Imagine if ITV had diversified into cutting edge entertainment formats, to the extent that it spun off its legacy TV business and pushed forward as a multi-faceted games company. That sounds improbable right? Well that’s exactly what happened with Swedish-based MTG (Modern Times Group).
Now the company consists of a mixture of mobile gaming development and publishing, alongside some of the best-known eSports brands in the world. Which is actually an unusual blend when you try and think of other examples. And being a Scandinavian-based gaming company (alongside Embracer, EG7 and Stillfront) it comes as no surprise that it has big plans to grow too.
So off the back of its recent acquisition of mobile-racing specialist Hutch, and with more such acquisitions bound to come soon, we talked to new CEO Maria Redin (pictured above), who stepped up from CFO in September 2020, about the company’s outlook and strategy.
First though we wanted to get some sense of that incredible transformation for MTG, which culminated in 2019 with the split of the company. Redin has been at MTG for 16 years, so we asked her just how much it has changed in that time?
“The short answer is that everything has changed since I first started at the company,” she replies. “We’ve gone from being a large, traditional media company owning television channels, pay-TV platforms and content production companies, to being an international digital entertainment investment company group specialising in leading esports and gaming companies.”
“It has been amazing to be part of a company’s transformation to stay relevant, it is the same company and culture, but still feels like several different growth phases, she continues. “The most important driver for us within the company has always been relevance and to stay ahead of the curve on what the future of entertainment entails.
“That’s why we initially set up an innovation division, called MTGx, to invest in future-facing entertainment like gaming and esports… we acquired ESL Gaming and DreamHack in 2015, made our first investment in gaming through the German publisher and developer InnoGames in 2016, and acquired Kongregate in 2017. In 2019, MTG split its current operations, spinning off the legacy media business to focus fully on gaming and esports, and MTGx became MTG.
THE ODD COUPLE?
Games publishing, be it mobile, console or PC, and esports obviously have a lot of connections. But outside of owned-and-operated leagues, such as Riot Games with League of Legends or Blizzard with Overwatch, there are few companies that operate in both spheres.
“That’s a good observation. For us, it’s clear that there are synergies between esports and games development and publishing; we believe that these two industries will be central to the future of entertainment. As both industries continue to grow and mature, we will continue to see more and more convergence over time,” Redin replies.
“For instance, twenty years ago game developers adopted a very clear single player first-approach when designing a new game – the opportunity for multiplayer, and by extension esports, was often an afterthought. But today, most publishers realize that any modern blockbuster gaming IP has to have a strong multiplayer or esports component.”
And the company hasn’t blindly pursued the combination. “We did do a strategic review to look into whether it would be value creating to split MTG’s gaming and esports portfolio, to enable them to fully pursue their own financial agendas. However, our view is that we can build further value creation in each vertical while still keeping the company combined. Here and now, we’re committed to further developing both together, while also pursuing new M&A opportunities in each industry.
ACQUISITION IS THE NEW NORMAL
Ahh… of course it didn’t take long to come around to the industry’s current buzz – buying stuff. And acquisition is a key part of MTG’s strategy today, Redin explains.
“It’s no secret that I’m committed to delivering MTG’s vision: an ambitious buy and build strategy for both gaming and esports. We have fantastic portfolio companies spanning both industries already, but we’ve set out to be a company that will create value through acquisitions combined with organic growth. We’re setting a bold agenda for the business, and delivering on this promise for both our investors and entrepreneurs is what I’m most passionate about.”
And while it works across two segments of the gaming whole, it does have a different outlook for both when it comes to what it’s looking for in a target.
“Each sector has its own specific conditions and circumstances, so what we look for does depend on whether we’re talking about an esports or gaming company… On the gaming side, we actively look for high-quality companies that have strong IPs, exceptional management teams with relevant experience, and a company culture which we believe will resonate with our own.”
So how does that apply to say Hutch, the London-based racing specialist that MTG acquired in late 2020 for $275m (plus another $100m in potential earn-out)?
“Hutch is a great example of how we’re not looking to partner with just any gaming company,” points out Redin. “Despite the fact that the past few years have been M&A-intensive in gaming.
“We have been actively looking at a lot of companies over the past few years, and that process has taught us a lot – we know what we look for in a company today. In Hutch’s case we saw an exceptional, energetic and creative team with strong growth potential, a roster of highly-successful titles which also diversified our existing portfolio, and previous triple-A experience at the helm of beloved IPs.
“We take pride in setting the bar high, in large part because we want to build strong, active relationships with the companies in which we invest. We don’t just provide them with funding, we offer them the chance to be part of a family of companies, with opportunities for fantastic cross-collaboration between companies on topics like user acquisition, live ops, marketing and game development, while also allowing them to operate in a decentralized way true to their entrepreneurial roots and backgrounds.”
MTG then is keen not to get in the way of the company’s recent success: “We were hugely impressed by Hutch’s achievements, including their three hit games in the mobile racing category, impressive engagement from legions of fans and 300m downloads to-date. This feat is extra impressive if you consider that their three hit titles – F1 Manager, Top Drives, and Rebel Racing – are all early in their respective growth stage.
“While Hutch has already experienced extremely impressive growth in its sector, with the support of MTG and synergies from our portfolio companies, we’re convinced that they will continue to fly.”
The other outfits in MTG’s games lineup are InnoGames and Kongregate. InnoGames has an impressive portfolio of city-builders and strategy titles, including Forge of Empires, Elvenar and Tribal Wars, with “a vast, loyal and highly-engaged community,” Redin adds. In 2019 we reported that the company had hit over $1bn in lifetime revenue.
Then there’s San Francisco-based Kongregate, the web games success story, which struggled with the move to mobile and the end of Flash. MTG took control in 2017, since which it “has successfully turned around its operation to become profitable in recent years.”
“So our foothold on the gaming scene has been free-to-play mobile games titles in the casual space,” surmises Redin. “And we’re further establishing our position through the acquisition of Hutch, which bolsters our presence in the midcore space.
“And we’re not stopping here – as a core part of our growth strategy, we will continue to hand-select the best and brightest in gaming and esports and bring them under one roof.”
Turning to esports, MTG has a pair of brands, which now operate together since September 2020.
“ESL and Dreamhack are the world’s two strongest and most iconic esports and gaming lifestyle brands,” Redin points out. “They are the preferred competitive gaming partners for leading publishers like Epic Games’ Fortnite, Tencent Games’ PUBG Mobile, and Valve’s Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.” Which is a most impressive list of partners indeed.
But ESL isn’t sitting on its laurels: “I would argue that going forward, the definition of esports is broadening due to growth of primarily mobile gaming, and how advanced games on mobile platforms have become. In response to this we’ve launched the ‘Mobile Open’ competition format with ESL Gaming and we believe that it can create fantastic growth opportunities and synergies over time.”
And again, those synergies may very well be boosted by taking on yet more companies: “With that said – we’re looking for the right companies to complement these esports businesses within the ecosystem – it could be either to add capabilities to our existing platform or in order to invest in companies that improve our competitive position.
While esports can be played safely socially distanced, the sector has long-been known for grand events with huge crowds, but MTG’s companies were quick to react and adjust, Redin tells us.
“When the pandemic hit in early 2020, we immediately took action. Even as early as February, some of our largest esports live audience events, like Katowice 2020, had to become audience-free.
“Once we had had a chance to regroup and put our contingency plans in place, we moved quickly to rearrange our esports tournament structure, postponing some competitions and events while converting some to be delivered as fully digitally-produced and broadcasted competitions, with no live audience attending.
“And while there’s always room for improvement, I have to say that I’m very proud of how the teams within MTG have adapted together with ESL Gaming and DreamHack. We kept the show going despite the challenges, and we can continue to do so successfully if the pandemic circumstances linger longer than we hope.
“While we all wish for the pandemic to be over soon, we’ve learned a lot and believe that we stand stronger today as an organisation than we did going into the situation. While we will continue to innovate in this area, we’ve taken significant steps forward in how we produce and broadcast our esports tournaments and competitions to be as entertaining and compelling as possible for viewers, but also for commercial partners like advertisers – and these learnings will be valuable to us moving forward, well after the pandemic is behind us.”
TIME TO MODERNISE?
Only time will tell if MTG’s synergies of games and esports will prove sufficient enough to justify the combination under one brand. To date the company has been relatively cautious, compared to some, in its M&A business, and hopefully that’s a good sign for all involved. But with gaming taking another turbo-charged boost due to pandemic, MTG is looking to grow and grow.
“MTG is very well positioned to take advantage of gaming’s growth. We are committed to an ambitious buy and build strategy that we will continue to execute. The acquisition of Hutch was just my first as CEO, and we will be seeking out more high-growth businesses producing highly engaging entertainment that will diversify our portfolio even further.
And it’s looking to make its various parts work more closely together: “In December 2020, following our follow-up investment in InnoGames,” through which MTG acquired another 17 per cent of the company, bringing its ownership in the company up to 68 per cent in total, “we announced the formation of our group GamingCo, which has been created to more closely tie our gaming companies to each other, creating better opportunities for cross-company learning and knowledge-sharing. InnoGames, for instance, has built a world-class live ops division, which will benefit not only current gaming companies within our portfolio, but also ones that join MTG in future.
“I think that the way we’ve deepened our relationship with InnoGames founders is a good example that our way of working is successful,” says Redin. “Ultimately, we want to work with both founders and companies with whom we can partner in a way that benefits both parties in the long term; supporting and respecting the entrepreneurial journey as well as also providing both creative and commercial freedom.”