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The Decline of Physical Games and The Rise of Digital Distribution

When Valve made the much-anticipated Half-Life 2 available on Steam in 2004, a deluge of users rushed to download the game or authenticate their physical copy, and Steam simply keeled over and crashed

Valve had made Steam authentication mandatory for even physical copies of the game, so everyone who had bought the title, either through Steam or at a retailer, had to go through Valve’s client, and the company’s servers simply could not handle the load. Gamers who had expected the further adventures of Gordon Freeman ended up with pop-ups from the Steam client apologising for the lengthy delays. 

Steam has come a long way since then and is a fixture of millions of PCs now, and many major publishers, including Sony, currently release games on the platform. Steam is also home to thousands of indie games and is arguably the most prominent digital delivery service for PCs. 

The digital distribution of games – whether on PC, console or mobile – has grown prevalent thanks to growing internet speeds, higher broadband penetration, and many other factors. Consoles have long featured digital storefronts from which gamers can buy and download games, smartphone games are available via Google Play or the iOS App Store, and for the PC, digital games have practically become the norm as modern computers tend to lack optical drives. In turn, sales of physical game copies, or ‘retail’ editions, are on the decline, though they are yet to be fully supplanted by digital delivery. 

In this blog, we will delve into the history of game storage media, from cartridges to Blu-ray discs and chart the rise to prominence of digital distribution services for games. Game storage formats have played a significant role in the history of gaming, and even today’s major consoles provide support for physical copies. However, the industry is transitioning towards digital delivery as the principal mode for selling games – we will look into why this is the case.

What is a Digital Game?

A digital game refers to any title downloaded from a digital delivery service such as Steam, a console manufacturer’s online store, or smartphone app stores. Digital game data can be installed on devices like internal hard disks, solid-state drives and even removable storage. Note that such games do not have to be paid for a la carte – subscription services such as the Xbox Game Pass or PlayStation Plus allow users to download many games and play them so long as they remain subscribed.  

What is a Physical Game?

A physical game copy refers to any game whose data is stored in physical media like cartridges, floppy discs, CDs, DVDs or Blu-ray discs. Today, such physical copies may not contain all the files required to play the game and you may still have to download either a significant portion of game data or the latest patch from a digital delivery service.

In the past (especially during the time of cartridges), buying a game was a one-and-done deal, and you inserted the game cartridge into a slot to play and even save progress – cartridges featured a chip specially designed for game saves. Effectively, this meant that all game data – whether it was the game itself, or your progress, was saved in the cartridge, and not on a storage device in the console. 

Physical game copies (especially of console games) can be shared among friends, sold second-hand to others or traded in at a retailer. They can even allow access to a full game without necessitating an internet connection, though most contemporary games need downloadable patches and updates to work properly. People still buy physical games because of discounts at local retailers or e-commerce sites, and the advantages that physical copies offer. 

A Retail Display of Video Games at a Store in Geneva (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
A Retail Display of Video Games at a Store in Geneva (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

In the next section, we will outline the evolution of physical game storage formats, from the cartridge to the Blu-ray disc. Like any form of media, gaming depended on physical storage before high-quality internet speeds made digital downloads a viable alternative. The capacity and efficiency of physical formats steadily increased and the transition from one storage format to another often marked a major inflection point for the gaming industry, as we will see below. 

A History of Physical Game Media

Physical copies of games have played an integral role in making gaming a popular and affordable past-time, especially since they were geared from the first to make home gaming viable. 

The following sections will discuss the role of cartridges and floppy disks in gaming from the 70’s to the 90’s, followed by CDs and DVDs (both of which Sony used to great effect in PlayStation consoles), and then to Blu-Ray, which was first used by Sony for the PlayStation 3, and then integrated with Xbox consoles as well from the eighth console generation onwards. 

Storage Size Growth

Cartridges and Floppy Disks

The advent of cartridges marked a major shift for home gaming – no longer did consumers have to buy dedicated consoles for their favourite games, but could buy a single console and play multiple games on it simply by slotting a compatible game cartridge into the system. 

Fairchild Semiconductor pioneered the design of the first console with interchangeable game cartridges – the Fairchild Channel F (1976). Although overshadowed by the Atari 2600 (1977), Fairchild was the first to create a console with a microprocessor that loaded games from programmable cartridges.

The Fairchild Channel F (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
The Fairchild Channel F (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Designers at Fairchild knew that their sensitive cartridge circuit boards had to be capable of withstanding considerable abuse, like being left out in the sun, or being stepped upon. They encased their technology in hard, durable plastic, but also created an easy-to-use slotting mechanism, which would enable both the cartridges and the console to withstand multiple insertions and ejections. 

Cartridge design evolved considerably after Fairchild’s pioneering efforts. They loaded graphics and other game data faster and faster, and new iterations were made to use less system memory. By the time Nintendo released the N64 (1996), cartridges could store upto 64 MB of data – the first cartridges made by Atari and Fairchild could store just 32 KB at best. From the late 70s to the early 90s, the cartridge was the default storage medium for console games, especially because they were hard to reverse engineer

Game Cartridges for the Atari 2600 (Courtesy Flickr)
Game Cartridges for the Atari 2600 (Courtesy Flickr)

During roughly the same period, floppy disks – especially the 3.5 inch versions introduced by Sony in 1980 – were used to store and exchange games and other programs for the PC. The 3.5 inch disk was designed to be durable and resilient, with a hard plastic casing and a sliding metal shutter that protected the magnetic storage tape inside. They were an ‘almost viral’ way for transmitting shareware – especially portions of games like Doom (1993) and the Commander Keen games. 

Doom was also one of the most prominent games to be released on floppy disks, as were many other games of that period, such as Prince of Persia (1989). Such games could be shared even with friends who didn’t have the same type of PC, since the floppy disk drive had become an industry standard by the late 70s. 

The Floppy Disk Set for the Full Release of Doom (Courtesy Internet Archive)
The Floppy Disk Set for the Full Release of Doom (Courtesy Internet Archive)

Both the floppy disk and the game cartridge would eventually be supplanted by the CD-ROM (Compact Disc Read Only Memory). We discuss the advent and rise of optical media in the following sections.

Optical Media

The use of optical media greatly expanded the possibilities of gaming by allowing games to be much larger in size. In a cartridge, game data is stored on a single chip on a circuit board, limiting storage capacity, and save games are stored on another chip. But almost all the surface area of an optical disc can be crammed with data in the form of microscopic indents etched by a laser – such discs are known as ‘optical’ because light is used to both read and write onto them. A Blu-ray disc’s capacity is more than 50 times that of a CD because of its much smaller, densely-packed indents.

Comparison of Storage Density in Optical Media (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
Comparison of Storage Density in Optical Media (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Games such as Final Fantasy VII (1997), Halo 2 (2004), the Last of Us (2013), and many others made full use of the storage space available to them to deliver quality content at the highest-fidelity graphics that were possible at the time they were released. Support for optical media also helped consoles double as home entertainment systems, and the success of many consoles, across generations, was partly because they could play movies and music as well. 

The CD-ROM Supersedes the Game Cartridge

The PlayStation (1994) is the first home gaming console to sell more than 100 million units, and this is at least partly due to its use of compact disks (CDs) as the storage format for its games. In 1985, Sony and Philips had together developed a technical standard by which CDs could hold any form of data, which led to the creation of CD-ROMs. With about 700 MB of storage space, they dwarfed the capacity of cartridges (which could store up to 64 MB) and allowed games to offer much more content than was possible earlier. CDs also featured various other advantages – they were cheaper to manufacture and also reduced production times for games, leading to lower retail prices. 

Sony’s PlayStation Popularised the CD-ROM as a Game Storage Medium (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
Sony’s PlayStation Popularised the CD-ROM as a Game Storage Medium (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

According to a PC World article, Sony won the first console war it ever participated in largely because it used CDs. Due to the inherent advantages of this storage format, Sony was able to bring many third-party publishers into the fold, including Square Enix, whose hugely successful Final Fantasy games had traditionally been Nintendo exclusives and had served as system sellers for Nintendo consoles

Square decided that Nintendo’s cartridge-based N64 would not suffice for Final Fantasy VII. It turned to Sony, and the end result was a gorgeous game with high-quality cinematics and pre-rendered backgrounds, all made possible because of the CD’s higher storage capacity and the PlayStation’s support for 3D graphics. Final Fantasy VII was hailed as the ‘game that sold the PlayStation’ – FF VII did for Sony what previous instalments of the franchise had done for Nintendo.

Final Fantasy VII (Courtesy Sony)
Final Fantasy VII (Courtesy Sony)

The PlayStation could also play audio and video CDs, making it one of the most versatile home entertainment systems of the time. The resounding success of the PlayStation led to the marginalisation of the cartridge, and home gaming consoles would use optical storage as the primary medium by selling games.

Final Fantasy VII’s Cinematics Were a Key Selling Point for the Game (Courtesy Sony)
Final Fantasy VII’s Cinematics Were a Key Selling Point for the Game (Courtesy Sony)

DVDs Turn Consoles into Home Entertainment Systems

Much like the CD-ROM, the DVD (Digital Versatile Disc) would allow games to be much larger in size and feature more content. Halo: Combat Evolved (2001) spawned a huge franchise that became a major system seller for Xbox consoles, and required the higher storage capacity of a DVD. Halo 2, considered one of the greatest games of all time, is nearly seven times as large as the first Halo game.

Halo 2 (Courtesy Microsoft)
Halo 2 (Courtesy Microsoft)

The larger-sized 3D games made for the PS 2 and the Xbox are recognisably modern – Gran Turismo 3 (2001) for the PS 2 features stunning graphics, as do the Halo games released for the Xbox, which used Microsoft’s DirectX technology and a graphics card made in collaboration with Nvidia for hardware acceleration. Higher graphical fidelity depends on high-resolution textures and game assets, which in turn require greater storage space – the shift to DVD enabled more content, and contributed to higher-quality graphics as well.

The PlayStation 2 (2000) and the first Xbox (2001) supported game DVDs and CDs and both could interface with home theatre systems, essentially serving as DVD players. The PS 2 could play movies and music out of the box, with the gamepad allowing you to control playback. You could also buy a remote for image adjustments and more playback features. Unlike the PS 2, the Xbox did not come with built-in DVD playback support: it needed a DVD kit containing a remote control and infrared sensor

The Xbox Required a Special Kit for DVD Video Playback (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
The Xbox Required a Special Kit for DVD Video Playback (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Costing a mere $299 at launch, the PS 2 was actually cheaper than some of the standalone DVD players of that time. The console’s support for DVD video was welcomed at a time when the DVD was one of the best ways to experience movies at home, as it came with bonus features and extra materials like deleted scenes and interviews with cast and crew. Films like the lengthy Lord of the Rings trilogy made it to the DVD as extended editions. The PS 2 not only boasted a great library of game exclusives but also served as an affordable home entertainment system, allowing users to enjoy high-quality DVD editions of their favourite movies. 

The PS 2 is the best-selling home-gaming console of all time, and one of the factors that is said to have contributed to this was its capacity to double as a DVD player – it even allowed you to play burned CDs and DVDs, i.e, pirated movies, music and games.

Blu-ray Powers Massive Games

The Blu-ray disc format allowed even larger game sizes thanks to its storage capacity of upto 50 GB. The PS 3 edition of Last of Us (2013) – one of the finest games ever made – was around 26 GB in size, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception (2011) takes up 43.5 GB of storage space, and the PS 4 box-set for the Last of Us Part II contained two Blu-ray discs, to accommodate more than 70 GB of game data.

The Last of Us Part II (Courtesy Sony)
The Last of Us Part II (Courtesy Sony)

Game sizes actually increased from one console generation to another – Call of Duty: Ghosts (2013) for the PS 3 was 10.9 GB in size – this mushroomed to more than 30 GB for the PS 4, mainly because the next-gen versions came with higher-resolutions texture sets, higher-polygon game assets, and higher-definition cutscenes and cinematics.

In fact, the Blu-ray disc format’s prevalence is at least partly due to gaming and the PlayStation 3. Sony created the prototype of the Blu-ray disc in 2000, but when it was officially released in 2006, a format war ensued between Blu-ray and the HD-DVD format. By 2008, however, both the software and entertainment industries had settled on the Blu-ray format – a BBC article published the same year argues that the format won because it was integrated with the PlayStation 3, which had sold more than 10 million units by early 2008 and could play Blu-ray video at a time when the first standalone Blu-ray players were nearly double the PS3’s price. Microsoft had gone with the HD-DVD format for the Xbox 360 (2005), and though rumours sometimes surfaced about a Blu-ray add-on for the console, the Xbox 360 does not support Blu-ray playback

Eventually, Microsoft also chose the Blu-ray, which is supported by the PS 4 (2013), the PS 5 disc edition (2020), the Xbox One (2013) and its variants, and the Xbox Series X (2020). These consoles support DVD and Blu-ray video playback as well.

It must be noted that a built-in Blu-ray player did not propel the PS 3 to the success that PS 2 enjoyed with its DVD playback capability. Nintendo’s Wii (2006), which used a proprietary DVD-based disc format for physical copies and lacked any movie or music playback, won the console war of this generation, mainly due to its far wider appeal. 

In fact, by the late 2000s, observers were predicting that physical formats would decline thanks to a new ‘download era’ ushered in by high-speed, high-bandwidth internet connections and increased broadband penetration – in effect, supporting a physical format would not confer a significant advantage. In the next sections, we will discuss the rise to prominence of digital distribution for games, and the factors that have driven this transition.

The Prominence of Digital Delivery in Gaming

Digital delivery for games has grown more and more popular over the course of the last decade and the pandemic-period lockdowns accelerated this trend – in 2020, digital game sales surpassed physical sales for the first time, and 91% of the game industry’s revenue was digital (this includes full game downloads along with in-app purchases, downloadable content and mobile game sales). By 2021, the number of unique console titles sold on digital platforms in the US had far surpassed games sold as physical copies. According to an NPD report, nearly 2200 unique console titles were released on digital storefronts in the US, as compared to 226 titles sold as physical copies. A year later, Sony reported that digital purchases constituted 80% of game sales in 2022’s first quarter

Unique Digital Console Titles Far Surpassed Physical Copies in 2021 (Courtesy Ars Technica)
Unique Digital Console Titles Far Surpassed Physical Copies in 2021 (Courtesy Ars Technica)

All this data suggests that digital delivery has become the primary, if not the sole, method for distributing games, and analysts believe that digital games will totally dominate the industry in less than a decade. Digital delivery is already the default for smartphones, which have never offered support for physical games, and we have covered mobile gaming and its main platforms in detail elsewhere. However, digital games did not rise to primacy overnight for other platforms such as PC and consoles, which had to transition from selling large-sized titles on high-capacity optical media to digital delivery. We will discuss the emergence and growth of digital distribution in such platforms below.

The Rise of Steam

Steam is by far the most successful digital distribution platform for PC games, though it was not the first – the now-defunct Stardock Central (2001) was the first such service for PC games. Steam was released in 2003 as a client that could easily update certain Valve games, especially the popular multiplayer shooter, Counter-Strike (2004).  

A 2002 survey conducted by Valve revealed that 75% of its users had broadband connections, and convinced the company that digital delivery of games was a viable proposition. Their first attempt to deliver a game digitally (Half-Life 2) was not a resounding success, as is recounted above, but Valve continued to improve the Steam client and its support infrastructure, and within a few years, major publishers such as id Software, Take Two Interactive, Eidos, EA and many others decided to make their PC games available on Steam.

The Steam User Interface circa 2010 (Courtesy Valve and Reddit User 2muchrubik)
The Steam User Interface circa 2010 (Courtesy Valve and Reddit User 2muchrubik)

As the service grew more and more popular, some developers baulked at its restrictive terms of service, with EA deciding to launch Mass Effect 3 on its own Origin platform in 2012. Nevertheless, Steam remains the pre-eminent digital distribution platform for PC games – by 2021, it had 132 million monthly active users who could browse a library of over 50000 unique titles. Revenue from games sold on Steam reached $6.6 bn in the same year. 

Other digital delivery sites include (2008) – which enforces a strict non-digital rights management policy – and the Epic Games Store (2018), which is attempting to challenge Steam’s primacy. To incentivise publishers, Epic takes a 12% cut from game sales, whereas Steam takes 30% initially, though its share decreases to 20% if game revenue exceeds $50 million. Epic also does not enforce a digital rights management (DRM) policy for all games, allowing each publisher to decide DRM policy. 

In 2020, Epic Games spent more than $400 million to secure games that would be exclusive to Epic, and unavailable on Steam, for at least a year. Subsequently, in December 2021, monthly active users peaked at 62 million, which is less than half of Steam’s 132 million monthly active users, and as of 2021, Epic has a total of 917 games, a fraction of Steam’s game catalogue. However, Steam took more than a decade to build its library and following, and the Epic Store has been around for less than five years. Epic is also known for freely giving away an estimated $17.5 billion worth of games, and even though its store went down for eight hours when it made Grand Theft Auto V free for a week in May 2020, Epic got seven million new users as a result of the giveaway. Steam might have a huge head-start, but Epic arguably has the momentum.

Epic Games Got 7 Million New Users After its GTA V Giveaway (Courtesy Rockstar Games)
Epic Games Got 7 Million New Users After its GTA V Giveaway (Courtesy Rockstar Games)

The prominence of Steam, the rise of Epic and the death of the computer optical drive, have made digital distribution the principal method for selling games for PCs.

Digital Stores for Consoles Evolve

Console makers, especially Microsoft, were quick to realise the potential of digital delivery – the original Xbox shipped with the Xbox Live (2002) service, whose principal function was to enable multiplayer gaming and the digital delivery of game content. In its early years, the platform offered premium downloadable content and add-ons for games, but could not offer full game downloads. In 2004, Microsoft created the Xbox Live Arcade platform, which offered small, quickly downloadable games from a range of developers – most of these games were either console classics or arcade-style titles. The platform served as an easy entry point for independent developers who could develop games and quickly release them as download-only titles. 

Paperboy, a 1985 Atari Game, on Xbox Live Arcade (Courtesy Flickr)
Paperboy, a 1985 Atari Game, on Xbox Live Arcade (Courtesy Flickr)

Sony launched the PlayStation Store in 2006, and as with the Xbox, it initially offered downloadable content rather than full game downloads. The Store platform was first launched with the PlayStation 3 and six years later, it started to offer a variety of full game downloads. 

The Wii Shop Channel (2006 – 2019), a digital distribution platform for the Nintendo Wii, supported the download of various applications, content, and even a web browser. Wii Ware (2008), one of the services in the Wii Shop Channel, was Nintendo’s first foray into digital delivery of full (small-sized) games, and as Microsoft did with the Xbox Live Arcade, Nintendo promoted Wii Ware as an avenue for small developers to publish innovative content that would be delivered digitally, thereby avoiding the risks and commitments of retail distribution. The Wii Ware service shut down when the Wii Shop Channel was discontinued, and players can no longer purchase titles anymore, though they can continue to download owned games to compatible devices.

By 2009, both Microsoft and Sony started offering full game downloads – after its E3 press conference, Microsoft announced that games such as Bioshock (2007), Assassin’s Creed (2007), and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (2006) would be offered as full game downloads on its Store platform for the Xbox 360. Meanwhile, Sony announced that full games could be downloaded over WiFi to its handheld gaming device, the PSP Go (2009), which had 16 GB of storage and lacked a slot for physical games. By 2011, the PS 3 had also enabled full game downloads – at a time when game sizes were ballooning, and broadband speeds were not quite capable of downloading large-sized games. In 2013, Ars Technica reported that a major Steam game took about 4 hours to download, while a PS 3 game took more than 5 hours to download – and this was in the US, where broadband speeds have generally been high. Download times have however tended to decrease as internet speeds and broadband access have steadily improved.

Oblivion was One of the First AAA Games to be Delivered Digitally on the Xbox (Courtesy Bethesda Softworks)
Oblivion was One of the First AAA Games to be Delivered Digitally on the Xbox (Courtesy Bethesda Softworks)

The Nintendo eShop launched in 2011 for the 3DS and was made available on the Wii U at the console’s launch (2012), and keeping up with Sony and Microsoft, Nintendo’s eShop featured full game downloads, along with DLC, video content, updates and more. The first game to be released both on the eShop and as a retail copy was New Super Mario Bros. 2 (2012). 

New Super Mario Bros 2 (Courtesy Nintendo)
New Super Mario Bros 2 (Courtesy Nintendo)

The majority of Nintendo’s retail releases are now available as digital downloads, and developers can also choose to publish digital-only titles on the eShop. This platform is the primary digital storefront for the Nintendo Switch, the hybrid hand-held and home-gaming console that has sold more than 100 million units

By 2013, digital game sales had started to edge past physical sales in the US, and by 2018, physical sales accounted for only 17% of all game sales in the country. In the next section, we will discuss the factors that have contributed to the rise of digital distribution. 

Physical Game Sales Have Steadily Declined Since 2013
Physical Game Sales Have Steadily Declined Since 2013

Why Have Physical Game Sales Declined?

There are many interconnected factors that have led to the decline of physical game sales. Higher internet speeds and broadband penetration have made video streaming services possible – they have also contributed to making large game downloads viable. The COVID pandemic also made digital downloads popular during the shutdowns, and revenue from digital downloads have surpassed physical sales in part because mobile games, which are delivered digitally, have become the biggest segment of the gaming market. We discuss these and other factors below. 

  • Increasing penetration of high-bandwidth, high-speed, low-cost internet: Based on Ookla reports, nearly 50 countries have median download speeds greater than 100 megabits/second (Mbps). As of September 2021, the global average download speed on broadband was 113.2 Mbps, up nearly 30 megabits from 2020 speeds. 83% of US households have access to broadband connections, and a majority of those homes have connection speeds of 15 Mbps or higher. With the advent of 4k texture packs, 4k video, high-quality audio and more, the size of some contemporary games exceeds 100 GB, with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019) at a staggering 183 GB. The game would take at least four Blu-ray discs for the retail edition, and a high-speed internet connection is a more viable option for delivering such games than cumbersome disc editions. 
  • Digital storefronts control game prices and cut out the resale market: Game sales are significant sources of revenue for console makers and publishers. Cutting out the middleman – retailers who stock physical copies of games and trade-ins – and drawing people to digital storefronts would result in higher overall profits for console manufacturers and publishers. This has led console makers to offer more incentives for digital purchases – the Xbox Play Anywhere program, launched in 2016, allowed users to buy a digital Xbox game and play it on both the console and the PC. Both Sony and Microsoft now offer cheaper all-digital editions of consoles: the Xbox Series S and the PlayStation 5 Digital Edition. Microsoft is even working on a patent that will allow Series S owners to authenticate a physical game copy using an external disc drive and download it via the digital storefront. The PS 5 uses an advanced compression technique to decrease the size of game data and reduce the wait time to access a digitally downloaded game.
  • The Pandemic made digital downloads more popular: Many observers have pointed out that lockdown restrictions spurred the purchase of digital copies, especially as gaming itself became of vital importance as a means of connecting with people, and physical stores could not be visited due to widespread shutdowns. In fact, the pandemic is considered a tipping point for digital game sales. By 2020, when the current generation of consoles were released, digital purchases accounted for nearly half of console game sales
  • Cloud gaming and gaming subscriptions: Currently, both Microsoft and Sony feature a robust digital delivery platform, and both offer game subscription services with libraries that boast multiple exclusives, which can be downloaded and played for free so long as you pay a monthly subscription fee. Such services also offer discounted prices at the digital storefront for many games, including those that are not part of the subscription. The highest tiers of these services also feature cloud gaming. With 25 million users, the Xbox Game Pass accounts for a significant portion of Microsoft’s gaming revenue. In fact, the rise of subscription services, made possible by higher internet speeds, could even lead to a new war based on the ‘subscription exclusives’ between console makers.
  • Live-service games depend on downloads: The industry has seen a major shift towards live-service games, which seek to keep their audiences engaged for years by regularly adding new game content, updates, game-balancing patches and in-app purchases – and all such content is delivered digitally. In a world where many of the industry’s most prominent titles follow the games-as-a-service model, physical copies may simply not be a viable mode of distribution. Live-service games are also quite large in size – the free-to-play game Destiny 2, including all expansions and updates, currently requires 97 GB of storage space on a PS 5, and more than 100 GB of space on an Xbox Series X|S, and though a physical copy exists, a significant portion of the game content needs to be downloaded. Some of the most prominent games today depend on digital delivery.
  • The biggest sector in gaming uses digital delivery: Mobile games are delivered as apps through stores such as Google Play and the iOS App Store, and they are some of the most lucrative titles on the market. As of 2022, more than 60 mobile games have made more than $1 billion in lifetime sales, and mobile titles constitute the largest share (45%) of global games revenue. The mobile gaming market is expected to be worth nearly $140 billion by 2026, and as mobile games grow ever more popular and lucrative, revenue from digital sales (including full-game downloads, DLC, in-app purchases and more) will continue to surpass physical sales revenue. 
  • Considering that so many factors are contributing toward the transition to digital delivery, one might believe that physical games are on the way to extinction. This is, however, not quite the case. In 2018, argued that the sale of physical games might be declining, but it still remained an industry worth billions of dollars worldwide, with 75% of AAA games being sold as physical copies. A year later, it reported that physical console games accounted for 60% of sales value during the last quarter of 2019. These reports may reflect a pre-COVID reality, but even during the pandemic, in April 2020, more than a million physical games were sold in the UK, the highest figure since 2015. Physical games, while on the decline, are not yet finished.


The inherent advantages of physical games – shareability, resale value and access to game data without the need for a connection – still hold value to gamers. The outrage over Microsoft’s attempt to implement an always-online DRM policy for even physical Xbox One games shows that full ownership – another perk of physical games – is valued by users.

However, the Nintendo Switch’s cartridges underscore the problems with physical copies. While Sony and Microsoft support Blu-ray disc editions for their consoles, the Switch uses a proprietary cartridge based on the SD card format for retail games – such cards can currently hold upto 32 GB of data, though 64-GB cartridges have been in the works for at least three years. The small storage capacity of such cartridges requires users to download a significant part of the game, and they are also costlier to manufacture than Blu-ray discs, resulting in some games costing more on the Switch than on PC or console. These disadvantages may lead the portable Switch’s successors to eschew support for physical copies.

In fact, both retail distribution and digital delivery may be superseded by cloud gaming, which is expected to become a $20.9-billion industry by 2030. Amazon’s Luna and the cloud gaming solutions of Microsoft and Sony require only a fast connection to play a game, and if game streaming becomes prevalent, it can make retail copies, digital downloads and even game installation a thing of the past. Cloud gaming is considered the ‘killer use-case’ for burgeoning 5G networks, and the growth of 5G infrastructure can make game streaming a highly popular and easy way to play games. 

Some sources on the web continue to argue that physical games are still relevant, and others that they should remain relevant, given that access to a digital copy of a game can potentially end when the provider goes bust – this is one of many arguments used to justify breaking DRM on media. Some have even argued that the death of the Blu-ray format (as a medium for movies and games) does not bode well for gamers, especially those on a budget, who need to resell their games to afford new ones.

Opinions aside, the industry itself is moving away from physical copies in a quite decisive manner, propelled by steadily increasing internet speeds and a changing industry landscape in which highly-lucrative live-service titles and mobile games dominate. Physical copies may not completely die out, but they will likely be relegated to a (very) niche market in the years to come. 

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The Rise of Esports, How Data Drives It, and What the Future Looks Like

Electronic sports, or esports is the evolution of online competitive gaming into spectator sports. It started off as a niche industry but over the last decade, it has become a major player in the sports and entertainment industry, and even become a part of mainstream culture. Viewers can watch video gamers compete against one another in a virtual environment just like how they’d watch a professional sports event. In 2021, the global esports market was valued at just over $1.08 billion, an almost 50 percent increase from the previous year. 

The first-ever esports competition took place at Stanford University in 1972. Five students competed in an “Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics,” and the winner received a year’s subscription for Rolling Stone. Dota 2’s The International 2019 invited the top players in the world to a tournament with a crowdfunded prize pool of $34.3 million. Less than a year before that tournament, CNBC reported that the “League of Legends” World Championship finals in South Korea hit nearly 100 million unique viewers, eclipsing the previous year’s Super Bowl, one of the most popular sports championships which had just over 98 million viewers. 

esports arena
Esports arenas can get as jampacked as traditional sports stadiums these days.

Esports has only grown bigger with the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic. With people being confined to their home and the usual sports tournaments not happening, they turned to virtual game tournaments increasingly for entertainment. Across European countries, 38 percent to 67 percent of esports consumers stated that they watched esports for the first time after COVID-19 related restrictions were imposed.

The potential to earn from gaming has become increasingly tantalising as there are several ways to do so. Most obvious is the prize money from tournaments, but esports athletes can also make millions of dollars from streaming their live gameplay, signing contracts with big organisations like TSM, 100 Thieves, Team Liquid, and the like, engaging on social media, and sponsorship deals with entities both within and outside the gaming sphere such as Redbull, Corsair, and AimLabs. Everyone can benefit from esports- the players, the audiences, and corporations. 


The esports ecosystem supports itself and thus thrives.

Several technology, analytics, and service platforms are also beneficiaries of this ecosystem as it continues to grow in leaps and bounds from increasingly substantial investor capital. The largest sponsorship deal to date was TSM receiving $210m over 10 years from crypto exchange FTX.

The Esports Industry: Who is Involved?

Esports involve several parties who make the ecosystem thrive. These include:

They develop their skills through extensive, competitive play. They train for quick reflexes and multi-tasking abilities, often for several hours a day. Those who rise to the professional level compete in tournaments all around the world against the best teams. They gain a fanbase for the teams and organizations they play for as well as themselves as they grow. Retired esports professionals may opt to stream themselves, coach esports teams, start their own team, work for publishers, and more. Some of the most skillful and consistent players often end up being the face of the game, such as Faker in League of Legends.

Faker- one of the most talented League of Legends players- makes a cameo in almost every video they release to hype up their annual championship.

Gamers who livestream themselves as they play video games are referred to as “streamers.” This is typically done in casual play but professional players also stream their ranked games or do analysis of their gameplay to educate and entertain their viewers. While streaming can be incredibly profitable, many streamers have to decide whether they want to stream for a living or try and play professionally and run the risk of making less money. With that said, not all streamers have the skill to play professionally. Instead, some simply have “streaming personalities” that viewers find entertaining to follow, donate to, and subscribe to. Some examples of these are Ninja, Valkyrie, Pokimane, and PewdiePie, who all have several million subscribers on platforms like Twitch and YouTube.

Ninja is one of the biggest streamers on Twitch who makes millions of dollars annually from streaming alone.

A great example of how much streamers make just off streaming platforms is Ninja. Ninja, or Tyler Richard Blevins, is a professional gamer who became a global phenomenon in 2017 as a result of his Fortnite streams. Ninja had more than 17 million followers on Twitch by the end of November 2019, making him the most followed Twitch streamer by a long shot. He’s best known for streaming Halo Infinite, Fortnite, and Halo 3. His estimated revenue from just streaming is about $25 million, though his income is far more than that considering the many sponsorships and partnership deals he’s signed.

When you think about esports, depending on the game, several teams come to mind. If you follow CS:GO for example, Astralis and NaVi are names you’ll definitely know. When it comes to VALORANT, teams like Team Liquid, Cloud 9, Sentinels, and the like are known by those who follow the competitive scene. Traditional sports teams and athletes alike have also taken an interest in esports, with Shaquille O’Neal’s co-ownership of NRG Esports and FC Barcelona’s Rocket League and eFootballPES 2020 teams.

All of these teams are usually funded by large organisations and tend to specialise and compete in one specific game, such as League of Legends, Dota 2, or Counter-Strike. Note that organisations can often have several teams, each for a particular game. The teams that compete at these tournaments often have millions of followers on Twitter, millions watching online, and tens of thousands of spectators following them to in-person tournaments. 

Team Liquid's Valorant roster is one of the game's most popular and talented teams.

The best esports teams are recruited to be a part of organizations and have several teams that specialize in their respective video games but operate under the same name. Examples of these include Cloud9, NRG, TSM, Optic Gaming, and Fnatic.

Some of the major esports organisations: well-established ones and upcomers alike.

Leagues and Tournaments:
Esports teams which can be free agent teams or representing an organisation compete in leagues which have regular seasons and championship events, often international. A great example of this, which has remained popular for over a decade is the League Championship Series or LCS for League of Legends.

These are the people who build and develop their games and subsequently own all rights surrounding them. This means that they have rights around where the game is played, who can host video game tournaments, and more. Examples include Valve who owns CS:GO and Riot Games who own League of Legends and VALORANT.

Other Important Entities:
These are essential to the esports industry and also benefit from it. They can be divided into:

  • Platforms and Infrastructure: These include tournament platforms like Battlefy and communication tools such as TeamSpeak and Discord which make esports easier to plan and perform in.
  • Livestreaming Resources: These are live streaming platforms which include highlights, old VODs, and analytics which can be monetised by streamers. In particular, Twitch is one of the most popular streaming sites for esports. It was acquired by Amazon in 2014 for $970 million and reached close to 5 billion total hours streamed in 2016.
  • Betting and Item Marketplaces: Esports gambling, fantasy leagues (with pro-esports athletes), and item marketplaces for in-game customization have grown significantly in the last several years. Recently marketplaces have also started selling NFTs-  a good example of a marketplace which does sells skins, game items, as well as NFTS is dMarket.
  • Aspiring Pro Gamer and Fan Resources: This could be everything ranging from news sources, industry statistics tracking, coaching, and skill improvement tools for professional and casual players. Websites like Game Rant and PC Gamer help keep people up to date with the latest gaming industry news. Sites like offer coaching sessions from top professionals in the game to those wanting to improve. 

Data in Esports:

Like any other industry, data can be used to significantly enrich and improve esports by helping with developing applications and systems which can benefit the gaming ecosystem. Data is vital to every aspect of the esports ecosystem. Whether it happens to be streaming analytics, player statistics, or other tools and platforms, esports can’t function without data. Data directly economically benefits the market and helps its growth. Some of the ways it does so includes:

Statistics tracking for players: 
There are multiple platforms online, free and paid, that allow players to know details of their favourite games, which were traditionally quite difficult to gather and visualize. They can help players make better decisions by understanding their mistakes, see their performance trends over time, and see where they stand compared to other players or even professionals. gives you statistics for Valorant such as headshot %, win rate, and your top agents.

These tools work similarly to typical digital dashboards that you can find in the day-to-day operation of any leading company performing basic business intelligence. Data is obtained from one or more sources (in this case from all video game servers) and through the use of a series of data processing and model development mechanisms, visualisations are generated in order to retrieve insights for better decision-making in the next games. The result is that players can improve their performance which in turn benefits the competitive scene and generates more hype.

For audiences:
Data visualisation has become key to enhancing viewer experience during live broadcasts as it allows inexperienced participants to follow the game.  

Visualise all kinds of data in-game such as brackets, statistics, and gameplay.

Data is shown on the screen in different tables and graphics during the broadcast, and it is possible to observe in real-time how the most relevant metrics fluctuate during competitive matches. You can also do an analysis and breakdown of good plays from a particular match which can help all viewers understand the game better.

Tournament schedules and information:
This data can help keep track of tournaments happening, the teams and players participating in them, prize pools, dates for matches, registration details, and past events, among others. 

Websites like let you keep track of tournament matches, players participating, schedules, and previous matchups among other things.

The bot system:
Bots are simple forms of AI that simulate the movements and actions of a human player. These virtual players are used to help new players to get up to speed with the mechanics of the game before facing other more experienced players or as a warm-up or practicing tool for more experienced players.

Bots in the practice range can help improve your aim significantly.

The reporting system:
This is a tool that penalizes players for cheating, toxicity, and other actions which negatively impact a game based on historical in-game data collected. If a player receives a high number of reports from others, or the system counts several leaves from the game, they will be automatically banned from the system and prevented from being able to play for some time. ML models are applied which will increase this “punishment time” if the player persists with their bad behaviour.

ML reporting systems help keep the toxicity levels of communities low.

Revenue in Esports

Revenue in esports flow through various channels. The most well-known is revenue related to leagues and tournaments such as prize money and entry fees. Other revenue streams include:

  • Franchising:
    In franchised leagues, the franchiser- in this case, the game publisher- offers a select number of available spots. Each spot in a league comes with a certain price tag. After buying into a franchised league, a franchisee will earn the perks of being a permanent member. Following a regular season of match-ups, points are tallied up to generate a bracket for a final post-season battle to determine the champion. Activision Blizzard started the Overwatch League in 2018, after selling 12 franchise slots in 2017 heading into the inaugural season — with franchise fees reported to be $20 million. Riot Games sold 10 franchise slots for its North American League of Legends Championship Series in 2017 for $10 million to existing teams and $13 million for new teams.
  • Media and broadcasting rights:
    Broadcast media rights have become a major part of revenue generation for major esports leagues and titles as they look to create a sustainable ecosystem and revenue model that will provide a substantial return on their investment. Before Activision Blizzard’s franchise Overwatch League started, Twitch reportedly paid $90 million to stream the first two seasons of the league.
The streaming rights of the inaugural season of the Overwatch League were bought by Twitch for $90 million.
  • Advertising:
    Marketers are hoping to reach the throngs of fans who like to tune in live as professional gamers battle each other in their favorite game, be it League of Legends, Overwatch or others. In 2019, 30.3 million people in the United States will watch an esports event at least once a month, a more than 18 percent increase over last year. Esports digital advertising in the United States generated a revenue of $175 million in 2019. What is more, the figure is expected to further grow and reach $226 million by 2021.
  • Sponsorships:
    In 2019, out of the total esports revenue of $1.1 billion, sponsorships contributed $667 million in revenue, which was the largest chunk. Revenue from esports sponsorship is estimated to reach almost $600 million globally by 2023. ESL’s ongoing 20-year partnership with Intel was renewed again. Commencing in 2022, both entities have committed to investing $100 million in esports between 2022-2025.
  • Tickets:
    At just over $100 million in revenue in 2018, ticket sales don’t occupy the same role that they do in traditional sports, especially after the pandemic when virtual and free broadcasting of tournaments gained traction.
  • Merchandising and partnerships:
    Beyond tickets, esports organizations and streamers have made a business of selling merchandise such as t-shirts, jerseys, and even special editions of gaming peripherals. Logitech introduced the new PRO Series Shroud Edition, a suite of Logitech G’s most advanced gaming peripherals they launched in collaboration with Michael “shroud” Grzesiek who is one of the most beloved streamers who is known for his excellent aim. Shroud’s extensive fanbase would definitely be among those who would be interested in these peripherals.
Shroud and Logitech G launched a series of gaming peripherals in collaboration with each other.

The Future

The esports industry’s global market revenue was forecast to grow to as much as $1.62 billion by 2024. Some of the trends we are already seeing and can look forward to include:

Growth of mobile esports:
Mobile phones are becoming increasingly cheaper and technologically advanced. Mobile games have some of the lowest barriers of entry when it comes to gaming and this has captured millions of esports fans around the globe. Most people have smartphones, and mobile games typically have low hardware requirements, helping mobile esports flourish. In 2020, the global mobile gaming content market was worth $121.1 billion and is projected to reach $169.7 billion in 2025 with Asia generating the most revenues in the segment.  As of August 2021, there were 5.3 billion mobile gamers around the world, with Asia accounting for over 1.29 billion mobile gaming users– more than 48 percent of the global mobile gaming audience.

The access to good quality internet has also significantly increased over the last years and has made mobile esports play more stable and viable. With over $21.9 billion in gross revenues, RPG games were the top mobile gaming app genre worldwide in 2020, growing 19 percent compared to the previous year. Strategy apps were ranked second with a global gross revenue of $15.1 billion during the measured period.

Free Fire and PUBG Mobile are among the battle royale genres’ most popular games available on mobile. It’s no coincidence that these titles are extremely popular in emerging markets and the esports scene for these games is worth several million dollars. PUBG Mobile’s clone, BGMI, has proved extremely popular in India. Four months after the release of the game, BGMI has acquired $7 million via in-app spending. The title has been downloaded over 50 million times on the Google Play Store.

Blockchain and NFTs:
Teams and organisations are trying to find ways to directly monetise their fanbase and are looking at blockchain technology and NFTs to achieve this goal. Esports fans are already used to buying digital goods such as skins, in-game currencies, and the like, and are also more accepting of new technology. Unlike normal NFTs, esport NFTs focus on innovating loyalty amidst their fanbase by creating exclusivity. Fans can earn digital rewards on the blockchain when they engage with an organization’s content or buy NFT artwork of the team or players. These are tradable and can increase in value over time. Initial exclusive fan tokens can also make raising investments easier for esports organisations. In July 2021, European esports juggernaut OG Esports revealed that it was going to enter the NFT fray and the organization was able to rake in a cool $1 million via the sale of just three digital artwork collections, putting them just behind Team Liquid on the esports earnings leaderboard.

Esports betting:
The digital nature of esports puts it in a unique position in the betting space. Every in-game action and movement can be captured as data points from the game’s servers. The global esports betting market size is expected to reach $13.05 billion by 2025, from $7983.2 million in 2019. The number of esports events one can bet on is also growing exponentially, from 3,000 events available in July 2019 to over 50,000 events in July 2020.

The main problem with esports betting when compared to normal sports betting is latency. To be able to create a real-time betting experience, real-time data directly from the server is essential. If someone offers odds or streams faster than the esports video feeds, it could lead to the entire system collapsing. Another big issue the industry faces is integrity. Some betting providers haven’t sought the best gambling licenses and others have been banned by governments in different countries.

Integration of esports into education:
Several universities around the world have realized that esports is a viable career option and have started offering degrees which specialise in the field. Some of these include:

  • The University of Portsmouth offers an Esports Coaching & Performance degree and has partnered with the International Federation of Esports Coaches in order to train the next generation of esports coaches.
  • The Confetti Institute of Creative Technologies, part of Nottingham Trent University, offers a BSc (Hons) degree in esports production.
  • Shenandoah University offers a Bachelor of Business Administration Concentration in Esports Management which prepares you to be a leader in the field of esports management by providing a robust business background with a focus on the business of esports. 

There are also scholarships available for esports players. Recently, the Ontario Government launched a $1m CAD scholarship program for students enrolled in esports and other industry-related programmes.

Esport organisations sponsoring technology platforms:
Another way esports organisations have found to bolster their revenue and also gain better metrics about how their players are performing are the acquisition of technology companies working with esports data. A good example of this is TSM, whose parent company Swift Media Entertainment acquired esports coaching and analytics company Blitz. Similarly, T1 invested in the esports analytics startup Mobalytics in 2020. In addition to acquiring new businesses, Swift Media Entertainment also incubates its own ventures, such as the talent agency ICON.

Content Expansions:
Release of content related to video games in other forms of media can greatly benefit the game and publisher. Riot Games is probably the best at doing this, with their various releases centered around their IPs. 

For their game VALORANT, which was designed to be an esport, they have a year-long group of tournaments called the Champions Tour for which they’re constantly releasing content. Whether its videos featuring individual agents from the game, interviews with professional teams and players, or just really cool music videos which generate hype for the game, Riot does a great job of building interest in the game amidst a wide group of people, including those who might not follow the esports scene.

Another example of using media to generate interest in esports which also sets an example for similar future IPs is Arcane, a show released on Netflix which is based off of characters from League of Legends.

“Arcane” is bringing new fans to the League of Legends IP while also reigniting the passions of its longtime followers, serving a uniquely wide audience and expanding League of Legends’ cultural impact. Riot Games also promoted it in their other games like VALORANT by giving players free in-game items as well as releasing a new weapon skin. They also released skins for characters from the show in Fortnite, another popular game.

Outside of Netflix, the series is also a hit in League of Legends, with champions that feature in the show getting a significant boost in pick rate since Arcane launched. The sisters Vi and Jinx, who take up a substantial amount of Arcane’s screen time, saw a significant uptick in their pick rates.

As you can see, esports is an industry with an almost explosive growth trajectory. Whether you’re a professional player, a team owner, media partner, or casual spectator, the opportunities for success and profit are both numerous and significant. By obtaining and analysing data, you will find it easier to find success in your goals.

At Gameopedia, we work with clients on custom requests and can provide in-depth data on any subject related to gaming and esports. Reach out to us to get access to esports data that can empower you to new heights.

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Digitisation: How it’s Changing the Landscape of Video Games

Until recently, the most common method to get a video game you wanted to play was to buy a physical copy of it. However, things have been changing- digital sales of games have overtaken retail games sales. Now, as well as in the future, the digitisation of video games is both the meta as well as the future of gaming. Analysts have estimated that video game revenue will come from almost entirely digital sources as early as 2022.

This can be mainly attributed to digital distribution platforms such as Steam for PC games, or online stores for consoles. Let’s take Steam for instance. It hosts thousands of games from publishers ranging from giants like Bethesda and BioWare, to small indie developers. Not only does it have a variety of digital games though, it also offers regular sales and special events where any game publisher can be sure of selling a large number of copies of a game. 

Digitisation of video games
Steam sales are an excellent time to grab those games you covet at insane prices. Source: Donklelephant

Any good e-retail stores do the below things excellently:
– It provides customers with a great deal of choice, and lets them buy and play these games almost instantly.

– It personalizes the product recommendations to its users based on their preferences and prior purchases.
– It incentivizes them with amazing discounts as well as in-platform rewards.
– It promotes engagement with features like game badges and achievements, friend lists, chat, and more.


Apart from benefits for customers, retailers also see the advantages of going digital. They save a significant amount on overhead costs, as well as worrying about unsold or damaged merchandise. Games reaching their target audience has improved significantly as a result of digitisation. The increased access people have to fast internet speeds has widened audiences across new demographics around the globe.

Finally, in the last year and half as a result of the pandemic, gaming as an industry has surged to unprecedented heights. For example, Sony’s fiscal quarter for 2020 began in April as the lockdowns were being implemented globally. Their customers, suddenly house-bound, caused digital sales to make up an astounding 74% of total sales for that quarter, a huge rise from the 59 percent of the previous year. 

Statistic: Digital download ratio of Sony PlayStation gaming software unit sales worldwide from fiscal 1st quarter 2019 to 1st quarter 2021 | Statista
Source: Statista

Advantages of Digitisation

Digitisation comes with a lot of advantages, which we go into below:

– Convenience and ease of access: If you wanted a game ten to fifteen years ago, you would have to visit a physical store, find a copy of the game, and buy it. There were several possible problems, ranging from damaged discs to the game simply being out of stock, as well as the time taken to track down and buy the game. It is also less convenient to store and transport these discs- this is an added cost to the retailer. In today’s digital era, digital games can be bought online by customers with just a few clicks. These platforms also hold a huge variety of games, far more than most physical stores can stock. Further, customers can download and install these games across multiple setups and devices, since they’re tied to an account.

– Personalization: Keeping track of what your customers are buying and playing from your online store is made considerably easier by digitisation. By understanding their preferences and interests, e-retailers can recommend games which are personalized to their customers’ interests.

– A continuously improving game experience: Developers and publishers can gain analytical data about how players engage and interact with their games and also use data tools like sentiment analysis. This helps them to continuously improve and fine-tune their products, ensuring their customers keep getting a better experience going forward.

– Lower costs for customers and retailers alike: E-retailers save a great deal of money by not having to invest in physical stores, cutting out the middlemen, and not having to worry about damaged merchandise, and these cost savings are transferred to the end user. As a result, customers often get great discounts and offers on platforms like Steam during holiday sales and promotions, and even free games on platforms like GoG and Epic Games.

Disadvantages of Digitisation:

It isn’t all positive however- like any industrial transition, digitisation has its costs. Let’s take a look at them:

– Games disappearing forever: If a game is very old, it might not have a digital version of it available. Once taken down from stores, it might disappear forever. An example of this is SimsRefinery- it was lost for decades until someone ran across a floppy disk of the game and made a digital copy of it. Only the existence of a physical copy made its rediscovery possible. This risk also applies to indie games- most of them exist only digitally and if these are removed from e-retail stores, it can lead to them disappearing.

– Data security and protection: As a result of digitisation, a customers’ personal and financial details are often if not always linked with their store accounts, which leaves them vulnerable to data breaches. Whether it is a company accidentally publishing customer details or malicious attacks by hackers, one’s details stored online are always vulnerable to theft or exposure. Companies need to continuously update and upgrade their data security measures to ensure their customer data is safe.

– Closed Platform monopolies: Something to be wary about is the rise of e-shop monopolies on closed platforms. Less competition results in increased prices and stagnant online shopping experiences. Digitisation increases the likelihood of consumers shopping at a platform’s exclusive online store, resulting in higher costs for consumers and publishers alike.

– Licensing concerns, accessibility, and ownership: Traditionally, when an individual buys a physical game, they assume they own that copy and have access to it forever. This works well if you go and purchase a physical disc for example, and gives you a sense of control and ownership. However, when you grab a digital version, you’re really only buying the licence to play it, and this could lead to you losing access to it if the game is removed from the store for some reason. In fact, several major publishers state in their terms of service that if a game isn’t available on their digital platform anymore, you won’t be able to download it again, even if you’d already paid for it.

– The demise of the preowned games market: Games can be expensive, whether they are physical or digital. Buying new copies of them can be hard for quite a few gamers. A way they circumvent this entry barrier to gaming is by buying used physical copies. Several industries such as cars, furniture, electronics, and the like have a thriving pre-owned market and video games are no different. Stores like GameStop have made an industry of reselling used games. However, as a result of digitisation, the preowned games market is heading for its demise as most digital distribution platforms prevent reselling. GameStop closed more than a thousand stores by the end of their fiscal year of 2020, thanks to reduced business and debt. Video games are harder to buy now for a large demographic, which creates a barrier to accessibility.

Trends that Push the Digitisation of Games:

Despite the disadvantages, the gaming industry has been steadily moving towards digitisation for several years now, across multiple gaming platforms. This is a result of certain factors of which we go into detail below:

Shifting game revenue business models: While in the past, the key focus for game retailers and publishers was the number of copies sold, revenue models are evolving across gaming platforms. The free-to-play model lets players play games for no initial charge, introducing monetization at later stages in a variety of ways. These include paying for an ad-free version, buying in-game upgrades and cosmetics, unlocking new areas and characters, and several more. Another model gaining popularity is gaming as a service (GaaS). Similar to how companies provide software as a service (SaaS), GaaS is a subscription-based on-demand service which enables gamers to play titles on hosting servers of video game publishers. Combined with monetizing options like the aforementioned ones, GaaS can help extend the longevity of a video game’s popularity. GaaS also pushes digitisation greatly because the games using it as a revenue model are predominantly digital.

Digital-only console variants: Sony has two variants of their flagship console line, the PlayStation 5. One of these comes with an Ultra HD Blu-ray disc drive and the second runs purely digital games. Their major competitor, the Xbox consoles from Microsoft, also released an All-Digital Edition for the Xbox One S and is expected to launch a similar model for their new Xbox Series X. These variants are a way to ease their customers into a digital future and also improve sales for their game subscription services (PlayStation Now and Xbox Game Pass.)

PS5 digital version
Are digital-only consoles the future of console gaming? Source: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Cloud gaming: Gamers can now directly stream games from the cloud, saving them from having to invest in high end hardware or download huge files. People who don’t have a console or a decent gaming PC can find it difficult to game for entertainment. However, with a rise in access to fast internet, streaming games from the cloud can become a reality in the next few years and already is a major area of focus for several tech giants like Facebook’s Facebook Gaming, Google’s Stadia, and Microsoft’s Xbox Cloud Gaming.

The rise of esports: Esports is estimated to have an annual growth rate of about 10.4% by 2023. Several hundreds of millions of people watch it both casually and hardcore. It had a YoY growth rate of 11.7 percent by February 2020. As a result of the Covid 19 lockdowns, 889 billion minutes of gaming tournaments have been viewed on Twitch, a massive 35% increase from 2019’s 660 billion minutes. Similar popularity which sports leagues and franchises like the NBA and EPL enjoy is seen amidst esports enthusiasts now. Good examples of this are fans buying their favorite team’s merchandise, as well as huge companies sponsoring and collaborating with esport teams and game studios during tournaments. On older platforms like television, as a result of the pandemic, the time slots reserved for cancelled sports events were filled with esports tournaments instead. The games these tournaments are hosted for are predominantly digital releases and have led to the e-sports industry being valued as a multi-billion dollar industry, further promoting digitisation.

Communities plus streaming and creation tools: On YouTube, after music, game videos account for the most videos as well as views on the platform. 

Playing digital games
Being a streamer is an increasingly lucrative proposition. Source: Shutterstock

The time spent by people watching game video content has increased exponentially, especially with streaming services like YouTube Gaming and Twitch. A lot of these games are primarily digital releases. The popularity of this content causes digitisation to shoot up. Reaching people is also easier as a result of tools enabling single-click live streaming, social platforms integrating live video content, and features like Instagram reels which let creators interact with their audiences anytime, anywhere. 


There is no doubt that the future of video games is entering a digital era. The convenience, cost savings, and reach of digital games far outweighs the cons for game makers and consumers alike, plus there are several things publishers can do to improve digital game ownership such as timed refunds, trading, and publishing retro releases on their e-stores, to name a few. With the two major consoles- Xbox and Playstation- both releasing digital-only variants of their consoles which are cheaper, console gamers will be able to push digitisation even further. Developers and publishers are looking to cut down on middlemen and overheads to increase their profits by not depending on retailers to sell their products. For example, Capcom reported how digital sales significantly improved their company’s profits by removing retailers from the sales journey.

It appears to be only a matter of time until CDs and cartridges join the obsolescence of floppy disks and the like. As the gaming industry enters a new age, game companies must face questions regarding preserving past games, digital exclusives, and more, as well as come up with a long-term plan to deal with the shift to digital sales. Promoting cross-platform play and saves will also be essential as it enables users to jump between different devices. CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a great example of this. They offered the game for free on PC if it was owned on a console and made cloud save transfers possible between platforms. 

At this juncture, it isn’t a question of whether digitisation of video games is happening, it’s how it impacts the gaming industry as a whole. To be able to stand out amidst the rising competition, e-retailers must ensure their product pages are accurate and well-optimised, both of which require high quality game metadata. They need to be able to boost their discoverability and keep their customers loyal. Reach out to us for data covering over 180,000 games, spanning 200 platforms across four continents.

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