Caroline Moriarty, MJLST Staffer
In January of 2022 Microsoft announced its proposed acquisition of Activision Blizzard, a video game company, promising to “bring the joy and community of gaming to everyone, across every device.” However, regulators in the United States, the EU, and the United Kingdom have recently indicated that they may block this acquisition due to its antitrust implications. In this post I’ll discuss the proposed acquisition, its antitrust concerns, recent actions from regulators, and prospects for the deal’s success.
Microsoft, along with making the Windows platform, Microsoft Office suite, Surface computers, cloud computing software, and of new relevance, Bing, is a major player in the video game space. Microsoft owns Xbox, which along with Nintendo and Sony (PlayStation) is one of the three most popular gaming consoles. One of the main ways these consoles distinguish themselves from their competitors is by categorizing certain games as “exclusives,” where certain games can only be played on a single console. For example, Spiderman can only be played on PlayStation, the Mario games are exclusive to Nintendo, and Halo can only be played on Xbox. Other games, like Grand Theft Auto, Fortnite, and FIFA are offered on multiple platforms, allowing consumers to play the game on whatever console they already own.
Activision Blizzard is a video game holding company, which means the company owns games developed by game development studios. They then make decisions about marketing, creative direction, and console availability for individual games. Some of their most popular games include World of Warcraft, Candy Crush, Overwatch, and one of the most successful game franchises ever, Call of Duty. Readers outside of the gaming space may recognize Activision Blizzard’s name from recent news stories about its toxic workplace culture.
In January 2022, Microsoft announced its intention to purchase Activision Blizzard for $68.7 billion dollars, which would be the largest acquisition in the company’s history. The company stated that its goals were to expand into mobile gaming, as well as make more titles available, especially through Xbox Game Pass, a streaming service for games. After the announcement, critics pointed out two main issues. First, if Microsoft owned Activision Blizzard, it would be able to make the company’s titles exclusive to Xbox. This is especially problematic in relation to the Call of Duty franchise. Not only does the Call of Duty franchise include the top three most popular games of 2022, but it’s estimated that 400 million people play at least one of the games, 42% of whom play on Playstation. Second, if Microsoft owned Activision Blizzard, it could also make its titles exclusive to Xbox Game Pass, which would change the structure of the relatively new cloud streaming market.
Microsoft’s proposed acquisition has drawn scrutiny from the FTC, the European Commission, and the UK Competition and Markets Authority. In what the New York Times has dubbed “a global alignment on antitrust,” the three regulators have pursued a connected strategy. First, the European Commission announced an investigation of the deal in November, signaling that the deal would take time to close. Then, a month later, the FTC sued in its own administrative court, which is more favorable to antitrust claims. In February 2023, the Competition and Markets Authority released provisional findings on the effect of the acquisition on UK markets, writing that the merger may be expected to result in a substantial lessening of competition. Finally, the EU commission also completed its investigation, concluding that the possibility of Microsoft making Activision Blizzard titles exclusives “could reduce competition in the markets for the distribution of console and PC video games, leading to higher prices, lower quality and less innovation for console game distributors, which may, in turn, be passed on to consumers.” Together, the agencies are indicating a new era in antitrust – one that is much tougher on deals than in the recent past.
Specifically, the FTC called out Microsoft on its past acquisitions in its complaint. When Microsoft acquired Bethesda (another video game company, known for games like The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim) in 2021, the company told the European Commission that they would keep titles available on other consoles. After the deal cleared, Microsoft announced that many Bethesda titles, including highly anticipated games like Starfield and Redfall, would be Microsoft exclusives. The FTC used this in its complaint to show that any promises by Microsoft to keep games like Call of Duty available to all consumers could be broken at any time. Microsoft has disputed this characterization, arguing that the company made decisions to make titles exclusive on a “case-by-case basis,” which was in line with what it told the European Commission.
For the current deal, Microsoft has agreed to make Call of Duty available on the Nintendo Switch, and it claims to have made an offer to Sony, guaranteeing the franchise would remain available on PlayStation for ten years. This type of guarantee is known as conduct remedy, which preserves competition through requirements that the merged firm commits to take certain business actions or refrain from certain business conduct going forward. In contrast, structural remedies usually require a company to divest certain assets by selling parts of the business. One example of conduct remedies was in the Live Nation – Ticketmaster merger. The companies agreed not to retaliate against concert venue customers that switched to a different service nor tie sales of ticketing services to concerts it promoted. However, as the recent Taylor Swift ticketing dilemma proves, conduct remedies may not be effective in eliminating anticompetitive behavior.
Microsoft faces an uphill battle with its proposed acquisition. Despite its claims that Xbox does not exercise outsize influence in the gaming industry, the sheer size and potential effects of this acquisition make Microsoft’s claims much weaker. Further, the company faces stricter scrutiny from new regulators in the United States. Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Kanter, who leads the DOJ’s antitrust division, has already indicated that he prefers structural remedies to conduct ones, and Lina Khan, FTC commissioner, is well known for her opposition to big tech companies. If Microsoft wants this deal to succeed, it may have to provide more convincing evidence that it will act differently than its anticompetitive conduct in the past.