Wall Street is giddy over EA’s surging microtransaction profits, despite ‘horrific’ ‘Star Wars’ game sales

Key Points
  • EA reported December quarter sales results slightly below its guidance Tuesday and gave a March quarter revenue forecast above expectations.
  • Strength in the company's in-game purchases for its sports games offset weaker-than-expected "Star Wars Battlefront II" sales.
Ultimate Team FIFA 2018.
Source: EA Sports

Electronic Arts' shareholders are relieved after strong in-game purchasing results from its sports game titles offset disappointing "Star Wars Battlefront II" sales.

The game publisher reported December quarter sales results slightly below its guidance Tuesday. EA also gave a March quarter revenue forecast above expectations. The company revealed on its earnings call that "Star Wars Battlefront II" sold roughly 7 million units during the December quarter, tracking below its guidance in July of 14 million lifetime unit sales for the title.

The company's stock surged 7 percent Wednesday, a day after the report, as Wall Street analysts focused in on the strength of EA's microtransaction business in its sports games.

"EA squeaked by Q3:F18 guidance as fairly horrific game sales were offset by almost unbelievably strong live services revenue," Cowen analyst Doug Creutz wrote in a note to clients Wednesday. "EA's Ultimate Team clearly had a huge inflection in its growth rate."

EA shares have lagged the market in recent months due to investor worries about its "Star Wars" title's sales, following outrage over the game's initial monetization strategy. The company's stock declined 1 percent through Tuesday versus the S&P 500's 10 percent gain since EA reported its Sept. quarter results on Oct. 31.

EA's live services segment, which consists of in-game purchases [microtransactions] and add-on content, surged 39 percent to $787 million in sales for its fiscal third quarter. The company said the increase was driven by the Ultimate Team mode in its sports games, where gamers buy player card packs, and "The Sims 4" content.

"Remarkable growth in live services offset the well-understood weakness in SWBF2 in FYQ3," Atlantic Equities analyst Chris Hickey wrote in a note to clients Wednesday.

Hickey reiterated his overweight rating and raised his price target to $140 from $131 for EA shares, representing 18 percent upside to Tuesday's close.

Creutz said the better results came from more money spent per player in EA's sports games such as FIFA and Madden.

"Live services revenue … completely blew out our estimate. We believe the growth was primarily driven by EA's Ultimate Team modes," he wrote. "We believe almost entirely due to higher monetization per paying player."

The analyst warned EA may be too reliant on its microtransactions business.

EA is "looking very one-dimensional," he wrote. "If not for Ultimate Team growth, EA would likely be looking at a significantly down EPS year in FY18. EA's plans to drive Ultimate Team-style monetization to other franchises appear to have hit a serious roadblock."

Creutz reiterated his market perform rating for EA shares.