Take-Two has announced that it has acquired Serbian mobile games developer Nordeus for up to $378 million – with the upfront price being comprised of cash and $90 million in newly issued shares of Take-Two common stock.
Following the acquisition, Nordeus’ founding team of Branko Milutinović (CEO), Milan Jovović (CCO), Ivan Stojisavljević (CTO), and Tomislav Mihajlović (COO) will continue to oversee the studio and its approximately 180 employees.
Nordeus is best known for its mobile football management game Top Eleven, which has over 240 million registered users. This makes Top Eleven Take-Two’s first-ever football game to add to their sports portfolio.
To find out more about the acquisition, Take-Two’s push into mobile and the ramifications for the Serbian games industry, we sat down with Nordeus CEO Branko Milutinović and Michael Worosz, EVP, Head of Corporate Development & Independent Publishing at Take-Two Interactive.
Take-Two first approached Nordeus about a potential acquisition back in 2014, though the company wasn’t willing to engage in M&A discussions at the time. Still, the companies kept in contact over the years, with the opportunity to acquire Nordeus presenting itself late last year.
A FALLING KNIFE?
As Worosz explains, Take-Two were of course interested in Top Eleven – not just because it is so successful, but because the game (and the company as a whole) has continued to grow despite running for 10 years now.
“Top Eleven has grown tremendously year over year. It had a terrific year in 2020, and especially so in 2021,” says Worosz. “I think in M&A and deal making, particularly in mobile free to play where the fortunes of the business change from month to month, the thing you always want to be mindful of in acquisitions is catching a falling knife – Buying a business that’s trending downward. And here, it’s quite the opposite. This business is growing month over month. So I think our timing is impeccable. And really the credit lies with Branko and the team at Nordeus.”
On the Nordeus side meanwhile, the company had been operating independently (and very successfully so) since its founding in 2010. Especially since it had been previously reluctant to discuss acquisition, why has it now agreed to join Take-Two?
“So there’s ‘why?’ and there’s ‘why now?’” explains Milutinović. “So the ‘why’ is – you know, over the decades, I’ve gotten to meet more or less everyone from the industry, especially on the mobile side. And I feel that with Take-Two culturally, we’ve got the best match. I think we share a lot of things together, and that it will be fairly straightforward to continue on our paths with this partnership.
“And then the ‘why now’ is because there’s a lot of synergies that we feel will multiply what we want to achieve over the next few years. As Michael mentioned, we’ve been growing a lot over the last year and a half, maybe two. We’ve got a leading position in mobile football in multiple ways. And we see a lot of opportunity to grow further, and partnering with Take-Two will unlock a lot of that growth. And then looking at longer term plans, I feel quite excited about what we can do together.”
This marks Take-Two’s third acquisition in the mobile space. The company acquired the Barcelona-based Social Point back in 2017, and more recently acquired Playdots last year. It certainly seems that Take-Two is keen to push deeper into the mobile ecosystem.
“I think the mobile Free to Play ecosystem is still incredibly fragmented,” says Worosz. “There hasn’t been a significant roll up, although other large players have been doing a lot of deal making and picking up great teams and great studios.
“And I think that’s true for us as well, we see a lot of opportunity there. We’re probably, relative to our peers and industry writ large, under indexing on mobile. And we’re making up for lost ground there. But we’re really building the business very deliberately, with strong organic launches, great new products coming from our existing teams, and then great strategic initiatives like this one, in finding the best teams across the world.”
SERBIA’S INDUSTRY ON THE RISE
On that “around the world” note, this deal could see potential benefits beyond just Nordeus and Take-Two. The Belgrade-based Nordeus does a large amount of work in its local community, with the goal of improving the overall quality of living and working in Serbia.
Since the company’s inception, it has launched a series of initiatives to give back to the community, in order to improve the public medical and educational sectors, as well as a focus on early childhood development.
Additionally, the company has done a lot of work to help build up the Serbian games industry. Nordeus co-founded the Digital Serbia Initiative and Serbian Games Association, as well as the Nordeus Hub, all in order to help people get into the games industry. These initiatives are designed to help put Serbia’s games industry on the map, and with an enormous company like Take-Two now having a foothold in the country, it certainly seems to have accomplished that.
“I wouldn’t call it a reason to do this, but it’s a wonderful, positive side effect of this deal happening,” says Milutinović. “The Serbian gaming ecosystem has a lot of room to improve. We are way better than we used to five or 10 years ago, but it feels that the potential is still much higher than what’s realised.
“And I do feel that together [with Take-Two] we’ll be able to add additional energy into the local ecosystem, and we’ll get to an even better place. I think it’s a great side effect. And I’m really proud of my position and role to impact that, because it really touched a lot of people in a very positive way.”
“We were blown away by the quality of engineering science and game design talent that we found in Belgrade, and in Serbia more broadly,” adds Worosz. “We’re really excited by the future, for Nordeus and other potential Take-Two investments in that region.
“When we acquired Social Point back in 2017, we were fairly early in coming into the Barcelona games market. And now that that locale is blown up, with a lot of other businesses coming in, I think the same thing is gonna happen in Serbia. I think the future is really bright in the games industry in Serbia. And of course, we’re going to continue Nordeus’ charity efforts more broadly in the times ahead.”
And as Worosz goes on to say, Milutinović himself has had a hand in building that bright future for the Serbian industry:
“Branko is a proud country man, and the story of the formation in Nordeus is really cool. Branko, Ivan and Milan were together working at Microsoft, They came together, and realised that they were each from different parts of Serbia, and decided to go back home and start something new there. I think that the pride of country comes through in that story.
“And Branko is being modest, he gives a lot of his own time to help mentor young up and comers in the games industry, and to help cultivate new talent in an ecosystem that’s right outside of his headquarters.”
And it seems that ecosystem is set to benefit from Take-Two’s investment in the region.
“Yeah, I definitely feel so,” says Milutinović. |I think it’s a statement that, you know, something has happened. And that we’ve got a company in Take-Two which is, in my opinion, leading in the entertainment industry with creativity, efficiency and innovation, and people being at the centre of it.
“But even if you look more objectively, it’s an S&P 500 gaming company. When you have a business like that, making an investment into a new geography, and being among the first, I think it sets an example that’s hard to ignore. I also hope that over the next few years, you know, we’re gonna show how that played out, to reinforce that type of investment. I’m really hopeful for how the scene is going to look over the next 3, 5, 10 years.”
From Take-Two, to Nordeus and Serbia’s industry as a whole, the two companies seem excited about their future together.
“We’re really excited about the next chapter with Nordeus,” says Worosz. “We’ll work together as partners, and we have enormous ambitions for the future of Take-Two and our mobile initiatives in particular. And this is a step along that journey.”