In a recent blog post on this site about the Microsoft/ Activision Blizzard merger, the European Commission had just reached a decision to approve the merger subject to remedies, but the investigations in the USA and UK were still ongoing. Since then, the merger has been approved by competition authorities around the world, including in the USA and UK, and thus the merger has gone through.
However, there were some differences in the way the case unfolded under the regulation of these three competition authorities.
The European Commission’s (EC) decision
The European Commission (EC) was the first to give the merger the green light. The EC’s in-depth investigation revealed concerns about the market for the distribution of games via cloud game streaming services. In particular, the concern was related to the possibility that Microsoft might make Activision’s games exclusive to its own cloud game streaming service (Game Pass Ultimate) and restrict access from competing cloud game streaming providers.
The EC argued that this in turn could strengthen Microsoft’s position in the market for PC operating systems, as Microsoft may have an incentive to limit or reduce the quality of the streaming of Activision’s games on PC’s which do not use the Windows operating system.
Thus, while the merger was approved, this was subject to remedies. These remedies included 10-year licensing commitments from Microsoft, as outlined in the EC’s press release:
These licenses will ensure that gamers that have purchased one or more Activision games on a PC or console store, or that have subscribed to a multi-game subscription service that includes Activision games, have the right to stream those games with any cloud game streaming service of their choice and play them on any device using any operating system.
This type of remedy is called a behavioural remedy and often requires the merging firms to commit to taking particular actions post-merger. Unlike structural remedies (which may for example, require the merging firms to sell off an entire business unit), behavioural remedies often require monitoring and enforcement by competition authorities. The EC argued that the deal, with these behavioural remedies, could strengthen competition in the market for cloud gaming.
The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) decision
The FTC, in the USA, had similar concerns to those of the EC related to the cloud gaming market. These were outlined in the FTC’s press release:
[The deal] would enable Microsoft to suppress competitors to its Xbox gaming consoles and its rapidly growing subscription content and cloud-gaming business.
The FTC also argued that when Microsoft had previously acquired gaming content, it had made this content exclusive to Microsoft consoles. This could result in higher prices, and reduced quality, choice and innovation. To this end, the FTC appealed in an attempt to block the deal, but the Court ruled in favour of the deal going ahead.
During this time, Microsoft announced that it had committed to keeping Call of Duty on Sony’s PlayStation after the merger, and this likely contributed towards the court’s decision. Hence, the FTC was unsuccessful in its attempt to halt the merger.
The Competition and Markets Authority’s (CMA) decision
The final hurdle remaining for Microsoft, was the CMA’s approval. As outlined in a previous blog post on this site, the CMA’s phase 2 investigation revealed similar concerns about the supply of cloud gaming services (amongst concerns related to the market for the supply of console gaming services, which were later dispelled), and whilst Microsoft offered some commitments similar to those accepted by the EC, the CMA did not deem these to be sufficient to address its concerns and thus prohibited the merger.
The CMA’s published remedies guidance suggests that the regulator has a preference for structural remedies over behavioural remedies. One of the reasons for this is because of the requirement to monitor and enforce the commitments, and this therefore formed part of the CMA’s reasons for not accepting the remedies. Unsurprisingly, Microsoft appealed this decision to the UK’s Competition Appeals Tribunal (CAT), probably partly driven by the fact that the EC accepted similar remedies to those rejected by the CMA. However, Microsoft and the CMA agreed that if the appeal was paused, Microsoft could propose a new deal.
The new deal: did the CMA make a U-turn?
In August 2023, Microsoft submitted a new restructured deal for the CMA to review. As described by the Chief Executive of the CMA, this deal was “substantially different from what was put on the table previously” and was therefore investigated as a separate merger case under the CMA’s phase 1 processes.
The new deal meant that Microsoft would no longer be purchasing the cloud streaming rights held by Activision. Instead, the cloud streaming rights would be sold to an independent third-party game publisher – Ubisoft. This means that Microsoft will not be in control of the cloud gaming rights for Activision’s gaming content (outside of the EEA), and therefore will not be able to restrict its competitors’ access to Activision’s games, which was one of the main concerns outlined by the CMA based on the initial merger proposal. The new deal also opens up the possibility that Activision’s games will be made available on cloud gaming services that run on a non-Windows operating system.
On 13 October, the CMA approved this deal, subject to the cloud gaming rights being sold to Ubisoft, and some subsequent commitments from Microsoft in relation to its relationship with Ubisoft post-merger, as outlined in the CMA’s final report. However, the Chief Executive of the CMA has emphasised that they are unhappy with the way that Microsoft dealt with negotiating the approval of the merger:
But businesses and their advisors should be in no doubt that the tactics employed by Microsoft are no way to engage with the CMA. Microsoft had the chance to restructure during our initial investigation but instead continued to insist on a package of measures that we told them simply wouldn’t work. Dragging out proceedings in this way only wastes time and money.
What’s next in big tech?
While the merger deal has now gone through, the FTC has recently re-opened its case against Microsoft, which will continue to unfold over the next couple of months until December when the case will appear in Court. This means it is possible that the FTC could attempt to undo the merger, though this would be challenging.
In the tech market more broadly, the CMA has recently launched a market investigation into cloud services. While the focus of this blog post was on cloud gaming, cloud services are now increasingly being used by many businesses. The CMA’s issues statement suggests that a key focus of its investigation will be on the ability for customers to switch between cloud service providers. Microsoft is one of the largest providers of cloud services in the UK, and therefore it is inevitable that it will be under scrutiny. Given all three regulators’ recent efforts to ‘crackdown’ on big tech, this is just one of a series of cases that will be interesting to see unfold.
- Microsoft completes $69bn takeover of Call of Duty maker Activision Blizzard
- Game over or game on as Microsoft appeals Activision decision
BBC News, Michael Race & Zoe Kleinman (13/10/23)
Clifford Chance Insights, Sue Hinchliffe (19/6/23)
Competition authorities documentation
- Anticipated acquisition by Microsoft Corporation of Activision Blizzard (excluding Activision Blizzard’s non-EEA cloud streaming rights): Decision on Acceptance of Undertakings in Lieu of Reference
- FTC Seeks to Block Microsoft Corp.’s Acquisition of Activision Blizzard, Inc.
- Mergers: Commission clears acquisition of Activision Blizzard by Microsoft, subject to conditions
- CMA launches market investigation into cloud services
Competition and Markets Authority (13/10/23)
Federal Trade Commission (8/12/22)
European Commission Press Release (15/5/23)
Competition and Markets Authority Press Release (5/10/23)
- Discuss the effectiveness of behavioural remedies vs structural remedies for a merger.
- Why might the competition authorities have been concerned about the possibility of Microsoft making Activision’s games exclusive to its own cloud game streaming service? Is exclusive dealing always anti-competitive?
- Why was the transfer of the cloud game streaming rights to Ubisoft seen as a suitable remedy?