Xbox Boss 'Disturbed' By What's Going On At Activision Blizzard, Reconsidering Relationship

·4-min read
Xbox boss Phil Spencer stands on stage at E3 2019.
Xbox boss Phil Spencer stands on stage at E3 2019.

Head of Xbox, Phil Spencer, sent an email to staff calling the latest wave of allegations about Activision Blizzard deeply troubling, as first reported by Bloomberg and confirmed to Kotaku by Microsoft PR. Spencer joins a growing list of developers, shareholders, and game industry executives speaking up about reported abuse at one of the largest gaming publishers in the world.

“This type of behavior has no place in our industry,” Spencer wrote in the email, according to Bloomberg, saying he was “disturbed and deeply troubled” by the events and actions brought to light in a bombshell report by The Wall Street Journal earlier this week. The Xbox executive also said the console manufacturer would make “ongoing proactive adjustments” to its relationship with Activision Blizzard moving forward, but apparently did not go into any specifics.

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These remarks follow a big California lawsuit in July alleging widespread sexual harassment and discrimination stemming from the makers of Overwatch and the annual Call of Duty series. The more recent report by The Wall Street Journal surfaced new allegations of mistreatment of women, including by CEO Bobby Kotick. He reportedly told an assistant over a voicemail in 2006 that he would have her killed, and intervened to prevent another executive from being fired from the company for sexual harassment in 2018.

The news has since led to at least one shareholder group to call for Kotick’s resignation, as well as renewed scrutiny from the CEO’s own employees. After staging a walkout this week, many in the games industry started calling for the longtime head of the company to resign. On Thursday, over 700 Activision Blizzard employees announced today that they had signed a petition calling for the same. November also saw PlayStation boss Jim Ryan calling out Activision Blizzard’s actions yesterday in his own email to staff.

Spencer’s criticism is especially notable, however, because some of the men at the center of allegations of workplace abuse were former Xbox VPs. Ben Kilgore, which Bloomberg previously reported to be the head of the “most notorious group of sexist drinkers” at Blizzard while he was chief technology officer there, previously worked with Spencer at Xbox as vice president of Microsoft’s Interactive Entertainment Business during the launch of the Xbox One.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Kilgore was fired from Blizzard in 2018 after multiple reports of sexual harassment and failing to disclose a relationship with a lower-level female employee.

Vice has also reported that Derek Ingalls, former chief information officer at Blizzard, made a joke shortly after Kilgore was fired that people shouldn’t sleep with their assistants, but that if they do, that they shouldn’t stop. Ingalls, who spent over a decade at Microsoft was also accused of fostering a toxic workplace atmosphere within the Live operations department.

A screenshot of Blizzard head Mike Ybarra tweeting about meeting Ben Kilgore and Derek Ingalls.
A screenshot of Blizzard head Mike Ybarra tweeting about meeting Ben Kilgore and Derek Ingalls.

Another former longtime Xbox VP still works at Blizzard and was also in the news this week: Mike Ybarra. He finished his time at Microsoft as VP of Game Pass, joining Blizzard in 2019. Earlier this year, after Activision Blizzard ousted employees at the center of the California lawsuit, Ybarra was named cohead along with Jen Oneal. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Oneal, a longtime employee with Activision, was not paid as much as Ybarra. According to a subsequent report by IGN, Ybarra told staff that he and Oneal had asked for equal compensation, however Activision Blizzard did not agree to the change until after Oneal decided to resign.

Earlier this week, Spencer, who has been outspoken since taking over as head of Xbox about making video games a more welcoming to everyone, also reflected on a sexist party Xbox organized at GDC in 2016. The networking event included women in school girl uniforms dancing on poles.

“Is that something I regret in our journey as Xbox? Absolutely,” he told Axios in an interview. “Do I think we came out of that experience better than we were going in? Yes, as a team, we kind of said those things won’t define us.”

Microsoft declined to comment when asked by Kotaku about whether misconduct by either Kilgore or Ingalls was ever flagged internally at the company, or whether it will open any investigations of its own in light of the recent allegations at Activision Blizzard.

“I personally have strong values for a welcoming and inclusive environment for all of our employees at Xbox,” Spencer told Kotaku in a statement. “This is not a destination but a journey that we will always be on. The leadership at Xbox and Microsoft stand by our teams and support them in building a safer environment for all.”

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