How the Pandemic is Changing Gaming

We’re now several months into the pandemic and there’s no doubt that impact on our lives will last for years. As marketers, we’re often thinking about how this will change the lives of our clients’ customers.

In June, McKinsey put together an outline of what they’re calling the “next-normal consumer.” The impact of COVID-19 has been total, affecting every aspect of our lives. But sussing out accelerating old trends from fundamentally new behaviors is tough.

In the macro, gaming has exploded in usage. Gaming was already very, very popular, but the stay-at-home order has pressed fast-forward on gaming as the default entertainment category. According to Nielsen, gameplay has increased by 46% in the US, and videogame streaming site Twitch doubled its global viewership in just the first three months of the year.

But talking about the changing habits of over 2 billion gamers is difficult  — you can’t paint everyone who plays games with the same brush. Inspired by the McKinsey research, we wanted to narrow down and identify some of the changes you might be facing in reaching gamers as customers and playing with gaming as a marketing channel.

Non-“gamer” gamers are on the rise

For example, the chat application Discord had previously focused on helping gamers build community and chat with each other while playing.

The app quickly became popular among the competitive and professional gaming scene due to the focus on high-quality sound, security features, and little audio delay, which then spread to the larger online gaming community.

Since then, Discord has grabbed over 200 million users — more than Slack. But it’s also expanded its non-gaming usage. The company rebranded this year and changed their tagline to “Your Place to Talk and Hang Out,” and built instructions for groups like community organizers and educators to use the app.

Many gaming-specific sites have attempted to pivot to attract mainstream attention, but Discord’s shift is particularly resonant. Discord’s competition isn’t simply other gaming forums or gaming chat apps. They’re hoping to become the default mode of real-time communication for the internet, in the way that AOL’s Instant Messenger or text messaging had.

COVID-19 has created more behavioral needs for Discord outside of simply gaming. People are looking for easy ways to talk to one another in group contexts and share community at a time when in-person connection is difficult.

Board Games Are Going Mainstream…Again

Finally, we’re seeing more and more families turning to games as safe activities. Traditional family activities like summer camps, after-school activities, and movie nights are now more treacherous for parents to navigate. Tabletop and board games are great alternatives for families looking to keep themselves occupied during stay-at-home orders.

So far, the market for toys and puzzles in North America has been booming. Sales are up 45% for the category in North America. In the first week of lockdown, sales in the UK soared 240%.

“Now that people are staying at home and playing at home, we have seen just this insane jump in sales,” Elan Lee, co-founder of the smash-hit Exploding Kittens said in March.

The pop in sales has pushed tabletop makers to find new ways to meet rising demand. Wizards of the Coast, maker of the popular Magic: The Gathering series, has been releasing free material for fans of Dungeons & Dragons. “We believe the social connection playing games, including D&D, can continue to be helpful for those of us who feel isolated or alone in our homes in order to stay safe from transmission,” the company wrote.

One beneficiary of the tabletop gaming boom is Kickstarter, who has received over $700m in gaming-related pledges. “My view is that we definitely have hit a new cultural level of sophistication in tabletop games that’s probably not going to go away regardless of whatever happens next,” Luke Crane, Kickstarter’s head of games, told us on our podcast.

Charity is being bundled

We often focus on what’s new and shiny, but I expect there to be a resurgence of bargain-hunting in the world of games. This could mean looking for used titles, instead of new ones. You might also see people spending time clearing a backlog of games they already own or trading with friends.

One place this behavior has emerged is gaming bundles for charitable causes. Contrary to popular opinion, the gaming community has an incredibly active presence in raising money for causes.

The Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality raised $8.1 million from over 800,00 people. The bundle averaged about $10 per donation and contained 1,704 video games, tabletop games, and game dev resources.

Humble Bundle is one of the most successful businesses in the gaming space for selling collections of games and donating to charity. They’ve raised $6 million for COVID relief for causes including Direct Relief, International Rescue Committee, Doctors Without Borders, and Partners In Health

Subscriptions are soaring

To date, no one has delivered a “Netflix for gaming,” but subscription services like Xbox Game Pass and Apple Arcade will become more popular for those who want to play, but are working from a fixed budget.

Microsoft has a new video game console launching later this year and at the center is their Game Pass subscription service. During Microsoft’s Q3 earnings report this year, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella revealed that there are now over 10 million Xbox Game Pass subscribers. That growth mirrored larger gameplay momentum during COVID with “record levels of engagement,” according to Nadella, with nearly 90 million monthly active users of Xbox Live.

The home boundaries are blurring

Another trend we’re seeing is the bleed between the family or work computer and the living room. In the past, the majority of gamers played video games on consoles or on their phones in the living room, but now workspaces are becoming play spaces.

Computer sales (including desktops, notebooks, and ultramobile premiums like Microsoft Surface) grew 3.5% in the US and by 2.8% worldwide. PC gaming hardware is expected to grow an astonishing 22% this year alone. Both IKEA and Herman Miller, no stranger to home offices, sell gaming chairs that can easily double as a standard office chair.

One of the more surprising success stories for the home office is Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020. The series is over 35 years old and is one of the longest-running, best-known, and most comprehensive home flight simulator programs on the market. The series has a long history with work machines — early versions were used as a test for PC compatibility. If a computer could run Microsoft Flight Simulator and spreadsheet program Lotus 1-2-3, it was 100% IBM PC-compatible.

The new installment wowed critics, with realistic graphics and real-time map updates with weather systems and locations. But more importantly, the game has been a peaceful reprieve from world events as well as an opportunity to “travel” when travel has been difficult.

Games are helping us stay healthy

The World Health Organization changed its classification of games from potential disorder to a pro-social activity. Games are going to increasingly find new ways to improve our lives under the shadow of COVID.

Companies like Peloton and Mirror have benefited from the boom of home fitness technology, and fitness games will see similar adoption.

Nintendo’s Ring Fit Adventure has been in and out of stock for months. Nintendo has several fitness options for the Switch including Zumba: Burn It Up and Fitness Boxing.

We’re also seeing VR as a fitness adoption tool. Dance rhythm game Beat Saber has been one of virtual reality’s few success stories, and while not explicitly a health app, it’s been used as an exercise substitute on par with playing tennis. Within’s Supernatural app pulls in dance choreography and futuristic landscapes into a heart-pumping experience.

One of the most successful gaming experiences of the year has been Animal Crossing. The farming, bug-hunting, outfit-designing, and fishing simulator has been a salve for the perils of the outside world.

Games are often critiqued for being too violent or too difficult, but the pandemic has pushed meditative experiences onto center-stage.

One of the most popular PC games is Wingspan, “a relaxing strategy game about birds.” (I’m a big fan.) And there are quite a few independent games like Eastshade, a game that has you play a traveling painter.

Expect more games to target the sweet spot Animal Crossing found — perhaps explicitly marketed toward relaxation.

The Prosumer Game Maker

The “pro-sumer”—amateurs that purchase professional-grade equipment— has existed in several other categories like photography, web design, and programming. But as the pandemic has discouraged other outdoor and mass social activities, hobbyists looking to grow their skills are in their moment. Education supplements like Master Class and YouTube have helped fill the gap.

But we expect more gamers to look to turn their passion for games into an interest in making games. Unity is a popular game development tool that powers half of the top 1,000 mobile games on the App and Google Play Store — and it’s preparing to go public. Unity counts over 700 creators who have used the tool to generate over $100,000 individually in revenue.

We expect the pandemic, combined with some of the trends identified, will encourage more and more gamers to jump to the creative side of the medium.

Takeaway for brands

Why should you care?

Adjust your spend

Given that other channels, like out-of-home and experiential, are on-hold, consider moving those dollars into tests in the gaming space. If they go well, you’ll have built a new literacy while other programs are on-hold.

Derisk your engagement

For brands, now is an excellent time to jump into the space given how many opportunities there are. More importantly, you’re stepping into a space that’s experiencing a growth and maturation period which you can help support.

If you’re worried about whether the numbers are there to support an activity, now’s as good a time as ever.

Plan for the long term

Of course, we all can’t wait to be back with friends and family again once the threat of pandemic has faded. But some of the habits and activities that the pandemic has birthed or accelerated will be with us for years to come.

Rather than treating the rise and changes in gaming consumer behavior as a passing trend, add it to your list of permanent changes as part of our new abnormal.