In the world of video games, the process by which players train themselves or their characters in order to overcome a difficult “boss battle” is called “leveling up.” I find that the phrase also serves as a useful metaphor in the context of corporate mergers. Here, “leveling up” can be thought of as acquiring another firm in order to enter or reinforce one’s presence in an adjacent market where a larger and more successful incumbent is already active.
In video-game terminology, that incumbent would be the “boss.” Acquiring firms choose to level up when they recognize that building internal capacity to compete with the “boss” is too slow, too expensive, or is simply infeasible. An acquisition thus becomes the only way “to beat the boss” (or, at least, to maximize the odds of doing so).
Alas, this behavior is often mischaracterized as a “killer acquisition” or “reverse killer acquisition.” What separates leveling up from killer acquisitions is that the former serve to turn the merged entity into a more powerful competitor, while the latter attempt to weaken competition. In the case of “reverse killer acquisitions,” the assumption is that the acquiring firm would have entered the adjacent market regardless absent the merger, leaving even more firms competing in that market.
In other words, the distinction ultimately boils down to a simple (though hard to answer) question: could both the acquiring and target firms have effectively competed with the “boss” without a merger?
Because they are ubiquitous in the tech sector, these mergers—sometimes also referred to as acquisitions of nascent competitors—have drawn tremendous attention from antitrust authorities and policymakers. All too often, policymakers fail to adequately consider the realistic counterfactual to a merger and mistake leveling up for a killer acquisition. The most recent high-profile example is Meta’s acquisition of the virtual-reality fitness app Within. But in what may be a hopeful sign of a turning of the tide, a federal court appears set to clear that deal over objections from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
Some Recent ‘Boss Battles’
The canonical example of leveling up in tech markets is likely Google’s acquisition of Android back in 2005. While Apple had not yet launched the iPhone, it was already clear by 2005 that mobile would become an important way to access the internet (including Google’s search services). Rumors were swirling that Apple, following its tremendously successful iPod, had started developing a phone, and Microsoft had been working on Windows Mobile for a long time.
In short, there was a serious risk that Google would be reliant on a single mobile gatekeeper (i.e., Apple) if it did not move quickly into mobile. Purchasing Android was seen as the best way to do so. (Indeed, averting an analogous sort of threat appears to be driving Meta’s move into virtual reality today.)
The natural next question is whether Google or Android could have succeeded in the mobile market absent the merger. My guess is that the answer is no. In 2005, Google did not produce any consumer hardware. Quickly and successfully making the leap would have been daunting. As for Android:
Google had significant advantages that helped it to make demands from carriers and OEMs that Android would not have been able to make. In other words, Google was uniquely situated to solve the collective action problem stemming from OEMs’ desire to modify Android according to their own idiosyncratic preferences. It used the appeal of its app bundle as leverage to get OEMs and carriers to commit to support Android devices for longer with OS updates. The popularity of its apps meant that OEMs and carriers would have great difficulty in going it alone without them, and so had to engage in some contractual arrangements with Google to sell Android phones that customers wanted. Google was better resourced than Android likely would have been and may have been able to hold out for better terms with a more recognizable and desirable brand name than a hypothetical Google-less Android. In short, though it is of course possible that Android could have succeeded despite the deal having been blocked, it is also plausible that Android became so successful only because of its combination with Google. (citations omitted)
In short, everything suggests that Google’s purchase of Android was a good example of leveling up. Note that much the same could be said about the company’s decision to purchase Fitbit in order to compete against Apple and its Apple Watch (which quickly dominated the market after its launch in 2015).
A more recent example of leveling up is Microsoft’s planned acquisition of Activision Blizzard. In this case, the merger appears to be about improving Microsoft’s competitive position in the platform market for game consoles, rather than in the adjacent market for games.
At the time of writing, Microsoft is staring down the barrel of a gun: Sony is on the cusp of becoming the runaway winner of yet another console generation. Microsoft’s executives appear to have concluded that this is partly due to a lack of exclusive titles on the Xbox platform. Hence, they are seeking to purchase Activision Blizzard, one of the most successful game studios, known among other things for its acclaimed Call of Duty series.
Again, the question is whether Microsoft could challenge Sony by improving its internal game-publishing branch (known as Xbox Game Studios) or whether it needs to acquire a whole new division. This is obviously a hard question to answer, but a cursory glance at the titles shipped by Microsoft’s publishing studio suggest that the issues it faces could not simply be resolved by throwing more money at its existing capacities. Indeed, Microsoft Game Studios seems to be plagued by organizational failings that might only be solved by creating more competition within the Microsoft company. As one gaming journalist summarized:
The current predicament of these titles goes beyond the amount of money invested or the buzzwords used to market them – it’s about Microsoft’s plan to effectively manage its studios. Encouraging independence isn’t an excuse for such a blatantly hands-off approach which allows titles to fester for years in development hell, with some fostering mistreatment to occur. On the surface, it’s just baffling how a company that’s been ranked as one of the top 10 most reputable companies eight times in 11 years (as per RepTrak) could have such problems with its gaming division.
The upshot is that Microsoft appears to have recognized that its own game-development branch is failing, and that acquiring a well-functioning rival is the only way to rapidly compete with Sony. There is thus a strong case to be made that competition authorities and courts should approach the merger with caution, as it has at least the potential to significantly increase competition in the game-console industry.
Finally, leveling up is sometimes a way for smaller firms to try and move faster than incumbents into a burgeoning and promising segment. The best example of this is arguably Meta’s effort to acquire Within, a developer of VR fitness apps. Rather than being an attempt to thwart competition from a competitor in the VR app market, the goal of the merger appears to be to compete with the likes of Google, Apple, and Sony at the platform level. As Mark Zuckerberg wrote back in 2015, when Meta’s VR/AR strategy was still in its infancy:
Our vision is that VR/AR will be the next major computing platform after mobile in about 10 years… The strategic goal is clearest. We are vulnerable on mobile to Google and Apple because they make major mobile platforms. We would like a stronger strategic position in the next wave of computing….
Over the next few years, we’re going to need to make major new investments in apps, platform services, development / graphics and AR. Some of these will be acquisitions and some can be built in house. If we try to build them all in house from scratch, then we risk that several will take too long or fail and put our overall strategy at serious risk. To derisk this, we should acquire some of these pieces from leading companies.
In short, many of the tech mergers that critics portray as killer acquisitions are just as likely to be attempts by firms to compete head-on with incumbents. This “leveling up” is precisely the sort of beneficial outcome that antitrust laws were designed to promote.
Building Products Is Hard
Critics are often quick to apply the “killer acquisition” label to any merger where a large platform is seeking to enter or reinforce its presence in an adjacent market. The preceding paragraphs demonstrate that it’s not that simple, as these mergers often enable firms to improve their competitive position in the adjacent market. For obvious reasons, antitrust authorities and policymakers should be careful not to thwart this competition.
The harder part is how to separate the wheat from the chaff. While I don’t have a definitive answer, an easy first step would be for authorities to more seriously consider the supply side of the equation.
Building a new product is incredibly hard, even for the most successful tech firms. Microsoft famously failed with its Zune music player and Windows Phone. The Google+ social network never gained any traction. Meta’s foray into the cryptocurrency industry was a sobering experience. Amazon’s Fire Phone bombed. Even Apple, which usually epitomizes Silicon Valley firms’ ability to enter new markets, has had its share of dramatic failures: Apple Maps, its Ping social network, and the first Home Pod, to name a few.
To put it differently, policymakers should not assume that internal growth is always a realistic alternative to a merger. Instead, they should carefully examine whether such a strategy is timely, cost-effective, and likely to succeed.
This is obviously a daunting task. Firms will struggle to dispositively show that they need to acquire the target firm in order to effectively compete against an incumbent. The question essentially hinges on the quality of the firm’s existing management, engineers, and capabilities. All of these are difficult—perhaps even impossible—to measure. At the very least, policymakers can improve the odds of reaching a correct decision by approaching these mergers with an open mind.
Under Chair Lina Khan’s tenure, the FTC has opted for the opposite approach and taken a decidedly hostile view of tech acquisitions. The commission sued to block both Meta’s purchase of Within and Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision Blizzard. Likewise, several economists—notably Tommasso Valletti—have called for policymakers to reverse the burden of proof in merger proceedings, and opined that all mergers should be viewed with suspicion because, absent efficiencies, they always reduce competition.
Unfortunately, this skeptical approach is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: when authorities view mergers with suspicion, they are likely to be dismissive of the benefits discussed above. Mergers will be blocked and entry into adjacent markets will occur via internal growth.
Large tech companies’ many failed attempts to enter adjacent markets via internal growth suggest that such an outcome would ultimately harm the digital economy. Too many “boss battles” will needlessly be lost, depriving consumers of precious competition and destroying startup companies’ exit strategies.