The gaming world turned upside-down on Tuesday morning when Microsoft decided, "Yes, today is a good day to spend wads of cash." Nobody could have imagined that the Xbox parent company would acquire Activision Blizzard for a whopping 11 digit figure. Now that it's happened, it's needless to say that... there are some questions.
My mind raced the moment that I saw the Activision Blizzard acquisition story. I didn't even know where to begin with it, other than to ask questions, which I'll go ahead and post here. Here are some of the more critical questions, in no particular order.
1. What happens to the Activision Blizzard workers?
One of the biggest stories of 2021 in gaming involved the toxic "frat boy" culture of Activision Blizzard being put under a microscope. Frustration from years of harassment and discrimination boiled over, leading to worker protests and the formation of ABetterABK, which pledges to continue its fight for a better workplace.
This is also where it should be noted that, as of the time of this post, QA workers at Raven Software are still protesting for better conditions with no sign of this standoff ending. Put a pin in Raven, because I'll get to them later.
One has to think that Microsoft will walk through the door and immediately seek to up morale and change the company culture. What exactly will that entail? Will they be receptive to ABetterABK's demands? Will they end the "frat boy" culture at Activision Blizzard for good? Is it possible that things can get worse? Remember that Microsoft has had its own sexual harassment issues in the past. The workers will be the ones to watch throughout this transition, so stay tuned.
2. What happens to Bobby Kotick?
This is quite the million-dollar question, isn't it? The answer to the Activision Blizzard CEO's status changed throughout the day on Tuesday. A Microsoft spokesperson initially confirmed to Axios that Kotick would remain in place. However, Bloomberg later reported that Kotick would step down upon the completion of the deal, meaning all Activision Blizzard business would fall under the purview of recently-promoted Microsoft Gaming CEO Phil Spencer.
Bobby Kotick's ultimate fate matters to a lot of people, especially those hurt by his leadership. On the one hand, even if he departs, he's likely exiting with a golden parachute worth millions of dollars. He's essentially being rewarded for allowing his company to fester in toxicity, as well as for his disgusting actions like allegedly writing Frances Townsend's widely-condemned company email and installing Jennifer Oneal as a figurehead leader of Blizzard while also paying her less than her male counterpart. In a just world, the Bobby Koticks of the world would not end this story a wealthier man. Sadly, we live in a terrible reality and we have to take little victories where we can get them.
"What victory could you possibly be talking about?" you, the reader, may be asking.
A gaming world without Bobby Kotick is immediately a better one. It's a world where workers are treated with more respect. It's a world where employees aren't forced into working crunch hours before being discarded like broken toys. It's a world where ideas are allowed to thrive and aren't shut down the moment they aren't on par with Call of Duty. It's a world where game developers can create something exciting and not just resign themselves to being a Call of Duty content farm. It's a world where gaming stories are allowed to move at their own pace and not bastardized by being forced into annual releases. It's a gaming world that would have allowed studios like Neversoft, Radical Entertainment, Bizarre Creations, Shaba Games, and countless others would still be alive if not for the fickle greed of one man and his board of directors.
Bobby Kotick leaving gaming forever and unable to hurt anybody anymore would be nothing short of priceless.
3. What happens to Battle.net?
Diving into an actual product, the fate of Blizzard's proprietary Battle.net launcher is one of the biggest mysteries to come from this acquisition. When Activision first bought Blizzard back in 2008, Battle.net remained an independent entity. It housed a select few games, all of which fell under the Blizzard umbrella. While it would eventually start to house Activision games like Call of Duty and Crash Bandicoot, Battle.net is still a house exclusively for Blizzard products.
However, Microsoft has its own Xbox interface, one that's available on Windows PCs. The Xbox team has been pushing Xbox Game Pass hard over the past few years, including the Xbox Game Pass for PC service. A lot of Xbox users have adopted it, but not quite at the rate Microsoft would want. One big way to ensure more people use the Xbox interface would be by axing the Battle.net launcher for good. Would that really be a step in the right direction, though? Even Activision, for as many instances as the company was single-mindedly greedy, understood the value in Battle.net and its interface. Why anger the Blizzard base by getting rid of it?
What happens with Battle.net once the smoke clears will be something to watch for, especially as newer Blizzard titles under the Microsoft umbrella begin development.
4. What happens to Overwatch 2 and Diablo 4?
By now, readers following this story closely have likely read the GamesBeat interview with Bobby Kotick, where he cited the delays in Overwatch 2 and Diablo 4 as one of the primary reasons for the company's stock decline. I'll give everyone a moment to process how grossly disingenuous this reasoning is.
With that out of the way, it is worth noting that part of the fallout from Activision Blizzard's 2021 has been the number of departures and how that affected Blizzard's two biggest projects. It can be reasoned that, despite the delays, Microsoft sees the performance potential in these two titles. It's easy to dunk on Overwatch, but that game does have a fanbase. Despite the multitude of problems plaguing Activision Blizzard, the company touted Diablo 2: Resurrected as a success, noting its record sales for the remaster in its Q3 2021 earnings call, showing there's still a big audience for Diablo.
Development for these two games will be under higher scrutiny than ever, especially as the sale to Microsoft is processed. Will they inch towards the finish line and be ready to roll as the sale is completed? Or will new owners at Microsoft have to step in and potentially hit the reset button? Given the news we've seen out of both camps, I feel like it's much likelier that Overwatch 2 gets a total overhaul... or even canceled outright, given its lack of progress.
5. What happens to World of Warcraft's subscription model?
This is an interesting one because it harkens back to an era where World of Warcraft was king. It was at the top of the MMORPG mountain, a domain where few dared to enter and fewer survived. People gladly forked over a monthly fee to dive into Azeroth with their friends. WoW was at the forefront of pop culture. Do I even need to talk about the South Park episode? Is WoW still as popular today as it was back then? No, of course it isn't, but it still delivers subscriber numbers unlike anything else in its genre outside of Final Fantasy 14. Not only does the modern product still draw interest from modern fans, but it's now old enough to evoke nostalgia, hence the addition of WoW Classic.
However, Microsoft also has its own subscription service. It was brought up earlier. It's called Xbox Game Pass. Would the Xbox team have simultaneous subscription services competing with one another? Would WoW subscriptions be offered as a Game Pass incentive? Could WoW subscriptions be scrapped entirely for the Game Pass model? Will future expansions be released as part of Game Pass?
This question is much harder to answer and it should be interesting to see where Microsoft lands on a subscription-based game that's been going strong for almost 20 years.
6. Does Call of Duty stay an annual franchise?
This might be my favorite question because it helps illustrate the divide between the average player and the media. I can put on my top hat and my monocle and say, "Oh ho ho, Call of Duty has been ever-so-stale for about a decade. Fuhfuhfuhfuhfuh!" Meanwhile, the franchise continues to sit at the top of annual sales charts consistently, well over a decade after it broke out with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
However, like that Predator meme with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers, the two sides can unite to agree that Call of Duty: Vanguard was fairly underwhelming. It's the first time that almost everyone could look at a Call of Duty multiplayer ecosystem and think, "You know, this is getting old."
Microsoft doesn't do a lot of "annual" releases. The closest example that I can think of is the Forza franchise and even those games seem to come every other year. I can't envision the Xbox team looking at Call of Duty and thinking that an annual iteration is necessary. Whether they do may depend on their thoughts on Warzone, which I'll get to in a moment.
If Call of Duty does remain on an annual schedule, the good news is that Microsoft has a much larger roster of studios to help add new ideas. Instead of trading off between Infinity Ward, Treyarch, and Sledgehammer Games, imagine MachineGames being thrown into the rotation. Imagine Arkane Studios trying something totally different. What if Obsidian Entertainment just broke the entire mold and did something wacky with the whole franchise?
Or, imagine if Call of Duty stopped coming out every year. Imagine a single installment allowed to breathe with only occasional DLC content. Think about the multitude of studios that are on Call of Duty that can go free and make something totally different. I talked about Raven Software earlier. They were once a studio that made incredible games like the early Jedi Knight titles and the original Marvel: Ultimate Alliance. High Moon Studios made an incredible Transformers trilogy and a cult hit with Deadpool before getting thrown in Call of Duty jail. Beenox put together some fun Spider-Man games and helped revive Crash Bandicoot before getting tossed down the Call of Duty chute. Now picture these studios being set free with Microsoft as their guide.
Outside of the questions regarding the fates of the workers, this is probably the one answer I'm most curious about.
7. Does Call of Duty: Warzone stay multiplatform?
I may not be Loki, but my name sort of rhymes with that, so let's get a little mischievous with this question. Would Microsoft go for the PlayStation jugular and declare that Call of Duty: Warzone is an Xbox exclusive?
This idea would potentially rock the gaming world, as Warzone is probably the most popular free-to-play battle royale shooter not called Fortnite. The idea of shuttering service on PlayStation and keeping it on the Xbox ecosystem can be a scary idea, largely because it demonstrates one of the more negative ramifications of a growing gaming monopoly. Gaming is at its best when more people can play, not less.
Would such a thing happen? I could only envision it if Xbox wraps up development on Warzone, period, and starts work on a sequel. That doesn't feel likely, so there's a good chance Warzone will stay on all platforms. There's already precedence for this with the 2014 Minecraft acquisition.
Still, the scenario of Warzone going Xbox-only will linger in the back of my head until it's formally debunked. Although I will say that this Phil Spencer quote helps a lot.
8. What happens to the Overwatch and Call of Duty Leagues?
Let's dive into the realm of electronic sports! Activision Blizzard shook the pro gaming scene up something fierce upon starting up the Overwatch League, shortly followed by the launch of the Call of Duty League. Unfortunately, there are a lot of reasons why the buzz for both leagues died out.
First and foremost, the COVID-19 pandemic popped almost every fantasy balloon imaginable. Activision Blizzard once had a beautiful vision of a full-blown esports league with home teams stationed across the globe. It would mirror traditional sports, a prospect that sounded exciting on the surface. Then COVID-19 happened and... well, that was the end of that. Both leagues carried on, but the buzz was mostly gone, as were the live crowds for about a year.
There's a worse problem for the Overwatch League, specifically. Overwatch has grown stale and with Overwatch 2 in limbo, it doesn't look like anything is going to change for a long time. There are no new heroes, no new maps, no major balance changes coming, and with all of that, there's no real reason to get invested. Factor in the rise of Riot Games' Valorant and it's been a bad few years for the Overwatch League with no light at the end of the tunnel in sight.
The Call of Duty League faces a different kind of problem and that's a general lack of enthusiasm for Vanguard's multiplayer, especially if r/CODVanguard is any indication. Strong pro players can make anything look compelling, but with the Halo Championship Series looking to resurrect itself on the heels of Halo Infinite, the COD League faces some stiff competition this year.
Running esports leagues is expensive. Remember that Microsoft spent a jaw-dropping $70 billion USD on Activision Blizzard and may not want the annual costs, nor the logistical headaches, associated with keeping these esports leagues afloat, especially if their games aren't drawing particularly well.
9. Would Microsoft revive unused Activision Blizzard properties?
This is a fun idea, just because Activision Blizzard has a handful of properties collecting dust. The fun thing about this one is, these properties don't even necessarily have to go to studios under the Activision Blizzard umbrella. I'm talking about Double Fine playing around with King's Quest. I mean Rare getting a crack at Crash Bandicoot. How about Ninja Theory taking on Prototype?
Not to skip ahead to later in the week, but we have some ideas we're floating around for the next edition of Shack Chat. Let's put a pin in this question for now and we welcome you to revisit this topic with us this Friday.
10. What happens to BlizzCon?
I'd like to end with this question, just because working the BlizzCon beat has led to some of my most positive experiences in this industry. The passionate Blizzard fanbase is one unlike any other I've seen and watching the joy unfold around me at Blizzard's annual convention is indescribable. However, now that Microsoft is about to be the new landlord in the Activision Blizzard building, what does this mean for BlizzCon?
I feel like the answer to this is going to depend on who gets to make the call. If it's Blizzard, I have a sense that they're fully aware that they're in the middle of their darkest period. Between the pandemic and the multitude of allegations against people who used to be beloved figures in the community, the company is in a terrible place. Celebrating everything that makes Blizzard good and the unifying qualities of their games can help go a long way towards easing the pain, moving forward, and starting a new chapter where everybody feels welcome.
If it's Microsoft that makes the call, I'm not so sure BlizzCon comes back. The combination of the pandemic and the dark cloud left overhead by the continuing drama have created a feeling that BlizzCon's time has passed. Those conventions represented a certain era of prosperity and innocence and that's not something that can easily be replicated. Right now, there's a sense that BlizzCon is not only gone but it's not missed. If that feeling remains prevalent, even after (if?) the pandemic subsides, Microsoft may determine that keeping the party going may not be worth the trouble.
Then again, the Bethesda acquisition went through and QuakeCon is still around, so who knows? Maybe there is a future for Blizzard's annual convention and there's a chance that the fanbase can unite and be merry again, living in a gaming world where Bobby Kotick and the people who have hurt others are a distant memory.
Off the top of my head, those are my main questions about what's happening with Microsoft and Activision Blizzard. Do you have any questions you're thinking about? Join the conversation and let us know in the comments.