Stock Geekout: Sea Limited Part One – Garena [Chills 33 Sponsored By SteadyCompounding]
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This is a special TFC Chills x Stock Geekout (SGO) episode as we give you a sneak peek into an upcoming SGO episode! Together with Thomas Chua, founder of SteadyCompounding.com, we deep dive into one of the most promising companies in the current market: Sea Limited. This is Part One of the SGO episode where we analyse Garena, its gaming arm and also its cash cow as it produces more than 90% of Sea Limited’s revenue. How is it possible that a mobile game is able to fuel its other businesses – popular e-commerce platform Shopee and FinTech business SeaMoney? What sets Garena apart from its competitors? How should we assess the sustainability of Garena’s business?
This informative yet easy-to-understand episode is sure to interest many listeners. Remember to head over to TFC Stock Geekout this Friday as we continue the analysis on Shopee & SeaMoney. This episode is sponsored by SteadyCompounding.com and as listeners of TFC, you can get 20% off its premium lifetime subscription if you click this link: https://bit.ly/3jdRwoT
Reggie: Hey Coconuts! We’re going to shake things up a little bit today. Instead of the usual Chills with TFC today, it’s gotta be TFC Stock Geekout. We have a three part special for you to discuss one of the most promising companies that have ever rose out of the Southeast Asian region, growing rapidly here and taking on new markets like Latin America by storm.
In Part One, we will focus on its cash cow: its gaming business. In Part Two, we will dive deep into its e-commerce platform and in Part Three, we will break down its latest growth strategy, its digital bank, FinTech business and evaluate its management to provide a simple way to value the company overall. If you still don’t know which company we’re talking about, it’s okay. Stay on.
Expand Full Transcript
Joining me today to geek out on this Southeast Asian juggernaut is Thomas Chua from SteadyCompounding.com and we are geeking out on none other than Sea Limited. Part one will be its gaming business, Garena and how this one mobile game of its own, Free Fire, is spitting out hundreds of millions of dollars to fuel its other businesses, Shopee and SeaMoney. These three segments have interesting synergies and the management is not shy to exploit it. It’s bulldozing the market in every other segment that they are in. This cash cow business is giving them a lot of advantage.
This is a sponsored collaboration with SteadyCompounding.com. If you want to hear Part Two about Shopee and Part Three about SeaMoney management and evaluation, you have to check out TFC Stock Geekout, our investment focused podcast. It will not be on this feed, so search TFC Stock Geekout on your favorite podcast platform. Follow it, join us to geek out about Sea Limited.
Also, for all of you listening, for a limited time only, all of you will get 20% off lifetime discount of SteadyCompounding’s premium subscription. Their team focus on research and breaking down Sea Limited, Starbucks, Facebook, Twilio and will continue to do research on some of the most interesting investing ideas out there today. With 30 day money back guarantee, head over to SteadyCompounding.com and use promo code COCONUT for 20% off lifetime subscription. C-O-C-O-N-U-T, if you don’t know how to spell it.
For your reference sake, this episode was recorded on the 14th of August, 2021. Our discussion for today is solely for education and entertainment purposes only. It does not serve as any form of advice or recommendation. Thank you for loving what we do and empowering us financially to do more for you. Let’s geek out.
We back today again with a good friend of the show, Thomas. There are a lot of stuff going on out there and this is one big company that is… I think we can all comfortably agree that they are the biggest unicorn in this part of the world at this point in time. Other than Grab that’s going for listing soon and Tokopedia that merged, I think they are the largest. They’re listed in the US.
This company is Sea Limited and they actually is a… I think you cannot even call it one company. They are (a) few companies put together and they got some sort of synergy and then they went for a listing and then they just kept going on this flywheel effect. So I think that’s the beauty of the company, but yeah. Thomas, why do we want to study this company? What got you interested in them in the first place?
Thomas: The beautiful thing about Sea Limited is how well the company is executing. So when we look at Sea Limited, there’s three parts to the business. One is the gaming arm. The second is what we are very familiar with: Shopee, e-commerce and third is SeaMoney because they are growing very quickly to provide banking solutions to areas of the world that are very under-banked like Indonesia and Latin America.
The thing about Sea Limited is they have the DNA of a gaming company. They started out with Garena and many Singaporeans will be very familiar with Garena if you played LAN shops in the past. Any game that wants to come into the Southeast Asia region, they will have to go through Garena and this is what they are good at. They have a lot of data on gamers’ preferences and they are very good at hosting e-sports, one thing that’s very critical to absorb a lot of gamers in and also the keep the platform extremely sticky.
They started off by licensing games... meaning game companies, publishers, when they come over to Southeast Asia, they will typically use Garena as a platform and Garena will draw a commission from there. But their revenue model has begin to change because the management recognize that as Internet liberalized the whole gaming industry, it’s very likely that a lot of these games are going to bypass Garena altogether. Because when you look at Steam, you can just sell…
Reggie: Which they did, right?
Thomas: Yeah, a lot of them are starting to pull back away from Garena except Tencent because Tencent is a major shareholder in Sea Limited, 25%. Actually, Sea Limited got the first right of refusal from Tencent, meaning any games that want to come into Southeast Asia, they must offer the rights to Sea Limited first. So that part is safe, but we are starting to see a lot of the other US companies that are starting to distribute directly through the internet, there is no longer a need… as more and more people come online and LAN shops in other parts of Southeast Asia starts to go down in Indonesia, Malaysia… Singapore, I still see one or two. Very very little.
Reggie: When you say LAN shops, it already suggest your age. There’s a certain era of kids, maybe in the 2008, 2010, that era. There are a lot of kids, we will go to LAN shops after school…
Thomas: Play Counter Strike.
Reggie: Play CS, all these things, and most of those games were distributed by Garena. Garena always appears as as one of the icon in the opening of the game. There will always be those things. But nowadays, I don’t see LAN shops. Whoever go LAN shops… quite cool, quite cool.
Thomas: Exactly. So Garena recognizes this and they started to really ramp up on their own production which gave birth to this very important game which is financing the whole of Sea Limited now, which is Free Fire. While it’s not that popular in Singapore… I asked around, rarely people play Free Fire. Most of my friends play Call of Duty. Free Fire is super, super popular in areas such as Indonesia, Thailand, Brazil. It has recently reached number one in India and also even more recently, USA.
Part of the reason why Garena is so popular is because it started off as a mobile game. When you compare mobile game to PC game and console game, typically all these gaming companies, all these platforms, be it X-Box, Sony PlayStation, or Valve from Steam, they will set up walled gardens, meaning like there’ll be certain games whereby players are not able to cross play. In fact, it’s only until 2016 or 2017, they started allowing players from Call of Duty on X-Box to cross play with players from PlayStation, whereas if you were to start directly from the mobile phone, which is going to be platform agnostic… Xiaomi can play with Samsung, can play with iPhone. There’s no walled gardens here and so friends can really just come in and play with one another.
We see a lot of the games, the super successful games, nowadays they don’t last just for one year or two years. When you look at games like League of Legends or Fortnite or Roblox, there is a social element to games like this and being platform agnostic is super important because then all your friends will be able to hang out on this virtual platform.
Free Fire, while it is a shooting game, battle royale, so people generally go in and start killing one another, but it is also another place for people to go there and hang out nowadays. They’re coming up with not just a lot of content for gamers whereby they monetize very well through their battle league pass, they are also coming up with a lot of platform for people to chat on the platform, to livestream on the platform and really to just publish videos of them gaming. So you’re able to chat with your friends through voice, through texts or even through a large group chatting all together. It has really become a place where people just come together and hang out.
Reggie: I think it’s important to know that it’s not unique to them. It’s the broad transformation of gaming across the board. A lot of big developers are all going to mobile and a lot of these additional features that you talk about that has a lot of social element, a lot of interaction, adding a friend list, you can chat in-game and all those things are becoming the norm in mobile gaming in a lot of these platforms.
It’s just that… I think you rightfully point out that because there’s a social element, there’s the network effect that comes in. People come together, they stick together and this particular game from Sea Limited has gotten some serious traction in certain areas of the world. I think that’s what I’m hearing.
Thomas: Yes. So when we look at the recent games that are super successful, they always adopt a freemium model, meaning when you go in, it’s going to be free. The best example would be Pokémon Go. You see a lot of people playing. Their monetization is also done extremely well. The amount of money they bring in for the first half of 2021 was US$642 million. Amazing, right? From 2017 to 2021, they have been increasing the amount of money they have been bringing in for the company every year and you see these platforms are super sticky, as you rightfully pointed out.
More and more games are becoming very social because they saw the success of games like Fortnite and Roblox. It really becomes a much needed driver for Sea Limited in this sense. Sea Limited is also good in terms of localization. So when you look at a lot of games like Fortnite or PUBG (PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds) for example, the reason why Sea Limited is able to overtake them in terms of popularity within a very short time… one to two years, they overtook a lot of these games despite being social as well, the added formula they have to ensure that popularity is their hyper localization.
When you look at the games in Thailand and the games in India and the games in Brazil, even though they are all Free Fire, they will celebrate local events. In Thailand, they will make Songkran a super big festival in Free Fire. They have customized gears and everything. In Brazil for example, you have Carnival. So they really cater to the local flavours in every single country. It is not a one size fits all formula for Sea Limited, which is why within a very short period, they are able to gain a huge mindshare.
Another strategy they use is usually when you see marketing, the company will hire a celebrity and use the celebrity for its consumers all over the world. But when it comes to gaming for Sea Limited, the celebrities they engage is going to be specific to the country they’re going in. For example, when it comes to Free Fire India, they will go to find a Bollywood mega star. In this case, they find Hrithik Roshan and they made a game character out of him. When you make a game character of a mega star, then all his fans are gonna go into the platform and choose him as the character. In Indonesia, they also pick their specific brand ambassador, another actor called Joe Taslim.
So in every single one of these countries, they will engage the celebrity to come in and play as a character. I think in Brazil or Latin America at one point, Cristiano… what’s the soccer player’s name?
Reggie: Cristiano Ronaldo? Really?
Thomas: Yeah, not as a player, but as a celebrity to come in and share the game, like he’s playing this and he’s asking his friends to come in and join. So this is the kind of localization we are looking at.
Reggie: I think this has been with Garena for a long time. I think in the past, when it was ’08, that kind of era, they also do a lot of localized events, even with the distribution of MapleStory or CS or a lot of those kind of games that they distribute, they also do a lot of these kinds of stuff. At least that’s what I remembered at that point in time. You have very random celebration of super local events. I was like “huh, isn’t this game not from here? Why are they celebrating these things?” I think it’s pretty within the DNA of the company and probably because they also have seen the effect of it.
Because I do think a lot of people, when they try to enter into these markets, essentially the smaller markets… people think Southeast Asia is one big market, but actually it’s made up of multiple small markets, very different. The value of localization, I think it’s very vividly seen. So I think that’s definitely a strategy that… seems like they are continuously adopting. I think that’s a pretty good way to go.
Thomas: Yeah, exactly. Just like Europe is very fragmented, Southeast Asia is also super fragmented when it comes to culture and consumer preferences. Sea Limited, whenever they go expand in another country, they don’t control operations in Brazil from Singapore, their HQ. They will set up an office in Brazil because only the Brazilians themselves would know what their consumers truly like. This is the opposite of what companies like Alibaba is doing for example. Everything is controlled from their HQ in Hangzhou. The direction is set there, the KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) and everything.
But when it comes to Sea Limited, everything is decentralized. They are very willing to let early 30 years old or even late 20s… people to just run the program, like a few million dollar budget. They’re very comfortable to let them just run the whole show and really take off. I think when you want to expand to the entire world, it’s important to do that because it’s not possible for the head office in Singapore to really control everything and know what’s going to make the gears tick. So when you look at Amazon, when they come to Southeast Asia, they didn’t really gain a lot of traction also because they don’t understand what the consumer preferences are here.
Another thing, when we go back to Garena, the next thing they’re really good at is e-sports and livestreaming. Any of these e-sports events they hold, they are going to generate millions of views. Like the recent flagship Garena event, it generated more than 40 million online views.
For my generation, I don’t understand what’s the appeal of watching other people play games. But when I look at my younger cousins or when I was in US, I look at my roommate, I think he was five years or six years younger than me, he’s watching e-sports every single day. When they’re watching that, it makes them want to play. It makes the platform stickier. It makes the game stickier also. He will watch with all his friends and then of course, they will be playing the games together as well. So that’s the part for e-sports.
When we look at the future of Garena, we are really looking at two things. When it comes to geography expansion, they started out catering to developing countries, meaning the graphics and everything, it can be downloaded using very small data files. Because when it comes to countries like Indonesia, India and Brazil, we need to be sensitive to consumers’ data limit. It is going to be expensive for them.
So they started out that way, ensuring that the file size doesn’t limit anybody from playing the game because they are really going for the network effect. But now you see them doing the reverse of what traditional games are doing. When you look at popular games, like PUBG which is super popular in US, they started off with much higher resolution graphics. The file size is much bigger and what they’re doing now is they’re reversing the high quality to produce the PUBG Lite so that countries like Indonesia and Brazil, the developing countries are able to get more users on board.
Whereas for Garena, they are doing the opposite. They started off with the lower resolution and they’re coming up with Free Fire MAX, a version of the game that’s designed for the high end devices and offer high end graphics. They are also moving into PC to appeal to the PC market because when you are targeting users, gamers in US etc, a lot of them are used to playing using consoles and computers, so you have to cater to the consumer preferences. It’s also like Singaporeans. We don’t… at least, I don’t really play games using mobile.
Reggie: Bro, we are different era one.
Thomas: When we receive an email, we will say “you wait, let me go to my computer then I will reply you.” But the younger generation, they will reply on the spot.
Reggie: Different one, different. If you look at it, it is… in the US, a lot of these bigger developers, whether it’s the EA, Activision, Take-Two, they’re all going mobile. They’re going mobile to appeal to this part of the world which is Asia. If you think about how Asia’s tech cycle have went through… big parts of Asia actually skipped past the computer era: the laptop, the desktop era.
Even in China these days when I talk to my friends, most of them, they engage in mobile first. When they use computer, it’s really for work. They set up to work, to code and everything here. So when they turn on the computer, it is for work. It’s not like… I think Singapore also went through the period where people start to have personal computers, you have a desktop and all that. You live, you work, you chat, you do everything on the com, then you cycle into mobile.
So if you think about it, it is merely the kind of tech cycle that has changed across the board and in this part of the world in Asia, people are using more mobile. It’s a mobile first mentality, but if Sea Limited wants to expand to the other side of the world, then essentially it’s console and desktop. But it’s a very different user engagement process, I would believe, so I’m not sure if they can conveniently just switch over.
Because even a lot of the big games like Activision, when they try to go mobile, at first also like hmm… Call of Duty at first also quite weird on mobile. It sounds like yeah, this is the growth plan but can they really execute? Because the user experience on mobile and desktop will be very different. That is something I think we all should be aware.
Thomas: Yeah, it’s a different skill set altogether. But back to the point, a lot of these companies are going to mobile first approach because traditionally, they thought when it comes to monetization through mobile games, it will be difficult. But when we look at the data set, mobile gaming actually command most of the entire gaming industry revenue. So when you look at the entire gaming industry, It’s larger than the music and movie industry combined. Gaming revenue accounts for almost 60% of that mobile gaming revenue, more than 60% and it is still one of the fastest growing when it comes to the gaming revenue.
When we look at what Free Fire has brought to Sea Limited, we are able to see revenue climbing extremely quickly. When you see Free Fire that was introduced in 2017, it used to account for about 50 to 60% of Sea Limited’s gaming revenue. But now it’s accounting for more than 90% of that. We really see it climbing from $365 million in 2017 all the way to over $2 billion last year.
Thomas: It’s insane, man. In the first quarter of 2021, it generated almost US$800 million in revenue alone just in the first quarter and it’s still gaining insane traction. A good way to monitor how well these mobile games are doing is to continuously track them on App Annie. Every quarter, App Annie will summarize and throw out how well the games are doing, and Free Fire is still topping the charts all over the world.
When it comes to monetization, they are also one of the best because when it comes to monetizing a free game, we have to be extremely careful. If you give the people who pay too much power, like you give them the best weapons, they’re going to wipe out the entire… then you’re going to ostracize all those players who don’t pay.
But Sea Limited is able to do this very well. They have a lot of test runs and they double down on what works. So what works is their Elite Pass whereby when you subscribe for a couple of dollars a month, they release the season pass on a monthly basis. You get new content and on top of that, you get new gears which makes you look better, your weapons slightly better, but it will not ostracize those free gamers. That way, they are able to monetize extremely well. There are few mobile games who are popular but cannot really monetize, so they have to turn towards advertising revenue. But the advertising revenue is not going to monetize as well as if you monetize by selling premium products within the game.
Reggie: Yup, and I think these days, a lot of gaming companies are using all sorts of ways. Organizing events is a great way for engagement, but also a great way for advertising without fundamentally affecting the business model. I think you pointed out that a lot of these freemium games, the main business… if they want to do very well, is still to get the players to pay. That’s still the best way. But are you concerned that… I’m seeing here that average revenue per paying user is declining for Free Fire and for Garena in general. Are you concerned?
Thomas: Yeah, that is a good question. Paying users as a percentage of the total amount of freemium players… generally when they expand overseas, it’s going to start dipping because first, when we look at… when you first establish a game in an entirely new market, you are going to get a lot of new players who are not paying yet. But as they become more entrenched into the game, that’s where the revenue will start kicking in.
Usually, when we see the amount of quarterly paying users to the total amount of active users, we need to tie in back to the story as to their expansion plan. If they’re expanding super rapidly into new markets, that is fine. But if they have stopped expanding and the numbers start dropping down, then that’s where I’ll be concerned.
Generally for freemium games, if you are able to get a 5% monetization… meaning let’s say I got 100 players on the platform. If you can have five paying players, generally you’re are doing very well. For Free Fire, it is generally hovering around 10% range. So actually, they are doing much better than what (the) average is doing.
But you’re right. We have to monitor this figure. If they’re not expanding, no new players are coming in and the number is dropping, then investors should be slightly worried as to whether their monetization plans is having some issues.
Reggie: Definitely important. I also want to point out that you did say that Tencent is like the big brother of this company. They own 25% of Sea Limited. Essentially, they build a pipeline for them. They control whatever games that come through there because they do fund a lot of games. In fact, they’re one of the largest publishers and developers of games. When they want to come to Southeast Asia, they funnel through Garena. Are you concerned about this big brother getting attacked up down left right in China?
Thomas: For Tencent, it’s actually good that they’re facing pressure in China because the Southeast Asian region becomes a super important region for them when it comes to testing out their games. Because back in China, they have to go through a much tougher regulatory process. Every game… you need to get approved by the authorities and all that, whereas when it comes to Southeast Asia, they are able to start pushing this game at a much more rapid pace.
Tencent… is not just that they are a big publisher on their own, they own 100% of Riot Games. They own 40% of Epic Games. They own over 80% of Supercell. Even the gaming companies in US, Tencent is a majority shareholder and this really bodes well for Sea Limited because Tencent is going to offer them a lot of opportunities when it comes to distributing games in the region.
But still, when it comes to Tencent, the amount of revenue they get from Tencent has been diminishing over the years. As of now, it is… I think hovering around 6 to 7%. So it’s not that significant and I see this figure going down more and more because Garena is really doubling down on producing their own games. They’re hiring a lot of developers in Vietnam, in US, all around the world and the amount of employees they’re hiring is doubling almost every year. The amount of developers that are getting in… so it’s not just we can expect to see a lot of new content for Free Fire and new versions of the game like Free Fire MAX, but we should also be expecting new games to be coming up.
But I wouldn’t be assigning any value to new games coming up because those are quite hit-or-miss thing, whereas for Free Fire, if they continue what they are doing, engaging the users, hyper localizing, then I’m quite comfortable to say they should experience the amount of longevity like League of Legends, World of Warcraft etc is currently experiencing.
Reggie: Yeah, I think you rightfully pointed out that games are a hit-and-miss business. I think even the big developers, whether is it Blizzard, Epic Games and all of them, they only have one or two very successful franchise that… today you can call them a franchise, right? Because they spin off into a lot of things. They license their brand. They become movies. They do all those things, but those are the fine and few between. Every big company only has that one or two and you can rightfully say that these one or two franchise are the ones bankrolling everything else.
Reggie: So are you concerned that the Sea Limited only has this one particular franchise? Because it is bankrolling all the other business, what if this game falls out of favour? Is this an executional risk in your view?
Thomas: It’s definitely one because if Free Fire were to fall through the floor, Shopee and everything… their source of capital would be a problem. But generally when you start to introduce a social element to your game, when you start to organize a lot of these e-sports, the game is generally quite sticky. When it starts to decline, it’s not going to be a very sudden thing. It’s not going to be like Nokia phone, the moment it goes out of favour, the next year…
Reggie: Nobody buy Nokia already.
Thomas: Yeah, it suddenly just fall through the floor. But when it comes to games, generally it’s going to be very gradual. So it’s important for investors, especially if you are concentrated in Sea Limited to monitor how well Free Fire is doing. There are many ways to do it even before the earnings results are out. You can check on your Google trends. You can check on App Annie. There are many platforms that consolidate all these platform figures on a monthly basis or on a quarterly basis.
Of course, I would be worried about this risk and so you have to be checking how well they’re executing on the numbers of engaged players as they are moving along, to see whether it’s going downhill, or players are still engaged. So far, they have been doing a very good job because when you look at the amount of active users, it’s quite a steady, upward trend despite Covid-19. In fact, Covid-19 actually brought more players online.
Reggie: Yeah, all the online engagement stuff all went up.
Thomas: Yeah, and youngsters are comfortable hanging out on these digital platforms.
Reggie: I just feel like oh my god, we are calling people youngsters these days. That means we are getting phased out already. We’ve investors now, no longer youngsters. But yes, definitely engagement, very powerful digital… and I think a few years ago, I already started telling my friends that hey, you really got to see a lot of these games beyond just a game anymore. They are a brand. They have a franchise. They have identity and there’s a lot of things that can be spun out of it.
You will start to see more and more movies, licensing and all those things that will further reinforce the brand identity and will further bring people back to… you know you do a Warcraft movie and then people will start to go back to their World of Warcraft account and then you relaunch the thing and then it’s a cycle, right?
So a lot of these touch points… may not be very profit maximizing in terms of the fundamental business model. But hey, a lot of these brands and touch points will bring people back to the game and then you can re-engage them and that’s very powerful, the new age of games.
Thomas: I thought it was a very interesting point that you brought up because Reed Hastings, in one of the Netflix’s earnings call where one of the analysts asked him “what is the biggest threat to Netflix?” It is not other streaming companies, not Disney+, it’s not this, it’s not that. He actually said Fortnite. Fortnite is the biggest threat to Netflix because after all, you are competing for eyeball time and Fortnite is really gaining huge traction at the expense of Netflix.
You see Netflix starting to move towards games also, so I think sooner or later, you are going to start to see more and more games appearing on Netflix just as a place for people to start hanging out.
Reggie: Yeah. They have already announced that strategy and we’ll see how they play it out. They hired some good people so we’ll see if it happens, but it be interesting because I do think not every consumer can be a gamer. You can play some games and by playing some games, you can engage in the Netflix platform. Maybe it will help in engagement. It’ll be an interesting world for developers to see what they can create from there.
Okay, so yeah. I think we’ve talked about Garena as part of Sea Limited’s business. Any last things you want to add about Garena before we move on to the next big giant of this company?
Thomas: Yeah, I think this is a good segue to start talking about Shopee. Shopee is actually a game, but I’m not sure (if) this is the correct way to put it. But I would say Shopee is game for the ladies…
Reggie: I hope you learnt something useful today. Definitely recognize that investing is a personal decision. We are not giving you any recommendations here, but we are always happy to geek out with you about different, interesting companies and trends for the future. This series has a lot more depth and terms. So if you have any questions for us, do join our community Telegram group or DM us on our socials. Link is in the description.
And like I said, Part One is here. If you want to listen to Part Two about Shopee and its ecosystem and part three about SeaMoney valuation and its management, head over to TFC Stock Geekout to continue to listen.
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