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‘Xbox Wins?’ Gamers Cautiously Celebrate Microsoft Activision Deal


When Microsoft announced that it was spending $69 billion to buy the video game maker Activision Blizzard in January last year, Justin Katz was stunned.

To Mr. Katz, a 34-year-old former professional video game player from Lansing, Ill., it was a seismic event that allowed Microsoft to claim victory over Sony in the console business by obtaining Activision’s slate of popular games, like Call of Duty.

“I thought there was no way — this can’t be,” he said. “Console wars are over? Xbox wins?” Mr. Katz, who now streams video games recreationally on Twitch under the name FearItSelf for Evil Geniuses, a professional gaming organization, worried that Microsoft, which makes the Xbox, would take Call of Duty away from people who played on Sony’s PlayStation consoles.

But over the past year, Mr. Katz has been heartened by Microsoft’s plans to keep Call of Duty available on PlayStation, and by its agreements to offer the game to Nintendo’s Switch and other platforms. With the deal finally closing Friday after a global regulatory battle, Mr. Katz, like many other gamers, is now cautiously optimistic about Microsoft’s assuming control of one of the gaming industry’s biggest publishers.

“There’s a lot of energy and hype and attention,” Mr. Katz said, “but with that comes skepticism, and expectations are a lot higher because you spent all this money.”

The process of securing regulatory approvals for a corporate merger is often a dull slog, watched only by the keenest business and antitrust enthusiasts. Not so with Microsoft’s Activision deal, which has captured the attention of millions of video game enthusiasts.

Gamers inundated a British regulatory agency with more than 2,000 public comments, spent countless hours on YouTube watching legal analysis of government attempts to block the deal and packed the Zoom audience for a hearing in federal court about the acquisition in June.

Three-quarters of those who emailed the British agency said they were eager to see Microsoft complete its deal. Many were convinced that the transaction would buoy Activision’s game development and give players access to premium games for a cheaper price through Microsoft’s monthly subscription.

Gamers have also expressed hope that Activision, which was accused in a 2021 lawsuit of having a sexist workplace culture, will improve its treatment of employees under Microsoft’s ownership. Some PlayStation gamers who fear their platform’s quality will now lag behind Xbox’s, however, remain worried.

The acquisition was one of the most dramatic developments in the history of the video game console wars, a long-running feud between PlayStation and Xbox players that is akin to interactions between fans of rival sports teams.

Gamers are notoriously opinionated, and they have weighed in on aspects of the deal ranging from the future of Bobby Kotick, Activision’s chief executive, to the Federal Trade Commission’s struggles to understand the gaming industry as it took Microsoft to court in an attempt to block the transaction.

Gamers’ interest in the transaction has been so strong that it repeatedly came up in federal court. A Microsoft lawyer, Beth Wilkinson, suggested that the company could not afford the reputational blow if it reneged on promises to keep Call of Duty available on PlayStation.

“They couldn’t face the wrath from the gamers,” she testified.

In recent years, Microsoft has tried to improve its image with gamers, positioning itself as unconcerned about competing with Sony and more focused on removing barriers to playing games by offering low-cost products like Xbox Game Pass, the $11-a-month subscription.

It has said its acquisition of Activision is good for the industry, though government regulators like the F.T.C. argued that the purchase was anticompetitive, and some of Microsoft’s private communications that were revealed in court showed the tech giant was more interested in battling Sony by keeping games exclusive to its Xbox ecosystem than it had let on.

On Friday, Microsoft said the deal’s closure would instead increase access to Activision’s games.

“We believe our news today will unlock a world of possibilities for more ways to play,” Phil Spencer, the chief executive of Microsoft Gaming, wrote in a blog post.

Many gamers trust that Microsoft will keep its word, and think the deal will be good for the industry. Ross Varner, an information technology consultant in Houston, said he and other gamers he knew thought Microsoft was likely to improve Activision’s corporate culture while also giving the developer the freedom and time needed to produce quality games.

“Because Activision has basically just been a Call of Duty machine for the last several years, they’re hopeful that Microsoft will have them go back to franchises they haven’t touched in a long time,” said Mr. Varner, 35, who plays on both an Xbox and a PlayStation.

Sony, which declined to comment on the deal’s closure, had opposed the Activision deal, concerned that Microsoft could remove Call of Duty from PlayStation or otherwise degrade the game on its platforms, even though Microsoft has said it will not. After the F.T.C.’s efforts to stop the deal fizzled out in July, Sony agreed to a 10-year contract with Microsoft to keep the game on PlayStation. But PlayStation loyalists are still nervous.

“It’s making me feel like I need to switch to a whole different ecosystem in order to play the games that I was already playing,” said Johnathan Schoepf, a human resources specialist in Cincinnati who is primarily a PlayStation gamer.

Mr. Schoepf, 25, said he expected that future Activision games would be exclusive to Xbox, just as new games from Bethesda — a developer that Microsoft acquired in 2020 — have been.

“It’s a little bit like we’ve been stabbed in the back,” he said. “Microsoft has come and consolidated a huge part of the industry, two of the major publishing studios, and now is restricting their output on rival consoles.”

Mr. Katz, the former professional gamer, said he was optimistic, but was reserving judgment until he saw exactly how Microsoft handled the development of future iterations of key franchises like Call of Duty.

“The grass isn’t always greener just because another tech giant has taken over the reins,” he said.



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