The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) just essentially gave the green light to Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision Blizzard, clearing away the final barrier to the largest tech merger of all time. This approval comes after a long international tour of regulatory machinations amid ongoing (and by no means finished) debates about competition in gaming.
In other words, it’s now safe to say the $69 billion merger is really happening.
The CMA raised substantial — and specific — concerns in the spring when it issued a report describing a scenario in which, for instance, Microsoft could pursue a monopoly by withholding Call of Duty from PlayStation loyalists, forcing them to switch to Xbox hardware. Microsoft penned a 10-year agreement with Sony to make Activision games available on PlayStation, addressing the CMA’s fears to a significant degree.
And here in the U.S., Microsoft parried a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) effort to derail the merger, a case that had similarly been framed around monopoly fears. The FTC’s lawsuit against Microsoft was unusual, and hinted at a growing U.S. anti-monopoly apparatus, but the U.S. courts nonetheless handed a victory to Microsoft.
The text of the CMA’s Sept. 22 decision found “residual concerns that competition could be substantially lessened as a result of Microsoft’s ongoing relationship with Ubisoft,” and fretted that Microsoft “could still engage in strategies in order to foreclose cloud gaming rivals after the Merger.” The key concession leading to the CMA’s approval was Microsoft’s August move to divest its streaming rights in non-European territories to Ubisoft. The approval is, in essence, contingent on that sale being “fully implemented,” the decision says.
In response to the CMA’s conditional approval, Bobby Kotick, the CEO of Activision Blizzard wrote an open letter in which he called the decision a “significant milestone for the merger and a testament to our solutions-oriented work with regulators.”
In an interview with Bloomberg, Sarah Cardell, CEO of the CMA, dinged Microsoft for not divesting its cloud gaming operation to Ubisoft sooner, thus dragging out the process, and wasting money and resources. “If you think that you have a solution that addresses our concerns fully and comprehensively, put that forward early in the process,” she said.
The final UK approval, which involves a third-party comment phase focused on the execution of the Ubisoft deal, is set for October 18, and as these final steps for the merger unfold, public attention will now shift to the future of key titles like Call of Duty becoming part of Microsoft’s portfolio.
The new Microsoft-Activision powerhouse will, after all, likely be the dominant player in all of gaming — more economically and culturally hegemonic than Nintendo. That could change the gaming landscape significantly.