Microsoft Corp.
had been working for close to a year to calm regulators’ concerns about its acquisition of videogame developer
Activision Blizzard Inc.,
but the Federal Trade Commission’s suit to block the deal raised doubts about the company’s pledge not to shut out rivals.

The FTC this week took one of its biggest swings ever against a big technology company and sued to stop the planned $75 billion acquisition, setting the stage for a court challenge over a deal the antitrust agency said would harm competition.

The commission’s complaint said the deal is illegal because it would give Microsoft the ability to control how consumers beyond users of its own Xbox consoles and subscription services access Activision’s games. Microsoft has repeatedly said it wouldn’t engage in such actions. The FTC’s complaint accused Microsoft of reneging on a similar pledge to a European regulator in the past, a criticism the company disputes.

Earlier this week, as the possibility of a lawsuit grew, Microsoft touted the deal’s benefits to gamers through an op-ed article in The Wall Street Journal and announced an agreement to give a competitor access to one of Activision’s most popular games. The FTC filed its lawsuit on Thursday.

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“The Proposed Acquisition, if consummated, may lessen competition substantially or tend to create a monopoly,” the FTC said in its complaint against Microsoft.

Executives at the Redmond, Wash., company have said it would take a long time to get all the approvals needed from regulators around the world, and it had given itself close to 18 months for the process. The deal could now miss Microsoft’s mid-2023 deadline, and some analysts said Microsoft might want to drop the acquisition.

Microsoft should “take the hint and give up the deal that, if completed, might end up a Pyrrhic victory of executive distraction and expensive regulatory concessions,” John Freeman, vice president at investment-research firm CFRA Research, wrote in a note to investors.


Competitors had expressed concerns the deal would block them from access to Activision games such as the popular ‘Call of Duty’ franchise.

Photo: Allison Dinner/Associated Press

At stake is Microsoft’s big ambitions for its videogaming business, which had revenue of $16 billion in the company’s last fiscal year. That total represents less than 10% of Microsoft’s overall revenue. The business is a crucial part of Microsoft’s plans to diversify to attract more noncorporate customers.

The FTC’s move came after the company had avoided the brunt of the anti-tech backlash of recent years.

The suit represents a “somewhat meaningful setback” for Microsoft because of the company’s longtime lobbying efforts, said Stifel Nicolaus analyst Brad Reback. “They’ve worked very hard to stay on the right side of government agencies.”

Microsoft’s representative in Washington—its vice chairman and president,

Brad Smith
has been building relationships in the capital for decades. He had helped cultivate an image of the software giant as one of the friendly technology leaders, an enviable position in a regulatory environment that has been increasingly hostile toward tech titans.

One of the longest-serving leaders inside Microsoft, Mr. Smith joined the company in 1993 and was a legal adviser through its bitter antitrust disputes with regulators worldwide in the 1990s.

“We have been committed since Day One to addressing competition concerns, including by offering earlier this week proposed concessions to the FTC,” Mr. Smith said after the lawsuit was filed. “While we believed in giving peace a chance, we have complete confidence in our case and welcome the opportunity to present our case in court.”

In its complaint, the FTC accused Microsoft of previously suppressing competition from rivals through its 2021 acquisition of ZeniMax Media Inc., parent of “Doom” developer Bethesda Softworks, despite giving assurances to European antitrust authorities that it would do otherwise. Microsoft said the FTC’s ZeniMax allegation is misinformed.


Brad Smith, Microsoft’s vice chairman and president, has been building relationships in Washington for decades.

Photo: Zed Jameson/Bloomberg News

Microsoft officials have expressed confidence in closing the Activision deal, which it has valued at $68.7 billion after adjusting for Activision’s net cash. Lawmakers and industry representatives have said it would be hard for any of the biggest U.S. tech companies—including
Apple Inc.,
Amazon.com Inc.,
Google parent
Alphabet Inc.
or
Facebook

owner Meta Platforms Inc.—to win approval for a large acquisition in the current political environment.

In recent years, as government scrutiny and competition between the biggest tech companies have been increasing, Microsoft has tried to appease regulators.

For example, in May, Microsoft announced a set of principles it would abide by when dealing with cloud-service providers in Europe, hoping to assuage concerns its cloud business was hurting European cloud companies. The principles included pledges to work with European cloud providers and support the success of software vendors running on Microsoft’s cloud.

Amid concern the deal could hurt attempts to unionize at Activision or elsewhere in the gaming industry, Microsoft in June said it was open to working with any labor unions that want to organize.

As PlayStation maker
Sony Group Corp.
and others said they were concerned the acquisition could leave competitors locked out of Activision’s popular “Call of Duty” franchise, Microsoft this week said it would make it available for the first time on Nintendo Co.’s Switch gaming consoles for at least 10 years.

Microsoft this week also made its case to the public. “Blocking our acquisition would make the gaming industry less competitive and gamers worse off,” Mr. Smith, wrote in the Monday op-ed article in the Journal. “Think about how much better it is to stream a movie from your couch than drive to Blockbuster. We want to bring the same sort of innovation to the videogame industry.”

It is too soon to tell whether the FTC can succeed in blocking the acquisition. The agency likely will have to go before a federal judge, a process that could take months to unfold, said Eric Talley, a professor at Columbia Law School.

The case could be difficult for the regulator to win because courts have traditionally not seen deals among companies that specialize in different phases of the same industry’s production process—so-called vertical mergers—as competitive dangers, he said.

“It may require the commission to convince a judge to change the law somewhat,” he said. “That makes it a difficult case for the FTC to win, though they presumably knew this going in.”

Write to Sarah E. Needleman at Sarah.Needleman@wsj.com