How COVID-19 has Impacted the Games Industry
Updated: Mar 1, 2021
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 spon