Pandemic driving digital game purchase behavior to new heights

Gamers are spending more on digital game purchases than ever before. It’s no surprise that digital has seen an uptick in recent years, but in 2020 as most people looked for entertainment indoors, a new game was only a click or two away. For many consumers, it’s hard to resist the temptation of instant gratification – well, as instant as your internet download bandwidth will permit.

In 2019, 71% of active gamers had purchased a game digitally over a three-month period, but that figure increased dramatically to 80% as of Q3 2020, according to Interpret’s New Media Measure®. That nine-percentage point uptick represents an additional 19 million gamers purchasing digitally (based on the ESA’s US gamer population of 214 million).

This trend has great significance for major video game publishers who are enjoying the healthier profit margins that digital game sales provide. Last summer, during its annual shareholders meeting, Japanese publisher Capcom explained that 80% of its game sales over the last year were digital, and they expect that figure to continue to rise. Similarly, in a call with investors last August, Grand Theft Auto publisher Take-Two noted that its digital sales had risen to 77% on current generation consoles. Sony, too, said that 74% of its game sales on PlayStation 4 were digital in August.

What’s interesting, however, is that the rise of digital hasn’t fully been at the expense of physical. The overall pie is, in fact, growing. Sony’s physical sales numbers last August stood at 23.7 million during that quarter, which was a slight increase year-over-year. Whether physical game sales can hold steady for the long-term is a bigger question mark, but there are still millions of gamers who prefer physical discs because they can be purchased more cheaply either used or on sale, and there’s no concern about ownership rights and what a digital purchase actually means for the buyer.

If Sony and Microsoft had launched the PS5 and Xbox Series X without physical disc drives as their sole SKUs, the fate of physical games may have been in doubt, but gamers continue to have a choice. And for many, physical discs are still preferable.