Humphrey Bogart’s last movie was a little gem called The Harder They Fall, in which a fighter that a veteran reporter is touting as a title contender is being set up to fail. Something along those lines happened to me a year ago, when I called Activision Blizzard (NASDAQ:ATVI) investors’ favorite video-game stock .
Unfortunately, like the fighter in the Bogart movie, the company had a glass jaw. It had no presence in a key segment of the fast-growing online game market, and Fortnite, created by privately-held Epic Games (in which Tencent Holdings (OTCMKTS:TCEHY) has a 40% stake) quickly knocked it out.
A Losing Lineup
If you were just looking at the numbers, Activision’s 2018 earnings, announced on Feb. 12, looked great, as ATVI had profits of $1.81 billion, or $2.35 per share of Activision stock, on total revenue of $7.5 billion.
But Activision stock is now 44% below where it was a year ago. Investors want to know what you’re going to do tomorrow, not what you did yesterday.
Activision Blizzard had just one of the ten best-selling games in 2018. Its results were saved by Blackout, a “Battle Royale” mode of its Call of Duty game, with many similarities to Epic’s Fortnite.
Formerly strong franchises from the Blizzard unit, like World of Warcraft and Overwatch, are weakening, and in December Activision ended its relationship with the developer behind Destiny. After ATVI bought King Games, the makers of Candy Crush, for $6 billion in 2016, that game was crushed by the market.
Management’s response was to lay off 8% of its workforce, which largely developed or supported games that were no longer working. CEO Richard Kotick called 2019 a “transition year,” which is just what it sounds like: a losing year.
Kotick’s response,which prioritized executive compensation and the bottom line over the company’s workers, has game developers talking of forming a union. The company’s reputation has also taken a hit.
If that wasn’t enough, Activision Blizzard’s CFO then left for Square (NASDAQ:SQ), and the co-founder of Blizzard announced his resignation in April.
The Online Threat to Activision Stock
It’s wrong to measure a video-game maker based just on its sales and earnings. These are tech companies. They must not just have the right games, but also the right technology.
As I noted when I wrote about Gamestop (NASDAQ:GAME) in January, the technology of gaming is changing. Thanks to the internet, online games that are “free to play” have taken over the market. They don’t require a specialized game console; they can even be played on a phone. They’re always available and they don’t require a financial commitment.
But you can’t just move a game from one technology to another and expect stellar results. Each environment has its own quirks.
The Bottom Line on Activision Stock
Activision’s earnings brought some traders to Activision stock, enabling ATVI stock to rise about 10%, but that advance has faded as investors are looking to the future.
Activision stock is still worth more than $31.5 billion and has a price-earnings ratio of 17.5, close to the market average. Activision stock is also still selling at more than four times its revenue, and the 37 cents per share dividend of ATVI stock yields less than 1%. Meanwhile, analysts’ opinion of Activision stock has been slowly becoming more negative.
With few winners in hand and none in sight, Activision stock is a game I don’t want to play.
Dana Blankenhorn is a financial and technology journalist. He is the author of a new mystery thriller, The Reluctant Detective Finds Her Family, available now at the Amazon Kindle store. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @danablankenhorn. As of this writing he owned no shares in companies mentioned in this article.