Microsoft (MSFT) might have called off its attempt to buy some or all of TikTok, but it's still apparently quite interested in using M&A to better connect with younger consumers.
The company's $7.5 billion deal to buy ZeniMax Media -- the parent company of game publisher/developer Bethesda Softworks -- is the fifth billion-dollar-plus M&A transaction it has struck in the Satya Nadella era. The prior ones: A $2.5 billion 2014 deal to buy Minecraft developer Mojang, a $26.2 billion 2016 deal to buy LinkedIn, a $7.5 billion 2018 deal to buy code-hosting platform GitHub and a $1.35 billion 2020 deal to buy mobile infrastructure software provider Affirmed Networks.
Bethesda is the owner of game franchises such as Fallout, Doom, Quake, The Elder Scrolls, Dishonored and Wolfenstein, along with a handful of others. The deal stands to increase the number of game studios owned by Microsoft by 8 to 23 and add more than 2,300 employees to its payroll.
Here are some initial thoughts on the acquisition, which Microsoft expects will close during the back half of its fiscal 2021 (ends in June 2021).
1. The Deal Drives Home Gaming's Strategic Importance to Microsoft
Microsoft is less than a week removed from formally launching its cloud gaming service -- it was formerly codenamed xCloud, and for now only works with Android devices -- as a feature for its Xbox Game Pass Ultimate service. And it's less than two months away from starting shipments of not one, but two next-gen consoles (the Xbox Series X and Series S).
All in all, Microsoft is signaling pretty loudly this year that gaming remains quite important to the company and is a key part of its broader strategy for expanding its consumer tech footprint.
The continued growth seen in gaming activity and spending -- growth that has accelerated this year thanks to COVID-19 -- undoubtedly has something to do with Microsoft's thinking. And so might the fact that (just as a TikTok deal would have) the company's gaming hardware, software and services provide it with avenues for connecting with younger consumers who are often relying on Macs and Chromebooks for their PC needs and Alphabet's (GOOGL) G Suite for their productivity apps.
Here, it's worth noting that Bethesda's most popular franchises involve first-person shooters and action role-playing games -- genres whose demographics skew towards younger male gamers.
2. The Deal Strengthens Xbox Game Pass and Microsoft's Cloud Gaming Service
Not surprisingly, Microsoft promised to add Bethesda's franchises to its Game Pass game-download services. It also promised to make future Bethesda titles available on Game Pass "the same day they launch on Xbox or PC."
Currently, Microsoft offers $10/month Game Pass services (Xbox Game Pass and Xbox Game Pass for PC) that respectively work with Xboxes and Windows PCs. It also sells a $15/month service (Xbox Game Pass Ultimate) that covers both platforms while also providing access to the Xbox Live Gold multiplayer gaming service and Microsoft's cloud gaming service.
Between the Bethesda deal and a recent deal with Electronic Arts (EA) to bundle the EA Play game-download service with Game Pass for PC and Game Pass Ultimate, Microsoft has done a lot this month to expand its Game Pass library. And Bethesda also stands to significantly grow the library for Microsoft's cloud gaming service, which currently supports more than 100 titles and is expected to eventually work on Xboxes and PCs.
3. This Is the Kind of Purchase Other Tech Giants Might Be Reluctant to Make Right Now
20 years after the DOJ tried to break up Microsoft, it's ironically the U.S. tech giant seeing the least antitrust scrutiny.
As Alphabet, Facebook (FB) , Apple (AAPL) and Amazon.com (AMZN) continue dealing with U.S. and/or E.U. antitrust probes -- formal U.S. charges against Google and Facebook might be arriving soon -- Microsoft for now isn't dealing with anything similar. Slack (WORK) did file an E.U. antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft earlier this year over its bundling of Teams with Office 365, but the E.U. hasn't yet signaled how it plans to respond to the suit.
The fact that Microsoft is facing relatively little antitrust heat might be a big reason why it has easily been the most aggressive tech giant over the last couple of years when it comes to pursuing large M&A deals. In the case of the Bethesda deal, the company is not only shelling out $7.5 billion, but doing so to buy a company that competes against some of Microsoft's game studio units.
4. PlayStation Support for Future Bethesda Games Remains a Big Unanswered Question
Microsoft gaming chief Phil Spencer has promised that his company will maintain Bethesda's existing commitments to launch upcoming titles on rival gaming platforms, such as Sony's PlayStation 4 and 5. These commitments include plans to make a pair of upcoming titles -- action-adventure games Deathloop and GhostWire: Tokyo -- PS5 exclusives for a limited time.
However, Spencer was cagey when asked about whether future Bethesda titles will support rival platforms, saying that Microsoft will decide whether to support other consoles "on a case-by-case basis."
Not making some or all of Bethesda's future games available on PlayStations would naturally reduce their addressable market, and just maybe raise the eyebrows of antitrust regulators. But it's not hard to see why Microsoft could be tempted to do it.
From all indications, the PS5 is currently generating more enthusiasm among gamers than the Xbox Series X and S, and this has much to do with PS5 possessing a stronger library of exclusive games/franchises. While Microsoft does have some popular franchises that are exclusive to its platforms, such as Halo, Forza and Gears, Sony, whose exclusives include franchises such as Horizon, Spider-Man, Sackboy and Gran Turismo as well as recent hit Ghost of Tsushima, has an edge here.
If Microsoft is willing to swallow the near-term financial hit that would come from such an action, and if regulators don't object, making Xboxes the only consoles supported by future releases for Bethesda franchises such as Fallout, The Elder Scrolls and Doom would do a lot to even the playing field.
5. A Deal Like This Could Help Fuel Additional Game-Publisher Consolidation
Over the last few years, the meteoric growth of video streaming services (Netflix (NFLX) , especially) has done a lot to drive media industry consolidation, as movie and TV studio owners see a strong incentive to add scale that could make their own streaming services more compelling and/or give them more negotiating power with the likes of Netflix and Amazon.It's possible that execs at Electronic Arts, Activision Blizzard ( ATVI) , Take-Two Interactive ( TTWO) and Ubisoft are having similar thoughts in the wake of the Microsoft-Bethesda deal. With Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo each now claiming large game-studio units, and with subscription gaming services poised for takeoff, some independent game publishers might now see a greater incentive to get bigger via M&A, in order to strengthen their negotiating power with console makers and perhaps also create larger catalogs for their own gaming services.