In the 1980s, Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick was an art history major at the University of Michigan. He enjoyed playing the video games Pitfall, River Raid, and Kaboom on the Atari 2600 console his parents got him. “I was taking a lot of computer programming classes,” Kotick shared on the Bloomberg digital series Leadership Live With David Rubenstein. “I started a software company in my dorm room, but it wasn’t games. Instead, I was making productivity software for the Apple II.”
How did he go from playing video games in a Michigan dorm room to running a gaming empire out of a Southern California boardroom? “Apple had seen the work that we were doing, and they got excited about it. And we had a contract to develop the software for Apple,” recalled Kotick. That’s when Steve Jobs caught on that Kotick was still in college. “[When] Steve came to visit, and he found out that I was still a student, he said I needed to quit, or I couldn’t keep the contract.”
Did Jobs offer any other advice? According to Kotick, “He also said that studying the history of art wasn’t going to be a productive way for me to spend my time.” Jobs spoke from experience, since he had left college, as did Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Bobby Kotick took Jobs’ advice to heart, and it changed the course of his career. How did Kotick’s parents feel about their son trading school for software? “Well, it took me six months to tell them,” recalled Kotick. “Then they told me that I should go back to college and stop wasting my time. But I didn’t.”
Despite his success as a CEO, Kotick doesn’t suggest anyone follow in his footsteps. “I think a great education is probably the most valuable thing you can get, especially in America,” shared Bobby Kotick. “Warren Buffett and I have talked about this a lot: The only reliable predictor I’ve ever seen for future business success is how early and enthusiastic you are as an entrepreneur. I was always very entrepreneurial as a kid. And when I got to college, I continued my entrepreneurship by starting this software company. I didn’t get the benefit of the college experience, and so I would not dissuade someone from a great college education.” This is why, if he had to do it all over again, Kotick has said he would “either go into genomics and proteomics or molecular-level computing, quantum computing. I think that the great advances in society are going to come from those disciplines. And if I had the opportunity, that’s probably what I would do.”
Bobby Kotick on Building Activision Blizzard
With over 30 years of experience, Bobby Kotick has had the honor of being CEO of a major video game corporation longer than anyone else. Under his leadership, the company has created popular franchises such as Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, Crash Bandicoot, Tony Hawk, Overwatch, and Candy Crush Saga.
“I always felt like I would be more in control of my destiny if I were the publisher and the developer. But had I not had the experience of working with Electronic Arts in the 1980s, I don’t know that I would have been as motivated to go off and start my own publishing company,” he said.
After the 1983 video game recession, Activision struggled and changed its name to Mediagenic in the hopes of transitioning into business software for Mac. When that didn’t work out, Kotick found enough investors to purchase the Activision name and get it out of bankruptcy. “We had to take the cans from the soda machine and redeem them because we needed the money. And we had to sell the furniture,” he said. “But there was a passionate group of people at the company who wanted to bring back some of the original Atari Activision games. And then there was a group of people that wanted to make text adventures into graphic adventures. And then we were a small company, it was like 60 people, but that was the beginning of my tenure as the CEO of the company.”
In July 2008, Bobby Kotick was an integral part of Activision’s successful acquisition of Blizzard Entertainment. Today, Kotick’s company comprises multiple business units, including Activision Publishing, Blizzard Entertainment, King, Major League Gaming, and independent studios, which include Sledgehammer Games, Toys for Bob, Vicarious Visions, Treyarch, and Infinity Ward.
According to Kotick, “Generally speaking, Activision Blizzard has some of the largest franchises in video games, and the franchises are a very good roadmap for a long-term future.” Hundreds of thousands of people are involved in developing fresh content for the franchises. “Our biggest market is on phones, and Android is the biggest platform in the world for us, then iOS,” he said. “As long as we know that, we can create great, compelling, differentiated content that will support most platforms.”