Background

The European Commission has fined Valve, the owner of the online PC gaming platform “Steam”, and five publishers Bandai Namco, Capcom, Focus Home, Koch Media and ZeniMax €7.8 million for breaching EU antitrust rules.

Valve and the other publishers restricted cross-border sales of certain PC video games based on the geographic location of users within the European Economic Area (“EEA”) by engaging in so-called “geo-blocking.” The fines for the publishers, totaling over €6 million, were reduced due to the companies’ cooperation with the Commission. Valve chose not to cooperate with the Commission and was fined over €1.6 million.

Commission Vice-President in charge of competition policy Margrethe Vestager stated:

More than 50% of all Europeans play video games. The video game industry in Europe is thriving and is now worth over €17 billion. Today’s sanctions against the “geo-blocking” practices of Valve and five PC publishers are a reminder that EU competition law prohibits companies from contractually restricting cross-border sales. Such practices deprive European consumers of the benefits of the EU’s single digital market and the ability to shop around for the best deal in the EU.

Steam is one of the world’s largest online platforms for PC video games, offering more than 35,000 games worldwide. It allows users to directly download or stream PC video games after authentication. In addition, users who purchase PC video games outside of Steam, such as from brick-and-mortar stores (e.g., DVDs) or digitally through downloads from third-party websites, can activate and play video games on Steam.

Valve provides video game publishers with the technical means to activate and play games on Steam, including games purchased outside of Steam, through what are called “Steam activation keys.” Publishers include these keys with their PC video games for user authentication/activation. The PC video games are then sold by third-party publishers throughout the EEA. Valve also provides publishers with a territory control feature that allows them to set up geographic restrictions during activation. Combining Steam activation keys with the territory control feature enables “geoblocking” of PC video games based on the user’s geographic location.

Publishers granted Valve a non-exclusive license to use certain PC video games worldwide, including throughout the EEA. In return, the publishers received a license from Valve to use Steam activation keys to distribute those PC video games outside of Steam. The publishers required Valve to establish geographic restrictions and provide geo-blocked Steam activation keys. The publishers provided these keys to their distributors for the sale and distribution of the PC video games in the relevant member states. This had the effect of preventing users located outside a particular Member State from activating a particular PC video game with Steam activation keys.

The Commission found that by bilaterally agreeing to block certain PC video games from outside a particular territory, Valve and the individual publishers partitioned the EEA market in breach of EU antitrust rules. Today’s decisions specifically find that Valve and the publishers engaged in the following geoblocking practices:

  • Bilateral agreements and/or concerted practices between Valve and each of the five publishers that used geo-blocked Steam activation keys to prevent the activation of certain PC video games from those publishers outside the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in response to unsolicited consumer requests (so-called “passive sales”). These lasted between one and five years and were implemented between September 2010 and October 2015, depending on the case.
  • Geoblocking practices in the form of licensing and distribution agreements entered into bilaterally between four of the five PC publishers (i.e., Bandai, Focus Home, Koch Media, and ZeniMax) and some of their respective PC video game distributors in the EEA (other than Valve), which contained clauses restricting cross-border (passive) sales of the affected PC video games within the EEA, including the Central and Eastern European countries mentioned above. These generally lasted longer, i.e., between three and 11 years, and were implemented between March 2007 and November 2018, depending on the respective bilateral relationships.

The geoblocking practices affected about 100 PC video games of various genres, including sports, simulation, and action games. They prevented consumers from activating and playing PC video games sold by publishers’ distributors either on physical media, such as DVDs, or through downloads. These business practices therefore denied European consumers the benefits of the EU’s Digital Single Market to shop around among Member States for the best deal. The Commission has concluded that the illegal practices of Valve and the five publishers partitioned the EEA market in violation of EU antitrust rules.

Fines

The fines were set on the basis of the Commission’s 2006 Guidelines on Fines (see press release and MEMO).

The five publishers cooperated with the Commission by providing evidence of added value in the investigation and by expressly acknowledging the facts and the infringements of EU antitrust rules.

The Commission therefore granted reductions in fines depending on the extent of this cooperation, ranging from 10% (for Bandai, Focus Home, Koch Media and ZeniMax) to 15% (for Capcom).

The fines imposed on the publishers are distributed as follows:

Video game publisherDiscount for cooperationFine (€)
Bandai Namco10 %340 000 EUR
Capcom15 %396 000 EUR
Focus Home10 %2 888 000 EUR
Koch Media10 %977 000 EUR
ZeniMax10 %1 664 000 EUR

Valve has decided not to cooperate with the Commission. The Commission has therefore issued a prohibition decision against Valve under the ordinary antitrust procedure and imposed a total fine of €1,624,000 on Valve.

Background to the investigation

On February 2, 2017, the Commission opened a formal antitrust investigation into the bilateral agreements between Valve Corporation and the other 5 publishers

On April 5, 2019, the Commission sent Valve and the others a Statement of Objections on “geoblocking” of PC video games.

This investigation is a separate proceeding from the Commission’s e-commerce competition investigation, but follows up on some of the issues identified in that investigation.

The investigations into “geo-blocking” of PC video games complement Regulation 2018/302 on unjustified “geo-blocking”, which has been in force across the EU since December 3, 2018.

Procedural background

Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) and Article 53 of the Agreement on the European Economic Area prohibit agreements between companies that prevent, restrict or distort competition within the EU single market.

Fines imposed on companies that have violated EU antitrust rules are paid into the general EU budget. This money is not earmarked for specific expenditures, but the member states’ contributions to the EU budget for the following year are reduced accordingly. The fines thus contribute to the financing of the EU and reduce the burden on taxpayers.

More information on this case will be available under the case numbers AT.40413; 40414; 40420; 40422; 40424 in the publicly accessible register on the Commission’s competition website once confidentiality issues have been resolved.

Action for damages

Any person or company affected by anticompetitive conduct such as that described in this case may bring an action in the courts of the Member States seeking damages. Both the case law of the Court of Justice and Council Regulation (EC) No. 1/2003 confirm that in cases before national courts, a Commission decision is binding evidence that the conduct took place and was illegal. Even if the Commission has imposed a fine on the cartel participants in question, damages may be awarded without being reduced because of the Commission’s fine.

The Antitrust Damages Directive, which Member States had to transpose into their legal systems by December 27, 2016, makes it easier for victims of anti-competitive practices to obtain damages.

Whistleblower tool

The Commission has set up a tool to make it easier for individuals to inform it of anti-competitive behavior while preserving their anonymity. The tool protects the anonymity of whistleblowers through a specially designed encrypted messaging system that allows two-way communication.

Marian Härtel ist spezialisiert auf die Rechtsgebiete Wettbewerbsrecht, Urheberrecht und IT/IP Recht und hat seinen Schwerpunkt im Bereich Computerspiele, Esport, Marketing und Streamer/Influencer. Er betreut Startups im Aufbau, begleitet diese bei sämtlichen Rechtsproblemen und unterstützt sie im Business Development.

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