Lots of people are playing video games during coronavirus lockdowns

Game sales are spiking. Online gaming is too.

Ian Sherr Contributor and Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. As an editor at large at CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
4 min read

People are turning to joysticks for a little relief.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Around the globe, people's lives have been turned upside down by social distancing measures and even more stringent lockdowns put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Some people are using the isolation to explore new hobbies or finish up long-delayed household projects. My wife is starting an herb garden.

Millions of people are also turning to video games .

Anecdotal evidence is piling up that people are flocking to video games, along with streaming services like Netflix, to escape the seemingly nonstop crush of news and tracking data about COVID-19

Watch this: Coronavirus could affect movies for years

Hordes of folks are playing online battle games like Fortnite: Battle Royale and Call of Duty: Warzone. They're buying games like Nintendo's new Animal Crossing: New Horizons at record rates. They're spending more when they download titles on their phones. And they're also whiling away an aggregated 10 million more hours each day watching other gamers play online through the streaming site Twitch.tv.

Much of this has been made possible by game companies spending the past decade building more social features into their titles. Companies have encouraged people to play together online, share their gameplay on Twitch and YouTube and use games as a digital meeting spot for hanging out or even catching an in-game concert

Now, with governments locking down cities, states and countries to slow the advance of the coronavirus, these digital social hubs have become the new hangouts of choice.

"People are going to keep eating and entertaining themselves, whether they do it at home or by going out," said Michael Pachter, a longtime media analyst at Wedbush Securities. "The loss of movie theaters and sporting events as an outlet means more people will turn to Netflix and to games, just like the loss of restaurants means more cooking at home."

In droves

Nintendo's Animal Crossing: New Horizons happened to launch in the middle of a global crisis, and people are using the game to weather the storm. It isn't a typical action-adventure title or puzzle solving head-scratcher. Your goal is to explore a digital island and build up your perfect oasis, with things like a museum, a digital clothing shop for your character and a campsite to hang out with friends. 


Animal Crossing: New Horizons promises low-key gameplay, sending you to an idyllic island.


It's a departure from other big-name titles, known for their gritty action and epic storylines. Instead, some people say they're using Animal Crossing to celebrate birthdays, go on digital dates and even hold makeshift weddings after real-world versions get canceled.

In the UK, people have pushed sales of the game at least three and a half times higher than sales of the last entry in the series, 2013's Animal Crossing: New Leaf, according to industry watcher GfK. Animal Crossing's relative calm may've played a role in that. The title has also set new records in Japan, where Famitsu reported the game was the best-selling new Nintendo title in at least the last four years. 

Nintendo didn't respond to a request for comment. It'll likely discuss worldwide sales totals during its quarterly earnings report this spring.

But game companies across the industry put out a statement Saturday encouraging people to play games as a way to pass time during the crisis. "It's never been more critical to ensure people stay safely connected to one another," Bobby Kotick, CEO of Activision Blizzard, said in the statement. "Games are the perfect platform because they connect people through the lens of joy, purpose and meaning."

Call of Duty Warzone

Call of Duty: Warzone, the latest entry in Activision's blockbuster war simulation series, attracted 30 million people during its first 10 days.


Analysts say they're hearing indications people are spending more money in games too. Some companies are seeing players spend up to 40% more on in-game items like new looks for characters, or dance moves they can perform when they win a match, said Mike Vorhaus, head of Vorhaus Advisors. People are signing up for more subscription game services too, he added.

And when they're not playing, gamers are watching other people play. Daily viewership at Twitch.tv,  Amazon's service that lets people watch one another play video games, has jumped by 31% in the past two weeks, according to data collected by online broadcasting service provider StreamElements. 

"Definitely consumers are playing more games, spending more time playing existing games and trying new games," Vorhaus said.

Watch this: Coronavirus lockdown: Why social distancing saves lives

Whether these spikes in gaming will translate into further growth for the industry is unclear. The spring and summer months are quieter periods in the video game world, before the fall's new major releases land just in time for the holiday shopping season.

Many entertainment companies as well have pushed back blockbuster movie releases, such as the new James Bond film and Marvel's new Black Widow, to avoid seemingly slowed consumer spending as the coronavirus has proliferated. And with the US government reporting that weekly unemployment claims have surged to more than 3.28 million, the largest jump on record, people may not have much money to spend on new entertainment options when they become available.

In the meantime, games, along with online movies and TV, are offering a respite for some people from the otherwise chaotic world we're all living in. 

Last week, in her review of Animal Crossing for CNET sister site GameSpot, Kallie Plagge wrote that she's "excited to see what random events await" every morning as she spruces up her island and makes it her own. "There's a lot in New Horizons to occupy your time."

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