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Video game sales, esports industry surging in age of coronavirus

Gamers compete during Nevada Esports’ Break The Internet tournament in February 2020. It was the last in-person event that the UNR esports club hosted before the coronavirus pandemic hit the state.
Photo: Andrew Wevers

RENO, Nev. — In a state where the word “gaming” has for decades been synonymous with slot machines and craps tables, Nevada is seeing a more modern form of gaming take hold thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.

“People who didn’t play video games before are now giving it a shot,” says Ryan Miller, president of the University of Nevada, Reno club Nevada Esports. “And they are noticing why we nerds have been on the hype train since the beginning of our lives.”

Despite widespread economic shocks impacting high-profile business sectors over the past 6 months, America’s gaming industry has seen a surge in revenue.

Video game sales in the U.S. reached a second quarter (April-June) record of $11.6 billion, an increase of 30% when compared to the same time period last year, according to market research company NPD Group. Moreover, the Q2 sales were a 7% bump over Q1’s record $10.9 billion.

In April alone, when lockdowns were at their peak across the country, U.S. video games sales hit $1.47 billion, a 73% spike compared to the same month last year, according to safebettingsites.com.

Perennial favorites like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Grand Theft Auto V, and Animal Crossing: New Horizons have led the surge in sales. And engagement numbers are also reaching new heights, according to the site — for example, April saw players of Epic Games’ Fortnite rack up a combined 3.2 billion in-game hours.

All told, the global video game market is forecast to grow 9.3% to the tune of $159 billion in 2020, according to Newzoo, a video game market research company.

In comparison to other entertainment markets, that’s around four times 2019 box office revenues ($43 billion) and almost three times 2019 music industry revenues ($57 billion).

The explanation for gaming’s explosion over the pandemic is straightforward, says Doug Bookey, a club advisor for Nevada Esports who also works in the IT department and runs computer labs at UNR.

“I think we’re all kind of looking for different connections these days — or any connection — that’s not the people we’ve been sheltered with,” Bookey said. “People who were gamers or played Nintendo or PlayStation when they were kids, those people are getting back into it because they’ve got nothing else to do.

“I think people are falling back in love with games again. And they’re also reaching out to people and realizing they can talk to their friends and we can do it as a community.”

However, not all sectors of the video game world are completely immune to the COVID crisis, however. With its reliance on live in-person events, esports — the industry term for competitive, organized video gaming — has been impacted.

After all, many esports events have been canceled or postponed, though some have taken place without audiences.

Nevada Esports, which traditionally held its events on campus at UNR’s Joe Crowley Student Union or the Davidson Math and Science Center, will be moving its events online due to the COVID-related restrictions, Miller said.

Miller added that in the past four years, Nevada Esports’ membership has roughly doubled from 70 to 140 members, with about 60 of them being competitive players. Moreover, the club’s Discord server — an online communication platform — has more than 1,145 members.

The pause of live esports tournaments has also impacted the Atlantis Casino Resort Spa’s esports lounge, which opened in May 2019.

After the pandemic took hold and shut down casinos across the state, the lounge was closed for 10 weeks. Since booting back up, the esports lounge has been limited to 50% capacity, says William Tiehm, Fun Center and esports manager at the Atlantis.

“It’s been a lot slower since we reopened,” said Tiehm, noting the controllers, headsets, desks, monitors and chairs are now sanitized after each use. “We’re not able to host the tournaments right now. When you only have eight stations and you can only run four, it’s really hard to have tournaments and social distancing in the area.” 

Once restrictions start to loosen and a COVID vaccine is available, Tiehm expects the Atlantis’ esports lounge to fill back up. In fact, he wouldn’t be surprised if the demand eventually leads to an expansion of the lounge.

“People are tired of being stuck at home,” Tiehm said. “I think people want to get out and meet up with their friends, not just online. They want to come in and have that social interaction.

“Once restrictions are lifted, I think we’ll be able to have some very successful tournaments and bring people back together.”