By Joshua Franklin
(Reuters) - AppLovin Corp, the U.S. mobile app and gaming company backed by private equity firm KKR & Co Inc <KKR.N>, has hired Morgan Stanley <MS.N> to lead preparations for an initial public offering (IPO) which could come early in 2021, according to people familiar with the matter.
The company has flirted with the idea of an IPO for years, but had never taken a concrete preparatory step. It is the latest mobile gaming startup to eye a stock market listing, as demand for video games surges among consumers staying at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The sources requested anonymity because the IPO preparations are confidential and cautioned that the plans are subject to market conditions.
"Today gaming is a fractured, fragmented market. I think the market will consolidate, and I think AppLovin will be one of those consolidators," Ted Oberwager, a managing director in KKR's technology, media and telecommunications team and an AppLovin board member, said in an interview. He declined to comment on the IPO plans.
AppLovin and Morgan Stanley declined to comment.
AppLovin has been profitable since it was founded in 2012 as a mobile games advertising platform. It expects to generate roughly $1.5 billion in revenue for 2020, according to one of the sources, who is familiar with the company's finances.
By comparison, gaming platform Unity Software Inc <U.N> went public last month at a valuation of $13.7 billion after reporting revenue for the first six months of 2020 of $351 million. Its shares have risen more than 60% since the IPO.
In 2018, KKR acquired a minority stake in AppLovin for $400 million, valuing the company at $2 billion. AppLovin now expects to command a substantially higher valuation, the sources said.
In 2018, AppLovin also began a media division, Lion Studios, to work with developers to promote and publish apps.
It has expanded further into gaming through a string of acquisitions and investments, including Machine Zone, Belarusian game studio Belka Games, PeopleFun and Firecraft Studios.
In the last 12 months, AppLovin has also hired Herald Chen as chief financial officer. He joined from KKR, where he was head of technology, media and telecom in the Americas and led the firm's investment in AppLovin.
U.S. consumer spending on video gaming hit a record $11.6 billion in the second quarter, up 30% on the year-ago period, according to research firm NPD Group.
Gaming giant Roblox Corporation is also working with investment banks to prepare for a U.S. stock market listing that could come early next year and which the online gaming platform expects could double its recent $4 billion valuation, Reuters reported last week.
(Reporting by Joshua Franklin in New York; Editing by Matthew Lewis)