NOTE: This post was originally published as part of the Thought Leadership series of blog posts for Vladimir Jones, and can be found here.

Why the heck is gaming so popular right now? 

It’s bigger than consoles and new releases. And there’s reason for brands of all stripes to pay attention. While gaming isn’t new, it is a coronavirus-cautious way to satisfy an innate human need: belonging. We want to join, take part, be together, share. And the challenges, puzzles, and virtual realities that come with it? Added bonus. 

Gaming offers belonging nearly instantly, and quite powerfully too, leveraging several senses to create memorable experiences and rewards so we keep coming back. This combination of belonging and synesthesia forms the base of a not-so-secret sauce that any brand can and should strive to emulate.

There you have it. So what else is here in this blog post? We do not offer a handy quiz to reveal which video game you should start playing. But we do have answers to more questions, like … 

  • What else are games being used for?
  • How much are people spending?
  • How many people are playing, and who are they?
  • What games are people playing? And why?

First, the numbers.

Earlier in 2020, video games were used as online avatar spaces for meetings and venues in lieu of being able to be there in person, with a slight uptick in players just before lockdowns were the norm. It didn’t stop there, though, as more people turned to video games for entertainment, connection to others, and positive mental health. We’re not talking just a few more people, though, no. 

In August, gaming sales increased 37% year over year (YoY), for the fifth straight month. And in case you weren’t already convinced of the popularity of gaming, those sales were worth $3.3 billion. But wait, there’s more. From January to mid-September, games sales totaled $29.4 billion in the U.S., for an increase of 23% YoY. And now we’re staring down the final days of the last quarter, with December traditionally being the biggest month for game sales in the U.S.

Additionally, there are two new gaming consoles that just dropped. Both PS5 and Xbox Series X are at the top of console gamers’ wishlists, and they’re selling out fast. Most retailers claimed strong stock available for Black Friday sales, but with bottlenecked availability and scalpers in every corner, owning one of these newer consoles seems improbable, with an additional hindrance to most consumers of large price tags ($500 or more, depending on where you buy). And while the Nintendo Switch is usually a cheaper option, it’s been known to be hard to find since earlier in the year.

PC gamers are seeing a similar issue in pricing and availability for graphics cards that help improve visual performance in their games. They’ve been harder to come by at an affordable price since Bitcoin Mining became a thing, and new cards can sell out instantly, often stirring up controversy surrounding launches of these cards. 

Meanwhile, mobile gaming—often labeled “casual,” as opposed to “hardcore”—is booming. Games that were once exclusive titles to PC or console are now seen in the mobile arena as well, and they’re taking off. Worldwide, Millennials make up 72% of mobile gamers. This group might be more casual within the gaming community, but what they’re saving on a gaming rig or console, they’re spending on apps. Consumers spent $28 billion on apps in Q3 2020 alone, with the majority of spend on games.

Next, the games.

Earlier in the year, we saw Animal Crossing become hugely popular. Its release came just as the pandemic started going, offering cutesy escapism, so people could focus on something other than what was going on in the real world for a while. As has been done for a while, but never so abruptly, brands appeared with in-game advertising for the title, especially with customized fashionAnimal Crossing was such a mainstream hit it was even used as a marketing platform for the Biden-Harris campaign, though new rules have since prohibited Joe’s Island.

Another huge game this year is Among Us. With its simplistic graphics, ease of gameplay mechanics, and availability on both PC and mobile, Among Us continues to soar to millions of users, which sounds insane considering they could hardly get 10 concurrent players at a time in 2018. Now, even mainstream famous faces such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) are getting in on the action.

In the world of Massively Multiplayer games, World of Warcraft has stood its ground now for 16 years. While the player base for the game was on shaky ground a few years back, players were primed and ready for the new expansion, World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, which debuted on November 23. The expansion was already breaking records prior to release, with numbers nearing 2018 five-year records, and is seeing a new resurgence in popularity.

And then we have eSports, which took a small hit due to canceled competitions; however, unlike physical sports, eSports can be played virtually anywhere. So, even with giant championship venues shuttered, in most cases, the games went on anyway. In fact, some physical sports went virtual this year as well, giving their audiences something to watch. 

There are many other standouts this year as well, such as Phasmophobia, which uses proximity chat; the much anticipated but much delayed Cyberpunk 2077; the nostalgic trip down memory lane with Super Mario 3D All-Stars; and a slew of indie games available to download. 

And now, back to the point.

To comment on every game that came out in 2020 or will come out in 2021 is a job best left up to gaming-centric sites. What matters is that they all have a common theme—people need and want to belong. They want to be part of something bigger than themselves, and the events of 2020 channeled people to address this need in different ways. 

Video games offer something that other forms of entertainment (books, TV, movies, etc.) can’t quite approximate—a live, shared experience in a different world. Whether for dancing or education, for therapy or charity, or just for a good time, the pandemic has really shown that the industry is meant for everybody, and anyone can be a gamer.

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