Sony’s PlayStation head, Jim Ryan.
In a letter to employees yesterday, Jim Ryan said that he reached out to Activision directly “to express our deep concern” about the allegations made in the most recent WSJ article, which include claims that Bobby Kotick personally intervened to prevent the firing of an executive accused of misconduct, and that he “jokingly” threatened to have one of his former assistants killed. It was also revealed that Jen Oneal, who was promoted to co-lead Blizzard with Mike Ybarra after J Allen Brack was forced to resign, was paid less than Ybarra, which was one reason that led to her near-immediate departure from the role.
Jim Ryan went on to say that “we do not believe [Activision Blizzard’s] statements of response properly address the situation,” which is probably the harshest critique we’ve heard of Activision Blizzard from someone this high up in the industry. Many developers have chimed in about the problems at Activision Blizzard, but to see Jim Ryan commenting this harshly feels like an escalation.
But this leads to an obvious question. If Jim Ryan contacts Activision Blizzard, and Activision Blizzard retains their position that they’ve had since this story came out, that they support Bobby Kotick and believe in his leadership, what…does Sony do?
As I commented yesterday, there are seemingly very few options to force Bobby Kotick out of the CEO role, given that he has both the support of the board, and the overwhelming majority of shareholders have not called for his ousting, despite ATVI stock dropping 30% this year along in the wake of these endless scandals.
But outside pressure in form of say, a giant like Sony or Microsoft refusing to sell Activision Blizzard games, namely Call of Duty, in their stores, would be the kind of massive action that would then perhaps move the needle.
Is this realistic, however? It’s hard to see it actually happening, and yet again, the question here is that if Jim Ryan is so incensed, what action is he actually proposing if Activision Blizzard does not make meaningful changes and continues to support Kotick as CEO?
Obviously there would be a clear difference in say, removing Call of Duty games for sale on the PlayStation store compared to removing Cyberpunk 2077, which it did for six months because the game itself performed poorly on PS4s. It would quite literally be a moral stance, and it would cost them a significant amount of revenue, given how popular the series is. But it would cost Activision more, both in dollars and in press, as it would be a massive move that would probably be too big for the board or investors to ignore. The same would be true if Microsoft did something similar (they have yet to comment on the WSJ story). On the mobile side, where King and COD Mobile print money for Activision Blizzard, that would instead require Apple or Google to do something similar, but if it’s a stretch to imagine Sony or Microsoft doing it, I’d say it’s almost impossible to picture those tech giants getting involved.
Still, it sure sounds like Sony A) wants actual, meaningful change from Activision and B) if this is more than just words, they could indeed take some sort of action to back it up. But in this corporate age it’s hard to see one company taking a stand against another for purely moral reasons that would cost them money.
The counter-argument here is that players could simply band together to not buy Activision Blizzard games in the future, no store ban needed. And yet I’d argue that it would be easier to get one person, ie. Jim Ryan or Phil Spencer, to decree that they’re not selling Activision Blizzard games until meaningful change is made, rather than convince millions of disparate players to boycott a line of products. But both tasks may simply be unthinkable, and this is not an avenue that will bear fruit.
Still, keep an eye on Ryan and Spencer, as where they lead, the industry might follow on this issue.