Reuters New York/Washington
Microsoft Corp is buying “Call of Duty” maker Activision Blizzard for $68.7bn in the biggest gaming industry deal in history as global technology giants stake their claims to a virtual future.
The deal announced by Microsoft on Tuesday, its biggest-ever and set to be the largest all-cash acquisition on record, will bolster its firepower in the booming videogaming market where it takes on leaders Tencent and Sony.
It also represents the American multinational’s bet on the “metaverse,” virtual online worlds where people can work, play and socialise, as many of its biggest competitors are already doing.
“Gaming is the most dynamic and exciting category in entertainment across all platforms today and will play a key role in the development of metaverse platforms,” Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella said.
Microsoft’s offer of $95 per share represents a premium of 45% to Activision’s Friday close.
Activision’s shares were last up 27% at $83.11, still a steep discount to the offer price, reflecting concerns the deal could get stuck in regulators’ crosshairs.
Microsoft has so far avoided the type of scrutiny faced by Google and Facebook but this deal, which would make it the world’s third largest gaming company, will put the Xbox maker on lawmakers’ radars, said Andre Barlow of the law firm Doyle, Barlow & Mazard PLLC.
“Microsoft is already big in gaming,” he said.
However, a source familiar with the matter said Microsoft would pay a $3bn break-fee if the deal falls through, suggesting it is confident of winning antitrust approval.
The tech major’s shares were last down 1.3%.
The deal comes at a time of weakness for Activision, maker of games such as “Overwatch” and “Candy Crush”. Before the deal was announced, its shares had slumped more than 37% since reaching a record high last year, hit by allegations of sexual harassment of employees and misconduct by several top managers.
The company is still addressing those allegations and said on Monday it had fired or pushed out more than three dozen employees and disciplined another 40 since July.
CEO Bobby Kotick, who said Microsoft reached out to him for a possible buyout, would continue to be the CEO of Activision following the deal.
In a conference call with analysts, Microsoft boss Nadella did not directly refer to the scandal but talked about the importance of culture in the company.
“It’s critical for Activision Blizzard to drive forward on its renewed cultural commitments,” he said, adding “the success of this acquisition will depend on it.”
Data analytics firm Newzoo estimates the global gaming market generated $180.3bn of revenues in 2021, and expects that to grow to $218.8bn by 2024.
Microsoft already has a significant beachhead in the sector as one of the big three console makers.
It has been making investments including buying “Minecraft” maker Mojang Studios and Zenimax in multibillion-dollar deals in recent years.
It has also launched a popular cloud gaming service, which has more than 25mn subscribers.
According to Newzoo, Microsoft’s gaming market share was 6.5% in 2020 and adding Activision would have taken it to 10.7%.
Executives talked up Activision’s 400mn monthly active users as one major attraction to the deal and how vital these communities could play in Microsoft’s various metaverse plays.
Activision’s library of games could give Microsoft’s Xbox gaming platform an edge over Sony’s Playstation, which has for years enjoyed a more steady stream of exclusive games.
“The likes of Netflix have already said they’d like to foray into gaming themselves, but Microsoft has come out swinging with today’s rather generous offer,” said Sophie Lund-Yates, equity analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown.
According to Refinitiv data, the deal would be the largest all-cash acquisition on record, trumping Bayer’s $63.9bn offer for Monsanto in 2016 and the $60.4bn that InBev bid for Anheuser-Busch in 2008.
Tech companies from Microsoft to Nvidia have placed big bets on the so-called metaverse, with the buzz around it intensifying late last year after Facebook renamed itself as Meta Platforms to reflect its focus on its virtual reality business.
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