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The biggest questions facing the gaming world in 2021

(The Washington Post illustration; Sony Interactive Entertainment, Riot Games, CD Projekt Red, Lars Niki/Getty Images))

If you’re trying to forecast the next 12 months for the video gaming industry, an oft-repeated exercise this time of year, here’s a safe projection: Foggy with a chance of murkiness giving way to yet more clouds.

The novel coronavirus turned the world on its head, and recalibrated the industry along with everything else. In so doing, a number of seemingly safe assumptions about covid-related fallout appear to have defied early expectations.

With jobless rates soaring, one could assume people would spend less on frivolities like video games. Instead, it was a record year for game-related spending. Supply chain disruptions around the world suggested next-gen console manufacturers would struggle to assemble their inventory ahead of a planned holiday launch. Instead, PlayStation’s CEO said there were more PlayStation 5s available in November than there were PlayStation 4’s during the blissfully pandemic-free year of 2013.

So, after 2020 grabbed us by the ankles and shook us about, it’s time to get our bearings on the road ahead. And the best way to do so would be to start with the questions we’d like answered in 2021.

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Will the economy continue to support big spending on gaming?

While certain industries felt the full crushing weight of the economic decline following the start of the covid-19 pandemic, others — such as online retailers — were propelled upward as though they were standing on the other side of a seesaw. The video game industry was among those that saw significantly increased spending, as people sought ways to entertain themselves at home.

According to data collected by the NPD Group, video game spending rose 22 percent from 2019, totaling around $44.5 billion through November of 2020. NPD also projected holiday spending would follow that trend, pushing the annual total above $50 billion for the first time in the U.S. market.

But will it continue? The introduction of numerous coronavirus vaccines suggest there could be a time in 2021 when people are able to get outside more regularly and return to previous passions they were deprived of in 2020. In terms of time economy, less time at home could mean less time playing or spending on games. Alternatively, the pandemic also introduced some people to gaming for the first time, expanding the market base. Those people may find they like it and continue to sink dollars into their new hobby, especially if they invested in a new console and now want to acquire new titles for it.

Then there’s the overall economy, with jobless rates sitting at 6.7 percent in November of 2020. While that figure is down significantly from a peak of 14.7 percent in April, it is still almost double the pre-pandemic rate of 3.5 from February 2020.

Will more politicians pay attention to gamers to court young voters? And how will young, extremely-online people respond?

On Oct. 20, congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D - N.Y.) took to Twitch to livestream the game “Among Us” and help turn out the vote. The result? A peak of more than 430,000 concurrent viewers.

One of the reasons Ocasio-Cortez earned the reception she did was her comfort and familiarity with online culture. She wasn’t there solely urging people to vote, she was also playing a game and having fun. On the other hand, the U.S. Army’s foray into Twitch backfired when it banned users asking about war crimes in the live chat, a possible violation of the First Amendment.

With some 244 million gamers in the U.S., and many of them familiar with platforms like Twitch and YouTube, there is ample appeal for politicians and political actors to try to engage there with young people. But there is no shortage of risk accompanying the possible rewards.

Will more politicians take the plunge? And if they do, how will the very-online, highly outspoken audiences on these platforms receive them? The politics of Twitch, in particular, can be read as ranging from civil libertarian to “no politics talk” to left-leaning, and gamers have responded harshly to political impositions by states such as China and Saudi Arabia. But a negative response to a conservative politician streaming on Twitch, for example, might open the company to accusations of stifling right-leaning voices — claims which have reportedly pushed other tech platforms to tweak their algorithms and staffing priorities.

What will be the fallout from the Cyberpunk debacle?

It would be shorter to recount the things that actually went right with the development and release of the much-anticipated “Cyberpunk 2077” from CD Projekt Red. With all of the elements already swirling around Cyberpunk, it’s hard to believe the game was released less than a month ago.

But what will be the game’s legacy? Will there be repercussions for CDPR executives, who were criticized by developers for mismanagement and months of extra work hours? Will the studio’s reputation lose the luster it earned for releasing the highly-acclaimed “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt?” Will it lose its developers to other studios after such a disastrous development cycle? Will the review process for both critics and PR change after efforts were apparently made to conceal the game’s rampant bugs on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One consoles?

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And one, bigger question: How will reputational damage impact game developers — and which ones? The past 12 months saw the publication of stories about toxic work environments and exploitation of laborers at Ubisoft, Naughty Dog and CD Projekt Red, among other studios. The studio which faced the strongest blowback was CDPR, and mostly along consumer protection grounds: The game was unfinished, and didn’t seem to fully reflect what was advertised. Players felt ripped off.

Naughty Dog’s “The Last of Us Part II,” meanwhile, went on to win game of the year at The Game Awards. And Ubisoft blithely refused to acknowledge the reports of problems at the company — harassment and sexual misconduct at the highest levels, among other issues — at a public event the company hosted shortly after the issues were publicized. Will 2021 be the year when consumer reporting (“this game is worth $60”) and calling a spade a spade (“releasing this game put undue physical and mental stress on the people who made it”) are reconciled in some fashion?

Will esports teams face a budget crunch if the pandemic continues to curtail revenue opportunities?

While the positive impact on the video games industry was obvious, its effect on esports is much murkier, largely because of the opaqueness around esports economics. For years skepticism has endured around an esports “bubble,” as investors have infused millions into organizations that have often struggled to produce returns. Pretty much any question around a potential payday from those investing in the area will return an answer that includes the phrase “the long game.”

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Covid-19 eliminated a live audience from just about every major esports competition held after March 2020. Those that did carry out live events with an audience, like the League of Legends World Championship held in Shanghai, saw markedly reduced attendance.

The reduction of such live events stings in several ways, starting simply with gate revenue — a major component of overall revenue generation for the likes of teams in the Overwatch League (OWL) and the Call of Duty League (CDL), both anchored around the idea of franchises hosting competitions from designated home markets. And with no live competitions, there are also fewer sponsorship opportunities as signage and promos are worthless when no one is there to see them. In the cases of the OWL and CDL, 100 percent of the revenue from those local live events and sponsorships goes directly to the host team. Eliminating that money is a huge blow to individual organizations, even if the cancellations also alleviated the costs of paying for such events.

For teams, that leaves apportioned money from leaguewide sponsorships as a primary revenue driver, along with broadcast rights. While more esports leagues earned airtime on networks like ESPN that were searching to replace canceled traditional sports events, it’s unknown what kind of revenue such deals produced. Broadcast rights in general have never been a major moneymaker for esports.

Newzoo, an oft-cited data analysis site that has often touted bullish projections on esports, scaled down its estimates for the esports market in 2020 following the impact of covid-19. A pre-2020 estimate of over $1 billion was revised down to around $950 million globally, a 0.8 percent decline from 2019.

Still, even as revenue opportunities have declined, player salaries appeared to be unaffected. Some, such as League of Legends pro Hu “SwordArt” Shuo-Chieh, even inked new contracts for eye-popping sums — $6 million guaranteed, in SwordArt’s case.

What lessons will be learned from 2020′s game review and NDA debacles?

Both “The Last of Us Part II” and “Cyberpunk 2077,” arguably the biggest, buzziest games of 2020, faced rocky launches, for different but parallel reasons. The former was pilloried by fans before it came out because leaks had revealed that the game wouldn’t be what fans expected. The latter was pilloried by fans after it came out because the game was also not what fans expected. And in the middle of it all were journalists writing about both games, who, in one way or another, were restricted from covering the controversy.

Journalists do a lot of hand-wringing about diminishing trust in the media — and both aforementioned games are stark examples of that distrust in action. One reviewer who assigned “Cyberpunk” a 7 out of 10 score faced harassment online from fans who were displeased with the low review, only for popular opinion to reverse completely when the game came out, at which point a score of 7 seemed too generous. For many fans and readers, reviews — and all critical writing about games — have morphed into a way to validate a perspective. If the player thinks a game is good, and a review says otherwise, the review is wrong (as opposed to it being just one perspective in a broader tapestry of takes).

In the best case scenario, the big takeaway would be this: Publishers spend more time developing games and enforcing healthier cultures at their companies; PR firms working for publishers give reviewers greater and earlier access to games, allowing writers to develop more thoughtful, coherent perspectives on what they’re playing; and players give up the day-one purchase in favor of a “wait-and-see” approach, without staking their identities on the success of a piece of software.

But there’s also the worst-case scenario to consider. Publishers can pander to the unhealthy dynamic that has developed between some players and consumer products, stoking distrust in traditional media and turning to influencers (who often build their own identities around upcoming games and, in some cases, might be incentivized to overlook certain shortcomings). After 2020, this version of events feels hard to ignore or write-off outright.

What on Earth will Nintendo do next?

Nintendo had a quiet 2020, despite “Animal Crossing” carrying the company through several warm news cycles in the early part of the year, and it appeared the company struggled under pandemic conditions to produce, most noticeable in the somewhat-muted and strange release of Mario’s 35th anniversary collection.

But the company still enters 2021 with lots of momentum. Despite November launches of both PS5 and new Xbox machines, the Switch console still sold more units than both next-gen consoles that month and likely crushed Christmas sales too.

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News and rumors of a “pro” version of the Nintendo Switch have been circulating for as long as people have wanted it, and it’s reported to happen sometime next year. Nintendo has a track record of releasing “improved” versions of older machines, notably in the mobile space with the DS family. While “Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity” filled a marquee gap in the fall, the game only underscored the Switch’s technology problem: It’s running on a practically ancient chip set. As more players get their hands on newer machines and graphics cards, the tech gap is only going to grow more noticeable. Loading times on the Switch remain especially rough.

The new year also marks the 35th anniversary of “The Legend of Zelda” series, and we know Nintendo has been working on a follow-up to “Breath of the Wild” for some time now. Its status and expected release remain shrouded in mystery, as do most of Nintendo’s plans for 2021. Even if an updated machine never releases, the game will likely be popular enough to carry the Switch through another wave of goodwill and sales.

Any updates to Nintendo’s online infrastructure will be greatly watched. While the company is the world’s best producer of games, it’s also a terrible online service provider. As gaming moves more toward being more platform agnostic, it’s a question of how Nintendo might respond. In true Nintendo fashion, it’ll probably be exciting and very confusing. But that’s what makes Nintendo so unique. We never really know what on Earth it’d do next.

What will Sony and Microsoft’s differing strategies mean for console sales and exclusive game titles?

The notion of the console wars is dead — at least it should be. But the two gaming juggernauts releasing spiffy next-gen consoles in the same week at the end of 2020 was going to spark comparisons, particularly given how Sony dominated in the sales department during the PS4 era: Sony sold over 114 million PlayStation 4s since that console’s debut in 2013, according to Statista. Meanwhile, Xbox One sales were just closing in on 49 million as of November 2020.

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But Xbox’s strategy appears to be centered more around its Game Pass subscription service moving forward. Introducing a less powerful, but similarly less pricey, console line with the Series S as well as a pay-as-you-play monthly option for both the Series S and Series X, the goal is to simply get more gamers into the Xbox ecosystem.

Exclusive titles are fewer on Xbox and, save for a handful, haven’t earned the acclaim as PlayStation releases like “The Last of Us Part II” and “Ghost of Tsushima.” Perhaps to that end, Microsoft acquired ZeniMax Media for $7.5 billion (for comparison, that’s $3.5 billion more than Disney paid for Lucasfilm), giving Microsoft the ability to decide whether future installments of popular games series like Fallout or The Elder Scrolls will be available to PlayStation owners. And if the centerpiece of the Xbox strategy is truly driving subscriptions to Game Pass, wouldn’t it make sense to incentivize that through top-tier exclusive content?

How will developers, particularly third-party developers, use the new features of the DualSense controller?

The DualSense controller is one of the best new features of the PlayStation 5, showcased in video games like “Astro’s Playroom” and “Demon’s Souls,” which make clever use of sophisticated haptic feedback. But there’s one big caveat: These are first-party games, meaning they were developed in-house by Sony, or by Sony-owned studios.

The DualSense controller provides a sensory experience, but a feature like haptic feedback may be written off as gimmick if developers, particularly third-party creators who may choose to invest resources elsewhere, don’t put it to good use. This was the case for the DualShock 4’s touch-screen, an underused mechanic on the PS4.

Will the Overwatch League move away from its original, city-based vision?

This year, the global pandemic forced the Overwatch League to move online, paring down Activision Blizzard’s ambitious plans for a season of intercontinental tours and sold-out arenas.

But before the virus upended schedules in Asia and North America, some teams were already tweaking the league’s originally envisioned city-based structure. The London Spitfire and the Paris Eternal, the league’s only two European teams, were both based in New Jersey last season in order to be nearby other franchises in North America. Then, when the league was effectively split in two because of the coronavirus, the Guangzhou Charge, New York Excelsior and Vancouver Titans all temporarily relocated to South Korea to compete. Heading into next year, the Philadelphia Fusion — a top-tier North American franchise — plan to train and play from South Korea instead of the City of Brotherly Love (where they’ve already broken ground on a $50 million esports stadium).

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The 2020 season was slated to be Overwatch League’s transition year to a truly international esports league, but the virus upended the entire endeavor. As the pandemic starts to fade away in 2021, the question will be whether franchises continue to invest in the city-based model Activision Blizzard set out to create. Or will the league take some of the lessons learned from a tumultuous year to create a hybrid model built around monthly tournaments and regional competition?

What’s next for the battle royale genre?

The past year saw the first big-budget battle royale flop: Ubisoft’s “Hyper Scape.” And slowly, some of the bigger battle royale games have wandered away from the core conceits of the genre.

Many of the innovations have revolved around death, and letting players bypass it. In “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds,” once you died, you were out. Then, “Apex Legends” introduced respawn stations, where teammates could be brought back, but only in a limited capacity and with some risk involved. “Warzone” added the wrinkle of the gulag, a mano a mano fight to return to the battlefield. The game’s newest map, Rebirth Island, has simply allowed players to respawn after a timer elapses, an idea that used to be antithetical to the genre entirely.

“Fortnite” may be the guiding light to look to. The game is now very preoccupied with being a brand-marketing, FOMO-inspiring social space — a move that has surely redounded in its favor in a year when people couldn’t gather safely, and social games like “Among Us” thrived. As games pare down the restrictiveness of death, extending play sessions and allowing players to spend more time, uninterrupted, in-game, will battle royale titles start to resemble something closer to MMOs?

Will game file sizes continue to grow?

This is a simple math problem. The PlayStation 5’s internal SSD offers 667 GB or usable storage space. The Xbox Series S offers just 364 GB.

Meanwhile, new games, particularly live service games, have propelled space requirements forever upward. For example, on the PS5, “Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War” tips the scales at 162.3 GB as of Dec. 30, and that game just released in November. Its predecessor, “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” takes up 183.4 GB. Combined, that’s more than half of the PS5 hard drive — and you can’t store PS5 games on an external drive.

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Shortly following the release of the next-gen consoles, that’s more of an inconvenience than an issue given the limited number of available PS5 games, but players may need to start getting very selective of which apps they’re going to keep on the PS5, perhaps compelling some to pick one hefty live service game over another.

Then there’s the development end of the question. Given the costs of creating massive games — particularly the human cost of building worlds like those in “Red Dead Redemption 2” or “Cyberpunk 2077,” or sustaining live service titles like “Fortnite” or satiating a content-hungry player base like “Apex Legends” — will publishers rethink such ventures in favor of scaled down projects? Or will they devote more time and resources to such behemoths due to their perceived profitability? Sure, the live service model can be lucrative, but as disappointing sales of Square Enix’s “Avengers” demonstrated, there are big risks as well.

What will the future of VR look like?

Virtual reality remains a tantalizing future for gaming, one that has inched closer but has not yet been fully realized. Indeed, for all of the advancements, there are plenty of challenges that remain.

Start with the sheer cost of the equipment. Though the Oculus Quest 2 has lowered the barrier to a more affordable ($299), other VR sets can run up to $800 — and that’s without a proper console or gaming PC to pair with it. Sony seems to have curbed its aspirations in VR for now, based on Launcher’s interview with PlayStation CEO Jim Ryan in the Fall. While PSVR isn’t going away, it was not included as a focal point of the PS5’s launch, and existing headsets aren’t even compatible with the next-gen unit without an adapter.

That constraint on the user base seems to have limited the interest from game publishers in developing games for VR. And while AAA publishers like Respawn and Ubisoft are starting to push more resources toward VR with games like “Medal of Honor,” “Assassin’s Creed” and “Splinter Cell,” the vast majority of VR apps are limited more to “experiences” rather than full-on games. Those experience apps are still cool and entertaining, but without blockbuster games, there’s less incentive for consumers to shell out for the VR hardware. There are just a lot of cart/horse issues to untangle.

The strategy from Oculus — improving the tech and dropping the price — is both simple and intriguing. If the company can simply get more players into the VR ecosystem, will the other issues start to resolve themselves?

What’s the future of cloud gaming?

Cloud gaming is the ability to stream and play video games on different devices, without having to download large files, and it’s been around longer than you might think. The first cloud-gaming service, OnLive, debuted in 2010, though it was discontinued in 2015. Its intellectual property was sold to Sony, and used to create the infrastructure for PlayStation Now, the cloud-gaming program on PS4 and PS5.

The last few years have brought renewed interest to cloud gaming, especially as Google launched its cloud-gaming service Stadia, and Microsoft announced the yet-to-be-released xCloud.

With latency issues, limited features and a slim library, Google Stadia’s launch was a monumental flop, far from the “YouTube of games” the company had marketed. As we head into 2021, questions about cloud gaming ultimately revolve around whether we see improvements, increased developer support and better infrastructure for cloud gaming to take off. xCloud, for example, is still a big question mark in terms of pricing and service features.

It’s possible that next year will see consumers turning to more cost-effective gaming, which may include services like Stadia (as well as Game Pass on Xbox) that grant access to a library of games for a monthly fee.

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