Who owns the video game rights to Marvel’s Spider-Man?
You probably heard today the divisive news that Spider-Man is coming to Marvel’s Avengers. The normally exciting news was somewhat tempered by the fact that the Neighborhood friendly web-slinger will be exclusive to the PlayStation versions of the game. The exclusive deal means those playing on Xbox, PC or Google Stadia will not get to play as the beloved Marvel character.
The announcement was met with all sorts of mixed reactions. PlayStation fans celebrated. Frustrated Xbox and PC gamers complained. It was your typical reaction to a console-exclusive announcement.
It also got many talking about the video game rights to Spider-Man, and who actually owns them. Many assume, based on the movies and 2018’s Marvel’s Spider-Man game (which released exclusively on PlayStation 4), that it’s Sony who owns the rights to the character. But that would be incorrect.
To be clear, Sony owns the movie rights for Spider-Man only. It’s a long and complex history that was only further complicated with the character’s introduction into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But make no mistake, despite Spider-Man being a Marvel character, his big-screen rights very much belong to Sony.
As for Spider-Man’s video game rights, well, that’s a little foggier, mostly because there’s been no major public announcement on the topic. Again, there’s a long history of the web-slinger on video games but we’ll start with the 2000s.
From 2000 to 2014, it was Activision who had exclusive rights to publish Spider-Man games. They were responsible for Ultimate Spider-Man (2005; Treyarch/Beenox), Spider-Man 3 (2007; Vicarious Visions/Treyarch/Beenox), Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions (2010; Beenox), Spider-Man: Edge of Time (2011; Beenox) and many more. Because Activision is a publisher and not a platform-holder, these games were released on various game consoles, including Nintendo, PlayStation and Xbox. The Amazing Spider-Man in 2012 was the publisher’s last game as the license expired in 2014.
Fast forward to June 2016, E3. Following the first-ever announcement of Marvel’s Spider from Insomniac Games at Sony’s press conference, Marvel Games head Jay Ong had this to say of the company’s new direction for console gaming:
"“We’ve had a long history of success with Activision, and we still have a great relationship with them. But the future of the Spider-Man console games is with Sony and Insomniac. We’re delighted about this partnership, and that’s something that’s going to continue forward. With [regard to] other console partners, stay tuned. There’s many more interesting additional things to come. But Activision is in the past, with regards to Spider-Man.”"
As far as we know, it is Marvel who still holds ultimate rights to the character. Ong’s comment in 2016 suggests as much as he called it a “partnership” and also mentioned other console partners.
That’s why we can see Spider-Man appear in mobile games like Marvel Future Fight, multiplatform games like LEGO Marvel Super Heroes 2, and even console-exclusive games like Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order for the Nintendo Switch. If Sony had owned his video game rights, you can bet he’d only be appearing on PlayStation.
So then how do we explain 2018’s Marvel’s Spider-Man, which released exclusively for PlayStation 4?
I’ll be honest, I’m not sure how this next part came about but it was Sony Interactive Entertainment’s Vice President of Product Development Connie Booth who visited Insomniac Games and broached the idea of the developer working on a Marvel game. I’m going to guess Sony had already had discussions with Marvel at the time and approval to make some sort of Marvel game.
In any case, Insomniac Games CEO Ted Price was initially “fairly neutral” on the idea as the studio had only developed original properties, like Ratchet & Clank and Sunset Overdrive, up until that point. But as he explained, those working at Insomniac were excited about the prospect of creating a Marvel game and so they agreed.
"Marvel wasn’t interested in having Insomniac work around a movie or comic tie-in either, they wanted Insomniac to create their own version of a character, and Marvel was willing to let the developer take their pick. “[Marvel said] ‘Look, we’ve got a lot of characters. Pick a character that you guys think works for you, and then we’d love to hear your take on it.'”"
The studio chose to go with Spider-Man.
So let’s recap real quick. Marvel offered to let Sony publish an exclusive game. Sony approached Insomniac Games, which picked Spider-Man out of the entire Marvel catalog of superheroes.
In 2018, Marvel’s Spider-Man launched exclusively for PlayStation 4. The game released to critical acclaim and has since become one fo the best selling superhero games of all time with over 13 million units sold worldwide as of August 2019.
In August 2019, Sony finally acquired Insomniac Games which was a long time coming.
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Keep in mind, throughout all this, Insomniac Games nor Sony never actually owned the exclusive rights to Spider-Man. It was all part of that initial partnership deal. Adding Insomniac to PlayStation’s Worldwide Studios didn’t suddenly give Sony exclusive video game rights for Spider-Man. Those presumably still belong to Marvel.
Nevertheless, it appears Sony and Marvel have a tightknit working relationship. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, a sequel of sorts to Marvel’s Spider-Man, was announced in June 2020. And today, August 3, Crystal Dynamics announced that Spider-Man would be coming to Marvel’s Avengers as an exclusive playable character for the PlayStation versions of the game. It will be Crystal Dynamics’ interpretation of the character and not any versions we’ve seen from Insomniac.
Again, none of these announcements mean Sony owns the video game rights to Spider-Man. So for now, as far as we know, it is still Marvel calling the shots for Spider-Man in video games.