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Microsoft and Activision Blizzard: The complete timeline

From inception to lawsuits - how has the biggest deal in gaming history progressed?
Microsoft and Activision Blizzard: The complete timeline

Microsoft’s ongoing attempt to acquire Activision Blizzard is a story that has captured the interest of the entire industry. Whether you’re for or against the deal, it’s hard to deny that it has massive implications for just about every sector of gaming, from mobile to console to cloud gaming. It’s a deal that’s faced scrutiny from competitors and legislators alike, and although the companies have slowly but surely inched closer to finalising the deal, it’s still possible that it could be abandoned - and the implications of either outcome has massive implications for the industry.

So how did we get here and, perhaps more importantly, where are we going next?

#1: October 2023

Following the receipt of the CMA's provisional acceptance, Microsoft announced on October 6 that it hoped to close the deal as early as October 13.

The 13th proved to be a significant date indeed, with the CMA finally granting the deal its approval, having considered its implications on the wider gaming industry. While the deal has yet to be officially closed at the time of writing, it now seems more of a formality than anything else.

However, one barrier remains, at least in theory - the FTC is still in the process of appealing the 9th Circuit Court's decision to deny its injunction to block the deal, with plans to resume its case three weeks after receiving a decision. Should Microsoft and Activision Blizzard close the deal prior to this, the FTC would be in a tricky situation, as it's significantly harder to undo a deal than block its completion in the first place.

#2: September 2023

September proved to be yet another quiet month on the Acquiblizz front, with Microsoft and Activision Blizzard seemingly moving at a leisurely pace. There was one big piece of news, but it was a significant one: namely that the CMA had offered the deal its provisional approval. With the deal's longest-standing barrier seemingly lifting, it seemed only a matter of time until the companies reached the finish line.

#3: August 2023

In the latest sign of the deal approaching completion, New Zealand became the latest country to approve the acquisition on August 8.

#4: July 2023

With the contractual deadline fast approaching, July proved to be a significant month for the deal, with a California judge denying the FTC’s preliminary injunction - a decision which prompted the FTC to launch its own appeal the next day - which it lost on July 17.

The judge’s move opened the door for Microsoft and Activision to close the deal ahead of the contractual deadline, although this in itself was a risky prospect - doing so would essentially be based on the assumption that Microsoft and Activision Blizzard would emerge victorious in its upcoming court cases with the CMA and FTC. While a speedy decision by the CMA could pave the way forward, this failed to happen.

The contractual deadline for the deal passed on July 18, with no movement in sight. As a result, Microsoft and Activision formally extended the deadline until October 18, two months after the court cases are due to be completed.

Highlighting their continued commitment to the deal, Microsoft and Activision agreed on a higher termination fee should either walk away from the table - while the original agreement of $3.5 billion is still the case should the deal be closed prior to August 29 - the day after its court case with the FTC, it will increase to $4.5 billion if it’s not finalised by September 15.

In perhaps the biggest sign yet that the chances of blocking the deal are becoming increasingly slim, the FTC offered no objection when Xbox submitted a motion to withdraw from proceedings - as such, the commission would need to refile or reach a settlement in order to continuously challenge the acquisition, paving the way for progress, at least in the USA.

Activision Blizzard has also agreed to “hold separate the Company or certain assets of the Company or to implement other lawful alternatives to consummate the Merger” with the CMA if necessary. Given its own reluctance to accept a Mexit situation, this points to a positive future for the deal, albeit one where the newly merged entity has to find a potentially expensive workaround to the CMA’s objections in an attempt to conduct business in the UK.

Arguing its case with the CMA, Microsoft asked regulators to consider the strong progress made recently, including the deals struck with competitors and evidence from its case with the FTC. The company is also working on modifying the merger agreement to meet the CMA's concerns, which could include selling its cloud gaming rights in the UK.

For its part, the CMA has taken the unusual step of soliciting additional comments from gaming insiders before it publishes its final opinion on whether the recent changes are enough to warrant an approval. As such, while we're now within touching distance of the deal's closure, we're still not quite there yet.

In other news

#5: June 2023

June 1 saw Microsoft’s appeal tribunal against the UK get a date of July 24 which - as with its court case with the FTC - was after the contractual deadline for the deal.

And speaking of the FTC, it once again returned to the spotlight when it filed for a preliminary injunction against the acquisition. June 15 saw a judge officially block the deal until the court decided whether or not to approve the injunction.

New Zealand also delayed its decision regarding the deal to July 17, the day prior to its contractual deadline.

In other news

#6: May 2023

Microsoft began preparation to appeal the CMA’s decision in the hopes of overturning its decision. However, in a signal of its continued concern regarding the deal, the CMA issued an interim order preventing the companies from investing in each other.

May saw the first potential signs of discord between Microsoft and Activision Blizzard emerge, with Microsoft boss Satya Nadella refusing to rule out a situation where Microsoft and Activision Blizzard responded to the deal by simply taking Activision Blizzard products off the market in the UK in a so-called Mexit. While remaining bullish on the deal, Activision Blizzard stressed in a shareholder’s letter that the deal could be abandoned “if any action has been taken by any governmental authority of competent jurisdiction, that… prohibits, makes illegal or enjoins the consummation of the merger and has become final and non-appealable.”

However, the approvals continued to roll in, reinforcing the UK’s position as one of the deal’s fiercest critics. Markets such as China, South Korea, and Ukraine were among those who approved the deal, but it was the EU’s decision to approve the deal that caused the most discord, specifically since the bloc was satisfied with Microsoft’s proposed concessions on cloud gaming - concessions which the CMA rejected.

In other news

#7: April 2023

A relatively slow month to the deal instead showed to be just the calm before the storm, as the CMA officially blocked the deal on April 28, with cloud gaming cited as the core reasoning for the decision. According to the group, Microsoft accounted for 60-70% of the global cloud gaming market, and the deal would seemingly see the company tighten its grip on the market.

In other news

#8: March 2023

March 2 saw some potentially positive news for Microsoft, with reports circulating that the EU was unlikely to demand an asset dump in order to approve the deal. This asset dump would see Call of Duty, or even entire parts of Activision Blizzard, out of the equation. This move was suggested by the CMA, and quickly nixed by Microsoft president Brad Smith, suggesting that while Activision Blizzard’s strength on mobile remained the core reasoning for the deal, the potential revenue on other platforms remained attractive.

Later in the month, the CMA reversed its earlier decision regarding the deal’s effect on Microsoft’s console competitors - however, it remained concerned regarding the cloud gaming market.

In other news

#9: February 2023

February 6 saw the EU issue Microsoft with a formal antitrust warning, seemingly swayed by Jim Ryan’s concerns regarding the acquisition. The same day, it was reported that the CMA intended to block the deal, essentially facing Microsoft Blizzard with a battle on three fronts.

Despite this, Microsoft slowly but surely began to make progress elsewhere, signing a ten year deal to bring Call of Duty to Nintendo, as well as entering a deal to bring the franchise to Nvidia’s GeForce Now platform, seemingly winning over one former critic.

In other news

#10: January 2023

Talks between the FTC and Microsoft were seemingly at a standstill on January 4, with the FTC claiming that no substantive talks had taken place which would allow the suit to be settled outside of court. However, Microsoft did agree to enter into a binding agreement to maintain Call of Duty’s availability, despite its previous reluctance to do so.

It was also reported that the FTC’s court case against the deal would see Microsoft and Activision Blizzard miss the deal’s contractual deadline, forcing the companies to renegotiate - which could see Activision Blizzard demand a higher fee due to the substantial increase in stock prices.

Two more industry heavyweights, Google and Nvidia, also waded into the fray - with Google bringing mobile to the forefront, stating that Microsoft’s intent to introduce its own mobile app store - and potentially making Activision Blizzard’s slate of mobile titles exclusive to it - could harm Google Play’s revenue.

The CMA also extended the deadline for its investigation to April, having come to the conclusion that “the merged entity’s incentive to foreclose Sony may be considerable stronger than suggested by the parties”, and deciding that the deal warranted further scrutiny.

In other news

#11: December 2022

December saw the FTC’s four-person panel at something of an impasse, with one democratic member of the panel aligning with Republican commissioner Christine Wilson in supporting the deal on December 5.

However, this impasse soon ended, as the panel voted to sue to block the deal on December 9. This move led to criticism from numerous parties, including the EU and Microsoft itself.

In other news

#12: November 2022

Despite the increased scrutiny faced by the deal, Bobby Kotick remained bullish on the future of the deal in an open letter to employees, stating that the deal would help Activision Blizzard maintain its place in an increasingly competitive field.

Further credence was also given to Microsoft’s claims that the deal was primarily mobile-focused, with mobile accounting for 52% of the company’s net revenue in its Q3 financials.

In other news

November 24: Rumours circulate that the FTC will block the deal.

#13: October 2022

The EU, the world’s largest trading bloc, represents a major market for the games industry, and as such it was vital that Microsoft and Activision Blizzard gain its approval.

On October 4, the bloc launched its investigation to analyse the implications of the deal, and the effects it could have on the wider industry. The investigation had a deadline of November 8, after which it was possible that a second, four-month-long phase of the investigation would be opened.

October 5 saw the CMA officially launch its own investigation, with legislators due to examine the deal by March 2023. Two weeks later the group doubled down on these plans, with its preliminary investigation finding that “the merged entity’s incentive to foreclose Sony may be considerable stronger than suggested by the parties”

In other news

#14: September 2022

The most significant hurdles have been related to competition, and on September 1 the CMA became the first to bring these concerns to the forefront, believing that the deal could negatively affect the broader gaming ecosystem.

In a statement, the group said “The CMA is concerned that Microsoft could leverage Activision Blizzard’s games together with Microsoft’s strength across console, cloud, and PC operating systems to damage competition in the nascent market for cloud gaming services.”

This investigation soon entered a second stage, as the CMA grew concerned that PlayStation would struggle in the wake of the acquisition due to Microsoft’s ownership of the massive Call of Duty franchise.

#15: August 2022

Saudi Arabia became the first country to approve the acquisition, officially getting the ball rolling on its completion. Interestingly, the deal served to benefit Saudi Arabia, thanks to a sizable stake in Activision Blizzard through its Public Investment Fund. The deal’s completion could see the country gain over $1 billion.

#16: May 2022

In the first significant hurdle of many, New York City filed a suit against Activision Blizzard due to several concerns. Primarily, the court was concerned that the deal deliberately undervalued the gaming giant, and that it would allow Kotick - who it called “unfit to negotiate a sale of the company” - to escape liability and accountability in ongoing suits filed against Activision Blizzard.

#17: January 2022

Microsoft officially announced the acquisition for a massive $68.7 billion - far and away the most expensive gaming acquisition of all time. Mobile was quickly highlighted as the key factor in the deal, with Phil Spencer stating “"Mobile is the biggest category and an area where we have not had a major presence before and this transaction adds one of the most successful mobile publishers to Microsoft gaming, and I’m personally looking forward to learning from the innovative teams at King."

However, the storm clouds were already gathering. Middling sales, delayed releases, and consumers shifting their attention to other games saw Activision Blizzard struggle throughout 2021, while the company’s culture of sexual abuse, harassment, and discrimination saw the company - and CEO Bobby Kotick - face significant criticism.

#18: 2020

Microsoft has long claimed that the core reasoning for its attempts to acquire Activision Blizzard is the company’s strength on mobile platforms - strengths which Xbox boss Phil Spencer has repeatedly admitted that Microsoft lacks.

Backing up this assertion is the list of companies Microsoft considered purchasing - alongside multi platform developers such as Square Enix and Sega Sammy, the company had their eye on notable names such as Scopely, Niantic, and Zynga. It originally opted for Zynga, only to decide it needed to go bigger in order to get a head start on mobile gaming.