Gamers have many ways to keep score. This column is about how I like to look at the game companies during the busy fall season.
This past week saw the launches of blockbuster games including Call of Duty: WWII, Assassin’s Creed Origins, Super Mario Odyssey, and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. We also saw earnings reports this week from Nintendo, Electronic Arts, and Activision Blizzard. That provides an occasion to compare how everyone is doing.
In the battle of the reviews, Nintendo’s Super Mario Odyssey was the clear winner among critics with a 97 out of 100 on review aggregator Metacritic. Call of Duty: WWII came in at 86 out of 100. Wolfenstein II scored 89, as did Destiny 2, which debuted in September. Assassin’s Creed Origins came in at 82. Middle-earth: Shadow of War, a big release in October, got an 81.
Yet they might all get beaten by a game that hasn’t even been officially released yet: Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, which has sold nearly 20 million units on the PC on Steam Early Access and comes out December 12 on the Xbox One family. PUBG was the No. 1 streamed game in the third quarter, and it has the most time played on SteamSpy.
Nintendo’s Switch was the bestseller in the U.S. among consoles in the month of September, according to market researcher NPD Group. The momentum of the Switch is impressive, as it sold 7.6 million units from March until September 30, and Nintendo thinks it will sell 14 million units by March 31.
Microsoft’s Xbox One X debuts on November 7, and it will face some serious competition from the Switch, which is hitting its stride in its first holiday season. Sony, meanwhile, has tried to set itself apart with PlayStation VR titles that it showed off this week at the Paris Game Show and at a media event in San Francisco. Sony has outsold Microsoft by 2-to-1 in this console generation, but Nintendo is coming on strong in the middle of the cycle.
In terms of earnings reports, Nintendo saw the biggest revenue growth, up 175 percent for the six months ending September 30 compared with the same period a year earlier. And Nintendo said that more than 300 software publishers are making games for the Switch. That’s far better than the number that supported Nintendo’s previous console, the Wii U.
Electronic Arts had a good quarter thanks to its strong sports titles like Madden and FIFA. Those games are starting to generate a lot of microtransaction revenue from in-game purchases. And that is prompting EA to shift more of its business toward game services that keep players engaged and coming back. In fact, that is why EA decided to close its Visceral Games studio and reboot a Star Wars game that Uncharted creator Amy Hennig was creating.
That prompted a lot of people to wonder if single-player campaigns are dead, as that is what Hennig was creating. But I don’t put much stock in that notion, as we’ve seen some very big games come out with extensive single-player campaigns. EA also emphasized that this was a creative decision, not something that was driven by the shift to services or business models.
How are EA and Activision Blizzard different? Well, Activision Blizzard is really two companies competing against one EA. Activision has Destiny, Skylanders, and Call of Duty, while Blizzard has Overwatch, Hearthstone, World of Warcraft, and other games. EA just had a great sports quarter, and it has Star Wars Battlefront II coming on November 17, and Need for Speed Payback coming on November 10. On mobile, both companies have invested big, with EA’s FIFA Mobile and Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes going up against Activision Blizzard’s King division, which saw its Candy Crush Saga return to the top of the U.S. app stores.
I find it interesting to see what kind of bets each company is making. EA is trying to win with traditional sports, while Activision Blizzard is trying to leap ahead with esports. Given each company’s strengths, that makes sense. EA is also participating in esports, but I don’t see it making the kind of investments that Activision Blizzard has made on the scale of purchasing MLG and starting the Overwatch League, where franchises by city are going for an estimated $20 million each.
As for Take-Two Interactive, it is sitting out most of the season as it delayed Red Dead Redemption 2 until early next year. It has LA Noire’s reboot coming for the Switch. Not to be forgotten is Bethesda, which has some very big games in The Evil Within 2 (77 on Metacritic) and Wolfenstein II. Bethesda has some Fallout and Doom games coming for VR as well as the Nintendo Switch.
If I were worried about any one company, it would be Ubisoft, the French video game publisher. Market capitalization is an interesting number, as it shows what Wall Street believes a company is worth. Ubisoft has a market capitalization of just $7 billion. It has a great list of intellectual properties coming, and it spent a lot of effort on Assassin’s Creed Origins, which got a generally favorable, but not stellar, Metacritic score.
Ubisoft is also the object of a takeover battle, as Vivendi has been accumulating stock and could make a decision on whether to launch a hostile acquisition of Ubisoft. Naturally, I think Ubisoft and its 12,000 employees would be better off on its own under current management. But Wall Street doesn’t seem to care as much, and Vivendi is lurking around the edges.
Nintendo has a market cap of $43.1 billion, while Activision Blizzard is valued at $49.4 billion, and EA is trailing at $34.7 billion. Activision also has the highest price relative to its earnings, a measure known as its PE ratio. That means investors believe that earnings are going to be more impressive in the future and that it’s worth paying more for the stock now.
Since money and value determine whether a company gets to make its next batch of games or not, I would say Activision Blizzard is winning the race for now. And, of course, gamers are going to win big time from all of the competition.