The United Kingdom’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) late last month moved to block Microsoft’s proposed vertical acquisition of Activision Blizzard, a video-game developer that creates and publishes games such as Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, Diablo, and Overwatch. Microsoft summarized this transaction’s substantial benefits to video game players in its January 2022 press release announcing the proposed merger.
The CMA based its decision on speculative future harm in UK cloud-based gaming, neglecting the dramatic and far more likely dynamic competitive benefits the transaction would produce in gaming markets. The FTC announced its own challenge to the merger in December and has scheduled administrative hearings into the matter later in 2023.
If not overturned on appeal, the CMA’s decision is likely to reduce future consumer welfare and innovation in the gaming sector, to the detriment of producers and consumers.
In its press release, the CMA stressed harm to future UK consumers of remote-server-based “cloud gaming” services as the basis for opposing the merger:
Microsoft has a strong position in cloud gaming services and the evidence available to the CMA showed that Microsoft would find it commercially beneficial to make Activision’s games exclusive to its own cloud gaming service.
Microsoft already accounts for an estimated 60-70% of global cloud gaming services and has other important strengths in cloud gaming from owning Xbox, the leading PC operating system (Windows) and a global cloud computing infrastructure (Azure and Xbox Cloud Gaming).
The deal would reinforce Microsoft’s advantage in the market by giving it control over important gaming content such as Call of Duty, Overwatch, and World of Warcraft. The evidence available to the CMA indicates that, absent the merger, Activision would start providing games via cloud platforms in the foreseeable future.
The CMA’s discussion ignores a number of salient facts regarding cloud gaming. Cloud gaming has not yet arrived as a major competitor to device-based gaming, as Dirk Auer points out (see also here regarding problems that have constrained the rapid emergence of cloud gaming). Google, for example, discontinued its Stadia cloud-gaming service just over three months ago, “after having failed to gain the traction that the company was expecting” (see here). Although cloud gaming does not require the purchase of specific gaming devices, it does require substantial bandwidth, stable internet connections, and subscriptions to particular services.
What’s more, Microsoft offered the CMA significant concessions to ensure that leading Activision games would remain available on other platforms for at least 10 years (see here, for example). The CMA itself acknowledged this in announcing its opposition to the merger, but rejected Microsoft’s proposals, stating:
Accepting Microsoft’s remedy would inevitably require some degree of regulatory oversight by the CMA. By contrast, preventing the merger would effectively allow market forces to continue to operate and shape the development of cloud gaming without this regulatory intervention.
Ironically, the real “regulatory intervention” that threatens to hinder market forces is the CMA’s blocking of this transaction, which (as a vertical merger) does not eliminate any direct competition and, to the contrary, promises to reinvigorate direct competition with Sony’s PlayStation. As Aurelien Portuese explains:
Sony is cheering on . . . attempt[s] to block Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision. Why? The proposed merger is a bid to offer a robust platform with high-quality games and provide resources for creators to produce more gaming innovation. That’s great for gamers, but threatening to Japanese industry titans Sony and Nintendo, because it would also create a company capable of competing with them more effectively.
If antitrust officials block the merger, they would be giving Sony and its 70 percent share of the global gaming console market the upper hand while preventing Microsoft and its 30 percent market share from effectively challenging the incumbent. That would be a complete reversal of competition policy.
The Japanese gaming industry dominates the world—and yet, U.S. antitrust officials may very well further cement this already decades-long dominance by blocking the Activision-Microsoft merger. Wielding antitrust to impose a twisted conception of domestic competition at the expense of global competitiveness must end, and the proposed Activision-Microsoft combination exemplifies why.
Furthermore, Portuese debunks the notion that Microsoft would have a future incentive to deny access to Activision’s high-selling Call of Duty franchise, reemphasizing the vigorous nature of gaming competition post-merger:
[T]he very idea that Microsoft would want to foreclose access to “Call of Duty” for PlayStation users is controversial. Microsoft would rationally have little incentive to reduce sales across platforms of a popular game. Moreover, Microsoft’s competitive position is weaker than the FTC seems to think: It faces competition from gaming industry incumbents such as Sony, Nintendo, and Epic Games, and from other large tech companies such as Apple, Amazon, Google, Tencent, and Meta.
In short, there are strong reasons to believe that gaming competition would be enhanced by the Microsoft-Activision merger. What’s more, the merger would likely generate efficiencies of integration, such as the promotion of cross-team collaboration (see here, for example). Notably, in announcing its decision to block the merger, even the CMA acknowledged “the benefit of having Activision’s content available on [Microsoft’s subscription service] Game Pass.” In contrast, theoretical concerns about merger-related potential threats to future cloud-gaming competition are uncertain and not well-grounded.
The CMA should not have blocked the merger. The agency’s opposition to this transaction reflects a blinkered focus on questionable possible future harm in a not-yet developed market, and a failure to properly weigh likely substantial near-term competitive benefits in a thriving existing market.
This is the sort of decision that tends to discourage future procompetitive efficiencies-generating high-tech acquisitions, to the detriment of producers and consumers.
The threat to future vertical mergers that bring together complementary assets to generate attractive new offerings for consumers in dynamically evolving market sectors is particularly unfortunate. Competition agencies should reflect on this reality and rethink their approaches. (FTC, are you paying attention?)
In the meantime, the UK court should carefully assess and, hopefully, side with Microsoft in its appeal of this unfortunate administrative ruling.