Tencent Rant, Sea Pay Freeze Hint at Deepening Gaming Crisis

Tencent Holdings Ltd. and Sea Ltd. are signaling that the $200 billion gaming industry, which in 2022 endured one of its worst slumps on record, is in for an even rockier year.

Tencent co-founder Pony Ma attacked his staff in a town-hall meeting for lacking urgency in the face of an existential crisis. Days later, Sea founder Forrest Li warned of deeper economic challenges in 2023 before slashing bonuses and freezing salaries.


Pony MaPhotographer: Justin Chin/Bloomberg

Ma’s outburst in particular unnerved observers accustomed to his even-keeled handling of Asia’s biggest social media and gaming company. Along with the Sea decision — unveiled in a memo days before Christmas — they point to another down year for a games industry struggling to leave behind the geopolitical and economic ructions of 2022. The war in Ukraine, soaring inflation and resultant impact on consumer spending could usher in an even tougher 2023 environment, Li warned in his memo.

Sea’s stock dropped more than 4% Thursday. Tencent fell as much as 2% in Hong Kong on Friday, in line with the market.

“You can’t even survive as a business, yet you’re chilling on the weekends, playing ball,” Ma told his all-staff audience in remarks delivered in person.

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Tencent and Sea are responsible for reliable moneymakers like Honor of Kings and Garena Free Fire on mobile, but they haven’t escaped the sting of this year’s slowdown, with Sea shares down more than 70% and Tencent hitting its first zero-growth quarter.


A man plays Garena Free Fire Mobile game in India.

The industry is bracing for a tough year on all fronts. Console leader Sony Group Corp. cut its games outlook for this year by 12% at its most recent earnings release, reducing forecasts for the second quarter in a row. Close rival Microsoft Corp. has also laid off workers from its Xbox division.

“Players are cutting the number of titles they buy on the back of global macroeconomic conditions,” Sony Chief Financial Officer Hiroki Totoki said.

Singapore-based Sea has cut 7,000 jobs this year, or 10% of its workforce, in a move to control costs. Li assured his charges that Sea “will be starting 2023 on a stable footing” and that most of the big changes it needed to make have already been made.

“The impact of many headwinds hitting at once — including Apple’s platform changes, the macro environment and the lingering impacts of China’s gaming crackdown — collectively pose continuing challenges to near-term growth and profitability for the gaming sector,” said Matthew Kanterman of Ball Metaverse Research Partners. “Many large public companies are realizing that now is not the time for moonshot investments but for cost cuts and focus on only the most profitable titles.”

Tencent however also has to deal with uncertainty in its home market, which is only now beginning to drop the Covid curbs that have hampered the world’s No. 2 economy all year.

The chairman of the Shenzhen-based firm was unsparing in his criticism of business units from gaming to social and cloud computing. He cautioned that some divisions might not survive much longer without righting their current trajectory. Tencent has cut jobs by the thousands this year, streamlined unprofitable businesses and lowered investments including in Sea.

It’s been under prolonged pressure from the Chinese government’s crackdown on big tech firms alongside restrictions to curb gaming addition among young people. Its domestic games revenue dropped 7% for the September quarter, trailing a meager 3% growth at its international division.

The company’s pipeline of new games was blocked for months by China’s halt on granting licenses for new titles and it now has to make up for lost time by building up a stable of fresh franchises and content for mobile players. During last week’s town hall meeting, Ma upbraided the gaming division for frittering away money to acquire users for hastily churned-out titles, rather than focusing on quality.

“Guys, from now on don’t pitch me the story of buying user traffic, I don’t believe it anymore,” Ma said, according to attendees.