2020 Year-in-Review: Five Most Impressive Gaming Companies

Behind all the numbers and corporate speak, companies are people. And it’s those people that worked hard to design, create, polish, quality check, publish and distribute hardware, games, products and services during a tumultuous year that was 2020.

This category is meant to celebrate the teams of hard-working folks at companies with the most impressive lineups or multitude of successes. Later categories will focus on smaller, indie studios and publishers. This is reserved for the stand-out performers, often publicly-traded. We’ll hit all segments of the industry with the Year-in-Review.

No time to waste, right into the awards!

Activision Blizzard, Inc (United States)

While I don’t always agree with its business practices or monetization strategies, there’s no denying the sheer output of Activision Blizzard during 2020. Between new ventures in owned franchises, integration across Call of Duty titles plus the reintroduction of beloved catalog titles, its teams delivered multiple launches amidst the work-from-home demand of the coronavirus pandemic.

The internal teams Treyarch Studios and Infinity Ward collaborating to integrate last year’s excellent Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and Warzone free-to-play battle royale with November’s Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War was a massive, if not ludicrous, undertaking. Then, put out continuous free updates with its seasonal content model, delivering new maps, weapons and a battle pass every few months. As of now, there’s both cross-play and cross-progression across these titles, nearly everything accessible to players on various platforms. The franchise overall reached $3 billion in net bookings during the 12 months ending December, proving upside of this adjusted business model.

Not to mention, finally, its Activision unit dug into the vaults of its storied IP library to produce Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2, a remade collection of two skating classics by Vicarious Visions, then a new entry in a long-running series: Toys for Bob’s Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time. Fans have been calling for the company to leverage its back catalog for a long time, so these decisions should satisfy.

Blizzard’s output has been notably lower the past couple years, with Overwatch 2 and Diablo IV in the pipeline. Yet it still released a new expansion in the World of Warcraft legacy called Shadowlands, a release that moved 3.7 million copies in a single day to briefly achieved the fastest-selling PC launch ever back in late November (before CD Projekt’s Cyberpunk 2077 broke its record shortly after). Blizzard’s even received positive early impressions for mobile game Diablo Immortal!

Oh, speaking of mobile. There’s King, one of the most consistent labels within the field. It was mainly about consistent output this year across all three sub-divisions of the American publisher, and its teams deserve a shout out for delivering on these tight deadlines.

Microsoft Corp (United States)

As you’ll see here and a bit later, it’s time to celebrate the people behind the start of a new generation. That’s the main reason why Microsoft and its Xbox staff members easily make the cut. Those who worked through a pandemic to design, engineer, produce, market and ultimately distribute the Xbox Series X|S family.

Project Scarlett, as it was once dubbed, had a formal reveal late in 2019 as the Xbox Series X, and then 2020 happened. Team Xbox had to shift to a more virtual campaign for rolling out, plus deal with the delay of its flagship title Halo: Infinite. They successfully completed this effort in November at the launch of not only the higher-end Series X but the entry level, digital-only Series S as well.

Even without something at the scope of Halo, Xbox platforms saw plenty of worthwhile games and allowed smaller projects to shine. Ori and the Will of the Wisps from Moon Studios is one of the year’s most exceptional. Obsidian Entertainment’s Grounded attracted 5 million players to date and introduced clever new ideas in accessibility. Microsoft Flight Simulator from Asobo Studio reinvigorated a beloved, dormant franchise. It was one of the highest-rated games of 2020, just recently surpassing 2 million players.

Gears Tactics, Call of the Sea, Battletoads, Tell Me Why and Wasteland 3 rounded out the year’s lineup of games on Xbox. Shoot, Microsoft even somehow nabbed the local console launch of Phantasy Star Online 2. While perhaps lacking in triple-A experiences, there was plenty to enjoy.

Shortly before the new consoles, it updated the Project xCloud branding to Xbox Cloud Gaming and launched a formal beta alongside Xbox Game Pass Ultimate in September. It’s now available across 22 countries, with at least four more planned in the future. It’s a compliment to the traditional delivery model, meant to propagate the idea of ecosystem and connection. And it’s a damn fine service from personal experience.

Then there’s the continued growth and appeal of Xbox Game Pass, which snagged a partnership with Electronic Arts’ EA Play membership service as a way to expand its catalog. Recent rumors point to the potential inclusion of Ubisoft games, too. At last count, Game Pass had 15 million paid subscribers, up from 10 million earlier in 2020.

Lastly, in perhaps the biggest news drop of the year for the company and even gaming overall, Microsoft announced the purchase of ZeniMax in September for $7.5 billion. This is the parent company of the historic Bethesda Softworks, home to a number of development teams behind long-running franchises like Fallout, DOOM, Elder Scrolls, Wolfenstein, Dishonored among others. The upside of these games being exclusive to Xbox platforms, or at least having content exclusive to them, is massive. Like, industry-changing massive.

Microsoft’s annual gaming revenue exceeded $12 billion for the first time ever as of its quarter ending in September. While 2020 was light in the major exclusive department, it did feature two new consoles, a major studio acquisition and an expansion of its services. It’s laying the foundation for the upcoming decade, heavily investing in ecosystem in a more holistic approach than competitors.

Nintendo Co Ltd (Japan)

Yep. Nintendo is back on the annual list. During a year where its flagship game ended up being an Animal Crossing, not necessarily the biggest of sellers historically, and competitors debuted shiny new consoles, the Japanese developer and publisher was consistent in sales, output and quirky innovation, leading to its Switch hybrid hitting multiple milestones as the year’s most sought after hardware.

Steadfastness and fun, that’s Nintendo.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons was the headline-grabber here in 2020. The cute, animated life simulator’s launch in March coincided with the start of quarantine, a somewhat bittersweet serendipity that led to it achieving the fastest-selling launch ever for a Switch title at 11 million copies in under two weeks. It exceeded the *lifetime* sales of all other games in the series within 11 days. Then 13 million in 6 weeks.

Since then, it’s moved over a staggering 26 million units to date, already making it the second best seller on Switch behind only Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (a game in itself that saw exceptional momentum last year). Beyond the sales stats, it’s the single Nintendo-published game that served as a virtual safe haven for people to meet and hang out while the pandemic kept them physically distant.

It wasn’t the only notable software from Nintendo during 2020, even if the schedule was lighter than past years on big exclusives. Paper Mario: The Origami King is one of the most joyful and heartfelt games of the year, even if overlooked by general consensus. Its Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity collaboration with Koei Tecmo was a surprise critical darling, a musou prequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Remakes of older titles like Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX and Pikmin 3 Deluxe strengthened its annual lineup.

Then there’s the celebration of Mario’s 35th anniversary, where Nintendo launched a bevy of products related to the plumber’s birthday. Super Mario 3D All-Stars brought three prior gen games to Switch, even if underwhelming in their lack of modernization. Free to download Super Mario Bros. 35 pitted almost three dozen players at a time in a sort of Mario Royale competition. Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit continues in the company’s tradition of innovation, as a live version of the cart-racer. Game & Watch: Super Mario Bros. was the next entry in the collectible type of physical consoles. While I don’t like how some of these are only available for a limited time where the end happens to coincide with Nintendo’s fiscal year end, seeing them acknowledge the anniversary with such fervor was welcome in a difficult year.

Of course there’s the story of how Switch hardware continued to sell gangbusters and set records along the way. It reached 68.3 million units in September, vaulting past Super NES, Xbox One and the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) all during 2020. It was the best-selling in the U.S. by units during the coveted November time slot at 1.3 million units, outpacing the shorter supply of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S. This marked a record 24 straight months atop the monthly hardware chart by retail unit sales.

All of this led to another stellar year for Nintendo, commercially and generally critically. Its financial situation hasn’t been this solid since 2009, measured by both revenue and operating profit. While it didn’t reveal much in the way of titles like the sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Metroid Prime 4 or Bayonetta 3 last year, as long as Switch is in supply and the team consistently produces quality releases in its own special way, it will likely be a repeat in 2021.

NVIDIA Corporation (United States)

As far as higher-end PC gaming goes, NVIDIA was the backbone of 2020.

Its recognition here stems from the introduction of its latest line of graphics cards, the GeForce RTX 3000 series, plus continued success of its GeForce Now streaming service and a monumental acquisition deal.

The difference in its RTX 3000 card series compared to prior generations is real-time ray-tracing, a fancy way of saying “really cool lighting” techniques that happen while playing which make light sources, reflections and shadows pop when implemented correctly.

I won’t get bogged down in the tech nitty gritty here, there are other sites for that. Suffice to say these graphics cards built on its new Ampere architecture set the standard for performance across the mid and top end of the market. The beefy RTX 3090 and 3080 GPUs debuted in September, then RTX 3070 started in October. December brought the more affordable RTX 3060 Ti.

Critical consensus during reviews was outstanding. The series was lauded for advancements in 4K resolution, Deep Learning Super Sampling (DLSS) to boost frame rate performance and general ray-tracing capabilities. The tough part unfortunately was supply to the market, no doubt impacted by manufacturer yield issues, availability of parts and the pandemic at large. Even with the staggered schedule, scalpers and bots were usually first to order leaving regular consumers either without cards or resorting to secondary sources. Good news is sky-high demand. The tough part is the company said stock will increase next year, though it may take a few months, and scalpers will still be there.

In another major launch for NVIDIA, it formally kicked off its public beta for game streaming service GeForce Now back in February across North America and Europe. It’s really cool tech from the sound of things, though I haven’t tried it myself. Supports cloud gaming on laptop, PC, Mac, SHIELD TV and even Android phones or tablets. What’s nice is it connects to existing library on certain storefronts, although certain publishers have blocked using it with their games. Once NVIDIA figures out incentive to get publishers on board and launch in more territories, it could very well be the ideal option for cloud gaming.

Beyond its latest set of graphics cards and streaming offering, NVIDIA’s RTX technology suite is pushing audio, recording and streaming advancements too. Its RTX Voice feature beta started in April 2020, a module used to improve sound quality when using one’s PC for calls. This was then replaced by Broadcast app during the Fall, which featured new functionality for noise removal and virtual background while streaming.

Oh. There’s also the groundbreaking deal where NVIDIA announced its intention to purchase ARM from SoftBank for $40 billion in cash and stock. ARM is a major player in processors and intelligent computing, which would lead to a combined entity pushing research into artificial intelligence and super-computing. It’s expected to close within the next year or so, though certain investors have speculated it might be blocked by regulators in the United Kingdom. If it does go through, it’s a significant deal within the tech and computing industries.

Back in September, NVIDIA said it set records for quarterly revenue and profits. Sales jumped 57% year-on-year. Its share price reflects the ongoing financial success, more than doubling in 2020. If the American graphics card and chip maker can ensure supply of its latest product suite and close on its ARM deal, 2021 could be another historic year.

Sony Corp (Japan)

Our final entry in the list of impressive companies in 2020 is none other than Sony. Of course. PlayStation 4 achieved new sales records. PlayStation 5 became a huge (quite literally), landmark tech product. Its laundry list of exciting new games offerings both book-ended a generation and set the stage for this future one, with advancements in narrative, performance and accessibility options. The gaming teams at Sony continue to set the industry benchmark for both hardware and software, and deserve recognition for doing all of this during one of the most difficult times in modern history.

The Japanese consumer tech conglomerate started the year with the reveal of the PlayStation 5 logo, then dove into more about its new generation box and its brand new DualSense controller throughout the year.

At the same time, PlayStation 4 continued its commercial success. The second best-selling home console ever maintained decent enough momentum in its final year, reaching nearly 114 million in units shipped as of October. Bolstered by third-party exclusives like Final Fantasy 7 Remake, Persona 5 Royal and Nioh 2 in addition to flagship first-party titles like The Last of Us Part II and Ghost of Tsushima alike. Many of which are mainstays on year-end award lists and, more importantly, internal teams like Naughty Dog worked to set a new gold standard for accessibility features.

Then comes November, the PlayStation 5 launch. It was a big one, literally and figuratively. Sony’s approach is more towards defining the new generation with a new form factor, revamped controller and select games solely for the latest box as opposed to the fully backwards compatible strategy of its main competitor. Admittedly Sony acknowledges that it can’t ignore the millions and millions of PS4 owners, so there are plenty of cross-gen games. Even if its messaging was murky.

Headlined by Insomniac Games’ Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Demon’s Souls from Bluepoint Games/Japan Studio, the PS5 launch lineup was smartly supplemented by joyful surprises like Asobi Team’s Astro’s Playroom and The Pathless by Giant Squid. As part of Sony’s shift towards cross-generational consistency, it also offered a suite of legacy games via the PlayStation Plus Collection to PS5 buyers.

This dedication to exclusive software and new feature sets plus a competitive price led to PS5 being the fastest-selling global launch in brand history, beating out its predecessor. Sony didn’t said by how much at the time. A recent report suggests that the first four weeks reached 3.4 million consoles shipped. (Unofficial for the time being.) Domestically in the States, NPD Group said PS5 achieved the highest launch sales of any console in tracked history during November as measured by both units and dollars, again besting the PS4.

While services like PlayStation Now are somewhat lagging and the future of its virtual reality program is up in the air, Sony’s late PS4 support and movement into the new generation with PS5 marked a transitional year during which it consistently delivered memorable experiences and solid sales results. Out of the five companies on the list, it probably has the most upside for 2021.

Here we are at the end of yet another 2020 Year-in-Review piece. Check back to the megapost for more. Be safe, all!

Sources: Company Investor & Media Sites, Digitimes, NPD Group.

-Dom

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