As economic headwinds pick up, gaming and esports executives are tentatively optimistic about their ability to weather the storm. But the reality is that the current model of the gaming and esports industry has never been tested by a true recession.
During the 2008 financial crisis, many economists grew to believe that the gaming industry was “recession-proof,” with sales of video games far outpacing those of other retail products as the recession mounted in December 2007. And gaming has only grown in popularity since then.
“Games is the largest segment within entertainment by far,” said Michael Metzger, an esports industry expert and partner at investment banking firm Drake Star. “There’s a good amount of new players coming into Netflix; Amazon might make a big move this year.”
Despite these encouraging signals, however, early signs seem to indicate that the gaming industry might not be as recession-proof as experts believed in the past. In its earnings report last week, Ubisoft reported a total loss of over €500 million for the past fiscal year; Riot Games laid off 46 staffers earlier this week; and Google finally shut down its cloud gaming service, Stadia, among other discouraging news.
The esports industry — which currently serves mostly as a marketing offshoot for the broader gaming industry — is also feeling the heat. Brands like BMW have pulled out of the space, heightening fears that an “esports winter” is coming. In a bid to keep the sponsorship money flowing, leading esports orgs such as OpTic have beefed up their partnership departments and increased their focus on recession-resistant brand partners.
“While I think esports is probably not recession-proof, from my seat being the person over sponsorships, I’ve spent more of my time thinking about the brands that are recession-proof, or that need to stay top-of-mind to our audience,” said OpTic svp of sales and partnerships Erin Schendle.
Schendle declined to specify individual prospective recession-proof sponsors, but listed sectors such as food, beverages and financial services as examples. “People are going to eat, and they’re going to drink, and those types of things,” she said. “There’s financial services; people still need a bank. They still need credit, you know, maybe even more so.” (OpTic’s current partners include Jack Links, Mountain Dew and Jack in the Box.)
The gaming industry has transformed over the past decade, and the strengths that carried it through the 2008 crisis are simply no longer as present. Lucrative retail sales have fallen off in favor of free-to-play or live service games, and the rise of gaming livestreamers has given players new options to consume their favorite games without having to actually purchase them. At the same time, the prices of both consoles and premium titles have skyrocketed.
In 2008, the list price of the Nintendo Wii was $249.99; these days, the base model of the Nintendo Switch sells for almost $300. Sony’s PlayStation 3 went for $399 in 2008; in 2023, the PlayStation 5 has a $499.99 sticker price.
“The Wii was actually quite successful during the 2008-2009 recession, because people were sacrificing out-of-home entertainment, and it seemed like a more cost-effective form of entertainment,” said Chris Beer, a data journalist at GWI. “But given that consoles are expensive now, and gaming has changed a lot, I’m not entirely sure that’d be the case.”
The gaming industry’s transformation has had some potential upsides, too, as a potential recession approaches. In-game purchases, for example, were a niche revenue stream in 2008, but a source of billions of gamer dollars in 2023. Gamers are certainly more down to spend their money on virtual items these days than they were back then. But the operative word is “uncertainty”, and it’s far from a sure thing that the gaming industry will be as recession-proof this time around as it was in 2008.
“The market hasn’t really existed in past recessions,” Beer said. “So it’s not like we have much in the way of historic data to find out which people were buying skins, emotes, hats, whatever it is that they’re going to use to represent themselves in these online spaces.”
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