Remembering Bernie Stolar – a game industry icon
We were saddened to learn of the passing of video game industry legend Bernie Stolar earlier this week. Stolar passed away on June 22 at 75 years old.
Stolar is perhaps most well-known as his time serving as SEGA of America’s Chief Operating Officer and President, where he oversaw the Saturn and led the development and release of the much-beloved Dreamcast, but his impact in the game industry is much bigger.
Forbes published a wonderful article by Matt Gardner that chronicles Stolar’s career and includes some heartfelt memories from game industry members who knew Stolar.
Stolar and the PlayStation
After serving as president of Atari from 1990-1993, Stolar joined Sony Computer Entertainment, where he served as their executive vice president of business development and third-party relations and helped launch the PlayStation in 1995.
During this time, Stolar helped launch the PlayStation and built a strong game’s catalog, signing the likes of Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon and Ridge Racer.
“Bernie was larger than life. At the time, PlayStation was nothing, but he came in with his larger-than-life attitude that said PlayStation was going to be something. He told us that we needed to make games for Sony,” said Rob Dyer, who was Crystal Dynamics’ vice president of international operations.
“We had failed on 3DO. We had failed on Saturn. Then we made it on PlayStation,” continued Dyer, now Capcom’s chief operating officer. “I did a ton of deals with Bernie over the years… especially when I became president of Crystal. He was a mentor of mine.”
Speeding to SEGA
In July 1996, Bernie made the surprising move to jump ship to rival SEGA, who was struggling with the Saturn.
“I loved working for Sony,” Stolar told Venture Beat in 2015. “I really did. But when the opportunity came up to go to SEGA and help rebuild the business and come up with new hardware, I was very interested in doing it. I wouldn’t have left Sony if I hadn’t also lived in fear of getting fired along with everyone else, though.”
Stolar was offered to become the new president of SEGA of America, after Tom Kalinske’s departure. He accepted the position. Stolar believed SEGA needed to look beyond the Saturn with an entirely new system.
“When I got to SEGA, I immediately said, ‘We have to kill Saturn. We have to stop Saturn and start building the new technology.’ That’s what I did. I brought in a new team of people and cleaned house. There were 300-some-odd employees and I took the company down to 90 employees to start rebuilding,” Stolar said.
Building the Dream-cast
“I took the SEGA position based on conversations with Hayao Nakayama, who was then chairman of the company,” Stolar said. “We’d institute and bring in a new hardware system that would do online multiplayer games. That became Dreamcast. I headed that up.”
SEGA announced plans for the North American launch of Dreamcast in the fall of 1999.
Among his achievements during this time, Stolar is credited with building the Dreamcast’s impressive 18-game launch line-up, acquiring Visual Concepts (which would go own to develop the excellent 2K sports series to rival EA) and the 9/9/99 launch campaign. Another important piece was hiring Peter Moore, who at the time was Reebok’s senior vice president of sports marketing.
“I thank Bernie for my start in this industry, a career that has lasted 20-plus years,” said Moore, who went on to have executive roles with Microsoft and EA. “None of that would have happened without Bernie believing in some shoe guy who could take skills for marketing sneakers and use them to market video games.”
Unfortunately, Stolar wouldn’t be at SEGA for the Dreamcast’s launch, as he left the company in August 1999. “Nakayama got pushed out of the company by Mr. Okawa at the end of 1999, and when he got pushed out, I got into an argument with Japan as well,” Stolar said. “I was pushed out as well.”
It would be Moore, the man Stolar hired not too long before, that would be his successor and lead SEGA for the next several years.
Bernie Stolar’s lasting legacy
After leaving SEGA, Stolar would go on to be Mattel Interactive’s president, along with advisory positions at Cisco and Golden Gate Capital. In 2014, Stolar joined the Zoom Platform, where we was an executive chairman.
“I shouldn’t have been able to reach a person like Bernie,” said Jordan Freeman, the Zoom Platform chief executive officer, “but he took my call, was willing to meet with me, and asked to look at my business proposal. He gave everyone a chance. Over time, I learned I wasn’t the first one nor the last who experienced this.”
If you’re looking to read more about Stolar’s career, read this great thread by John Harrison (@MegaDriveShock).
Stolar was born on Oct. 9, 1946 and passed away on June, 22, 2022. Be sure to read the Forbes article for many other amazing memories from industry leaders.
Please share your fond memories of Stolar in the comments below.