COVID-19 and the fight for the video games industry

We’re all at home. We’re all playing video games, right? Sort of. It’s a little bit more complicated than that

It feels crass to frame it this way – especially as the body count rises with each passing day – but when the era of COVID-19 finally peters out, we will be able to assess who in the video games market won and lost during these extraordinary times.

There are few industries that seem suited to successfully navigating a period of enforced global isolation. Gaming appears to be a rare example. Two weeks ago, the London-based market research group Mintel published data that seems to confirm this. Joel Poelking, the groups Gaming Analyst, references a report by the US telco Verizon that shows web traffic related to video game usage is up 75 per cent. Comparatively, video streaming is up just 12 per cent, while social media use has flattened out.

There’s tangible evidence too. The Nintendo Switch saw a 150 per cent increase in sales in March. With a substantial portion of Nintendo’s manufacturing and distribution based in China, which is only starting to recover, restocking the devices has been problematic. “More are on their way,” pants the Japanese game giant.

Sales of the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4, two consoles approaching the end of their life cycles, have also significantly spiked. Right now – and can you blame them? – everyone wants to play video games. On March 23, the day the UK lockdown began, Metro reported that sales of evergreen titles such as FIFA 20 and Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare had seen an increase in sales of up to 326 per cent. It wasn’t just loo roll that was getting stockpiled.


So who are the losers here?

Well, anyone who wanted to play The Last Of Us Part II for one. At this juncture, Naughty Dog’s sequel to the 2013 game (incidentally, my favourite video game from outside the nostalgic glow of childhood memory) is quite possibly the most anticipated game in recent history.

In an alternate timeline, the game was already supposed to be with us. The initial release date was February 21, which was then pushed to May 29. And then, last Thursday (April 2), a tweet from Sony confirmed that the game will now be delayed indefinitely. “Logistically,” the message read, “the global crisis is preventing us from providing the launch experience our players deserve.”

On one – rotting, mutated – hand, it’s probably for the best that The Last Of Us Part II goes into cold storage for a while. This is, remember, a game set in the aftermath of a global apocalyptic event. When or if we get to see it is impossible to say, but the world that is metamorphosing before us seems much more in need of the soothing balm provided by Animal Crossing: New Horizon than a Clicker screaming at us. While we’re at it, fair play to Capcom for getting its remake of 1999’s Resident Evil 3: Biohazard out before shit really started going down. Again, remember: this is a game about biological terrorism, where a deadly virus decimates the population. Um, is it just me, or is it a bit hot in here?

A man in Italy plays a game at home after the government advised citizens to stay at home. Credit: Stefano Guidi / Getty Images

It wasn’t tonal concerns that put my most anticipated game – of, oh I don’t know, the last zillion years – on the shelf. It seems that video games may well not be as equipped to continue unimpeded through the pandemic as we may have first thought.

Yes, 80 per cent of all video games are now sold digitally (spare a thought for employees of the already-on-the-rocks retail chain GAME, less so owner Mike Ashley who had to be publicly shamed into shutting his stores and protecting his staff). But the big games – the blockbusters, the titles that hook in mainstream players, of which The Last Of Us Part II is certainly one example – make up most of those physical sales.

There’s an amazing statistic in Keith Stuart’s recent piece for The Guardian, of which I was not aware. “The most successful game in the UK in 2018, FIFA 19,” he writes, ‘“achieved 75 per cent of its sales from the physical product rather than through digital downloads.”


Anyone looking forward to forthcoming AAA releases like Ghost Of Tsushima (due June 26), Marvel’s Avengers (September 4), Cyberpunk 2077 (September 17), and Dying Light 2 (recently announced as suspended indefinitely), might want to start poking around on your console’s online store to find a game that will dampen your incoming disappointment. Either something classic (may I recommend something delightfully twee like Fable 2 or my beloved Katamari Damacy), or an indie title (because people in bedrooms won’t stop making games even if bombs drop).

Let’s end this column on a high note by returning to that Mintel data we dipped into earlier, which also tells us that a quarter of people who play video games do so to socialise with others. In addition to that, recent weeks have seen game-viewing platforms like Twitch, Steam and YouTube experience significant increases in who is logging on.

If we can take anything from this information it’s this. COVID-19 may be trying to tear the world apart. Video games, however, are trying to bring us back together.


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