When most people think of video game stocks, the top names that come to mind are likely Activision Blizzard, Electronic Arts, and Take-Two Interactive, or platform holders like Sony and Microsoft. These companies are certainly big players in the space, but the number of companies with exposure to the industry is actually quite expansive.
AT&T (NYSE:T) and The Walt Disney Company (NYSE:DIS) are two companies that could make for interesting, less direct ways to invest in the ongoing gaming boom. That's even more true following massive acquisitions, one completed and one pending.
For all the ink that has been spilled about the merger with Time Warner, there hasn't been much attention paid to the fact that the deal brought one of the world's leading video game units under AT&T's corporate umbrella. Time Warner's development studios are responsible for hit franchises including Mortal Kombat and Heads Up!, and the company also makes games based on hit multimedia properties including The DC Comics Universe, Game of Thrones, and Lord of the Rings.
Warner Bros. Interactive doesn't publish as many games as Activision Blizzard or Electronic Arts. However, it's a formidable player in the gaming space, and the quality of its output in recent years compares favorably with its competitors' offerings. Warner's gaming division should become a significant asset for AT&T -- and one that doesn't seem to be getting the attention it deserves.
AT&T's internet services also make it a player in the gaming space. Video games account for more spending than any other category of mobile apps, and they can also require huge amounts of data to play live, depending on the title. Here's AT&T's assistant vice president of corporate sponsorships, Shizuka Suzuki, commenting to USA Today on the role that 5G will play in bringing mobile esports to a mainstream audience: "We think about the esports of the future and that really is around mobile gaming and the ability to take that experience of low latency (and) fast speeds and to not be at a disadvantage to be wireless and to take that anywhere."
With mobile games becoming increasingly complex, and large disparities in the technological capabilities of users' handsets and tablets, developers are looking to the cloud as a means to offset some of the computational load and ensure that they can still target a wide customer base. AT&T's 5G network could play a key role in making that feasible, and help to kick-start the evolution of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) gaming.
Eventually, video games are going to go mainstream on streaming platforms. When that happens, having big gaming titles available on your platforms could become as important as having exclusive television shows and movies is today. With more games likely to be delivered through streaming platforms, and the role that 5G will play in AR and VR, AT&T is a gaming industry "pick and shovel" play, in addition to being a content creator.
Disney has put considerable effort into scaling up its internal game-development unit. Unfortunately, the most recent push culminated with the closing of Disney Interactive in 2016, following disappointing performance for the company's Infinity series. That doesn't mean that the House of Mouse is out of the video game biz, however.
Just as with the company's toy, clothing, and other consumer-products initiatives, Disney licenses the rights to make games based on its properties to third parties. This means that the company gets to take advantage of gaming-industry growth without exposing itself to the big costs that come with developing major titles.
For example, Disney has a deal with Electronic Arts to develop games based on the Star Wars license, and it's working with Square Enix to create a game based around the Avengers franchise. It also licenses its properties to Warner Bros. Interactive for crossovers in LEGO franchise games. While the company's game-licensing initiatives have generally been fruitful, there's still huge untapped potential to bridge even more of its great properties into the world of interactive entertainment.
The House of Mouse could be in better position to take advantage of that opportunity after picking up a game development studio through its pending acquisition of Twenty-First Century Fox's assets. The FoxNext studio already has experience working on a Disney property, having developed the Marvel Strike Force game for mobile platforms. The development studio has experience working with virtual reality as well. It developed a VR experience around Fox's Alien franchise that was released in April this year, and the studio could certainly be put to work developing a similar type of experience for Disney's parks.
Disney has also positioned itself to be a major player in the esports space. The company launched a dedicated division of ESPN to cover competitive video game content, and has exclusive television broadcast rights to big franchises like Overwatch and League of Legends. Overwatch has aired on ESPN's main network in a prime-time slot, and it's also been featured on the ABC network. Disney is also bringing esports to the youth-focused Disney Channel, having already broadcast multiple competitive gaming tournaments on the network. It is currently working with Nintendo on the production of a show based around competitive gaming on the Switch console.
So, even though Disney Interactive didn't meet the company's expectations, the House of Mouse is still making some promising moves in the gaming space.
Teresa Kersten is an employee of LinkedIn and is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors; LinkedIn is owned by Microsoft. Keith Noonan owns shares of ATVI, AT&T, TTWO, and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends ATVI, TTWO, and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends Electronic Arts. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.