Soon after Sony revealed Spider-Man would become a character in Marvel's Avengers exclusively for the PlayStation 4, fans expecting to play as one of the most iconic comic-book superheroes on Xbox and PC complained heavily about the deal.
For many, this arrangement seemed natural considering the company owns the film rights to the character and recently published the exclusive Marvel's Spider-Man in 2018, developed by Insomniac Games.
Who owns the game rights to Spider-Man?
We wouldn't blame you for believing at face value that Sony owns the videogame rights for Spidey. However, while we have no confirmation, there's enough information out there to make an educated guess that this is not the case and that they belong to Marvel/Disney.
Starting in 2000, Activision held the videogame rights of Spider-Man, publishing 15 titles during their time working with Marvel. As they lost the rights in 2014, the company would start delisting their licensed games, including the vast catalog centred around the web-slinger.
Cut to E3 2016 and the surprise announcement of an Insomniac Games developed Spider-Man title exclusively for the PS4. Again, many were quick to believe Sony had just trusted the license on to the studio responsible for some of the most beloved PlayStation exclusives like Ratched & Clank or Spyro. This was simply a case of Marvel striking a deal with Sony, but not an outright licensing acquisition.
Marvel's game division had shifted strategies and was no longer in the business of handling licenses willy nilly (financially they don't need to) but rather was actively looking to develop an impressive roster of games that would elevate their brand even further, just as the Marvel Cinematic Universe was doing so for the film side of things.
"We wanted to work very selectively with companies that shared our vision, our ambition, and really usher in a brand new era for the Marvel games business," Marvel Games Head Jay Ong stated in an interview with GamesIndustry.biz in 2017.
While Ong mentioned in that interview that "the future of the Spider-Man console games is with Sony and Insomniac," he referred to the ordeal as a partnership first and foremost, never once indicating that Marvel Games had relinquished the rights of the character.
In the years after, Spidey would appear in Marvel vs Capcom: Infinite and the Nintendo Switch exclusive Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order, indicating that Sony isn't the one calling the shots. So, how come Spider-Man is so closely tied to PlayStation in recent years? Besides the obvious correlation between the character and his big-screen appearances produced by Sony, it doesn't seem to be anything more than a coincidence.
There is of course room for speculation regarding some special concession made behind-the-scenes between both companies, with the exclusivity of the character in Marvel's Avengers possibly being a byproduct of this, or maybe Sony just decided to cash out on a piece of content to lure players into buying a PS4, and eventually a PS5.
Whatever the case, while the rights of Spider-Man games don't seem to actually belong to Sony, their close relationship with Marvel makes it seem like so, and with a brand-new PS5 exclusive with Miles Morales as a protagonist right around the corner, we don't think this is changing anytime soon.