Game Workers Unite demands firing of Activision CEO

After a record year, investors unlikely to be swayed by social media campaign.

In the wake of Activision-Blizzard laying off approximately 775 employees, despite reporting record profits in 2018, pro-union games industry activist organization Game Workers Unite has begun a social media campaign titled “#FireBobbyKotick.”

“Upending 800 workers' lives while raking in millions in bonuses for you and your c-suite buddies isn't leadership, it's theft,” The Game Workers Unite Twitter account posted Wednesday. “We, the workers of Activision and their friends, have had enough. Join us in saying that it's time to #FireBobbyKotick.”

Bobby Kotick has acted as Activision-Blizzard’s CEO since 1991, and his name has become synonymous with the C-suite branding of major video game company executives in that time, doing him no favors with entry-to-mid level industry employees or public perception. During Activision-Blizzard’s earnings call, Kotick said of the company: “While we had record performance in 2018, it didn't live up to expectations.” According to the company’s fourth-quarter earnings call, Activision-Blizzard made $7.26 billion in physical and digital sales, compared to 2017’s $7.16 billion. Kotick’s own salary, which was $28.6 million in 2017 (down from 2016’s $33 million), has similarly become a sticking point for activists, considering the salary is more than 300 times the median 2017 salary for Activision employees (and is one of the highest executive salaries in the United States), according to Kotaku.

The official Game Workers Unite twitter, @GameWorkers, has spent the past 24 hours tweeting and retweeting various sentiments (some measured, some less so) regarding Kotick and his continued impact on Activision-Blizzard and the industry at large. The #FireBobbyKotick hashtag has become a minor rallying point of frustration and dismay at the negative impact of the layoffs.

The 800 workers who helped with community management, marketing games, running eSports, legal, and so much more are all far more valuable than the CEO.

When making the decision to cut someone from Activision we'd choose to #FireBobbyKotick every time.

— Game Workers Unite GDC (@GameWorkers) February 13, 2019

Elsewhere, at least one Game Workers Unite co-founder took to their own Twitter account to criticize Kotick.

GWU also recently had some success forming a proper trade union in the UK. Although co-founder Emma Kinema said reshaping how the UK games industry grows collective bargaining power will “have to come with time as various companies become unionized.”

GameDaily reached out to Game Workers Unite to get more insight on their approach to public conversation following the layoffs.

“[Kotick’s] leadership has certainly delivered excellent results to the shareholders so we don't expect they will wish him being fired, but workers have suffered calamitous consequences of this obsession with profits, rather than reinvesting back into the company,” a spokesperson for Game Workers Unite said in a private correspondence with GameDaily. “We believe that for the sustainability of the industry the games development talent should be nurtured and calling out an individual that sees workers as expendable is our duty.”

The spokesperson added that GWU suggests game developers begin organizing and reach out to local GWU chapters to determine a viable solution for ending a “crony approach of ‘profit at any cost.’”

One point of contention that might arise from GWU’s #FireBobbyKotick approach to industry layoffs is who they consider part of the fight. GameDaily asked what kinds of workers at publishers or developers they hope to represent at the negotiating table, especially in light of IGDA executive director Jen MacLean’s emphatic statement on the issue.

Anyone who contributes to the making of a game in any way is a game developer. Marketing contributes to the making of a game. So does Community, QA, HR, BizDev, etc.

People who pull the “you’re not a REAL game dev” crap baffle me. Why split the party? https://t.co/crWWSNrXQt

— Jen MacLean (@jenmacl) February 14, 2019

“Different regions have different laws and needs and will decide on their own constitutions as to who is allowed to be a member of the union,” a GWU spokesperson said. “GWU International is an advocacy group rather than a legal trade union and we will support all the attempts from our local chapters to achieve a formal union status. Those will then decide individually on the matters of eligibility.”

This comment stands in an unclear position, considering Activision has also received criticism for stating in their earnings call that the company is “reducing certain non-development and administrative-related costs across our business.” Game industry workers of various stripes have taken to social media to criticize non-inclusive language like “non-development,” saying that anyone who aids in the shipping of a game ought to be considered a developer. Labeling them as “non-development” can be seen as an attempt to minimize the perception that such employees were necessary or important to the development process. Many of the employees laid off by Activision-Blizzard included people from marketing, esports, and legal divisions.

In their comment to GameDaily, GWU seemed to take a backseat to this particular conversation. However, GWU tweeted on the subject during the initial rush of social media posts Wednesday. It refers to the 800 laid off individuals as “workers” but does not go so far as to clearly state on social media or in its comments to us that it considers those let go from PR, marketing, legal, community development, and communications positions to be under the “developer” tent. GWU is clearly speaking up for the laid off employees, but has not definitively labeled them all as “developers.”

“The 800 workers who helped with community management, marketing games, running eSports, legal, and so much more are all far more valuable than the CEO,” GWU tweeted. “When making the decision to cut someone from Activision we'd choose to #FireBobbyKotick every time.”

GWU seems to recognize that a social media campaign to get one of the most powerful CEOs in gaming fired isn’t a winning proposition. It is, instead, using the opportunity to springboard its call for unionization. Much has changed in the eleven months since the group participated in a well-publicized GDC roundtable on the topic. There is also much left to clarify on the path to GWU’s goal, including better definition around how an active union would have prevented this week’s tragedy that cost 800 employees and contractors their jobs.

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Joseph Knoop is a writer for Game Daily, IGN, PC Gamer, and plenty more. He owns an irresponsible amount of Overwatch merch. Break it down with him on Twitter @JosephKnoop.