Gaming stocks have done very well over the past year. Third-party publishers have benefited from the introduction of new consoles from Sony and Microsoft as well as increasing digital sales, and these tailwinds helped every third-party console game publisher except for Ubisoft beat the market over the last 12 months. While Activision Blizzard and Take-Two Interactive both posted solid gains, Electronic Arts (NASDAQ:EA) performed best of all, nearly doubling over the period.
The company's incredible stock gains have pushed its forward P/E ratio to roughly 28. Using this metric, EA stands as the priciest of the third-party games publishers. Yet, with a strong position in a growing industry and apparent improvement in the company's operations, Electronic Arts is also the most expensive stock worth buying in the realm of gaming companies.
Surveying the field
Electronic Arts develops and publishes hit franchises like FIFA, Madden NFL, and Battlefield, and has ridden strong software performance to gains of roughly 93% over the last year. The company has also posted the best growth of any gaming company in the last five years, delivering gains of roughly 217% while the S&P 500 increased roughly 82%. Across the same stretch, Activision, Take Two, and Ubisoft made gains of 109%, 136%, and 46%, respectively. Surveying the competition: Activision Blizzard looks solid even as the Call of Duty series is losing some of its pull, Take Two seems to be building a stronger lineup on top of the megahit Grand Theft Auto series, while Ubisoft is looking a bit weak due to declining performance from its Assassin's Creed property.
EA is winning the digital distribution game
Also key to Electronic Arts' growth is the advancement of its mobile presence and booming digital software sales. Selling games digitally rather than through retailers like GameStop is enabling the company to improve its margins and drive revenues through direct-to-consumer promotions. This has helped the company deliver results for its last four quarters that were significantly better than the average analyst estimate, and each earnings release prompted a significant stock bump. For the company's fiscal quarter ended Dec. 31, 2014, roughly 45% of the company's revenue came from digital sales. This impressive figure was partially propelled by a 47% year-over-year increase in the sale of downloadable content for games.
EA looks to have room to further improve its margins as digital distribution continues to make gains at the expense of brick-and-mortar retailers. The company's EA Access program functions as a year-long subscription to previously released games from some of its big series at a relatively low price of $30, and the company has indicated that the package has been quite successful. These types of direct-to-consumer promotions help the publisher to absorb revenue that might have otherwise been generated from used copies of its games.
Big franchises, mobile growth, and beyond
Electronic Arts seems primed for more strong performance in the year to come, with new installments in some of the company's biggest franchises set to release, as well as the revival of the Star Wars: Battlefont series. The company should continue to benefit from the expanding user base for the new gaming consoles, as well as the ongoing growth in digital sales. It also has a major growth opportunity in mobile.
Research firm Digi-Capital estimates that mobile gaming will grow at a 23% compound aggregate growth rate, and hit $60 billion in sales by 2017, with the total gaming industry being worth $100 billion. Electronic Arts has a solid stable of franchises that it can use to ride this wave, a crucial asset because recognizable brands are often necessary to stand out in the crowded mobile software landscape. The company recently scored mobile hits with SimCity BuildIt, Madden NFL Mobile, and FIFA Ultimate Team, and it looks like these properties are primed for continued gains.
With strong footing in console and mobile gaming, and great momentum in digital content distribution, EA is well-diversified across its industry. There has even been talk that the games publisher will team with Comcast to stream games through the cable-provider's X1 cable box. Even though Electronic Arts is priced for growth, there's plenty of evidence it can deliver. EA stands as the most expensive stock making games worth buying.