THERE IS NOTHING quite like a captive audience. When Sony, a Japanese electronics giant, reported its latest set of quarterly results on October 28th, the star performer was the firm’s video-gaming division, which makes the PlayStation line of consoles. Had it been a normal year, revenues would probably have been down, because Sony’s current model—the PlayStation 4—is coming to the end of its life.
But in a year marked by lockdowns and working from home, gaming revenue instead grew by 11.5% year-on-year (and operating profits by 61%) as housebound consumers reached for their controllers. Sony is not alone. Microsoft, its gaming arch-rival, released its own results the day before. Its Xbox One console is similarly superannuated, yet revenues jumped by 30%. The good times have been repeated across the industry (see chart).
Most forecasters expected covid-19 to boost the video-gaming business. The pandemic has given a filip to other forms of indoor entertainment, from board games to video-streaming to books. But the scale of the surge has caught industry-watchers by surprise. Tom Wijman at Newzoo, a games-industry analytics firm, says that when the pandemic began, his company predicted a boost of around $2bn to industry revenues on top of its existing forecasts. The latest figures, he says, suggest the real figure has been nearer $17bn. Newzoo now reckons industry revenues will reach $175bn this year, a rise of 20%. Even for an industry that had been growing by 9% annually, 2020 has been a barnstorming year.
It is not over yet. Amid a blitz of adverts, trailers and PR, Sony and Microsoft are gearing up to replace their existing consoles with new, more powerful machines. On November 10th Microsoft will release the Xbox Series X. Sony will respond two days later with the PlayStation 5. With a locked-down Christmas looming in many parts of the world, demand for both will be high. If industry rumours about pre-orders are correct, some consumers may have to go without.
At the same time, both firms will be keeping their eyes on several big new competitors. Amazon, Facebook and Google all think the time is right to try their luck in the gaming business. Over the past decade streaming has revolutionised music, television and films. The tech giants think cloud computing, fast broadband and 5G mobile networks mean the time is right to try the same thing with video games.
Start with the consoles themselves. Sony won the previous round of the console wars, selling over 100m PlayStation 4s and more than 1bn games. Microsoft does not provide official figures, but most analysts reckon that sales of the Xbox One (confusingly, the Xbox’s third iteration) were only half as high. Most expect Sony to outsell its rival this time, too. Piers Harding-Rolls at Ampere Analysis, a media-analysis firm, thinks 5m new PlayStations will be sold in the run-up to Christmas, compared with 3.9m Xboxes.
One reason is brand loyalty. “There’s very much a cult following when it comes to consoles,” says Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities. “PlayStation owners will mostly buy another PlayStation, and Xbox owners will get a new Xbox.” Another…
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