Playtika poised to lead rush of gaming IPOs in 2021, fueled by mobile binge during pandemic

A woman plays at the stand of Xbox during the media day of the Gamescom video games trade fair in Cologne, western Germany, on August 20, 2019.
Ina Fassbender | AFP via Getty Images

Israeli mobile game developer Playtika is poised to debut on the Nasdaq on Friday with a market cap of over $11 billion. For investors looking to get in on the gaming boom, the IPO marks their first shot in what is shaping up to be a busy year.

Playtika, known for its popular casino games, will be followed by kids game site Roblox, which is slated to go public in February. Gaming conglomerate AppLovin has reportedly hired bankers to prepare for a public listing in early 2021, and other high-valued developers like Niantic, Scopely and Jam City are potentially in the pipeline.

The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 accelerated what was already a rapid shift to mobile gaming, fueled by a flood of powerful smartphones and tablets into the mainstream and a hefty investment by carriers into faster networks. According to research group SensorTower, the mobile game market grew 26% last year to $79.6 billion, “an enormous surge in part due to the global pandemic and lockdowns,” said Craig Chapple, a mobile insights strategist at the firm.

Companies at the top of the queue to hit the public markets have spent the last few years expanding their gaming catalogues through acquisitions, giving them a greater diversity of revenue sources. That’s particularly important in the brutally competitive gaming market, which has traditionally been a hits-driven business with unpredictable growth.

“The industry has reached a level of maturity where the large mobile games publishers are looking to spend big on expanding, and one of the easiest ways to do that is through acquisitions,” Chapple said, in an email. “The mobile industry has reached a point where, with the right strategy, publishers are able to reliably forecast returns from successful games.”

Playtika has been spanning the globe for game studios. In 2016, the company, then owned by Caesars Interactive Entertainment, was acquired for $4.4 billion by a group of Chinese investors, led by billionaire Shi Yuzhu’s investment firm and including Alibaba founder Jack Ma.

Giant Interactive Group chairman Shi Yuzhu attends a luncheon on January 21, 2018 in Sanya, Hainan Province of China.
Liu Guanguang | China News Service | Getty Images

Then it went on a buying spree. Between 2018 and 2019, Playtika acquired Wooga, which is based in Germany, Supertreat out of Austria and Finland-based Seriously. In addition to the four Playtika titles in the 100 top-grossing iPhone games at the moment, Supertreat’s solitaire app is on the list, according to App Annie. Seriously’s puzzle game Best Fiends and Wooga’s adventure game June’s Journey also make the top 100 on Google Play.

Playtika’s revenue in the first three quarters of 2020 climbed 28% to $1.8 billion. About 35% came through Apple, 34% from Google and 12% from Facebook. The remainder comes from a combination of other third-party services and Playtika’s “own proprietary platforms,” according to the prospectus.

The company raised almost $1.9 billion in its IPO, pricing its shares at $27 a piece on Thursday night, above its previous stated price range of $22 to $24.

Public market comps

Playtika is taking a fairly conservative approach to the market. At an $11 billion market cap, the company will initially trade for about five times revenue, a number that could up dramatically if the shares pop. Legacy gaming companies Electronic Arts, Take-Two Interactive and Activision Blizzard all trade for between seven and nine times revenue, according to FactSet.

Roblox is anticipating a more enthusiastic opening, after reporting 91% growth in the third quarter. Last week, Roblox was valued at $29.5 billion in a private financing round, giving the company a price-to-sales multiple of about 35 ahead of an expected direct listing in February.

Unlike Playtika and traditional game publishers, Roblox has a single app that hosts millions of games, which are created by its users. The company makes money when people purchase virtual currency called Robux that they can use across the entire platform, dressing up their avatar or advancing in games.

With kids stuck at home during the pandemic, the number of hours spent on Roblox more than doubled in the third quarter to 8.7 billion. The Roblox app is currently among the top five grossing apps across all categories on Apple and Google devices.

After Roblox, the next game maker to go public could be AppLovin, a Silicon Valley company that got started in mobile advertising and app discovery and acquired its way to becoming one of the top providers of mobile games.

AppLovin was valued at $2 billion in a 2018 financing round led by KKR. The company created a publishing division that’s snapped up studios, including Machine Zone, maker of Game of War: Fire Age and World War Rising. It also bought Magic Tavern, whose puzzle game Project Makeover is now the 13th highest-grossing game on iOS, and Peoplefun, creator of Wordscapes.

Reuters reported in October that AppLovin had hired Morgan Stanley to lead an IPO that could come in early 2021. The company didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Additional game makers could join the fray. Scopely, whose titles range from Dice with Buddies to Marvel Strike Force, was valued at $3.3 billion in a financing round in October. Niantic, creator of the popular Pokemon Go augmented reality app was valued at $4 billion in 2019. Jam City, whose games include Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery as well as casual games Cookie Jam and Panda Pop was reportedly preparing for an IPO as far back as 2018.

Representatives from Niantic and Jam City declined to comment on their plans and a Scopely spokesperson said the company doesn’t have anything to share at this time.

Revenue concentration

They’ll all be closely following the market reaction to Playtika, because it’s been a while since a notable video game developer has gone public. Zynga held its IPO over nine years ago, and King.com went public in 2014, before being acquired by Activision Blizzard two years later. The industry got a boost with Unity’s IPO last year, but that company builds software for game creators rather than the apps themselves.

For game makers, concentration of revenue remains a concern even after all the acquisitions. Playtika warns potential investors that its top two games in 2018 and 2019, Slotomania and Bingo Blitz accounted for more than half of its revenue.

With new titles constantly being added to the app stores and consumer tastes always changing, it’s increasingly difficult for publishers to crank out new hits. In the risk factors section of its prospectus, Playtika lists lack of diversification second, behind the company’s reliance on Google, Apple and Facebook.

Playtika headlines the section by saying, “a limited number of games have generated a majority of our revenues, and we may be unable to offset any declines in revenues from our top games.”

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