How COVID-19 has Impacted the Games Industry
Written by Isabella Harford, Stephanie Fletcher, Melissa May, Nicholas Uster, Jeff Hanrahan, and Lovemore Nyaumwe
Edited by Brittany Eide
While the entire globe has been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, the games industry has offered many a sense of normalcy and community in a time of physical distancing. Video games have helped bring players together, but companies within the industry have faced many challenges as they adjust to the changing world. Esports and Games Design (EGD) Collective has adapted by continuing to offer resources for young professionals interested in furthering their careers in the industry by transitioning and creating several virtual events and tournaments.
More People Watching/Playing
Quarantine has added strength in numbers to streaming communities, with Gamespot claiming that Twitch “saw its watch hours increase by 23% between February and March, with concurrent viewership rising by nearly 20%.” New Twitch channels have “increased by more than 33% during the first quarter” as people are looking for new sources of community and income in the middle of the pandemic.
Steam, a platform from which most people download and buy their PC games, has also seen an increase in usership. The Video Games Chronicle reported “on Sunday [March 29th] the platform registered some 23.4 million active users,” a record-breaking statistic for the platform. These players span across all genres of games including single player and multiplayer, so Steam acts as a messaging and game invite platform to keep people connected while in-game.
Not only have PC games seen an increase in play, but so have Xbox games. Phil Spencer reported to The Guardian: “Since March, Xbox Game Pass members have added over 23 million friends on Xbox Live, which is a 70% growth in friendship rate… Game Pass members are also playing twice as much and engaging in more multiplayer gaming, which has increased by 130%.” Many choose Xbox to play multiplayer games such as Minecraft, Grand Theft Auto, and Fortnite.
However, neither PC nor Xbox games have surged to the top of the charts as much as pandemic games have. The mobile game, Plague Inc, has been around for a while but recently “rose to the top of Apple Store charts in China, the United States, and elsewhere as coronavirus fears mounted” according to The Washington Post. A cultural historian at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Carly A. Kocurek, explained that this game helps players “make sense of the world,” even if some in-game features like technologies and mutations of viruses are not accurate.
Video games have always been able to bring people together, but when forced to be physically distanced, connection through video games has become more important than ever.
Impact of Coronavirus
Reliance on the worldwide internet for communication amongst the coronavirus outbreak and stay-at-home orders has drastically risen. Due to a surge of people turning to online work, school, and entertainment, our internet speeds have taken a toll.
The New York Times has documented a decrease in internet speeds all over the world. While stay-at-home orders rolled out across the United States, download speeds “declined 4.9 percent from the previous week.” Internet service providers expect this increase in demand over the course of a year, but due to coronavirus this growth has occurred over the course of a couple days. Many demands have been made of technology companies to improve internet quality and streaming services have been asked to “reduce the quality” of their videos, shows, and movies.
Additionally, with the closure of businesses across the country, unemployment rates have increased to levels greater than those of the Great Depression. On June 18, The Guardian reported more than 45 million people have filed for unemployment in the United States since March. While the economy is beginning to pick up, with states moving further along in their reopening phases, unemployment has suddenly increased in states with alarming surges in cases.
The pandemic has also taken a massive toll on the mental health of the entire country. The mass uncertainty, propelled by rising unemployment and forced isolation, has made this time incredibly challenging for many people. CNBC reported that even workers who have been able to continue their jobs remotely are also facing massive mental health struggles. The idea of working from home seems joyous in theory, but employees have been forced to quickly adapt while often juggling family commitments with the demands of a full-time job.
Video games have shown to improve mood, reduce stress, and promote calmness, according to Well+Good. Therefore, the games world has helped people through these difficult times by giving them a place to build community and escape from the realities they are forced to confront on a daily basis. A community never more necessary than in a time of not only physical, but also emotional, isolation.
Staying Home, But Playing Together
Flawlessly stated by video game company EA, the pandemic forces many to stay home, but video games provide a space for people to continue playing together, providing a source of “joy and connection.” Their Stay & Play initiative seeks to supply people with engaging entertainment to make our time at home more pleasant.
As EA has done, many companies are fostering digital spaces for people to come together and maintain social connections. Leaders in the video game industry like Activision Blizzard have come together as well to further the cause. Bobby Kotick, CEO of Activision Blizzard, explains, “It's never been more critical to ensure people stay safely connected to one another. Games are the perfect platform because they connect people through the lens of joy, purpose, and meaning.”
According to The New York Times, Facebook introduced a free app back in April, helping people in the community create and watch live gameplay. Head of the Facebook app, Fidji Simo stated, “Investing in gaming has become a priority for us because we see gaming as a form of entertainment that really connects people… and brings people together.”
Google has made games more accessible to people around the world during the pandemic, removing the $130 entry fee for its Stadia cloud gaming service. Stadia makes games more accessible to consumers because it performs the “complex calculations” that run a video game on corporate servers instead of the consumer’s device, allowing players to use inexpensive equipment to play the games. All players need is a Chrome browser, a Gmail account, and a decent internet connection— about 10 megabits per second, as suggested by Google. Thus, Stadia is accessible to Windows or Mac users and can be used across desktop and mobile.
While the pandemic has kept us physically separated, recent events have allowed us to grow closer as a community in digital spaces. While things may sometimes seem grim, it is important to remember that when our community is faced with challenges, innovation will help us to overcome and produce positive change for the future, transforming this opposition into an opportunity.
Several organizations have been deeply impacted by the sharp economic downturn precipitated by COVID-19. Unfortunately, this has forced many companies to lay off employees and scale down company ventures.
According to Gamasutra, while layoffs may be common in the industry, professionals that previously felt secure in their positions are also being affected. Concept artist R.C. Montesquieu had worked at Pandemic Studios (owned by EA) for almost six years and “really didn't worry about layoffs.” Some of the leaders in the industry like EA, THQ, and LucasArts have had to make drastic cuts unexpectedly, showing that no one is immune. An even more pressing issue is that due to these large-scale cuts, it is much more difficult for professionals to find new jobs before they run broke. As Montesquieu explained, he quickly realized that it would be harder to find a new job than he had thought.
Canadian Esports organization Team Reciprocity announced in March that it
would release all staff as well as its rosters in Rainbow Six Siege, Apex Legends, and Gears of War in answer to its interim financing collapsing in the wake of the financial crash in global markets. Team Reciprocity will continue with its Crossfire team and co-owned League of Legends team, Rainbow7.
OverActive Media, which is the parent company for Toronto Defiant (Overwatch League) and Toronto Ultra (Call of Duty league), let 13 employees go in March. “This has been a tough day,” OverActive Media Head of Content and PR Paulo Senra told The Esports Observer. “We’ve had to make some very difficult decisions, affecting very good people, in order to ensure our organization is well-positioned to continue to thrive in these challenging times.”
Game Workers Unite International released a statement on March 22nd reading, “Even if most game devs and artists are safe, the people that are making the games’ production and release happen are going through hell right now- QA testers, events organizers, hard copy packaging and retail staff, workers maintaining servers or shipping of the games.” The organization is calling for sweeping reform in the gaming industry, including measures such as eliminating forced unpaid leave, creating flexible working hours, providing universal health service and fair sick pay, and creating ‘a more sustainable way of making games and games’ hardware too.”
Though it may seem easy to move a tournament played entirely on computers into a remote setting, there have still been many hurdles for Esports players world-wide.
Tournaments were held in studios with live audiences. For larger games such as League of Legends, season finals sold out large stadiums in each region. Since these locations closed, the industry has lost many sources of income. Although it may be a minority, some players may take the opportunity to cheat without on-stage moderators watching. The Verge found that the League of Legends Championship Series has prepared for this by utilizing “screen recording, running in-game communications through league-operated Discord servers, and broadcasting games on a delay.”
Players have learned to participate in new settings. The ESL Pro League announced that “teams and players will be playing their matches either from home, team houses, or in suitable boot camp locations.” Those who live in team houses remain equipped with suitable technology. Those who must return home may not have this luxury. The internet connection will be different no matter where players live. Time zones are also hard to manage when everyone is at home. The Washington Post reported that Overwatch League has “divided into three regional conferences” to get around this issue.
Supporting roles have also been affected. Rocket League Esports, like many companies, moved their broadcast team online. People such as shoutcasters and analysts have been working from home with occasional interruptions from pets. Some used this to their advantage and asked their cats to decide on hero pools in Overwatch.
Some games are not built to be played solely online. According to GameSpot, EVO Online was forced to remove Super Smash Bros. Ultimate from their tournament for this reason. Conversely, traditional sports have discovered virtual alternatives. To keep fans entertained many traditional sports leagues turned to Esports. NASCAR and the NBA broadcast video game versions of their sports by enabling well-known athletes to compete in video games such as iRacing and NBA 2K20, according to immersiv.
These events were well-received. The casual approach allowed fans to see their favorite players joking around on livestream, while maintaining competitiveness. In the future, sports leagues may look for ways to expand their footprint into Esports in off-seasons to keep fans engaged year-round. Regardless of what they do, quarantine has taught traditional sports leagues the power of Esports.
Awards and Events have been Cancelled, Delayed, and Restructured
Naturally, many gaming events and awards ceremonies have been impacted by safety concerns during this time. With the danger of meeting in large groups, many event organizers are turning to digital options for meeting and celebrating.
The SXSW Gaming Awards event was canceled, but that did not stop SXSW from lauding the award winners on its website and posting their acceptance videos. “With a lineup of exceptional achievements by amazing teams and individuals from around the world, making sure their skill, artistry, and heart is recognized and celebrated is more important than ever in turbulent times,” the organization wrote.
Several convention organizers announced plans to hold their events online in lieu of being able to meet in person. German exhibition gamescom (August 27-30) will be held exclusively in digital format, and the Tokyo Games Show (September 24-27) has taken their traditional convention all-digital by showcasing “major publishers to indie game developers” on a remote platform. Twitch announced that TwitchCon San Diego and TwitchCon Amsterdam have been canceled, and that the company is exploring “ways that we could join forces in an alternate dimension later this year.” The Game Developers Conference (GDC), which will be held digitally August 4-6, has created a packed program filled with panels and interactive events, while also expanding their schedule to accommodate different time zones. In another creative move, DreamHack and Epic Games have partnered for a new Fortnite tournament that will begin July 17th, and will continue to run each week until January 2021. Each month will also include a prize pool of $250,000, with a grand total of $1.75 million throughout the tournament.
Large corporations and organizations may weather this storm without too much woe, with companies like Microsoft and Ubisoft even hosting their own events and showcases this summer, but smaller companies and teams may have to get a bit more innovative. However, the smaller outfits can take advantage of the reality of an increasingly online-based gaming fandom, opting to use tools like Discord servers and Slack channels, among many digital options, to generate hype for a new release and promote community.
In a season where holding major events is next to impossible due to pandemic-induced social distancing, the resourcefulness of event planners and the growth of online communications platforms means that industry insiders can be inventive about how they form connections, offer educational opportunities, and showcase their product.
People and companies of the gaming community have been generous with their time, money, and resources for COVID-19 relief efforts. On March 28, Twitch hosted a charity broadcast called “Stream Aid,” which raised about $2.8 million for the World Health Organization’s (WHO) COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund through a slew of celebrity appearances, competitions from Fortnite to Uno, and several live musical performances in a 12-hour stream.
Many individuals, whether they are big names or not, have played an active role in fundraising for COVID-19 relief. Popular YouTuber Jacksepticeye hosted a near-12-hour livestream in April which raised about $659,000 for COVID-19 relief as part of the #HopeFromHome livestream event. Cancer survivor Joshua “Dimez” DiMezza, who has been giving back to charities through events on Facebook Gaming since 2018, began anew with hosting several game streams and encouraging his followers to donate to the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund; his efforts raised about $6,300 for the charity. He also joined 180 streamers in the Facebook Gaming community to raise $58,000 for the same fund.
Providing help during this time is not only about money. Nearly 60 companies, including Activision Blizzard, Sega, and Microsoft, have banded together through the #PlayApartTogether campaign to spread WHO guidelines on how to slow the spread of COVID-19. The companies involved are using special events, activities, and rewards to promote gamers using best public health practices in light of the virus’ escalation.
Not to be outdone, Nintendo donated 9,500 N95 Particulate Respirator masks to emergency services in the city of North Bend, Washington. The packaging and distribution center for Nintendo North America is also in North Bend, and the company decided that the masks, originally purchased for emergency preparedness planning, would be put to better use in addressing current needs in the wake of COVID-19.
Waffle Games 3.0
Esports and Game Design (EGD) Collective moved their annual gaming convention, Waffle Games, online due to social distancing regulations. Kyra Wills-Umdenstock, the CEO of EGD Collective, was the Hunter College chapter President at the time of Waffle Games 3.0 which took place on Friday, April 24th. There were many things that had to change in the transition to an online format, but the hardest for the organizers to handle were sponsorship and prizing. Kyra stated that the “original sponsors could no longer support [them] because it wasn't being held in person, and prizing is a large part of the cost to run the event.” However, the EGD Collective was able to work through this hurdle and give out prizes such as Steam keys for tournaments and raffles.
Though fewer people attended Waffle Games in its online format, “the demographic was much wider” according to Kyra. Her favorite part of the day was when she heard “someone say that they were from Belgium and looking to get into making games, but they work in the medical field so they don't meet a lot of game devs — and that the [Creating Games Without a Budget] talk might have changed his life.” Waffle Games allowed people who otherwise never would have had access to connections and resources to enter into the game design industry.
Kyra “enjoy[s] being able to facilitate those connections in the background, and giving the student officers the chance to have an important role in and experience running an event as large as Waffle Games to improve their skills and for their resumes.” Nick E. elaborated on and exemplified this purpose, “In four months I went from journalist to Waffle Games to running a tournament that spans the entirety of the west coast. Waffle Games was an opportunity, helping to build my resume… At the time it was just doing a favor for a friend,” but it turned into a chance to build connections and ultimately work in the gaming industry. According to Nick, the Esports and Game Design Collective “[gave] exposure to these small indie game developers” and there were so many opportunities for attendees, “it was a testament to [the statement] if you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere.”
Due to social distancing guidelines, many institutions of higher education have been forced to cancel or postpone their graduation ceremonies. However, EGD Collective, in partnership with the Intercollegiate Game Network, celebrated by hosting a virtual graduation with industry professionals. Graduates from 37 institutions - including Cornell University, San Francisco State University, and Ontario College of Art and Design - were honored during the event on May 30th.
Industry hopefuls were given advice from experts across the field, most notably Team Liquid Co-CEO and Owner, Steve Arhancet, and International Game Developers Association Executive Director, Renee Gittins. “Find your passion, lean into that, and give it everything, and have it affect others positively,” Arhancet said.
A common theme developed throughout the speeches, many speakers addressed the challenges graduates will face entering and persevering within the games industry. Particularly, when the average career in the industry is less than five years, as the tough hours and brutal working conditions often become unbearable. “Never see your adventures or explorations as failures,” Gittins said, “even if you pursue a path that doesn’t work out, you’ll learn a lot from it.”
The ceremony was streamed on Twitch, with one viewer commenting, “wonderful that so many people came together for this.” While the coronavirus pandemic has caused widespread physical distancing, the virtual format allowed gaming hopefuls from across the country, and world, to celebrate their academic achievements together. In an industry often judged by others based on the premise of false generalizations and stereotypes, the ceremony allowed students a space to graduate alongside peers with similar interests and aspirations.
“By being kind to one another, standing up for what we know is right, working together,” EGD Collective CEO, Kyra Wills-Umdenstock said to graduates, “we can change how society perceives us and values us.”
To watch the full virtual graduation with all twenty industry speakers please visit our Twitch.
Pride Week Panel
EGD celebrated Pride Month by hosting a virtual Pride Week Panel with industry professionals on Monday, June 22nd. The panel spoke to dozens of people in the EGD Discord server explaining how they found their way into the game design industry, with the main focus being on how LGBTQ+ identities have affected their careers.
One of the panelists, Assistant Professor of Game Studies at the University at Buffalo, Cody Mejeur, shared some of his useful insight. For Mejeur, “a really important lesson” in any work environment is, “finding your people.” To go off of Joshua Casiano’s tool analogy, identity is a key to “opening up doors to find your people.” He reminded those specifically immersed in the world of game design, “If you try to design for everybody, you’re designing for nobody.” A small tidbit of the comprehensive panel discussion, these quotes provide a window into the conversations that took place.
The informative night brought together so many staff and community members of the EGD Collective that the conversation continued an hour after the panel had ended. No one seemed to want to let go of their connection to these inspiring professionals. For a more in-depth look into the panel’s discussions and to learn more about the panelists’ career experiences, check out our Pride Panel Article!
Holding engaging Esports tournaments, and providing compelling AMAs, EGD collective’s Summer Series has proved valuable to the community. Over the course of eight weeks, the Summer Series gives players the chance to come together and battle for cash prizes, and discover insightful commentary from veterans in the industry through AMAs. The Esports tournaments include various types of genres and play styles, driving a wide range of gamers to join in on the fun.
Starting off EGD collective’s Summer Series on June 19th, the Teamfight Tactics tournament held exciting surprises. With ever-shifting rankings, and chance affecting combinations of champions and items, the Teamfight Tactics tournament kept players on the edge of their seats. Players in various rankings, from unranked up to former challenger tier players, all took part in the event. James “LaoZedong” L. ended the tournament a champion, but aside from the prize, many players enjoyed the opportunity to bond by sharing Discords and Twitch channels.
Furthering the Summer Series was a CS:GO 1v1 tournament on June 26th, providing the audience with high-intensity action, winner takes all. With tons of forceful weapons, bombs ready to explode, and hostages thrown into the mix; CS:GO offers a fast-paced high-stakes experience. The tournament saw 6 participants battling it out for the grand prize, with over 2 dozen audience members watching on Twitch. After a neck-and-neck battle in the second-to-last round, players Titan Sauce and Tev ended up tying, only creating more tension for the final round. After an honorable battle, Tev won the final round 10-6, becoming the ultimate champion and winning the grand prize.
Next up was the League of Legends 5v5 tournament on June 29th, with six teams duking it out for $100 in total prizes. The three strongest contenders were the teams featuring players Better Corki, Radiating, and I Like Pogz. Radiating’s team battled hard to achieve an upper-bracket position; then they were deadlocked against Better Corki and lost due to four players dying as Radiating’s team tried to get a second inferno dragon. Better Corki’s team climbed the ranks from the lower bracket, making it into finals with I Like Pogz. Despite their impressive performance, I Like Pogz finished Better Corki’s team off with a triple kill, destroyed the Nexus, and won the tournament. I Like Pogz and their team stated that they love playing together and that their team took the $75 top tourney prize thanks to high spirits.
The Summer Series has a lot more coming your way! There will be Valorant tournaments July 10th and 27th; Smash Bros. Ultimate tournaments July 13th and August 10th; an Overwatch tournament on July 24th; and a second League of Legends tournament on August 7th. There will also be more events scheduled throughout August. EGD collective looks forward to providing more amazing events for the community throughout the Summer Series!
Steps to Participate in our Tournaments:
1. Create an account at https://avgl.org/landing
2. Join our HUB in order to access the tournaments https://avgl.org/egdc
3. Then click on a tournament below or see what's available on this page https://avgl.org/egdc/12851/events
Hope for the (Distant) Future
While the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on global proportions, Esports have provided players with a sense of community in a time of enormous uncertainty. However, unlike many businesses in the tech industry that have benefited from the pandemic, most notably the video communications platform Zoom, the games industry has faced several major obstacles. Many developing companies have been forced to alter release dates due to delays in production and manufacturing. Without a doubt, these delays will leave an impact on the industry for the foreseeable future as companies adapt to evolving regulations. Indie studios and independent developers will be particularly impacted, as the financial implications of the pandemic will further affect their recovery efforts.
However, the video game industry has given players a space to socialize remotely. According to The Hollywood Reporter, video game usage during peak hours went up 75% in the first week of the lockdown, offering players a distraction from the constant stream of information. Beyond communities of players, large companies have also pledged to use their resources to help those in the industry most impacted by the coronavirus. Gamesradar reported Sony’s Play at Home Initiative has committed to donating $10 million to indie studios, while Gearbox Software announced Borderland 3 players can buy a $5 mask for their characters that will go towards personal protective equipment for medical workers. During these times, with many people physically distanced from their friends and family, the games industry has come together to support those struggling most, while also offering gamers a temporary distraction from the realities of the world.