It's been a good year for Activision Blizzard (NASDAQ:ATVI), with the company performing well and its shares outperforming the broad market. But the surge in popularity of "battle royale" games, such as Epic Games' Fortnite and Bluehole's PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, has generated significant new competition for the big game companies.
With the Oct. 12 release of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, Activision finally got the chance to show everyone that it's still the king of shoot-em-up titles. And it did just that, with the new release surpassing $500 million in sales in the first three days after launch. Activision said that Black Ops 4 "set a new launch day record as the biggest day one digital release in Activision history." It set digital sales records for all platforms -- Sony's Playstation, Microsoft's Xbox One, and PC.
The company also released some key engagement numbers for the game. I'll review them below and what they mean going forward.
Call of Duty is a big deal
The annual release of a new Call of Duty game is a big deal for Activision. The franchise remains one of the company's top four titles that make up two-thirds of annual revenue, and it has generated more than $10 billion over its lifetime.
There have been several Call of Duty installments in recent years that have sold as much as $1 billion within the first few days of launch. The 2013 release of Call of Duty: Ghosts and the 2012 release of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 were the last two releases to hit $1 billion in sales shortly after launch.
This isn't to suggest that Black Ops 4's $500 million milestone is weak. With the new version's focus on multiplayer content -- which is what more players want these days -- this version in the series could be the biggest yet.
In the coming months, Activision will further monetize this game with additional content that players purchase within the game. And given the strong engagement numbers the company provided, Black Ops 4 could be the most lucrative Call of Duty title in history.
Doubling down on esports appeal
Activision said that the "total number of players climbed" over last year's installment in the best-selling series. Additionally, the company said that "through its first three days of release, Black Ops 4 set a new Call of Duty franchise record for most combined players, average hours per player and total number of hours played, on current generation consoles."
Earlier in the week, Activision also said that "in its first day of availability, the total number of people who connected online to play Black Ops 4 increased from last year's release."
What's driving this engagement is the company's decision to double-down on the multiplayer game modes and do away with the single-player story campaign that past Call of Duty games have been known for. As a top producer of Black Ops 4 told Polygon earlier this year, gamers are demanding it, with about 90% of the Call of Duty player base engaging with multiplayer features.
The higher interest in multiplayer content ties in with the esports frenzy sweeping the industry right now. Activision has been ramping up its Call of Duty World League esports event over the past year. By going all-in on multiplayer game modes with Black Ops 4, Activision is setting up the franchise to potentially become a major spectator sport down the road. And based on high viewership with the most popular game streaming site, it seems Activision already has a large audience in place for a professional Call of Duty esports league.
No Fortnite killer, which is not a bad thing
Over opening weekend, Black Ops 4 was one of the most watched games on Twitch. Black Ops 4 was getting around 200,000 viewers per day, which placed it neck and neck with the industry's hottest game, Fortnite.
Analysts have been concerned all year about whether the surging popularity of battle royale games like Fortnite were taking players away from the leading video game companies' player bases. With both Black Ops 4 and Fortnite attracting high viewership on Twitch, it somewhat validates what industry executives have been saying all along: that games like Fortnite have been helping to expand interest in playing games overall.
Fortnite has generated more than $1 billion from in-game spending alone. Black Ops 4 is already halfway there just with game sales. As Activision begins releasing extra content for players to download in the game, Black Ops 4 could easily surpass $1 billion in total sales over the next year.
Overall, the new title's performance is impressive given that it's going up against a very tough year-over-year comparison with strong sales of last year's Call of Duty: WWII. Last year's installment set the record for the biggest opening day digital launch on Playstation -- Black Ops 4 just broke that record.
Activision now has two popular shooters in Overwatch and Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 it can leverage in the fast-growing esports market.
And, yes, the big game companies can still produce hits.