Electronic Arts (NASDAQ:EA) shares have been on fire as of late: Shares of the video game publisher are up more than 130% in the last year alone. That gain comes on a series of strong earnings reports. Most recently, Electronic Arts exceeded analyst expectations for the third quarter, posting better-than-expected revenue and earnings.
In its subsequent earnings call, Electronic Arts management touched on a number of positive trends that are supporting its business. Below are five of the most important quotes from that call.
Electronic Arts is seeing strong demand for nearly all of its games
As a publisher of video games, Electronic Arts' performance depends entirely on the success of its titles. Within the industry, Electronic Arts is well-diversified, with franchises in most genres, and games on most platforms, including mobile.
On the call, its CEO Andrew Wilson noted that the business appears to be strong on all fronts, with demand for its titles up across the board.
"Dragon Age: Inquisition was named to more than 200 Game of the Year lists ... More than 6 million people on average were playing FIFA games every week ... Madden NFL Mobile had its biggest day in franchise history on Christmas Day, reaching number four on the top grossing charts in the U.S. Apple App Store. And we finished the calendar year as the world's leading console ... publisher."
The Ultimate Team initiative is paying off
Electronic Arts' sports franchises (Madden, FIFA, NHL, UFC etc) benefit from yearly refreshes, but have suffered from a degree of cyclicality in the past, with interest waning in between annual releases.
But Electronic Arts has found a way to drive engagement year-round: Ultimate Team. Pioneered with its FIFA franchise, Ultimate Team has come to the majority of Electronic Arts sports titles, including Madden. With Ultimate Team, players build fantasy squads of elite players. Ultimate Team gives players a reason to play their favorite Electronic Arts sports title months after release, and benefits Electronic Arts through additional digital revenue. Wilson noted that engagement in Ultimate Team continues to be on the rise.
"Ultimate Team ... engagement is deeper than ever. The total number of players entering Ultimate Team across FIFA 15, Madden NFL 15 and NHL 15 has increased nearly 45% year-over-year."
Electronic Arts should benefit from Episode 7
Electronic Arts will release the next installment in its popular Battlefield franchise in March, but its 2015 marquee title is likely to be Star Wars: Battlefront.
Unfortunately, Electronic Arts hasn't given an exact release date for the game, but it's likely to debut sometime in November or December. Electronic Arts' management believes the game will be a blockbuster, as it should benefit from the release of Star Wars: Episode 7 (slated to open in theaters Dec. 18).
"We've got a ... Star Wars title coming in before Christmas next year, aligned with the Star Wars movie ... We're extremely excited about that and we think there is huge potential for that title ... you should consider that a very large activity for us next year and very large focus, similar to how we thought about Battlefield [games] in the past."
Be wary of NPD data
Research firm NPD tracks monthly U.S. video game sales, and its data is commonly seen as a strong indicator of the overall strength of the industry. Recent NPD data has been weak, with demand for video games seemingly declining on an annual basis for most of the last year.
However, Electronic Arts' CFO, Blake Jorgensen, warned investors to be cautious when considering NPD's data, as the firm does not track digital or international sales. With a growing number of Electronic Arts' games sold digitally, NPD is becoming increasingly irrelevant.
"Be really careful using NPD data, it's becoming less and less valuable, as more and more of the business is going digital ... both in volume and in pricing, it can be sometimes a very large distraction. And then when you add in that there is no international piece to it -- it really underestimates the strength of our business."
More capital returns could be forthcoming
Electronic Arts has nearly $3 billion of cash on its balance sheet, as of the end of last quarter. The company doesn't pay a dividend, but has been willing to return cash to shareholders via share repurchases.
When prompted, Jorgensen reiterated Electronic Arts' commitment to return cash to shareholders whenever possible.
"We're very committed to continuing to buyback stock. We are on track to be able to complete the $750 million two-year buyback, and as we generate more cash we'll consider greater buybacks ... I think we just have a simple model, which is saying how do we get [the cash] back to shareholders."