By Wallace Witkowski
Videogame publishers and related stocks took a hit from a projected slowdown in the pandemic boom for games, but they get a chance for new life with third-quarter earnings and important holiday forecasts in the coming days.
The forecasts delivered three months ago indicated that the booming growth fueled by the pandemic was slowing down , and many stocks were marked down into the bargain bin as a result. Over the September-ending quarter, Activision Blizzard Inc. /zigman2/quotes/200717283/composite ATVI -0.50% shares plummeted 19%, Take-Two Interactive Software Inc. /zigman2/quotes/204008930/composite TTWO +0.18% shares fell 13%, Electronic Arts Inc. /zigman2/quotes/206954087/composite EA +0.09% shares slipped 1%, Zynga Inc. /zigman2/quotes/209662259/composite ZNGA -0.44% shares dropped 29%, and Roblox Inc. /zigman2/quotes/223883423/composite RBLX -8.57% shares fell 16%. In comparison, the S&P 500 index /zigman2/quotes/210599714/realtime SPX -1.89% rose 0.2% and the iShares Expanded Tech-Software Sector ETF /zigman2/quotes/201870252/composite IGV -2.82% rose 2%.
While videogame stocks have struggled as a group in the past three months, analysts haven’t seen much change in the long-term trajectory for one of the biggest-selling forms of entertainment, with expected 2021 revenue of nearly $260 billion, according to IDC estimates.
“We believe that underlying video game fundamentals remain strong, with 2020’s growth spurt due to shelter-in-place not appearing to reverse despite increasing levels of vaccination,” Cowen analyst Doug Creutz recently wrote.
Creutz contended that valuations are at multi-year lows “both in absolute terms and relative to the market,” but said investors are confused why many videogame stocks are underperforming the market.
“We have received many inbound phone calls after in the last couple of months seeking to understand the bear case here; our response has generally been that we don’t think there is one, other than that these stocks seem to never go up,” Creutz said. “While we think concerns about videogame shares in a reopening scenario pressured the group late last year and early this year, we are now through the toughest COVID-19 comps (Q2) and monetization and engagement appears to remain quite healthy.”
“Our view on the space now is the most bullish we have been in at least five years, as multiples currently appear very attractive relative to the market and historical norms,” the Cowen analyst said.
Publishers and related companies have a chance to reverse course with their holiday forecasts, as well as by outperforming their own third-quarter expectations. Activision Blizzard /zigman2/quotes/200717283/composite ATVI -0.50% kicks the week off with an earnings report scheduled for Tuesday after the close of markets, and a flood soon follows into the next week.
Activision Blizzard has been in full damage control mode for more than a full quarter, since corporate’s perceived tone-deaf response to allegations of sexual discrimination and harassment charges blew up, leading to an employee walkout . The company spent nearly all of last quarter’s conference call with analysts addressing how it was going to ensure a safe and equitable workplace .
Later, the company was hit with a federal labor complaint that it had allegedly mistreated protesting employees. Most recently, the company reportedly fired and reprimanded dozens of employees over discrimination and harassment changes, and Chief Executive Bobby Kotick promised to take a pay cut.
MKM Partners analyst Eric Handler, who has a buy and a $108 price target on Activision Blizzard, said the relatively low price of the stock and expected accelerating growth into 2022 gave the stock a favorable risk/reward profile.
“We continue to like the setup for accelerating growth in 2022 paced by a larger game release lineup, including the likely and long-awaited launches of ‘Diablo Immortal,’ ‘Overwatch 2,’ the next [‘World of Warcraft’] expansion pack, and at least one other new, high-profile mobile game launch,” Handler said.
The waiting is the hardest part
While global supply-chain problems are scaring consumers with the possibility of empty shelves for the holiday season, videogame software has largely become distributed digitally, so while hardware and peripherals might get stuck in cargo containers, the games themselves should dodge that bullet.
That said, the games themselves have had their own problems of late: Delayed releases.
Christoph Hartmann, a former president of Take-Two who now leads Amazon.com Inc.’s /zigman2/quotes/210331248/composite AMZN -5.95% videogame development studios, told MarketWatch recently that traditional publishers that derive their sole source of income from games are under enormous pressure to release games under a fiscal schedule, but that raises the risk of releasing a game before all the bugs have been worked out.
That was certainly the case with CD Projekt SA’s /zigman2/quotes/206478470/delayed PL:CDR -0.12% long-awaited and long-overdue release last year of “Cyberpunk 2077” from that forced distributors like Sony Group Corp. /zigman2/quotes/201361720/delayed JP:6758 -0.93% to offer full refunds.
Take-Two, which is scheduled to report Wednesday after the bell, needs to wrest itself from recently announced delays. Back in September, Take-Two said expansions of the “Grand Theft Auto” franchise and two “immersive core titles” would be delayed . Electronic Arts also reports on Wednesday, and has also had to address delays. Back in September, EA said that “Battlefield 2042” would be released worldwide on Nov. 19 , delayed compared with its previously expected Oct. 22 release, but not as bad as “sometime in 2022,” as had been rumored.
In a recent note, KeyBanc Capital Markets analyst Tyler Parker said he sees Activision Blizzard’s near-term concerns priced in to the stock, and that EA has the least risk heading into earnings. Parker has overweight ratings on Activision and EA, and a sector weight rating on Take-Two.
“With fundamentals remaining resilient and the fact that pandemic-related comps should ease as a storyline heading into the Holidays, we believe sentiment could start to improve for the group, particularly as out-year guides indicating growth creep closer,” Parker said.
And then the newcomers, and Zynga
Rounding out Wednesday’s earnings, Playtika Holding Corp. /zigman2/quotes/208028170/composite PLTK -5.87% is scheduled to report. The Israel-based game developer was one of the sector’s better performers last earnings season, and recently announced it was acquiring design entertainment company Reworks Oy in a deal valued up to $600 million . It stock was one of the few to gain of late, adding 25.6% in the past three months.
Also, investors will see if publishers have any commentary on whether a recent app-store ruling boosted the top line. Back in September, a federal judge ruled that Apple Inc. /zigman2/quotes/202934861/composite AAPL -1.28% can no longer force app developers to use its payment system , which was seen as a boon to gaming companies that had to pay Apple a cut of their in-app purchases.
In the following week, both Zynga and Roblox are scheduled to report on Nov. 8, Unity Software Inc. /zigman2/quotes/221035391/composite U -5.96% is scheduled for Nov. 9, and app-monetization company AppLovin Inc. /zigman2/quotes/226004863/composite APP -3.40% is expected to report Nov. 10.