As people huddled at home amid lockdowns and businesses that relied on crowds shuttered their doors, at least one industry managed to have a banner 2020: Video games. While the raging coronavirus disrupted lives globally throughout the year, the games industry often offered not only an escape from the daily stress but also another way for players to connect and communicate with each other.
It was an extraordinary year that culminated in, of course, the big launches of the anticipated next-generation consoles, the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X/S.
In terms of overall financial success, video games went beyond weathering COVID-19. While shutdowns did take a toll on production teams working apart, manufacturing facilities forced to close, and shipping logistics delayed, the industry still hit new records. Gamemakers sold $10.04 billion worth of game content in the U.S. in the third quarter, according to NPD Group, up 24 percent year-over-year, as people hunkered down at home or just had more free time amid various shutdowns.
However, it wasn't all good news in the time of coronavirus. Gaming conventions and conferences that relied on travel and in-person gatherings, like the industry's biggest showcase, The Electronics Entertainment Expo, had to cancel, along with the Game Developers Conference, the various versions of PAX conventions, and the fighting game esports event, EVO. They were either postponed to 2021 or changed to online-only events.
#MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter
The industry also faced self-inflicted woes in the era of #MeToo. The fighting game competition platform EVO, not only lost out on its live showcase due to COVID, it ended up scrapping its online-only event after allegations of sexual misconduct against a minor were raised against co-founder and president Joey Cuellar.
Meanwhile, publishing giant Ubisoft had a deluge of sexual harassment issues throughout its global network of studios that led to the resignations of Chief Creative Officer Serge Hascoët, the global head of human resources Cécile Cornet, and managing director of Canadian studios Yannis Mallat, over the summer, according to Kotaku.
At the same time, as protests erupted over the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by police, the big three console makers, Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo, showed public signs of support for activists against systemic racism.
Multiple big publishing houses and developers also joined in, with many pledging funds to donate toward organizations and movements that tackle the issue.
While politics and culture wars divided people throughout an election year, online multiplayer games brought more Americans together than ever before. And not just the big-name standbys like Call of Duty, but funny, family-friendly party games like Among Us and Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout, both of which trended first and second on Google Trends' most searched video games of the year.
It was quite the 2020 in particular for Among Us. Winner of best multiplayer and best mobile game of the year at The Game Awards, it initially launched as mobile-only in 2018. The game pits astronaut crewmembers against impostor killers hidden in their midst, and it blew up during the pandemic in 2020. Among Us also got a boost from Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar when they livestreamed themselves playing the game on Twitch as a voter outreach event.
As for Nintendo, the House of Mario had a huge success in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a new entry into the franchise where players fish, farm, and decorate a colorful island that features a wide cast of animal friends. This one sold an eye-popping 26 million units by the end of September, contributing to a big year for the Japanese console maker.
The game allows for some multiplayer experiences, where users can visit each other's islands, leading to a wild new project by screenwriter Gary Whitta during quarantines this year: a virtual talk show. Animal Talking became a venue where Whitta's friends and celebrities like T-Pain, Brie Larson, and Selena Gomez would show up via their own cutesy avatars in his virtual talk show studio on his video game island.
Epic Vs. Apple and Google
Speaking of multiplayer, Epic Games still had a juggernaut in its cartoony, battle-royale shooter/builder/music venue called Fortnite. But while the game had everything from an in-game concert by Travis Scott to a (literally) massive event in its tie-in with Marvel superheroes, the game maker got into its own fight with some rather sizeable opponents.
In a squabble over percentages taken from app sales, Epic Games has sued Apple and Google for its store practices. When the publisher created its own in-app store to circumvent paying the tech giants, the Apple Store and Google Play retaliated by ending sales of the game. The ugly fight between Epic and Apple has a court date on May 3, 2021, with no word yet on a potential trial with Google.
Microsoft Buys ZeniMax
Another event that can have major repercussions on the gaming industry going forward was Microsoft's purchase of ZeniMax for a whopping $7.5 billion. ZeniMax, the owner of publisher Bethesda Softworks, maintains a library of popular franchises like Doom, Fallout, and The Elder Scrolls.
This raised the immediate question: do the hit games become exclusive to Microsoft's Xbox going forward? Phil Spencer, head of the Xbox brand, gave a bit of a cagey answer in an interview with Kotaku, so it's not yet clear whether Sony PlayStation fans will miss out on some big titles in the future,
However, two of Bethesda's anticipated games of 2021, Deathloop and GhostWire Tokyo, are still slated to be timed exclusives for the PS5 as Microsoft has said the existing deals would be honored after the purchase.
The Cloud and VR
Momentum on new technologies seemed to plateau in 2020. While virtual reality headsets took a step forward with the release of the Oculus Quest 2, Sony offered little more than support for its current VR setup with no plans for upgrades even as it sells its brand new gaming system.
In cloud gaming, e-commerce and streaming powerhouse Amazon made some noise with an entry into the space called Luna, and Google Stadia quietly chugged along receiving some good reviews a year after launch. But, the concept of streaming games out of the cloud ended up generating less buzz this year, perhaps because the two consoles didn't debut until Q4.
The story of video games in 2020, of course, is the story of the Xbox Series X/S and the PlayStation 5. While early figures indicate that the PS5 is the console of choice for consumers, outselling Microsoft's offering by nearly two to one, at least according to VGChartz, neither machine appears to be easy to find during the holiday shopping season. The Xbox team didn't seem to be down on their sales figures either.
However, the demand might be far outstripping supply to the extreme in the case of the PS5, reportedly due to scalpers using programmable bots to quickly grab the console whenever there's a restock online. Since Sony only made the PS5 available online due to the pandemic, it has made finding the device a frustrating, and at times, dangerous experience, with multiple reports of armed robberies taking place in the U.S. and Canada.
Urging patience, Eric Lempel, senior vice president and head of global marketing at Sony Interactive Entertainment, told Cheddar that restocking is happening and that, "Ships are coming in. Planes are flying. Stock is coming in between now and the end of the year, and then certainly next year."
The Game Awards
Finally, the quasi-Oscars of gaming took place on Thursday, December 10 as a mostly virtual livestream event, honoring the top achievements for the year in the industry hosted by the award show's founder Geoff Keighley.
Participating in the festivities were some notable celebrities like Tom Holland, Gal Gadot, Keanu Reeves, and director Christopher Nolan, who presented the Game of the Year award to Naughty Dog's story-driven, post-apocalyptic game, The Last of Us II.
Upon accepting the award from his home, Neil Druckmann, the game's director, shared a few words that might resonate with a lot of people as 2020 comes to a close.
"Everyone at Naughty Dog, I can't wait to hug and high five and get drunk with each one of you," Druckmann said.