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Investing in Esports Stocks

Updated: Aug. 30, 2021, 4:32 p.m.

With fast-growing global revenue and a rush of companies eager to get a piece of the expanding market, esports -- competitive, organized video gaming as a spectator sport -- is gaining popularity. Strange as it might sound, coverage of other people playing video games has already demonstrated impressive pull as spectator entertainment, and it has a huge runway for growth.

How fast is the esports industry growing?

The market for watching pros play video games is growing rapidly, and engagement and investment in the entertainment category has surged amid social distancing conditions created by the coronavirus. The pandemic also caused many esports events to be delayed or canceled.

The industry’s nascent state and coronavirus-related uncertainty make growth difficult to forecast, and growth projections vary greatly depending on how the esports market is defined and other factors. Esports and gaming video content already have a large audience, though. Gaming hardware leader Nvidia (NASDAQ:NVDA) said the global audience for esports is approaching half a billion people. There's a lot of opportunity to continue expanding their reach, developing compelling content, and honing lucrative marketing strategies.

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The video game industry is typically riskier than the market at large, and many companies in the space have valuations that price in expectations for substantial long-term growth. Still, the gaming industry has a promising outlook, and a multitude of favorable trends benefit the industry's leading participants. Most top companies in the space have recorded heightened player engagement amid social distancing initiatives spurred by the coronavirus pandemic, and global demand for gaming and esports content will likely continue to rise long after the pandemic subsides.

Investors who own diversified portfolios of stocks probably already have holdings in companies with at least some exposure to esports -- particularly investors who own exchange-traded funds (ETFs), such as the ETFMG Video Game Tech ETF (NYSEMKT:GAMR), that buy shares of video game companies.

Top esports stocks

In addition to ETFs that bundle together a variety of gaming and esports stocks, investors should also look at individual companies in the space.

Company Key Strengths Big Franchises
Activision Blizzard (NASDAQ:ATVI) Overall franchise catalog is one of the strongest in the video game industryImpressive history of creating new intellectual propertiesPioneer creator of organized esports leagues that attract professional ownership, broadcast partners, and advertisers Call of Duty, Overwatch, StarCraft, World of Warcraft, Hearthstone, Diablo
Tencent Holdings (OTC:TCEHY) Strong catalog of video game franchisesInvestments in (and partnerships with) many gaming companiesOwns and operates streaming and social media platforms that could help bolster its esports efforts and overall business League of Legends, Honor of Kings, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, Fortnite
Take-Two Interactive (NASDAQ:TTWO) Impressive history of extending the life of its franchisesDevelopment teams with track records of creating some of the biggest properties in the gaming industry Grand Theft Auto, NBA 2K, Red Dead Redemption, WWE 2K
Electronic Arts (NASDAQ:EA) Leader in the sports game genreStrong licensed content is helping to attract fans of established franchises and sporting leagues to esports FIFA, Madden, Battlefield, Star Wars, Apex Legends
Zynga (NASDAQ:ZNGA) Leading mobile game producer, operating in the largest segment of the global video game industryIncreased focus on live events to drive user engagement and bring younger gamers into its ecosystem of games Words With Friends, CSR Racing, Empires & Puzzles, Harry Potter: Puzzles & Spells

Data sources: Company websites

1. Activision Blizzard

Activision Blizzard character holding a blaster

Image source: Activision Blizzard

Activision Blizzard (NASDAQ:ATVI) has made a more aggressive push into esports than most other video game companies. The publisher has an impressive history of building highly engaged communities around its titles, and it owns many original properties -- including Call of Duty, Overwatch, and StarCraft -- that are a natural fit for professional competitive gaming.

Activision Blizzard's games consistently rank as some of the most-watched on Amazon's (NASDAQ:AMZN) Twitch platform, and the company is proactively targeting professional sports leagues that could bring esports to the next level.

2. Tencent Holdings

Tencent Holdings characters in battle

Image source: Riot Games

Tencent Holdings (OTC:TCEHY) is a highly diversified Chinese tech and media giant, with significant but not pure-play exposure to gaming and esports. Tencent is nonetheless a leader in both of these categories. The company’s status as a massive media conglomerate, with stakes in many leading gaming companies (and hit titles of its own, including Honor of Kings and League of Legends), gives it exposure to the overall growth of video games and esports. Tencent uses its WeChat social media platform to feature and distribute content, process payments for in-app services, and sell advertising opportunities.

Recent domestic regulatory pressures and political tensions between the U.S. and China mean that Tencent stock comes with some added risk, but the company is a clear leader in technology and entertainment and is well-poised for long-term growth.

3. Take-Two Interactive

Take-Two Interactive characters racing motorcycles up a hill

Image source: Take-Two Interactive

Take-Two Interactive's (NASDAQ:TTWO) esports business is less developed than some other companies, but its NBA 2K basketball series is already successfully spearheading a push into esports. The company's hugely popular Grand Theft Auto series is not an esport, but the online version of GTA V has generated high player engagement -- suggesting big esports potential for Take-Two Interactive.

4. Electronic Arts

Electronic Arts characters playing soccer

Image source: Electronic Arts

There's a lot of audience crossover for sports leagues and video games, and Electronic Arts (NASDAQ:EA), as a game publisher with a strong position in licensed content, enjoys several competitive advantages. EA's Madden and FIFA stand as two of the biggest franchises in gaming, and EA can boost engagement by tapping into the excitement surrounding real-world sports seasons. The 2021 season’s NFL Pro Bowl was conducted as a Madden game, with NFL players competing against each other virtually instead of on the field as they normally do.

EA has taken a different approach to esports than many of its competitors. Instead of maintaining the traditional divide between professional leagues and spectators, it's often made tournaments accessible to all players. This approach encourages player engagement, and, therefore, in-game spending. EA is also focusing on mobile esports, as evidenced by its acquisition of Glu Mobile (NASDAQ:GLUU).

5. Zynga

Silhouette of gamer playing a video game on the computer

Image source: Getty Images

Zynga (NASDAQ:ZNGA) is a leader in mobile video game development. Games played on mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets are the largest segment of the global gaming industry. Naturally, mobile esport games rank among the most popular out there. Zynga specializes in social games of a more casual nature, but it has its sights set on bigger franchises and increasing player engagement.

Live events have been a top focus and are propelling most of Zynga’s growth. While it hasn’t directly targeted professional gamers and spectators yet, doing so could be an easy transition for Zynga to make in the near future.

After all, its peer and recent IPO stock Skillz (NYSE:SKLZ) has been making inroads into esports with its mobile platform. With a massive user base spanning 175 countries, Zynga is a top name to keep tabs on as esports expand.

How do esports companies make money?

Esports companies earn money through broadcast licensing deals, merchandise sales, live-event ticket sales, sponsorships, and advertising. Companies can also sell exclusive rights to operate esports teams within official leagues, and competitive gaming leagues can function as advertisements for the underlying franchises.

Related topics

Esports investing is just getting started

The esports sector is young, and that means it's still rapidly evolving. That makes it an exciting, risky, and potentially very profitable area for investment.

Esports companies are likely to face challenges developing their esports businesses, and the failure rates of individual companies and projects within the space could be high. Risk-averse investors might find esports businesses unappealing for that reason.

Approaching the video game industry and esports investments with a buy-to-hold mentality could result in big returns, provided the leading esports businesses continue on their current trajectories.

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