Last week, on February 12th, Activision Blizzard laid off 800 people, or about 8% of its total staff, in spite of the company’s record profits in the 2018 fiscal year. The move was seen by just about anybody who wasn’t a corporate sycophant as a blatant money-grubbing move on the part of the corporate executives – especially since their newly signed CFO was granted a $15 million bonus just for taking the job. It was far from the first time a tale such as this was making headlines – indeed, over the past year the issue of turnover and layoffs has been at the forefront of gaming industry discourse.
While blame of this particular incident was hurled towards many, the majority of vitriol eventually settled at the feet of Activision CEO Bobby Kotick, a wildly unpopular head for almost a decade (anybody remember all the debacles surrounding Infinity Ward back in the Modern Warfare 2 days?) who quickly became the star of #FireBobbyKotick, an online campaign to get him booted for his deeds. It’s unlikely that this will culminate in anything, but it showed one thing to be clear – the general gaming public is getting progressively more fed up with the suits who seek to squeeze every ounce of vitality from the working devs before discarding them like empty Dixie cups into a haggard job market.
Earlier this week, an executive from a similarly sized corporation announced his stepping down; albeit one much more amicable than a firing. But people were not relieved to see a corporate stooge booted from the rafters – they were grateful, bittersweet, and appreciative of what had been left behind. In a world where the demand for corporate video game blood is reaching a peak, the people loved Reggie Fils-Aime. And why was that?
Nintendo fans, Reggie has a message for all of you. Please take a look. pic.twitter.com/EAhaEl5oEJ
— Nintendo of America (@NintendoAmerica) February 21, 2019
It would be easy to say it’s just about the memes. And make no mistake, those play a factor. But it is evident that Reggie Fils-Aime was not some stuffy, stoic penny-counter. He, more than any other executive I can think of, seemed to actually give a damn about what he did, and he did so with actual personality and fun.
It’s important to note first that Reggie has never been a game developer, unlike many of the chiefs on the Nintendo of Japan side. He started his professional career working for companies like Procter & Gamble, Pizza Hut, and VH1, and by the time he joined Nintendo he was in his 40’s. While I have no doubt as to his love of games, it would be erroneous to consider him a developer first and foremost. Unlike the work of auteurs like Hideo Kojima, he’s not one who can express himself through the ways of his art. So then, how did he become such a character?
From his introduction to the world in E3 2004, Reggie was an immediate stage presence in Nintendo’s lineup. While he lacked the initial recognizability of Shigeru Miyamoto, he had a sort of brazen edge that Nintendo at the time lacked. They were largely still seen as the kiddy brand for babies, and he just walked on stage and said ‘ass.’ It’d be like finding a tape of Walt Disney calling some schmuck a MF’er. It’s not actually that scandalous, but it’s enough to make a southern dolly fan herself to avoid the vapors.
Far from this initial “shock”, however (it later turned out that the aggressive nature of his initial appearance was scripted by PR people and he had to be convinced into it) it became evident in following years that Reggie was not some renegade Nintendo bad boy, but just a bit of a performative doofus that becomes ripe for meme material. His most iconic moment – “my body is ready” – establishes the je ne sais quois that embodies his essence: the awkward delivery that makes it uncertain if it was poorly rehearsed or hastily ad-libbed, combined with the sheer weirdness of the phrasing, made it an instant classic that is still readily quoted over a decade later.
There were two sides to Reggie’s character that, in my opinion, gave him such an endearing quality. The first is a stiff, yet obviously so, “branding” ability. Reggie’s cadence and intonation often sounds exactly like you would imagine a rehearsed PR guy to sound – a bit stilted, making sure to use the proper terminology at all times, assured yet reserved so everybody can understand clearly. Yet there’s no subterfuge about it; Reggie is not a natural, charismatic smooth talker who can work all the points into his sentences flawless, which somehow makes the awkwardness seem genuine. Look at his now mimetic Animal Crossing video for a perfect example – the actual language isn’t peculiar by any means, but the choppy motion of his hands, the practiced cadence, and the hackneyed phrasing make it an ironic gem.
But Reggie is by no means a Fils-a-Mech robot in a suit – if he were, then he’d lack the other element that gave him such memorability, which is a sheer and evident goofiness that comes through in every E3 and Direct moment he’s been in. Whether it’s off the cuff remarks like “that’s why they call me the Regginator” or more rehearsed skits like the Nintendo World Championships announcement or the Yo-kai Watch gems, it’s clear that it’s in his nature to crack a joke or just plain have fun. And it’s the fact that his corporate-speak can’t ever fully suppress his innate charm that makes him such a likeable dude.
One Reggie moment in particular has always been his most emblematic to me. At the E3 2014 Smash Invitational, he walks up to congratulate the top players, ZeRo and Hungrybox, to receive pleas from the crowd to battle in Smash. Instead of simply ignoring the chants, Reggie gets frank: “I gotta be honest with the community. I play all of the Nintendo games – I suck at Smash.” He then transitions, semi-smoothly, into corporate pitch mode. “But, my opportunity is coming, with Smash on 3DS.” Yet he ultimately can’t contain his inner hype-monster: “‘Cuz now I’m gonna play on the go – I’m gonna be able to come back up next time! And kick your ass!” The crowd explodes, as the president of Nintendo of America has told one of the world’s best that he’s comin’ for him (a promise he would eventually fulfill… kind of.)
In this way, Reggie has by and large been perceived more as a character than a president, the fun guy who makes skits alongside news rather than the tie-wearing, money-grubbing officer many higher-ups are painted to be. With the already more personal nature of the Direct format – delivering advertisements and news directly to fans rather than through a news org – it’s easy to see how people formed a parasocial bond with Reggie, loving every little fun skit and clip he and the rest of the Nintendo gang put out – his “disputes” with Bill Trinen being some of the best.
And it would be one thing if this cheery, gallivanting character was just a facade for another cutthroat businessman. But Reggie is, in more ways than one, a class act. He’s the son of Haitian immigrants, and the only Haitian-American to lead a Fortune 500 company. When asked how Nintendo handles the epidemic of crunch (alongside a host of other industry leads) Reggie gave a firm, humanistic answer where he spoke of utilizing contract workers to alleviate hours and allow devs to live their lives. During the rough waters of the Wii U years (and others) he remained onboard to help right things, and is leaving during amicable times for the company as a whole. And there’s no doubt that he had a profound effect on the public perception of Nintendo in the West, turning it from its previous “Babies ‘R’ Us” image to its current place of being fun, creative and for everybody, regardless of age.
I don’t know everything about Reggie Fils-Aime. Perhaps there are elements to him that are demonstrative of the cynical corporate world that have influenced his decisions. But from what I’ve seen of the man, he appears to be a genuine, funny, and good-willed person, one who would not layoff workers en masse just to make stocks uptick for a few days. Doug Bowser has some big shoes to fill – purple pikmin sized ones – but if ol’ Reginald thinks he can do his job, then I have confidence that he will.
But before he goes – c’mon, Reggie, give us Mother 3!