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Microsoft signs deal to bring Call of Duty to Nintendo for 10 years

Same commitment made to Steam, putting pressure on Sony’s opposition to Activision acquisition

A solider rapels down the side of the building, silhouetted at night and lit by red neon, in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Image: Infinity Ward/Activision Blizzard
Oli Welsh is senior editor, U.K., providing news, analysis, and criticism of film, TV, and games. He has been covering the business & culture of video games for two decades.

In a significant coup for Microsoft in its battle to complete its acquisition of Activision Blizzard, the tech giant says it has signed a deal with Nintendo to bring Call of Duty to its consoles for 10 years.

Microsoft gaming boss Phil Spencer said that he had also made a similar commitment Valve, guaranteeing Call of Duty’s availability on Steam, simultaneously with Xbox, for another decade if the merger goes ahead.

The deals place pressure on Sony, which has been pleading with regulators in the U.S., U.K., and E.U. to block the $68.7 billion merger on anti-competitive grounds. Sony’s argument has rested to a great degree on its fears that Microsoft could make the massively popular Call of Duty series exclusive to Xbox, giving it a competitive advantage against Sony’s PlayStation consoles.

Microsoft has repeatedly denied that it would do this, saying it would not make commercial sense, and pointing to the example of Minecraft, which it has kept available on PlayStation and other platforms since its acquisition of developer Mojang in 2014. It then underlined the point by saying it had offered Sony a deal to keep Call of Duty on PlayStation for 10 years.

Sony has not accepted or commented on this offer; to do so would undermine its case with regulators. But the closure of similar deals with such major industry players as Nintendo and Valve lends considerable weight to Microsoft’s case, and puts pressure on Sony to accept Microsoft’s commitments in good faith — something Spencer alluded to in an interview with the Washington Post.

“The things I’ve heard and seen written in the press is maybe some intent on our side when we make public commitments to Sony, that our private commitments are untenable or don’t work for partners, or for Sony specifically,” Spencer said. “Maybe some aura gets put around our words that maybe they’re not genuine, [but] when you have a company like Nintendo or a company like Valve believing in the commitment, and reaching agreement with Nintendo on something like this, we think it’s an important point to have out in the market.”

There’s no date set for when Call of Duty would first arrive on Switch, or that console’s successor; Microsoft hopes to close the Activision Blizzard deal in June 2023, but “you can imagine if [the deal] closed on that date, starting to do development work to make that happen would likely take a little bit of time,” Spencer said. The ultimate goal would be to ensure new Call of Duty games arrived on Nintendo at the same time as Xbox, PlayStation, and PC, he said, brushing aside concerns that Switch might not be powerful enough to run them. “From how you get games onto Nintendo, how you run a development team that is targeting multiple platforms, that’s experience we have,” he said. (One solution would be to release Call of Duty as a cloud-streaming title on Switch, as Capcom has done with Resident Evil Village, for example.)

Call of Duty isn’t often associated with Nintendo consoles, although several entries in the series did make their way to Wii and even Wii U. If Microsoft does succeed in closing its deal and bringing Call of Duty back to Nintendo, it would be for the first time since 2013’s Call of Duty: Ghosts for Wii U. 2022’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is the first game in the series to launch on Steam since 2017’s Call of Duty: WWII, and it has been a massive hit there.

Recent reporting suggests that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission is “likely” to make a legal challenge to Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision Blizzard. With the FTC due to meet to discuss the deal on Dec. 8, the effective signatures of approval from Nintendo and Valve — two of Microsoft’s biggest competitors in gaming, Sony aside — are timely, to say the least.

What these 10-year deals do not guarantee is the availability of Call of Duty and other Activision Blizzard games to subscription services other than Microsoft’s own Game Pass. Sony has argued — quite persuasively, it must be said — that Microsoft could effectively kill competition in gaming subscriptions, where it is already the market leader, by making Call of Duty and other Activision Blizzard heavyweights like Overwatch and Diablo exclusive to Game Pass.

Update (Dec. 8, 2022): In a statement to Kotaku, Valve boss Gabe Newell confirmed that Microsoft had offered a legal commitment to keep Call of Duty on Steam for 10 years, but waved it away as unnecessary. Instead, he went one further and offered a glowing character reference for Phil Spencer and Microsoft’s gaming business, saying “we trust their intentions” and “we think Microsoft has all the motivation they need to be on the platforms and devices where Call of Duty customers want to be.” Doubtless, Microsoft’s lawyers will be gleefully forwarding this endorsement from a major competitor to the FTC and other competition regulators.

Here’s Newell’s statement in full:

We’re happy that Microsoft wants to continue using Steam to reach customers with Call of Duty when their Activision acquisition closes. Microsoft has been on Steam for a long time and we take it as a signal that they are happy with gamers reception to that and the work we are doing. Our job is to keep building valuable features for not only Microsoft but all Steam customers and partners.

Microsoft offered and even sent us a draft agreement for a long-term Call of Duty commitment but it wasn’t necessary for us because a) we’re not believers in requiring any partner to have an agreement that locks them to shipping games on Steam into the distant future b) Phil and the games team at Microsoft have always followed through on what they told us they would do so we trust their intentions and c) we think Microsoft has all the motivation they need to be on the platforms and devices where Call of Duty customers want to be.

Update (Feb. 21, 2023): Microsoft has confirmed that the agreement to bring Call of Duty games to Nintendo is now a signed and legally binding 10-year contract. All Call of Duty games will come to Nintendo systems “the same day as Xbox, with full feature and content parity.”

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