Video Games

Is the video game industry finally rebounding?

"Grand Theft Auto 5" displayed at an electronics store in Sydney.
Saeed Khan | AFP | Getty Images

The video game industry hasn't done a lot to endear itself to investors in the past few years. Competition from the mobile space, player fatigue with the lack of innovation and aging console systems have resulted in slumping annual software sales since 2009.

But it has shown signs of life in the past two months. Game software sales were up 52 percent last month from a year earlier, after rising 23 percent in August, according to The NPD Group.

Analysts say that momentum could continue into the holiday season and beyond.

"Sales could also be up year-over-year in October due to the release of EA's 'Battlefield 4,' analyst Michael Pachter of Wedbush Securities said in a note. "We could see positive growth in November and December as well from two next-gen console launches."

Individual publishers have already seen big stock gains as investors get excited about the launch of new consoles. EA shares are up 72 percent this year, and Activision's have climbed 64 percent. Take-Two shares are up 52 percent.

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Compared with their stock prices in January 2008, before the slump started, Activision is the big winner, with a 32 percent gain; Take-Two is nearly even, while EA shares have fallen 56 percent.

Overall industry income in 2008 was $19.7 billion. Last year, it came in at $13.26 billion. Revenues are nearly $6.2 billion so far this year, according to NPD, with the upcoming holiday buying season expected to boost that figure significantly.

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September's spike was driven by sales of Take-Two's "Grand Theft Auto V." The game, which hit the $1 billion mark in just three days, is the highest-selling title launched in any September since NPD began tracking the industry in 1995. It also represented more than half of the month's total software sales in dollar terms.

Even more notably, rather than plunging after the initial rush, sales of "GTA V" remain strong, analysts say. That has prompted Edward Williams of BMO Capital Markets to raise revenue and EPS estimates for Take-Two.

(Slideshow: 'Grand Theft Auto': Hookers, violence, and outrage)

"We estimate the title sold approximately 17.5 million units and generated more than $800 million in revenues for Take-Two during the September quarter [more than a billion at retail]," Williams said in a note to investors.

Always a big event, a "GTA" launch is bound to skew sales numbers somewhat. Even with the push the game gave year-over-year numbers, the industry is unlikely to have positive growth in 2013 (only three months have seen sales gains).

Mobile gaming is growing fast

Still, "GTA"'s not the only big game on the horizon. Waiting in the wings is the other 5,000-pound gorilla, Activision's "Call of Duty, "not to mention new gaming hardware from Microsoft and Sony.

In fact, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 could already be affecting sales. Software sales of Electronic Arts' (EA) Madden and FIFA franchises have fallen 4 percent and 6 percent this year, respectively, according to Williams. That softness could be felt on other franchises, including "Battlefield" and "Call of Duty," but the slump may be short.

"In our view, a portion of gamers are holding off purchasing this year's titles pending the launch of the new PS4 and Xbox One consoles," Williams said. But, he added, "we believe EA's next-gen sports titles will be among the best-selling games at launch."

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The PlayStation 4 will hit U.S. shelves Nov. 15, priced at $399 . The Xbox One goes on sale a week later for $499.

Retailers, including GameStop and Toys R Us, are planning midnight introductions at several locations—and both Sony and Microsoft have said that pre-orders have been strong. Demand was such earlier this year that at GameStop had to stop requests for a while. Analysts say demand for the systems will far exceed supply.

Increasing investor optimism is the realization that the NPD numbers represent just half of consumers' total spending on games, covering only new items sold in stores—not digital or used game sales, or other markets. The turnaround becomes more impressive when those are included.

NPD analyst Liam Callahan said that when accounting for other physical and digital format sales, including add-on content and mobile apps, the firm estimates September's consumer video game spending at just under $1.9 billion.

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Pachter at Wedbush expects EA and Activision to continue to do well this year, while Ubisoft faces tough comparison numbers, as its "Assassin's Creed III" was a top seller last year.

"All the publishers have come back pretty strong," he said. "So I don't think people are hesitant to invest. Everyone is kind of wondering what kind of legs this cycle will have, though."

—By CNBC's Chris Morris, Special to