UK’s Antitrust Regulator Blocks Microsoft, Activision Deal

Despite recent signs that it was softening its stance on Microsoft’s proposed $68.7 billion acquisition of Activision Blizzard, the U.K.’s antitrust regulator, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), has announced that it has decided to formally block the deal. 

The CMA said its decision was motivated by concerns about the deal’s effect on the future of the nascent cloud gaming market, where Microsoft is a key player. It feared the deal would lead to “reduced innovation and less choice for UK gamers over the years to come.”

It said that a solution proposed by Microsoft “had significant shortcomings and would require regulatory oversight by CMA.”

“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,” the government body said, announcing the findings of its monthslong review.

It reckons Microsoft “accounts for an estimated 60-70% of global cloud gaming services” already, thanks to the advantages of owning Xbox, Windows, and the Azure platform, as well as the Game Pass game subscription service to which Xbox Cloud Gaming is tied. The CMA views cloud gaming as an important, fast-growing sector of the games market that allows gamers to “avoid buying expensive consoles” and presents them with more “flexibility and choice as to how they play.”

The CMA viewed the behavioral remedies proposed by Microsoft, in the form of 10-year deals forcing it to make its games available to other cloud platforms, as insufficient. It said they would require regulatory oversight, did not sufficiently cover different business models such as subscriptions, and risked disagreement between Microsoft and other cloud gaming providers, given the amount of change that might happen in the sector over a 10-year period.

Microsoft and Activision Blizzard immediately said they would appeal the CMA’s decision.

Responding in a statement, Microsoft president Brad Smith said, “We remain fully committed to this acquisition and will appeal. The CMA’s decision rejects a pragmatic path to address competition concerns and discourages technology innovation and investment in the United Kingdom. We have already signed contracts to make Activision Blizzard’s popular games available on 150 million more devices, and we remain committed to reinforcing these agreements through regulatory remedies. We’re especially disappointed that after lengthy deliberations, this decision appears to reflect a flawed understanding of this market and the way the relevant cloud technology actually works.”

Both Microsoft and Activision Blizzard had been cautiously optimistic that the CMA might approve the deal, despite its initial skepticism. In March, the CMA set aside its concerns about the effect of the deal on the console market — specifically the availability of Call of Duty on PlayStation, which, thanks to ardent lobbying by Sony, had up to that point been at the forefront of regulatory concerns. 

While Microsoft and Activision begin the appeals process against the CMA’s decision, they will also be closely monitoring its effect on the position of other important global regulators. The European Union is set to announce its findings by May 22: It’s thought to be satisfied with Microsoft’s proposed remedies but may yet be swayed by the CMA’s harder stance. In the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission is challenging the deal in its own internal court, but without federal jurisdiction, may struggle to actually block it.

That means the appeal against the CMA decision now becomes the frontline in Microsoft’s effort to close the deal before a July 18 deadline that would make it liable to pay Activision a termination fee in the billions of dollars.