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Mobile-Gaming Billionaires Are Buying Rivals Instead of Selling Out

Ilya Khrennikov and Alex Sazonov

(Bloomberg) -- Playrix Holding Ltd., a mobile-game developer that made billionaires of its Russian founders, has bought into about a dozen studios to take on the likes of Activision Blizzard Inc. and Electronic Arts Inc.

Brothers Igor and Dmitry Bukhman said in an interview that by 2025 they want Playrix’s sales to catch up with those of the U.S. gaming giants. Over the past year they’ve spent more than $100 million on acquisitions and are planning to more than quadruple their portfolio of titles from about four that are available now.

While the gaming industry is awash in investors from KKR & Co. to Zynga Inc., the Bukhman brothers are determined to go it alone. They told Bloomberg News in April that while Wall Street dealmakers such as Goldman Sachs Group Inc. had been in touch, they wanted to expand the business themselves.

Since then, the brothers haven’t been persuaded of the merits of giving up control over Playrix in favor of a bigger pot of cash to spend. They prefer to leverage their understanding of the industry to act as a consolidator and nurture smaller players.

“Many firms are seeking acquisition targets to add to their revenue and show growth to investors,” Igor said. “We don’t have this pressure and are taking a more long-term approach -- we are helping our portfolio companies to grow. We are sharing our experience and playing a role in their growth.”

Playrix said 2019 revenue is likely to reach $1.5 billion, as much as 30% more than the previous year’s, from sales of existing games including Gardenscapes. It was the ninth-biggest publisher last year, according to independent gaming data provider App Annie.

New Titles

The Bukhman brothers are betting their new titles, to be released over the next two years, will push sales into the realm of rivals such as Activision, which reported $7.5 billion in revenue for 2018.

“Within five years, we are seeking to join the same league as Activision Blizzard or NetEase Inc., but in the European region,” said Igor, without specifying a revenue target.

Playrix’s purchases include studios in Ukraine, Serbia, Russia, Croatia and Armenia, and the 600 people added boost its headcount by more than 50%. The investments range from 30% holdings to controlling stakes in companies that will continue to operate independently. These include Nexters, based in Cyprus and one of Europe’s 10 top-grossing game developers, and Vizor Games, based in Belarus.

The brothers are valued at about $1.4 billion each by the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. They landed in the rankings by creating a new variety of match-3 games, which involve completing rows of at least three elements to progress through an animated storyline. The latest acquisitions will allow expansion into gaming genres such as hidden object and simulation.

The mobile gaming business is set to exceed $68 billion in revenue this year, according to researcher Newzoo, and have been attracting attention from investors. Playrix will have to compete against these deep-pocketed players if it’s to achieve its goals.

Zynga acquired Finnish developer Small Giant Games for $560 million last year, while Israeli Playtika Ltd bought Germany’s Wooga and Austria’s Supertreat. KKR-backed AppLovin invested in Belarusian developer Belka Games and two other firms in September.

“Capturing lightning in a bottle twice is the true challenge for a creative firm,” said Joost van Dreunen, managing director of SuperData, Nielsen’s game research arm. “With the popularity of Gardenscapes, Playrix has finally established itself as a force to be reckoned with. However, to build a legacy it will need to repeat this trick.”

(Adds analyst comment in last paragraph.)

To contact the reporters on this story: Ilya Khrennikov in Moscow at ikhrennikov@bloomberg.net;Alex Sazonov in Moscow at asazonov@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rebecca Penty at rpenty@bloomberg.net, Jennifer Ryan, Thomas Pfeiffer

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