Data dump

8 insights that sum up a sensational March 2020 for the video game industry

Staggering numbers of people have turned to video gaming.

As people have stayed indoors, isolating themselves from the historic public health catastrophe that is Covid-19, a new analysis supports anecdotal evidence that's come in the form of tweets, World Health Organization campaign, and even a wedding: Staggering numbers of people have turned to video gaming.

Some $1.6 billion was spent on video game-related hardware, software, and accessories in the month of March alone.

Market research firm the NPD Group has released fresh data this week for video game sales in March 2020, and the results are staggering — but also unsurprising.

Given the Covid-19 pandemic, game sales went up across the board, but those numbers spiked higher than armchair observers may have guessed. In terms of specific games, there were some clear winners among the pack, namely Animal Crossing: New Horizons, MLB The Show 20, and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. But the numbers also reveal a compelling look at the current state of the industry at large.

Here are eight eye-opening observations about the video game industry based on data provided by the NPD group, specifically from NPD's Mat Piscatella.

8. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is the biggest game of 2020

Animal Crossing: New Horizons has received the most media attention since the coronavirus outbreak began, seemingly due to a perfectly timed release compounded by some much-needed relaxing gameplay. More people seem to talk about New Horizons on social media, but Animal Crossing: New Horizons isn’t the best-selling game of 2020 yet.

That honor goes to 2019’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.

Modern Warfare didn’t face much competition in January and February, and it only increased in popularity in March thanks to the launch of its battle royale mode Call of Duty: Warzone. Even with all the new releases coming this year, don’t be surprised to see Modern Warfare remain in the running for the best-selling game of 2020.

Call of Duty is the Guy Fieri of gaming franchises: Everyone likes to dunk on it, but it seems here for the long haul.

7. New Horizons is the largest Animal Crossing launch ever

Animal Crossing: New Horizons launched at the perfect time. Just as everyone was ushered indoors and told not to interact with others socially IRL, this game came along and gave players a vibrant and happy world to escape into. As such, it’s had a very strong launch. NPD Group's Mat Piscatella explained that “launch month dollar sales of Animal Crossing: New Horizons have exceeded the lifetime sales of all other Animal Crossing franchise games, making Animal Crossing: New Horizons the best-selling game in franchise history.”

This is an impressive feat considering that Animal Crossing is one of Nintendo’s top franchises. Nintendo’s investor website shows that Animal Crossing: New Leaf for 3DS sold about 12.45 million copies, so it’s astonishing to see that Animal Crossing: New Horizons has already rocketed beyond that sales figure.

6. Animal Crossing: New Horizons' sales don't even account for digital sales

Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ performance in March 2020’s NPD report is already impressive, but it doesn’t even give us the full picture. Nintendo does not report digital sales to NPD, so anyone who bought Animal Crossing: New Horizons through the Nintendo eShop isn’t accounted for in these figures.

Despite the best efforts of GameStop's executives, the video game retailer is not an essential business and was therefore forced to close. For many gamers who typically purchase physical copies of video games, they probably turned to digital versions instead. To get a more accurate picture of how well Animal Crossing: New Horizons truly sold, we’ll have to wait for Nintendo to release the official numbers to investors, perhaps on May 7.

5. Animal Crossing: New Horizons' launch was Nintendo's third-largest ever

If you had any doubts that Animal Crossing was now a top-tier Nintendo franchise, New Horizons’ sales performance should squash any of those feelings. “Animal Crossing: New Horizons achieved the 3rd highest launch month physical dollar and unit sales of any Nintendo published game in tracked history,” Piscatella wrote.

“Only Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (Dec 2018) and Super Smash Bros. Brawl (Mar 2008) sold more in the launch month.” Super Smash Bros. is seen as one of Nintendo’s most important franchises, so the fact that Animal Crossing is now rivaling these games in its launch month sales performance is impressive.

MLB The Show 20 has a strong launch in March 2020 despite the MLB season's cancellation.

4. MLB The Show 20 did well despite the IRL season’s delay

The coronavirus has led to the inevitable suspension of all professional sports leagues, so MLB The Show 20 launched at an awkward time on March 13, 2020. The MLB community still embraced it, with some pro players even streaming the game in a Players League. “MLB The Show 20 is the fastest-selling game in MLB The Show franchise history, with launch month sales exceeding those of MLB The Show 19," Piscatella revealed.

Perhaps because this live-streaming sub-culture has replaced watching real baseball, MLB The Show 20 is the third best-selling game of March 2020 and proves that sports games are still a force to be reckoned with in gaming. As the series will be going multiplatform next year, the franchise will likely grow in popularity.

3. More people bought a Nintendo Switch in March 2020 than in its month of release

In what may be the most surprising reveal of March’s NPD results, we learned that March 2020 was the best March for hardware sales in the Switch’s lifetime. That means that the Switch’s hardware sales the month of Animal Crossing: New Horizons release were even better than the month the system launched. This proves that as long as Nintendo keeps putting high-quality first-party exclusives out, we shouldn’t expect the Nintendo Switch’s momentum to slow down anytime soon.

2. Video games are starting to seem ... recession-proof?

Home entertainment seems increasingly durable in the face of economic hardship, and there’s data to support the idea that the video game industry thrives when the world enters difficult economic times. Spending on video game accessories reached a record high for a March month in March 2020, beating out even March 2008 (another big recession period). In this time of economic stress, gamers are investing in more accessories — new controllers or other gear — to level up their gaming.

Similarly, overall spending on video games hit $1.6 billion (35 percent more than March 2019), and the only other March in recent history that saw more spending was March 2008’s $1.8 billion. That month was also bolstered by major video game releases like Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Guitar Hero 3, but also overall sales for the Nintendo Wii console.

1. More people are buying consoles

Hardware spending grew by 63 percent in March 2020 compared to a year ago, which tells us that a great number of people purchased video game consoles to use during the quarantine. Sales for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One grew by more than 25 percent each, but sales for the Nintendo Switch more than doubled.

Thanks in no small part to the popularity of casual Nintendo games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the Switch seemingly offers a more accessible and affordable alternative to Sony and Microsoft’s more robust systems.

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