Churchill Downs buys Big Fish Games for $885M

Steven Loeb · November 13, 2014 · Short URL:

Big Fish Games is the studio behind popular a number of popular casino games

When you think of Churchill Downs, the first thing that comes to mind is probably horse racing. Or, to be more specific, you think of the Kentucky Derby. But mobile gaming? Not exactly.

Yet, that is precisely the business that Churchill Downs is getting into, and in a big way, announcing on Wednesday that it has purchased one of the most popular casual game publishers, Big Fish Games.

The deal is worth a $885 million; $485 of that will be paid right away, with another $350 paid out if Big Fish meets its Adjusted EBITDA goals in 2015, and the final $50 million going to Paul Thelen, founder and CEO of Big Fish Games, if it meets its booking goals in 2016.

All of that will be paid in cash, save for around $15 million, which will be paid in CDI common stock to Thelen.

To paraphrase Joe Biden: this is a big fishing deal!

So how does Big Fish fit into Churchill Downs? The move makes the most sense when realize that a number of the studio's biggest hits are casino games. Churchill downs owns and operates half a dozen actual casinos. That seems to make them a pretty good match.

"We are extremely proud of the company we have built over the last twelve years.  Churchill Downs is a company with a commitment to interactive entertainment and a track record of growth and performance," said Thelen, in a statement. "We believe Big Fish is now positioned to become an even greater force in the casual, mid-core and social casino mobile and online games industry. Churchill Downs is a great cultural fit for us and we are thrilled to be joining the Churchill Downs family."

Churchill Downs also owns TwinSpires, an online gambling business, but Bill Carstanjen, Chief Executive Officer of CDI, is already saying that it will not be integrated with Big Fish.

"While many will view this transaction as a logical extension to what we currently do with, what is most important to us are the strong team and the processes and capabilities that have been built by Big Fish in Seattle, Oakland, and Luxembourg. We are excited to announce this transaction and believe we will do great things together," he said in a statement.

Big Fish has gotten into the real-money gaming space over the last few years, purchasing Self Aware Games, and its parent company, Social Concepts, in 2012. The company made a game called Card Ace: Casino, which was subsequently renamed Big Fish Casino. That game became available in the United Kingdom in August of that year, the first time that a real-money gambling mobile game was made available in the App Store.

Of course, real-money gaming is illegal in the United States, despite all of the efforts made by Zynga, so its games here thrive on users buying virtual currency. Enough people pay for its freemium games that the company took in $266 million in revenue in 2013.

Founded in 2002, the Seattle-based Big Fish Games raised two rounds of funding: an $8.7 million angel round in 2006, and an $83.3 million series A in 2008.

This the second large gaming acquisition we have seen in just a few months; in September, Microsoft bought Mojang, the gaming studio behind mega-hit Minecraft, for $2.5 billion.

VatorNews reached out to Big Fish Games for more information, but the company had no further comment at this time. 

(Image source:

Read more from our "Trends and news" series

More episodes

Related Companies, Investors, and Entrepreneurs



Joined Vator on

Zynga is the largest social gaming company with 8.5 million daily users and 45 million monthly users.  Zynga’s games are available on Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, Hi5, Friendster, Yahoo! and the iPhone, and include Texas Hold’Em Poker, Mafia Wars, YoVille, Vampires, Street Racing, Scramble and Word Twist.  The company is funded by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, IVP, Union Square Ventures, Foundry Group, Avalon Ventures, Pilot Group, Reid Hoffman and Peter Thiel.  Zynga is headquartered at the Chip Factory in San Francisco.  For more information, please visit

Big Fish Games


Joined Vator on

Founded in 2002, Big Fish is the leading online marketplace for premium casual games.  Through its proprietary, data driven platform, millions of consumers seeking immersive, relaxing entertainment easily discover and purchase premium casual games created by Big Fish’s network of more than 500 development partners and in-house by Big Fish Games Studios.  Renowned for offering A New Game Every Day!® on, the company offers thousands of games on multiple platforms -- PC, Mac, mobile phone, and tablet.  Big Fish’s websites, games, and customer service are available in ten languages – Danish, Dutch, English, German, French, Italian, Japanese, Brazilian Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish – and its games are sold in more than 150 countries.  The company is headquartered in Seattle, WA, with regional offices in Oakland, CA; Vancouver, Canada; Cork, Ireland; and Luxembourg.



Paul Thelen

Joined Vator on

Founder, Chairman and Chief Strategy Officer of Big Fish Games. He has an MBA from Stanford University and a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from the University of Washington.