If it seemed like everyone and their mother took up gaming this year, that may be because playing became far more popular as social media transforms the industry.
Nearly all games allow for multiple players to interact inside the game, but this year as the pandemic kept people at home, game worlds further converged with social media. Gamers used livestreaming platforms like Twitch and Discord to connect as they play.
Meanwhile social media companies like Facebook boosted their gaming platforms and Snap supersized its gaming effort with Bitmoji Paint, which it released in December.
Nintendo's "Animal Crossing: New Horizons" was embraced by politicians, with both congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and president-elect Joe Biden creating neighborhoods and encouraging their constituents to come pay them a virtual campaign trail visit.
It all meant a push toward a more social game.
And it was in a year that players spent big on their favorite titles - in November alone, digital games earned $11.5 billion, the highest monthly revenue ever recorded by Nieslen's SuperData.
Global gaming revenue smashed records with sales estimated to reach $174.9 billion by the end of this year, up roughly 20% from last year, NewZoo games analyst Tom Wijman wrote in a recent report. NewZoo predicts that by the end of 2021, roughly 2.8 billion people will be gaming worldwide.
Social media plays a crucial role in how well a game is received, and it hugely influenced which games took off this year. "Among Us" is a two-year-old game, but when streamers started broadcasting matches in early April, it quickly attracted new players.
Similarly, popular game streamers broadcasting Santa Monica-based Activision Blizzard's "Call of Duty: Warzone" game helped the game go viral and jumpstarted adoption of its newest title, "Black Ops Cold War," which was the top-selling console game in November with 5.7 million copies sold.
Adoption of multiplayer games and content is expected to keep rising, prompting startups including Playa Vista-based VENN to capitalize on a market ravenous for group entertainment.
VENN's network of gamer-friendly television is now expanding to smart TVs (it recently struck deals with Roku and Samsung) and existing social networks like YouTube, said Jimmy Wong, producer and co-host of VENN's talk show "The Download."
"Our view of the pandemic is one of someone dousing an already lit flame with lighter fluid," Wong said. "It's a step towards a wider acceptance of video gaming as being one of the most popular things for people to do."
In October roughly 931,000 people engaged with Santa Monica-based Riot Games' "League of Legends" page on Reddit, according to NewZoo's report on the most active gaming communities.
Ocasio-Cortez broke Twitch records streaming "Among Us," in November, when she linked up with several famous streamers for a live broadcast that reached over 400,000 people.
Social media not only expands the reach of a multiplayer game, but also its lifespan -- "League of Legends" is over a decade old, and Activision's "Call of Duty" franchise launched in 2003. "Among Us" came out in 2018, but it made $3.2 million in digital revenue this year and passed half a billion downloads in December.
"There's now so much evergreen video content surrounding these games which has made the lifespan and reach so much greater," said Ryan Horrigan(cq), CEO of West Hollywood-based Artie, a startup that designs multiplayer cloud-based browser games and will launch in 2021. "I do think gaming is becoming the next social network."
Social media and streaming drives players back to games but it's also a lucrative ad opportunity. "The world of gaming is permeating well beyond even the notion of a game," Horrigan noted, and lately includes film and TV adaptations of hit titles.
Scopely, a Culver-City based mobile publisher, both makes and acquires multiplayer games. "Marvel Strike Force," which it bought from Walt Disney Co. in January, is its biggest earner. "We will close the year above $900 million in revenue, nearly double the revenue of 2019," Scopely's head of strategic partnerships Mike DeLaet told dot.LA.
Tim Richards, vice president of publishing at Calabasas-based GreenPark Sports, is designing a virtual space for sports and esports fans to hang out and play that will launch in January. "We designed the idea around this data that 90% of Gen Z classify themselves as gamers," Richards said. He noted that even hardcore sports fans like virtual viewing -- "Even back in (pre-pandemic) days, very few folks went to every sports game."
Analysts agree gaming is now a more essential form of social entertainment than ever before and it will continue to grow in audience next year, as will streaming and virtual events that take place inside live games.
"Multiplayer games would have grown in popularity regardless of COVID-19," said Carter Rogers, principal analyst at SuperData. "This growth is sustainable, and we aren't likely to see any sort of video game 'crash' after most people are vaccinated. People are forming long-term habits as they play online games, many for the first time."
Correction: An earlier version of this piece mis-identified Tim Richards, GreenPark Sports' vice president of publishing.
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