We report the facile photochemical generation of a library of Ni(I)–bpy halide complexes (Ni(I)(Rbpy)X (R = t-Bu, H, MeOOC; X = Cl, Br, I) and benchmark their relative reactivity toward competitive oxidative addition and off-cycle dimerization pathways. Structure-function relationships between ligand set and reactivity are developed, with a particular emphasis on rationalizing previously uncharacterized ligand-controlled reactivity toward high energy and challenging C(sp2)–Cl bonds. Through a dual Hammett and computational analysis, the mechanism of the formal oxidative addition is found to proceed through an SNAr-type pathway, consisting of a nucleophilic two-electron transfer between the Ni(I) 3d(z2) orbital and the Caryl–Cl σ* orbital, which contrasts the mechanism previously observed for activation of weaker C(sp2)–Br/I bonds. The bpy substituent provides a strong influence on reactivity, ultimately determining whether oxidative addition or dimerization even occur. Here we elucidate the origin of this substituent influence as arising from perturbations to the effective nuclear charge (Zeff) of the Ni(I) center. Electron donation to the metal decreases Zeff, which leads to a significant destabilization of the entire 3d orbital manifold. Decreasing the 3d(z2) electron binding energies leads to a powerful two-electron donor to activate strong C(sp2)–Cl bonds. These changes also prove to have an analogous effect on dimerization, with decreases in Zeff leading to more rapid dimerization. Ligand-induced modulation of Zeff and the 3d(z2) orbital energy is thus a tunable target by which the reactivity of Ni(I) complexes can be altered, providing a direct route to stimulate reactivity with even stronger C–X bonds and potentially unveiling new ways to accomplish Ni-mediated photocatalytic cycles.