Takeovers are nothing new in the video game industry. We’ve seen countless studios dissolve and reform in the belly of major gaming publishers, otherwise known as AAA developers, but no studio giant has ever tried to bite off this much. Microsoft wants Activision Blizzard, the studio behind the money-printing Call of Duty franchise and king of massive multiplayer games (MMOs) World of Warcraft.
The acquisition has been ongoing for quite some time now, with the news having dominated the gaming world throughout 2022. Naturally, a purchase of this size isn’t as easy as it looks. There’s a lot of updates constantly trending online on this but don’t worry, we’ve got all the beats covered to keep you up to date on the potential merger. We’ll be keeping this deep dive updated too as things develop, so be sure to check back whenever things get confusing.
Before diving in, it’s worth clarifying that Activision Blizzard is a holding company, and houses numerous game studios, as well as the company that lent its name to the holding title, Blizzard Entertainment. When Activison merged with Vivendi Games in 2008—Blizzard’s previous owner—the holding company Activision Blizzard was born, one of the first gaming mega corps of its time. Thus Blizzard entertainment still exists and were the main team facing the 2021 allegations.
The story begins with a studio struggling to manage its employees and put an end to a toxic and sexist work environment—a knife in the side of the company that ultimately set the acquisition in place. However, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, given the gaming industry’s reputation when it comes to problematic creators and missed opportunities for representation.
The news broke in July 2021, when the state of California filed a lawsuit against the game developer after a two-year investigation. What the state found was a “frat boy” culture running rampant in the company. Female employees frequently faced sexist abuse as well as severe employee inequality.
This behaviour culminated in the news that longtime Blizzard developer Alex Afrasiabi had a “Cosby suite”—a dedicated hotel room for boozing, that made reference to the convicted rapist Bill Cosby. On top of this, it was revealed that a female employee committed suicide while on a company trip with an unnamed “male supervisor.”
Things were not looking good for the California-based team. 2021 saw Blizzard veterans fleeing the sinking ship, while others were ousted from the company as the allegations began to mount. And then, in November 2021, it was revealed that CEO Bobby Kotick was well aware of the allegations and rumours floating around at the studio, and had done nothing to stop it.
On 3 February 2023, Activision Blizzard paid $35 million to the Securities Exchange Commission to settle charges involving the company’s violation of workplace misconduct reporting rules and whistleblower protections. Essentially, it didn’t have the appropriate structure in place to accurately collect and respond to internal complaints and discourse over the misconduct allegations as they were happening. While the settlement is massive, the organisation has chosen to accept no blame for what transpired. Classic.
Needless to say the outlook was not looking good for the developer. Once considered the benchmark for quality and passion within the industry, Blizzard’s good name had been stained by the news.
On 18 January 2022, Microsoft became the failing company’s knight in shining armour. According to The Wall Street Journal, the technology corporation put forward a bid to buy Activision Blizzard for a staggering $70 billion, an acquisition that would put Microsoft in third place for largest gaming company “in revenue,” behind only Tencent and Sony.
The purchase would be a monumental merger for Microsoft—who also houses one of gaming’s most famous studios, Bethesda Softworks—especially given that it would own another of the industry’s most successful franchises, Call of Duty. It’s an opportunity for Xbox to take back the throne and for Blizzard to clean up its act.
Despite approval from Activision’s board of shareholders, it’s not going to be an easy purchase, with flags raising constantly on the legality and ethicality of the buy for the industry.
Despite the game developers having reached an amicable agreement, the deal has been flagged to numerous government bodies designed to prevent monopolies and unfairness within the industry. Some gamers too are collectively organising in hopes to block the deal—seemingly in fear of a gaming market dominated by one team. Think of the Microsoft purchase as the Ticketmaster of the gaming industry.
Let’s start with the Competition and Markets Authority, better known as the CMA. This UK body has conducted an investigation into the merger and on 8 February 2023, published a summary of its findings. This research will allow the body to begin to try and block the joining of the studios, in the name of the consumer and for the allowance of fair competition to take place. It was suggested in the findings that Microsoft may have to sell off other parts of the company (like the Call of Duty part) before the deal can go through.
Kotick has since reacted to these claims in as amicable a way as possible… The Activision Blizzard CEO has claimed that the UK will become “death valley” if the deal is blocked by regulators. What he means is that the country has no chance of becoming “the next Silicon Valley” if it continues to block the deal. How these things are related is beyond me.
It’s not just UK regulators that have a problem with the deal though, as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), a regulating body from the US, has also flagged it as potentially harmful to competitors. The organisation has filed a lawsuit against Microsoft and is conducting its own investigation into the deal, with a hearing due to take place on 2 August.
As previously mentioned, gamers too are trying to block the tech giant from absorbing the industry. Reported by Bloomberg, the complaint filed on 20 December 2022 saw a group of “video gamers” concerned that the “merger may substantially lessen competition or tend to create a monopoly.” The suit is being filed thanks to the The Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914, a law that gives Americans the right to sue companies over anti-competitive behaviours.
The Japanese tech giant behind the PlayStation, Sony, isn’t pleased with Microsoft’s attempts at purchasing Activision Blizzard and has been at the forefront of discourse over the buy. The main concern centres on the fact that it might lose access to Call of Duty, a franchise that has made over $27 billion in its lifetime.
As arguments intensified, Microsoft relented and accepted that yes, Call of Duty is an essential game to both platforms. CEO of Xbox, Phil Spencer confirmed back in January of last year that the company has no intention of keeping CoD away from PlayStation.
As part of getting the deal approved Microsoft have offered a 10 year deal to Sony, ensuring the safety of the franchise for at least that time. Microsoft is desperate to show that it doesn’t plan to restrict CoD from Sony, despite the Japanese company’s worries.
While that’s all well and good, the two industry leaders can’t help continuing to butt heads, with Spencer coming onto the Second Request podcast in December 2022 to say that Sony want to grow at the expensive of Microsoft, elaborating that “Sony is leading the dialogue around why the deal shouldn’t go through to protect its dominant position on console, so the thing it grabs onto is Call of Duty.”
Activision Blizzard CCO also took to Twitter to highlight the success of Sony’s The Last of Us television adaption—proof in her eyes that the FTC need not to protect the market leaders, and that Sony’s position will be fine without its help. It was a bizarre move but one that the developers are hoping will raise positive publicity for the side of the acquisition.
Both sides are doing their best to garner support for their causes, with Sony going as far as to accuse Microsoft of “harassment” as the two behemoths fight it out in an EU court battle. The claims of harassment come due to Microsoft’s attempts at getting its hands on internal documents for discovery, a process in court that entitles parties to each other’s insider documents and emails. In short, Microsoft says its rival is stalling in the court while Sony pleads harassment at what is a very normal proceeding.
The bitter proceedings march on. The case is sprawling and is likely going to take years to resolve as independent bodies and regulators weigh in on the matter. The scope of this merger should be clear given that the entire western world has managed to get involved. Will Microsoft succeed in swallowing the industry whole?
The upcoming release of Avalanche Studios’ big-budget foray into the wizarding world of Harry Potter, Hogwarts Legacy has been marred with controversy during development, primarily in regard to the highly controversial author of the books, JK Rowling.
The writer lost a mammoth number of supporters a few years ago after she began transphobic rhetoric online. The strange reinvention of the once-beloved author into a hateful Twitter warrior has left gamers and fans divided over whether or not they should inadvertently support her by purchasing the new video game, set to release on 10 February 2023.
Spoiler alert: you probably shouldn’t.
In case you’ve been living under a rock (or just don’t use Twitter), Rowling is a trans-exclusionary radical feminist, aka a TERF. The position seeks to eliminate trans women from the feminist conversation, essentially refuting their gender identity. For some reason, the author is outspoken on this issue and seems to spend most of her day crying about it on the aforementioned app.
It goes without saying that this sort of rhetoric only serves to further alienate an already highly oppressed small group of people—a group that is barely protected by our governments and face daily struggles ranging from dysphoria to targeted abuse.
Rowling’s anti-trans stance led many fans to reassess and reanalyse the Harry Potter books. What has since been highlighted is that her writing repeatedly perpetuated negative stereotypes. Moreover, fans have spotted ways in which the author failed to recognise her own ignorance, particularly when it came to diversifying her cast and naming her characters.
In 2022, Jon Stewart reminded us all on his podcast The Problem with Jon Stewart of how problematic the British screenwriter’s portrayal of goblins are in her fantasy novels, with their image as big nosed, greedy bankers sharing many parallels with antisemitic stereotypes—a negative portrayal of Jewish people that has long persisted.
The imagery was reinforced even stronger in the films, the production of which she was heavily involved in. The worst part is how the bank that Harry and Hagrid enter in the first film has the Star of David adorned on the floor, silently reinforcing the parallel. The plot of Hogwarts Legacy actually revolves around a goblin uprising too, making the oppressed minority the villains. Obviously.
There is a clear oversight and unconscious bias in Rowling’s characterisation. It becomes even more apparent when you consider the fact that the only named East Asian character in the book is called Cho Chang, a name that makes zero linguistic sense when considered against actual Chinese naming conventions. Even worse is the name Kingsley Shacklebolt, given to one of Harry Potter’s few named black characters. How Shacklebolt got past everyone is beyond me.
In an interview with IGN on 25 January 2022, the game’s director Alan Tew addressed some of the issues surrounding the upcoming release, stating that they want to make sure that “the audience, who always dreamed of having this game, had the opportunity to feel welcomed back.” The team is painfully aware of the dark cloud that Rowling casts over the content. In spite of this however, Tew made a point of avoiding any mention of the author’s name during the recent interview, and instead only reiterated what he’d said previously when challenged on how he felt about working on the Intellectual Property (IP) after Rowling’s biases made headlines.
In addition to Tew’s unwillingness to get into the ethics of working on a world made by a transphobe, one of the game’s lead designers resigned from his role at the company in March 2022 after it was revealed that he ran a semi alt-right antifeminist YouTube channel. Red flag, anyone?
As you can imagine, Warner Bros’ and Avalanche Studios have tried to make positive changes to the game and entice fans back. Jason Schreier reported for Bloomberg in 2021 that Hogwarts Legacy would allow for trans playable characters, a move that was made possible thanks to persistent work from the team who were reportedly “uncomfortable with Rowling’s position and rattled by the effects she has had on a game they’ve put a lot into.”
Although a step in the right direction for the game, journalist Laura Kate Dale highlighted that it wasn’t really enough. And we can’t blame her, there’s a number of other better games you can support that are enjoyable and have zero ties to transphobes.
The team also previously announced that Rowling would have little creative control over the title—a pledge that ultimately failed to sooth critics as she’d still likely be making a fortune from the use of her IP.
Twitter users have been outspoken in their criticism of the game and calls to boycott. SCREENSHOT wanted to speak with a member of the trans community to better understand their perspective on the reality of people purchasing a game that will actively put money in the pocket of a transphobe.
Aries, a 23-year-old trans woman and avid gamer, shared her thoughts with me on the upcoming release, stating: “Buying the game actively hands money to someone who uses her status to step on trans people and spread transphobic views. People need to grow out of this franchise—it really doesn’t deserve any attention especially considering how unimaginative it is, as well as the prejudices and stereotypes it pushes.”
It’s worth noting that some gamers don’t see any need to boycott the title. In a brief chat with someone who chose to stay anonymous, I was told: “Honestly, I see the issue people have, and power to them for wanting to boycott the title but ultimately it’s a game that a lot of people have worked very hard on.”
They continued: “No matter how sh*t Rowling is, she’s still entitled to earn money from a game that uses a world she created. I don’t agree with her, but I want to play the game and I think we should try to remember that she had very little involvement in the final product. We can enjoy something that the developers worked hard on.”
The problem for so many is that the legacy of the Harry Potter universe is forever scarred by a woman who repeatedly pedals outdated and transphobic logic into the Twittersphere. We haven’t even mentioned the fact that she’s actively supported by heavily problematic groups like the LGB Alliance—an organisation whose primary aim is to erode trans rights and issues from the conversation.
If you grew up loving Harry Potter, as so many gen Zers and millennials did, you’ve likely had to reevaluate your love for the series. Ultimately, your standpoint on the Potterverse is up to you. I just hope that this exploration into the series’ problematic creator and on-going controversy might help you make an informed decision on whether or not you should boycott the game.