Gaming in 2021 Download report

To call 2020 a “big year for gaming” is something of an understatement.

Two next-generation devices kicked off a console war and gaming on any device climbed to 87% worldwide – all of this, amid a global pandemic.

As a result, historic qualities of the industry began to change too – gaming is now more gender-balanced, and popular, than it’s ever been before.

But misconceptions continue to persist about the opportunities associated with it. 

Using our latest data set, GWI Gaming – and supporting data from our Core survey – we set out to tackle these misconceptions head on, answering key questions about the modern gaming landscape:

  • Has the pandemic changed motivations behind gaming?
  • What should brands bear in mind when entering this space?
  • Are gaming habits going to stick?

Gamer audiences are varied and require understanding.

While the gaming surge has presented new opportunities for brands, targeting gamers has never been more challenging. 

Gaming brands with a historic understanding of the landscape will be forced to re-approach these audiences with more precision, but for those unfamiliar with gaming – the non-endemics sizing up this space – it’s a necessity.

In the past, we’ve been clear to point out that “gamer” isn’t a term befitting everyone who picks up a controller; just as you wouldn’t define social media users or film-watchers in the same way.

Gaming boomed amid the pandemic, and it’s easy to think its identity has changed too – but our data suggests this isn’t necessarily the case.

Custom research from October last year revealed 30% of UK and U.S. internet users said they were playing more games since the pandemic began.

In contrast, just 2% said they’d just begun playing video games, suggesting the ‘boom’ came from those already gaming to begin with.

As such, these behavioral changes shouldn’t mistakenly be labeled as attitudinal; just because there are more people playing games, it doesn’t mean gaming has lost its cultural identity.

It’s still a highly tribal landscape, built up of distinct gamer subgroups.

Chart: gamers vary greatly

We can assume the pandemic has emphasized the overarching reasons people game; to have fun, relax or pass the time.

While universal, these motivations are surface deep. To understand how gamer mindsets vary, it’s crucial to observe their relationship with the activity, as opposed to their demographic.

Casual gamers – those with little to no interest in gaming and play once a week at most – are most likely to cite having run, relaxing and passing the time.

Hardcore gamers – those extremely interested in gaming and play every day – have more specific motivations for playing games. Unlike their casual counterpoints, they’re typically more likely to cite socializing, competing, and even developing new skills.

Treating gamers all in the same way ignores vital touchpoints that brands can tap into.

It’s worth remembering that, even among those playing the same device, genre and franchise, the style of gaming is dictated by the individual.

The way gaming audiences play and what they do during the game is telling.

Take Mario as an example. Some gamers attract millions of viewers online as they speedrun decades-old games in the series, while diehard prestige-hunters push themselves to collect every star in the Mushroom Kingdom.

Others just want to defeat Bowser in their own time. 

The pandemic may have expanded the ranks of gamers, but it did nothing to shake up the already present subcultures in gaming – arguably making them more important as isolated internet users sought entertainment and community elsewhere. 

Those weighing up the opportunities in gaming will need to carefully observe communities they can align with first, otherwise brand reputation could be put at risk.

Caution and authenticity are vital to brands entering gaming.

Gaming has proven itself an accommodating space for brands, ranging from the bold – and bizarre – such as KFC’s foray into PC gaming, to serious political messaging the Biden campaign plastered across homes in Animal Crossing.

Such success stories are enticing examples of how to enter the gaming space with carefully tuned messaging.

You need only look at where others have failed to see the ramifications, however; the less said about the U.S. Army’s presence on Twitch, the better.

We know that brands need to understand the motivations behind gaming if they want to target these individuals better, and a look at their interactions on social media reveals this in more detail.

Chart: gamers are community minded and vocal

Gamers like to talk. Online, or in-person, they’re quick to recommend games to one another or follow gaming-related content online. 

Social media is, of course, the primary culprit here, but our data highlights friends, entertainment sites and even gaming magazines as other prominent news sources – particularly among committed gamers.

The key takeaway here is that gamers, being a largely tribal audience, will inevitably share their opinions (or form them) elsewhere.

As people’s interest in, or engagement with, gaming grows, so too does the likelihood of them performing any of these activities we track. Brands need to prepare strategies carefully if they’re to avoid backlash down the line.

Gamers’ vocality can also be an advantage, however.

Our data shows 1 in 5 gamers, on any device, want brands to run their own customer communities or forums – rising to over 1 in 4 among hardcore audiences. 

By reaching out to gamers in their comfort zone, brands are setting themselves up to make more genuinely informed decisions down the line – a notable example observed in Gen.G’s partnership with Bumble that spawned its first all-female Fortnite team.

Gaming’s here to stay.

As gaming boomed, questions were raised about its sustainability; would other priorities take precedence when lockdowns ended?

It’s unlikely, for two reasons. One is that the gaming boom predates the pandemic, drawing in more “atypical” demographics (female and/or older) in the process.

Another is that, even within lockdowns, 35% of those who say they were spending more time on video games expected to continue that behavior post-outbreak. 

It’s better to look at it as a steady climb, not a sudden spike in response to the pandemic.

Now, with increases in gaming observed across all demographics, over 1 in 3 internet users in 15 markets play games every day, on any device.

Chart: gaming has become routine for many

Looking closer, males only lead against females by just three-percentage points, while Gen Zs or millennials are separated from their older counterparts by five.

Even parents of 3 or more children are finding the time to play games every single day, despite commitments elsewhere.

While gaming is still more prevalent among its traditional participants, it’s cemented itself as a routine activity for a range of audiences. 

There are, however, signs that the pandemic’s gaming surge will see a short-term dip post-COVID, as an interest in gaming fell three-percentage points among gamers, on any device, between Q3 and Q4 2020.

As activities outside of gaming open up, gamers, regardless of how often they play, will be keen to get back out there.

Things like going to the gym, attending music concerts, and seeing friends are already top priorities in the future, meaning gaming – even among its most devoted fans – is going to take a hit.

But brands need to remember that routines forged during lockdowns will be hard to break; engagement remains high and interest will likely rebound when other priorities have been settled. Not to mention the sunk costs involved in buying new devices and software.

At the same time, promising signs of gaming starting to stick among older generations signals new opportunities in the long-term.

Cheat codes: reaching gamers

No-one ever completed Dark Souls by button-mashing their way through to the end; caution is key. Likewise, when you’re gearing up to take on gaming audiences, it’s best to remember the following:

  • Motivations for gaming are more telling than demographics. Gamers are difficult to target by age or gender alone, even more so now. Brands studying the motivations behind gaming will find it easier to tap into different communities at the heart of the activity, helping them make informed decisions about how to approach them.
  • Gaming audiences require a nuanced approach. Gaming’s popularity has spawned partnerships in some of the most unlikely places, but this is the result of careful planning. Brands need to find out where they align best, exploring gaming communities and online-interactions in more detail.
  • Newcomers are everywhere, and here to stay. While we’ve seen a rise in female and older gamers since the pandemic began, this was already well under way. Newcomers have forged habits that won’t budge easily in the future. It’s time to ditch outdated gamer segmentations and prepare for growth across different devices, franchises and genres instead.
  • Interest will decline, engagement less so. There are already rumblings of gaming interest beginning to fall, as other priorities begin to take hold. However, with engagement remaining high, brands can’t label this as a one-off spawned by a global pandemic; interest is anticipated to rebound as people adapt to normality once again.
access our gaming report

You’ve read our blog, now see our platform

Every business has questions about its audiences, GWI has answers. Powered by consistent, global research, our platform is an on-demand window into their world.