‘New eyes’: gamers greet Microsoft’s Activision deal with guarded optimism

When Drew Bienusa began playing Call of Duty, a first-person shooter game published by Activision Blizzard, he was immediately smitten. He loved how immersive having a digital avatar was, and the game was a favourite among his friends.

>> Erin Woo and Kellen BrowningThe New York Times
Published : 19 Jan 2022, 03:10 PM
Updated : 19 Jan 2022, 03:10 PM

Bienusa was so dazzled that in 2016, he began livestreaming himself playing Call of Duty on the Twitch platform. He gave himself the gamer name Frozone and amassed 114,000 Twitch followers. In January, he became a professional Call of Duty: Warzone player for the esports organisation XSET.

But by then, Bienusa’s feelings about Call of Duty had changed. Bugs in the game went unfixed for months, he said. Activision’s communications with competitive players fell off. And he was turned off by a recent sexual harassment lawsuit against the company that exposed its toxic workplace culture.

So on Tuesday, when Bienusa, 26, woke up to the news that Microsoft planned to buy Activision for nearly $70 billion, he was jubilant. “New eyes, new people, new owners, new management — it’s a step in the right direction,” he said. “It’s almost at a point where it can’t get worse.”

Bienusa was one of many gamers who expressed cautious optimism about the biggest-ever deal in the $175 billion games industry. The acquisition of Activision, if approved by regulators, will help bolster Microsoft’s video game ambitions with a library of popular titles, including Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, Crash Bandicoot and Overwatch. Microsoft also positioned the deal as one that would help it delve into the futuristic digital world of the metaverse.

Yet ultimately, the deal’s success will hinge on how it is received by gamers. Historically, many players have expressed alarm about how acquisitions might affect the quality of online games. When Microsoft bought the maker of Minecraft in 2014, for instance, some gamers were concerned.

This time, the reaction has been more positive, partly because of how much Activision — with more than 400 million players worldwide — has appeared to stumble with its core users in recent years. In interviews, gamers said they saw Microsoft as a potential life raft for Activision Blizzard and as a welcome chance to bring new people into gaming.

In an email to employees, Activision’s chief executive, Bobby Kotick, said the purpose of the deal was to continue strengthening Activision’s games and its company culture. Activision declined to comment further. Microsoft did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Activision’s decline with gamers has unfolded over the last few years. Many said they had been down on the publisher for some time, concerned that Activision put too much pressure on some divisions — such as Blizzard, which it merged with in 2008 — to deliver frequent hits, rather than giving developers the time to create iconic games. Then last year, Activision became embroiled in a lawsuit over workplace harassment brought by a California employment agency, raising questions about its conduct.

Activision’s track record with some of its games also became spottier. In November, it delayed new versions of Diablo and Overwatch. That same month, the newly released Call of Duty: Vanguard was widely panned as being boring and full of glitches.

Parris Lilly, a video game streamer and co-host at Gamertag Radio, said Microsoft’s deal to buy Activision would not only help Xbox Game Pass, Microsoft’s video game subscription service, but also let Activision’s developers step off the treadmill. Microsoft’s purchase might permit developers to “take a well needed break” so they can improve games over time, rather than update them so frequently, Lilly said.

He added that the acquisition could be an opportunity to fix Activision’s workplace issues under Kotick. Kotick declined to say in an interview if he would remain chief executive after the deal closed. The expectation is that he will step down, though he could move into an advisory role, people with knowledge of his plans have said.

Several gamers said the deal also had the potential to transform competitive video gaming leagues — known as esports — that are dedicated to Activision games like Overwatch and Call of Duty: Warzone. Such leagues, in many players’ eyes, have languished under Activision’s stewardship. Microsoft has seen success with its game Halo, which is played competitively.

Many gamers also said they couldn’t care less about Microsoft’s framing of the deal as a way to strengthen its footing in the metaverse. They said the metaverse seemed like a far-off idea, whereas the deal had the potential to improve Activision’s games and workplace immediately.

“In all honesty, I don’t really know much about the metaverse and all of that,” Bienusa said.

Chris Nobriga, 28, from San Jose, California, said he had spent over 11,000 hours playing World of Warcraft, an online role-playing game, over the past decade, after watching his brother play sparked his interest.

But although he kept playing, he said, his views on the game changed over time as popular developers left Activision and the company reused in-game systems.

The company “has failed,” Nobriga said. “If we’re not even talking about Bobby Kotick or the sexual harassment, even just talking about pure gameplay, people in World of Warcraft are really jaded.”

He said he and other gamers were sceptical but hopeful that Microsoft’s acquisition could make a difference. “There is a chance that they could turn the company around” and “reevaluate the objectives in how the company runs,” Nobriga said.

Another gamer, Jared Neelley, 28, has experienced the downside of a Microsoft gaming-related deal. In September 2016, one month after Microsoft bought the streaming service Mixer, he joined it to stream Call of Duty: Black Ops 3.

At first, he said, it felt like “someone’s coming to save you.” But Microsoft shut down Mixer in 2020, after Neelley had become the fourth-most-followed streamer on the platform, with 440,000 fans. Using the gamer name JaredFPS, he now streams Call of Duty: Warzone to 63,000 followers on Twitch.

Even so, he said, he was hopeful about the Activision deal because he felt Microsoft knew how to succeed in games in a way that Activision, with its leadership in tumult, did not.

“Short term, no one’s going to see a difference,” Neelley said, saying it would take time for Microsoft executives to make changes. “Long term, I feel like it is the best thing for the company and the community.”

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