Brit watchdog slams Microsoft as it clears $69B Activision Blizzard buy
'Tactics employed by Microsoft are no way to engage with us'
Britain's competition regulator finally waved through Microsoft's $69 billion purchase of games developer Activision Blizzard today, ending a 15-month saga that turned more than a little tetchy at times.
The Windows giant said it can now close its takeover of the publishing house.
The decision seemed a mere formality following the Competition and Markets Authority's comment in August that a concession offered by Microsoft – to divest cloud streaming rights for Activision games to Ubisoft outside of the European Economic Area – addressed concerns.
The regulator tried to claim some victory of sorts today by saying it is "clearing this narrower transaction," and its intervention means Microsoft can no longer lock up cloud gaming competition, ensuring prices and services remain healthy for consumers.
"The CMA is resolute in its determination to prevent mergers that harm competition and deliver bad outcomes for consumers and businesses. We take our decision free from political influence and we won't be swayed by corporate lobbying," said CMA CEO Sarah Cardell in a statement.
"We delivered a clear message to Microsoft that the deal would be blocked unless they comprehensively addressed our concerns and stuck to our guns on that," she added.
When the CMA blocked Microsoft's buy of Activision in April, after finding serious competition concerns, things got bitter. Activision Blizzard said it would "work aggressively" with Microsoft to appeal the decision.
A spokesperson added at the time: "The report's conclusions are a disservice to UK citizens, who face increasingly dire economic prospects. We will reassess our growth plans for the UK. Global innovators large and small will take note that – despite all its rhetoric – the UK is clearly closed for business."
We have now crossed the final regulatory hurdle to close this acquisition
Microsoft vice-chair and president Brad Smith accused the regulator of having a "flawed understanding of this market and the way the relevant cloud technology."
In a nod to the silliness, Cardell at the CMA said today: "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."
The tone from Microsoft now could not be more different. In a statement sent to The Reg, Smith said: "We're grateful for the CMA's thorough review and decision today. We have now crossed the final regulatory hurdle to close this acquisition, which we believe will benefit players and the gaming industry worldwide."
According to Alex Haffner, competition partner at UK lawyer Floodgate, said the decision ends what became a "tumultuous process for all concerned."
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"In many ways," he told us, "the end result is no different to other transactions which have raised significant competition concerns amongst competition regulators with the parties agreeing concessions to mitigate those concerns in an effective and clean cut manner.
"But what is different here is the circuitous route taken to get to that end point and the fact that Microsoft and Activision had to go to the brink of court proceedings before an accommodation was found.
"The question that is left hanging therefore is whether this case shows a merger oversight system in the UK that is too dogmatic in dealing with what is a forward looking competitive assessment (especially in the case of 'Big Tech'), or one which can be sufficiently flexible when required, provided always that consumer protection is to the fore." ®