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Disney and other media companies need to make some big acquisitions in video gaming

  • Big media companies will need to be in the video game industry to stay massively profitable going forward
  • For Disney, getting into the business by an acquisition makes the most sense


Playing video games
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In 2020, according to Statista, the global video game industry will be roughly double the size of global box office revenue — $90 billion vs. $49 billion.

Yet none of the major American legacy media companies has major exposure to video games. Why not?

To this point, only Sony is the owner of a film studio and TV production business which also has major exposure to video games through their PS4 gaming platform as well as publisher of some games (e.g., Uncharted).

The old media conglomerates which got built over the last 30 years were in many different businesses, including:

  • Film studios
  • TV production
  • Cable channels
  • Pay TV channels
  • Books/magazines
  • Radio stations
  • Music publishing
  • Billboards
  • International media assets
  • Consumer products
  • And, in some cases, theme parks

By having all of those businesses under one roof, owners of these assets could benefit from:

  • Cross-selling ads
  • Cross-promoting new content/films/shows
  • Using stronger assets to demand higher economics for weaker assets
  • Sharing legal/admin/HR costs across business units

But what if you could start from scratch in building a media conglomerate today? You would likely want less exposure to legacy low-growth assets (like radio and billboards, for example) and more exposure to higher-growth media assets.

The ideal new media conglomerate would have exposure to the following areas:

  • Film studios
  • TV production
  • OTT streaming "channels" strong enough to demand a direct-to-consumer subscription or the ability to bundle a collection of other subscription services
  • Video game publishing and/or platforms
  • Podcasts
  • Digital music and/or streaming
  • New eSports or other substitute sports leagues
  • Merchandise
  • And, in some cases, theme parks

The race is on to create the next new media conglomerate. It could be a new digital player like Amazon that puts all the pieces together or a traditional legacy media company like Disney or Comcast.

What's clear to me is that video game publishing and/or platform production is a key plank in the new media conglomerate portfolio. The growing revenues and margins of the space are too compelling to pass up. Part of the reason for why video game publishers and their valuations have exploded in popularity in the past few years include:

  • Digital downloads are increasing margins
  • Franchises (whether Madden, Call of Duty, or Grand Theft Auto) are becoming bigger, lasting longer, and generating more profits
  • No one has yet cracked the code to drive compelling video game IP to TV/film and vice versa.
  • The subscription relationships which players have developed with video game publishers is going to be extremely compelling to media companies
  • More and more games are moving to open world and multiplayer approaches, as well as downloadable content available for purchase, making the engagement rates as well as average revenue per user increase dramatically

So the question is: Will these legacy media companies (or new digital companies aspiring to house media conglomerates under their roof) build or buy their way into the video game space? I think it's inevitable that they buy.

There are too many good video game companies out there today with strong studios, strong management teams, and high confidence in their future profitability to ignore.

Of all the legacy media companies, Disney is probably the one that makes the most sense to enter the video gaming space via an acquisition.

Disney is arguably the best media company in the world, with iconic characters, IP, and the most profitable set of cable channels in the world (which came to them as a result of an acquisition 20 years ago).

But let's think of where Disney's weaknesses lie as perceived by investors:

  • How do they make as much money from their cable channels in an OTT world as they transition from a cable world?
  • How do they build out their ability to take their content direct-to-consumer?
  • How do they continue to have a meaningful way of staying in touch with their consumers as they spend less and less time with cable networks and migrate to other digital offerings?

Video games offer a great answer to many of those questions including:

  • Video games are grabbing an increasing share of entertainment time spent each week
  • Several characters and stories from the video game publishing world are iconic and lend themselves well to IP development into films/TV as well as theme park characters, as Disney has successfully mined form their Pixar, Lucasfilm, and Marvel acquisitions
  • eSports is attracting a great deal of interest from linear media companies as they see the hours of engagement spent online and the advent of new eSports leagues

So, if Disney were to buy a video game publisher, who should the company go after? Here's a list of available companies and their potential fit with Disney as an acquisition target:

Activision

Pros:

  • Its Overwatch eSports league — which is still in the early stages of getting built out — would give Disney a window into that growth area
  • Its Candy Crush franchise is a perfect kid-friendly mobile game to match the Disney Channel audience
  • The company has a strong and deep management team led by Bobby Kotick (based in Santa Monica to boot)

Cons:

  • Call of Duty franchise is not typical Disney fare

Take Two

Pros:

  • NBA 2K already has a partnership with the NBA for an eSports league and is popular on its own
  • Red Dead Redemption is about to become a next big potential franchise with its release early next year
  • Strong management team led by Strauss Zelnick

Cons:

  • Grand Theft Auto franchise isn't an ideal fit with the Disney brand

EA

Pros:

  • Has ties to Star Wars franchise already with Battlefront
  • The Madden and FIFA franchises are perfect sports fits for Disney
  • EA has introduced team/eSports elements into the Madden and FIFA games to give Disney exposure there
  • Might have the best Disney-friendly fit of game portfolio of any publisher
  • Well respected management team led by Andrew Wilson

Cons:

  • They recently scrapped a planned 2019 Star Wars game because they wanted to redo it as a multiplayer open-world game to better fit market needs

Nintendo

Pros:

  • Arguably the best IP collection in the video game world with a suite of characters who are ideally suited for Disney (e.g., Mario)
  • Perfect cross-over of Nintendo IP for theme parks; Nintendo already building out its own theme parks
  • Arguably the hottest hardware platform available today (the Switch) at the start of its growth curve
  • eSports-capable characters
  • Still yet to fully tap into mobile games but with characters that will resonate strongly

Cons:

  • After last night's earnings report, its market capitalization is over $50 billion meaning it's probably too expensive for Disney
  • Might be a better acquisition target for Apple, given that Apple could use all its foreign cash to complete a transaction even with a hefty premium attached

Commentary by Eric Jackson. Sign up for Eric's monthly Tech & Media Email. You can follow Eric on Twitter @ericjackson .

Affiliates controlled by EricJackson have long positions in DIS, AAPL, ATVI, TTWO, SNE, NTDOY and EA.

Comcast owns NBCUniversal, the parent company of CNBC.