By Liana B. Baker and Allison Lampert
(Reuters) - A Chinese consortium that includes game developer Shanghai Giant Network Technology Co Ltd and e-commerce company Alibaba Group Holding Ltd <BABA.N> founder Jack Ma has agreed to acquire Caesars Interactive Entertainment Inc's online games unit for $4.4 billion in cash, the companies said.
Caesars Interactive Entertainment is currently owned by Caesars Acquisition Co (CAC) <CACQ.O> and Caesars Entertainment Corp <CRZ.O>. The sale will be a boon to the two affiliated companies, which are looking for cash as they embark on a complex merger.
The deal follows a period of exclusive negotiations between Caesars Interactive Entertainment and Giant's consortium that were first reported on July 21 by Reuters.
Caesars Entertainment's main operating unit, Caesars Entertainment Operating Co Inc (CEOC), is currently involved in an $18 billion bankruptcy and is seeking creditor approval for a restructuring plan. The transaction between CAC and the Caesars Entertainment parent is part of a complex web of deals that have come under scrutiny by CEOC's creditors.
Chinese companies are eager to expand beyond their home country, which boasts the world's largest online gaming market. In June, Tencent Holdings Ltd <0700.HK>, China's biggest gaming group, agreed to buy a majority stake in 'Clash of Clans' mobile game maker Supercell from SoftBank Group Corp <9984.T> in an $8.6 billion deal.
Caesars' online games business, known as Playtika, makes its games such as Bingo Blitz and Slotomania available on Apple Inc's <AAPL.O> App Store. Playatika will continue to operate independently with its own management team and its headquarters remaining in Herzliya, Israel, following the deal, the companies said.
Playtika players use virtual currency that cannot be exchanged for real money, although players can spend money by buying items in the games. Caesars' World Series of Poker and real-money online gaming businesses are not part of the deal, according to the companies.
Giant is one of China's biggest gaming companies, with nearly 50 million monthly active users and several top-grossing mobile titles. It was taken private in 2014 for $3 billion by a group of buyers that included company Chairman Yuzhu Shi and private equity firm Baring Private Equity Asia Ltd. It is now valued at more than $12 billion.
The Chinese consortium involved in the deal also includes Ma's private equity firm Yunfeng Capital, China Oceanwide Holdings Group Co, China Minsheng Trust Co, CDH China HF Holdings Company Limited, and Hony Capital Fund, the companies said.
The merger between the owners of Caesars Interactive Entertainment is intertwined with the bankruptcy of CEOC, whose restructuring plan hinges on billions of dollars of cash and equity from its parent.
CEOC's creditors have accused the parent company of looting choice assets from its operating unit and leaving it bankrupt. Caesars has said the acquisitions were done at fair value.
While proceeds from a Caesars Interactive online games unit sale will help the bankruptcy estate, junior creditors may still object to the distribution of the funds because more money will end up in the hands of first lien banks and lenders.
Junior creditors led by Appaloosa Management remain the biggest hold-outs in the CEOC bankruptcy, and have said they have as much as $12 billion in claims against Caesars Entertainment and its private equity backers, Apollo Global Management LLC <APO.N> and TPG Capital LP.
(Reporting by Liana B. Baker in New York and Allison Lampert in Montreal; Additional reporting by Tracy Rucinski in Chicago)