What a difference a year makes. Activision Blizzard (NASDAQ:ATVI) entered 2018 riding a wave of positive momentum following a year when the stock surged higher by 70%. Everything seemed to be going right for the video game developer, which was setting new records for its audience size, bulking up its portfolio of global franchises, and profiting from the stampede toward digital spending.
Shareholders face a less rosy scenario in early 2019. Activision Blizzard still owns a dominant group of brands that entertain hundreds of millions of players each month. But there are some big questions around its growth and earnings potential, not only for the holiday quarter that just closed, but also into the future. Those concerns will take center stage when the developer releases its fourth-quarter earnings results on Tuesday, Feb. 12.
Here's what investors can expect.
Taking charge of its Destiny
Management made no secret of the fact that they were disappointed with the performance of big parts of the business in Q3. Activision's audience size declined for the fourth consecutive quarter, dropping to 345 million engaged users from 352 million in Q2. "Not all our franchises are experiencing the momentum we see in Call of Duty and Candy Crush," executives said at the time, and called out Destiny as a particular sore spot. Activision went on to divest itself of that franchise just a few weeks later.
Therefore, expect CEO Bobby Kotick and his team to spend time outlining how Destiny's absence will impact important growth numbers like audience size, engagement, and in-game spending. The split-off of a key brand also puts added pressure on Activision to find growth in other areas in 2019, whether through existing franchises like Call of Duty and Hearthstone or from entirely new intellectual properties. Investors will want to hear about plans to attack both growth avenues, and they'll be looking for signs that the developer's remaining brands, especially Call of Duty, performed well over the holiday shopping period. These will show up in Activision's reach, engagement, and in-game spending metrics.
Activision's early November forecast called for Q4 non-GAAP earnings to land at about $1.27 per share, compared to $0.94 per share last year. Most analysts who follow the stock are a bit more optimistic, with the consensus expectation currently sitting at roughly $1.29 per share.
There's more uncertainty around that number than usual, in part because the developer's release calendar ensured that nearly all of its 2018 earnings would be generated around the holiday shopping season. Add in the disruption from the Destiny divorce, and it's possible the company may report numbers that differ significantly from their latest official forecast. A surprisingly low profit result wouldn't necessarily be cause for alarm, though, unless it's the result of collapsing engagement in core franchises like Call of Duty, Candy Crush, or World of Warcraft.
If investors choose to react to just one number in this report, it's likely to be Activision's earnings outlook for 2019. Estimates are that the company closed 2018 out with modest growth in its game bookings and similarly improving profits. But given the turbulence in its portfolio, a lot is riding on whether Activision believes it can keep those key metrics, along with free cash flow, rising in the year ahead without help from its Destiny shooter.