Electronic Arts (EA -0.87%) is set to release its third-quarter earnings on Jan. 28. It's been a tough year for EA, with Battlefield 4 suffering major launch problems, but analysts still expect the company to greatly improve its earnings compared to last year. While Take-Two Interactive's (TTWO -0.94%) Grand Theft Auto V was by far the best-selling game in 2013, beating out Activision-Blizzard's (NASDAQ: ATVI) Call of Duty: Ghosts, EA did manage to claim the No. 3 and No. 4 spots. But will this be enough for EA to meet expectations?
What analysts are expecting
Because deferred revenue from online-enabled games creates a significant difference between generally accepted accounting principles numbers and non-GAAP numbers for EA, every value that follows will be non-GAAP. Analysts are expecting revenue to rise by 40% to approximately $1.66 billion for the quarter, right around EA's prior guidance of $1.65 billion.
Earnings per share are expected to more than double to $1.24, up from $0.57 during the same quarter last year, slightly higher than EA's previous guidance of $1.22. Investors may be more optimistic than analysts, with shares recently rising 12% on news that EA's products represent the highest market share on the recently released generation of game consoles.
Are investors too optimistic?
EA's biggest release of the quarter, Battlefield 4, launched with technical problems so severe that future games were delayed so that EA studio DICE could fix the problems. This ruined EA's chances of dethroning Activision's Call of Duty series, and it likely hurt sales significantly.
The news that games from EA make up a 30% share of Xbox One games and a 40% share of PlayStation 4 games, with EA claiming three of the top 10 spots in terms of sales for the new consoles, sent the stock soaring. Call of Duty: Ghosts from Activision took the No. 1 spot, with EA's Battlefield 4 coming in second, and Madden NFL 25 and FIFA 14 also hitting the top 10.
But these figures, which are just for the PS4 and Xbox One, don't tell the whole story. Overall, Battlefield 4 was No. 2 in the month of December, but for the full year it was No. 4. Grand Theft Auto V from Take-Two was first, followed by Ghosts, then Madden, and then Battlefield 4.
Madden is an annual football game which, while reliable for EA over the years, has never come close to achieving Call of Duty-level sales. Last year, Madden 2013 sold about 5 million copies, and with Madden releasing on the PS4 and Xbox One this year as well as the previous generation of consoles, it's reasonable to believe that sales could be a bit higher. But Ghosts has sold at least 18 million copies so far, and the fact that Battlefield 4 is behind Madden in terms of sales means that EA wasn't even close to beating Activision.
Battlefield 4 should have a much broader appeal than Madden, and the annual rankings suggest that the technical issues with Battlefield 4 have hurt sales tremendously. Sales may be stronger on the PS4 and Xbox One, but the choices on those consoles are still very limited, and the user base is far lower than on current-generation consoles.
The 12% rise in the stock price on this news was completely unjustified. Given that EA's guidance was set before the Battlefield 4 launch fiasco, I suspect that numbers will come in lower than analysts are expecting. The fact that EA's flagship release couldn't beat an annual sports title should throw up some red flags for investors.
Activision may have a tough time meeting expectations as well, with its December sales expected to fall by 40% year over year. This is mainly due to a strong Call of Duty release last year, and it's unlikely that Ghosts will be able to surpass that game in terms of sales. Call of Duty sales have been declining for the past few years, and gamers may be getting sick of the same formula each and every year. Unfortunately for EA, Battlefield 4 was unable to take advantage of this Call of Duty fatigue.
Take-Two should have a record year after Grand Theft Auto V sold more than 29 million copies, breaking numerous sales records along the way. The problem with Take-Two is that Grand Theft Auto represents an anomaly, and both revenue and earnings will fall dramatically next year without a huge release. Analysts expect earnings in fiscal 2015 to fall by 70% compared to the current fiscal year, so it's important that investors don't mistake the current elevated earnings as sustainable.
The bottom line
I'm not optimistic about EA's earnings, and I think investors and analysts are ignoring the effects of the Battlefield 4 launch problems. While other EA titles like Madden and FIFA have done well, I suspect that Battlefield 4 will drag down EA's earnings this quarter.