Almost every day, you can find Ruby Valenzuela playing “NBA 2K” on her PlayStation 4, streaming her gameplay online for a small audience of people all over the country whom she’s met via streaming service Twitch.
The 30-year-old Upland resident says she’s ready for an upgrade this holiday season.
Microsoft released its Xbox Series X and its digital-only Xbox Series S on Nov. 10 and Sony will release its equivalent PlayStation 5 and PlayStation 5 digital edition on Nov. 12.
Valenzuela wants to get a PlayStation 5 because she finds the Xbox controllers too big, but there’s another reason and it comes down to those same people she’s met online. They’re on PlayStation, too.
“That’s where all my friends are,” she said. “It’s the whole community.”
Fans are clamoring for those consoles not just for how they improve on the previous generation, but also for amusement and the ability to connect with others during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
What to expect
This next generation of consoles brings technical refinements and improvements all around, said Brad Gallaway, editor of video game review website GameCritics.com.
While the graphics will be better, “they’re not going to be the giant steps forward that we’ve seen with each generation,” Gallaway said.
However, the new consoles will boast faster load times. Gallaway said it’s really important to be able to get people people in and out of games quickly because if they’re waiting a long time for the game to load, they might check social media or do something else.
But features that were prevalent in previous console generations, such as motion control, radar control, voice controls and virtual reality, likely won’t figure prominently into this latest generation of consoles, said Ilya Brookwell, an assistant professor of media and cultural studies at UC Riverside. Manufacturers introduced them in an effort to be innovative but were received as gimmicky by consumers, he said.
“What you’re seeing in this generation is a return to form in a sense,” Brookwell said. “Everyone is talking about the controller on the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox and people are wanting to get back to the basics of a joystick-type game.”
The evolution of video game culture
Video game consoles were once on the fringes of popular culture and traditionally sold as toys on the shelves of big box stores such as Toys R Us and Sears, but our culture has changed significantly since then, according to Matthew Thomas Payne, an associate professor in the department of Film, Television and Theater at the University of Notre Dame who specializes in video game studies.
Things that were considered geeky in the ’70s and ’80s, such as playing Dungeons & Dragons, are now cool — from celebrity players to livestreamed campaigns.
Video games have followed a similar trajectory where they’re much more widely played and are central to pop culture, according to Payne.
Whereas in the past a video game might have needed some sort of tie-in with a movie for success, games are now the “central tentpoles” for transmedia properties, meaning other companies and brands benefit from their partnerships with the video games, according to Payne, such as Marvel’s crossover with “Fortnite.”
And the companies behind video game consoles no longer see their high-end, elaborate devices as being for kids only.
“Sony and Microsoft are very keen to pitch their consoles to an aging player demographic as well as those, potentially, who have never considered themselves to be gamers,” Payne said. “So you’ll see these more inclusive marketing strategies which will tend to match game producers’ interest in casting as wide a net as they can for would-be consumers.”
The importance of Twitch
Helping to cast that net is Twitch, an online streaming platform owned by Amazon that primarily focuses on video games.
Payne said its popular because people enjoy one-sided relationships with figures in media. He said people might not know their favorite sports star or TV character, but they feel like they do because they can watch them. The same is true with gamers on Twitch and their audiences, but with an added element: There’s a feedback loop.
“Someone can say something to the streamer and the streamer can respond in real time,” Payne said.
The most popular streamers on Twitch have millions of followers.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) even has a Twitch account, and in October streamed her gameplay of “Among Us” to encourage people to vote. Her stream peaked around 435,000 viewers that night.
The platform has become such a big deal that it’s become a consideration for the consoles manufacturers.
Twitch was still somewhat unknown when the last generation of consoles — the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One — came out, Gallaway said. He said Sony and Microsoft made some “half-steps” to have Twitch be part of the gaming experience on those devices, but the experience left a lot to be desired.
But now that Twitch has proven itself as a popular service, and now that companies see it as a way to get some organic public relations, expect it to figure much more prominently into this generation of consoles, Gallaway said.
“I think that we’re going to see really, really improved integration on all the consoles with social media whether that’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all of the streaming apps like Twitch,” he said.
Impacts of the pandemic
However, social media may be the only place some people can see the consoles in the immediate future.
Brookwell, the professor at UCR, said the manufacturers didn’t make nearly enough to meet the surging demand for entertainment and connection with others during the pandemic.
“It’s because they find in gaming the community that they need, that they perhaps can’t access anymore, given the pandemic and the lockdown,” he said.
Microsoft reported in an earnings call that its Game Pass service cracked 10 million users in April and among those subscribers there was a 130% increase in multiplayer engagement in March and April, according to a blog post from the head of Xbox.
And who could forget when everyone was playing “Animal Crossing” on the Nintendo Switch in the early months of the pandemic?
Christopher Boyd, an instructor at the Dale E. and Sarah Ann Fowler School of Engineering at Chapman University, said that when the new Sony and Microsoft consoles became available for preorder, “it shut down websites left and right.”
Valenzuela realized it was going to be really hard to pick up a PlayStation 5 after learning that they would only be available online instead of in stores on launch day this year. If she can’t get one in a few weeks, she may opt for a Xbox instead.
“I’m just going to have to wait, I guess, until it’s possible,” she said. “I have the money, I just don’t have the option.”
On the flip side, Boyd said, is that sales could still be impacted somewhat because many people are struggling with jobs and may not have the disposable income in order to be able to purchase one of the consoles for now.
Gallaway noted that the payment plan that’s available for the Xbox may have been a response to that.
“Whoever was in the Microsoft PR department really hit the nail over the head here because with people being out of work, and with coronavirus cutting down people’s income potential and people already going through their savings trying to get by with what’s been going on, they’re just isn’t a lot of money to go for games,”Gallaway said.