As earnings season officially kicks off, displayed by my quarterly calendar, it’s a big week for Microsoft.
Like many things in life, there’s good and bad.
Yesterday, the Washington-based mega-corp reported its fiscal 2023 third quarter results. This proved to be quite the time for its Xbox division, achieving its second best Q3 ever behind only last year’s all-time highs.
Overall, Xbox revenue declined 4% in the latest three-month period. The Xbox Content & Services sub-segment, which include software and subscriptions, provided a welcome boost as output from hardware sales slumped in the double-digit range.
“We are rapidly executing on our ambition to be the first choice for people to play great games whenever, however, and wherever they want,” said CEO Satya Nadella on the firm’s conference call. “We set third quarter records for monthly active users and monthly active devices.”
Now, less than a day later, we have a huge update around its pending acquisition of Activision Blizzard. The United Kingdom’s Competition & Market Authority (CMA) pushed back against the proposed deal in its final report, citing competition concerns mainly in the cloud gaming space. Thus, the CMA did not approve the acquisition and has blocked it from taking place locally.
At least for now.
“We took the view that the merger would be harmful to competition,” the regulator wrote in its document available here. “And that the best way to address this would be to allow existing drivers of competition to continue to deliver for the benefit of UK consumers.”
This is a major blow to Microsoft’s shot at broadly closing the deal anytime soon, if at all, especially since it has yet to receive approval in the United States or European Union. And it’s a surprising development to me, considering the CMA recently expressed that it didn’t see concerns on the console side which is exponentially larger than the cloud market.
At the start of this year, I predicted that regulatory delays might push the deal to calendar Q4. Now, I’m on the fence as to whether it will even happen!
Understandably, Microsoft executives aid they will be appealing this decision.
Here’s a rundown of the underlying financials from Microsoft’s latest announcement showing a very good quarter for gaming. Then, read on for commentary around where I think the Activision Blizzard deal goes from here.
First let’s talk general gaming numbers. During January to March, Xbox generated $3.61 billion in revenue. That’s down 4% since the same time last year, which was a record $3.74 billion. This is only the second time Q3 Xbox revenue has surpassed $3.6 billion.
Expanding to consider the most recent 12 months, Microsoft’s gaming segment has produced $15.43 billion in sales. You’ll see this comparison over time in the graph above. Compare that to the $16.49 billion generated a year ago, and the current yearly figure is down 6%.
Even so, annualized Xbox sales have been above $15 billion for eight straight quarters.
This illustrates a few important factors impacting the top-line of Microsoft’s Xbox business. Mainly how its subscription business is proving resilient even when there aren’t many major exclusives and hardware isn’t growing.
It reflects a shift of spending for consumers coming out of the heights of coronavirus lock-downs, moving towards different purchasing decisions when it comes to entertainment. There’s also the inflation element, which continues to rear its ugly head at a macro level. Still, it’s lagging where it should be at this point in a new console cycle. If it wasn’t for Xbox Game Pass, the business would look a whole lot different.
While it’s still early in the earnings season, I like to run an annual sales comparison across industry peers whenever we get new results from the biggest players. Tencent is currently the world’s largest gaming company by sales, eclipsing upwards of $25.6 billion in fiscal 2022. Sony’s impressive $22.84 billion from PlayStation is up next, bolstered by an exceptional holiday quarter. This is where Microsoft slots in with $15.43 billion. Note Activision Blizzard reported its fiscal 2023 Q1 results today, wherein its 12-month revenue is $8.14 billion, thus the combined entity could be roughly $22 billion to $23 billion, accounting for redundancies and sales overlaps. Lastly, Nintendo saw $12.25 billion in annual sales.
As I say every time when Microsoft reports, we have limited visibility into profitability for the Xbox brand. The gaming segment is part of the More Personal Computing (MPC) business unit, which experienced a 12% decline in operating profit during Q3. This was mainly driven by 9% lower revenue, since operating expenses declined 5%. It’s impossible to know how gaming contributes, so all we have are metrics from the broader business.
I’ll now break out the performance of each underlying segment within gaming, to illustrate how each contributed to the whole.
Sales from Xbox Content & Services rose 3% in Q3, well above the company’s forecast. This equates to $3.1 billion in sales, or 86% of Xbox’s total, which is a record third quarter dollar amount passing last year’s $3 billion. On an annualized basis, sales from Xbox Content & Services reached $12.06 billion or 78% of the total. The company attributed this upward movement to Xbox Game Pass growth.
As part of this, subscription revenue reached almost $1 billion in Q3 according to Nadella. Thus, 28% of Xbox revenue right now is via Xbox Game Pass and related subscription revenue across its various devices.
Speaking of the service, management still hasn’t shared any new subscriber numbers. The last update was 25 million back in 2021. It seems like every quarter, executives say that Xbox Game Pass is growing and yet we don’t know by how much. I’m still banking that it publicly hits the 30 million mark this fiscal year.
As for other metrics of engagement, I mentioned the quote from Nadella earlier in the piece that said Xbox set Q3 records for monthly active users (MAUs) and “monthly active devices,” whatever that means, without placing actual numbers on either. For reference, last quarter Xbox attracted 120 million MAUs, so it’s probably below this number (I’d imagine he would have said otherwise).
The last random statistic provided by executives was its first party passed 500 million unique users to date. Since the inception of the Xbox brand in 2001, I assume? That’s certainly a lot, albeit inclusive of Bethesda titles which only recently came under the company’s umbrella.
Moving over to Xbox Hardware, revenue declined an astonishing 30% in the quarter ending March to around $507 million. That’s the lowest dollar amount since 1st quarter of fiscal 2021. Annual sales from Xbox’s console business are currently $3.37 billion. Compare that to $3.79 billion around Q3 last year.
This reflects what regional data was saying in recent months, as Microsoft’s peers notched wins in key markets. Management said this was due to “a prior year comparable that benefited from increased console supply.” In that case, why the heck is Sony signalling its best year for PlayStation 5 and crushing it when it comes to inventories? There’s a disconnect between the two current gen manufacturers, and I can’t tell if it’s because of Microsoft’s ideological shift away from consoles and towards services, or if its suppliers aren’t doing as well as peers?
This is one reason why it’s so hard to talk about lifetime hardware shipment comparisons this generation. I had Xbox Series X|S around 21.5 million to 22 million last quarter. Maybe it has passed 23 million by now, which I believe would be lagging even the lackluster Xbox One generation. For comparison, PlayStation 5 is at 32 million and will be even higher when Sony reports its results later this week.
Closing out the Q3 talk, Microsoft’s overall revenue rose 7% to $52.9 billion. Operating income moved up 10% to $22.4 billion. Microsoft Cloud revenue alone jumped 22% to $28.5 billion. The firm beat analyst expectations for both sales and profit.
Really, this past quarter perfectly encapsulates Microsoft’s evolved gaming strategy. Ecosystem and subscription contributing to ongoing revenue, which offsets times when console sales are lackluster or it doesn’t have a big exclusive software launch. I’ve said for years that Microsoft’s biggest exclusive is Xbox Game Pass, not any of its first party brands like Halo or Forza.
The results for Xbox’s subscription offering speak for themselves, at least at the top-line. Whether it’s sustainable over time is another question that’s hard to answer without more transparency. If my prediction of a price hike in the next year or so comes true, that’s another piece of the profitability puzzle.
Looking ahead towards the final quarter of Microsoft’s 2023 fiscal year, the firm expects gaming revenue to grow in the “mid to high single digits.” If I assume 7%, that would be $3.7 billion. Just below the all-time high of Q4 2021’s $3.71 billion.
For Xbox Content & Services, management forecasts an increase in the “low to mid teens.” Assuming it could be around 12% growth, that’s a Q4 result of $3.1 billion which would be the best Q4 for this software sub-segment to date. And while Microsoft doesn’t provide guidance for its Xbox Hardware business, I’m looking at around a 13% decline if the other numbers hold.
This fits with my expectation that 3rd party software will carry the quarter, with the likes of Star Wars Jedi: Survivor, Diablo IV (ironically from Blizzard) and Street Fighter 6 hitting market. Internal studio titles like Minecraft Legends and Redfall will contribute, though I wouldn’t dare call them blockbusters. Either way, I’m expecting Microsoft to meet these forecasts, leaning more towards a slight beat.
That brings me to my reaction to the CMA’s decision to block Microsoft’s intended purchase of Activision Blizzard in its native United Kingdom. While I’m still digesting it, and I’m far from a legal expert, the overall point remains that cloud gaming seemed to be the tipping point for the regulator, and the main reason why it thinks the deal could stymie competition.
I can almost see the CMA’s argument, as Microsoft purchasing all these properties will certainly beef up its already leading market share in cloud. Even as the company threw around 10-year licensing agreements like Oprah does cars. It’s still a ridiculous reason to block the purchase, considering it will continue to be a niche portion of the industry now and in the medium term. To me, King is the real prize of the deal with its exposure to behemoth mobile titles like Candy Crush. There seems to be an outsized focus on cloud services, which will remain a small complement to traditional and mobile gaming for many years to come.
It’s a cop out, I know, yet I’m officially undecided as to when, or even if, the deal will close. Originally I expected it by year-end. With Microsoft appealing the CMA’s decision, plus without approval yet from the United States and European Union, my prediction is this legal ordeal might drag well into 2024.
Apologies to everyone who thought the story would be over sooner than later!
What is over is my first big recap of video game earnings. Check back in the coming days for more games industry coverage, and bounce back to the calendar for a rundown of the schedule for gaming, media and tech companies. Thanks for visiting! Be well, everyone.
Note: Comparisons are year-over-year unless otherwise noted.
Sources: Company Investor Relations Websites, The Competition & Markets Authority (CMA).