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How the Video Game Industry Quietly Powered Through a Pandemic

Call of Duty, Animal Crossing, and Fortnite

(Courtesy of Activision; GRIFFIN GAMING PARTNERS; Epic Games)

From breakout "COVID" hits to the rise of in-game musical events, record franchise sales and the launches of two next-gen consoles, the year 2020 has actually been eventful for games.

While the coronavirus pandemic has negatively impacted almost every facet of the entertainment industry over the past nine months, the video game industry has continued powering through at breakneck speed as more people turn to console and mobile titles for stress relief, relaxation and social connection.

With interest in gaming on the rise during the global lockdown, the massive and fast-growing industry is expected to reach $160 billion in worldwide revenue this year, according to esports research firm Newzoo. This was the year, after all, that Animal Crossing became a social phenomenon, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez attracted 400,000 viewers to her Twitch live stream of Among Us, and rabid interest around action-adventure franchise The Last of Us coalesced into plans for an HBO adaptation from Chernobyl writer Craig Mazin.

"Changes in consumer behaviors due to the pandemic have had a significant impact on the U.S. video game market," NPD Group senior gaming analyst Mat Piscatella tells The Hollywood Reporter, adding that people of all ages and demographics have engaged with video games this year, contributing to the industry's growth across all platforms.

Nielsen reported a bump in video game usage as stay-at-home orders went into effect across the globe. Over the week of March 23-29, a survey of roughly 3,000 game-playing individuals indicated a spike amid quarantine, with the U.S. seeing the highest increase at 45 percent, followed by France, the U.K. and Germany. After six long months of the pandemic, video game enthusiasm did not wane. In the third quarter overall, industry consumer spending hit $11.2 billion, an increase of 24 percent compared to a year earlier.

When the outbreak emerged in full force in March, Nintendo's Animal Crossing swiftly became the biggest launch in terms of digital sales, selling 5 million units during the month and breaking a console record previously held by Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. "The first breakout 'COVID hit' was undoubtedly Animal Crossing: New Horizons," Carter Rogers, principal analyst at Nielsen's SuperData, tells THR. The public figures who vocalized their love of the simulation game, in which people build and tend to their own island communities, included Brie Larson, Chrissy Teigen, Danny Trejo, Elijah Wood, Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams and rapper T-Pain. Animal Crossing became a social phenomenon, even attracting Joe Biden's presidential campaign, which offered Biden-Harris merchandise for island dwellers.

Activision's Call of Duty: Warzone, a free multiplayer mode that launched in March, also saw high engagement, attracting more than 50 million players in its first month and surpassing 85 million by December. The CoD franchise as a whole surpassed $3 billion in net bookings over the past year, with 200 million people playing the games this year alone.

"Despite the challenges of making games and hosting esports tournaments during a global pandemic, our teams never lost sight of our mission to deliver epic entertainment to our players," Bobby Kotick, CEO of Activision Blizzard, tells THR. "I am incredibly proud of what we achieved, including releasing our highly anticipated triple-A game Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, launching the fastest-selling Blizzard PC game of all time, World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, and welcoming fans to the inaugural season of the Call of Duty League."

But according to Rogers, nothing reached the meteoric rise of social deduction multiplayer game Among Us. "The game’s accessibility and usefulness as a venue for social hangouts meant that by October it had by far the highest monthly user total of any game in history," he says. "This total greatly exceeded the user base of Pokémon GO at its August 2016 peak."

Though Among Us has been around since 2018, it surged in popularity this year thanks to game streams on platforms like Twitch, said expert Donny Kristianto, of App Annie, in an Oct. 8 report. In the third quarter of this year, the analytics firm reported that the game increased its monthly active users all over the world, topping charts in markets such as Spain and Argentina. In the United States, United Kingdom, South Korea, Indonesia and Brazil, the game was among the top five most downloaded, "indicating the universal appeal of games with strong social mechanics," wrote Kristianto.

Gaming has been on the rise for the past decade, with total U.S. consumer spending expected to grow from around $27 billion in 2010 to $50 billion-plus by the end of 2020, according to NPD’s Piscatella, who acknowledges that the reasons for growth are "numerous" and include the rise of free-to-play gaming, the expansion of console and PC gaming, and the emergence of the mobile gaming market. Newzoo notes that a rise in mobile gaming has occurred particularly in consumers in the 12-to-30 age group, who are often using games as social networks. "Ten years ago, younger generations were leaving behind traditional media for social media," wrote Newzoo senior market analyst Tom Wijman in a 2020 Global Games Market Report. "Today, they are leaving behind social media for more interactive experiences."

App Annie went so far as to label 2020 a "banner" year for gaming in its third-quarter report, explaining that record numbers of consumers specifically turned to mobile games for relaxation and social connection. The average weekly downloads in mobile games across the app stores "hovered around 1 billion" for the second straight quarter, up 15 percent compared to a year earlier. Consumers downloaded a whopping 14 billion games in the third quarter, a number driven by activity in the U.S. and China in that period.

Casual games, in particular hyper-casual titles like Scribble Rider and simulations like Construction Simulator: Forklift Truck Game, saw rapid growth thanks to their simple and intuitive gameplay, according to App Annie. In general, the coronavirus pandemic advanced mobile usage by two to three years, "accelerating our transition to a mobile-first world," says App Annie analyst Lexi Sydow.

Virtual in-game concerts also became more commonplace after Epic Games introduced the concept in 2019 with a DJ Marshmello show and followed up in 2020 with a Travis Scott performance in battle royale hit Fortnite that drew 12 million concurrent viewers. Not only did the event mark record attendance for an in-game concert, but it also signaled a shift in how people view Fortnite, which serves as a social platform as much as a home for virtual competitions.

"We’re going to see more of these events, even after regular concerts are safe to attend again," predicts Rogers. "The popularity of the Marshmello Fortnite concert in 2019 shows that these events were catching on even before COVID-19. Much like the growth of e-commerce or the release of major films on streaming video platforms, the pandemic merely moved forward the popularity of these events by a few years. For celebrities who are gamers (including musicians, but also others, like athletes and actors), in-game appearances will become a common promotional tool, much like appearances or performances on traditional talk shows."

This year also saw the launch of two highly anticipated next-gen consoles, Microsoft’s Xbox Series X and Sony’s PlayStation 5, both of which turned into massive launches. PS5, which launched with Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales, had the biggest launch for any hardware platform ever, according to NPD Group.

Gaming, once perceived as a niche medium, has become mainstream. In the past six months, for instance, four out of every five U.S. consumers have played a video game, per NPD Group. But perhaps most notably, older players — those between the ages of 55 and 64 — are gaming 48 percent more than they were a year ago.

"Gaming has become a ubiquitous part of popular culture," says Piscatella. Looking onward, he projects: "The kind of growth that gaming has experienced in 2020 is, generally, very difficult to maintain. However, we are certainly not in normal times." In Newzoo's estimation, the global gaming market will surpass $200 billion by the end of 2023.

THR's Trilby Beresford contributed to this post.


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