John Poelking
John Poelking is a Gaming Analyst at Mintel. His passion for live entertainment, movies, television, video games, technology and travel informs his sector knowledge.

When everyone is told to stay inside as much as they possibly can, at-home entertainment options become the saving grace from crippling boredom. It’s a time to finally watch The Wire or see a few movies from the AFI “100 Greatest Movies of All Time” list. Beyond movies and TV lies a burgeoning area of media and entertainment that has been quickly reaching a more mainstream audience over the last five years: gaming.

The gaming audience is only going to grow as people spend more time at home over the next few months. A report from Verizon showed that web traffic related to video game usage during peak hours was up 75% over the past week, compared to an increase of 12% for video streaming and flattening for social media. Given these factors, it’s important to understand where this came from, why it’s strengthening during this crisis and where it will go over the next few months.

How gaming grew

Before COVID-19 was a household term, Mintel research on 2020 gaming trends shows that the share of adults who play video games grew from 59% in 2018 to 71% at the end of 2019. Mobile gaming has driven a lot of this growth, but no matter what type of device they play on, players are significantly more likely to play at-home than on-the-go.

Dedicated console and computer gamers who play to compete or socialize have historically driven engagement within the gaming community. However, access to high-quality free games has expanded the reach of the market in the past few years. The perceptions of free-to-play games have improved drastically over the course of 2019, which has made gaming more accessible to a wider array of audiences.

Better access has made gaming more competitive with other forms of entertainment. According to Mintel research on attitudes toward gaming in the US, more than two in five gamers say they like playing games more than watching TV and more than a third like it more than listening to music. Gaming is a more essential part of players’ lives, which puts it in a prime position to grow its influence in the home.

Why it’s strengthening

Social distancing keeps people in their homes for extended periods of time, but doesn’t take away the need to connect to others. More than any other form of digital medium, gaming has the built-in infrastructure to support large-scale online socialization. One-quarter of gamers play video games to socialize with others. As live events shutter around the country, people have turned to gaming to connect with others in as close to a live experience as they can possibly get. This motivation has also helped the game viewing platforms, with Twitch, YouTube and Steam all seeing upticks in viewership over the last week. New gamers are participating in the conversation as a way of socializing.

People will continue to flock to their streaming music and video services for comfortable entertainment, but nearly two-thirds of gamers play video games to relax. Interactive entertainment can be peaceful and sedative in the same way that reading or listening to music can. In particular, levels-based puzzle games will be important to keeping casual gamers engaged and relaxed during sometimes chaotic times. On a larger scale, family games such as the forthcoming Animal Crossing: New Horizons will give people a chance to explore vast virtual worlds without worrying about competitions. Gamers want to spend more time in the few games they play, which has only deepened engagement as their outside options have limited.

Where it’s going

As the implications of COVID-19 continue to unfurl, consumers will continue to be encouraged to keep their distance from others and stay indoors. Gaming satisfies the social pacification that many consumers seek from their entertainment in stressful situations. While people will do their best to pick up their routines as other options open up, the share of gamers will likely continue to increase as new audiences find the games that make them happy in an increasingly diverse gaming market. COVID-19 may not last forever, but people will remember how video games made them feel at a particularly tumultuous time in their lives for years to come.

What brands can do

There is no silver bullet solution for all brands when considering how to engage the gaming community. However, brands should follow some of these guidelines to effectively interact with the growing number of gamers in this critical time:

Expand opportunities: Partner with developers, publishers and gaming content platforms to extend interactions surrounding the most popular games. Utilize new and old releases to deepen dedicated gamer’s relationships with their favorite franchises now that they have more time to play.

Promote connection: Twitch, Discord, Steam and Caffeine are just a few of the platforms where people create conversations around gaming content. Players will look to find meaningful connections with other gamers, making these platforms essential to staying social even while isolated.

Consider the new gamer: Existing dedicated gamers will spend more time playing, but new players have started to dip their toes in the gaming waters. Brands need to consider how they can reach non-traditional gaming audiences outside of the established hardcore gamers that tend to dominate the gaming conversation. Opportunities for new gamers are expanding as the gaming options diversify, opening the door for non-gaming brands to reach their target audience through a new medium.