2021 Year-in-Review: Biggest Trends in Gaming, Tech & Media

2021 was defined by a handful of major trends in gaming, technology and media, many of them centered around workplaces, culture and emerging technologies that even those involved might not fully understand.

It was another year of buzzwords within tech, as often happens. Cryptocurrency. Blockchain. Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs). Meme Stocks. Metaverse. Within gaming, people spoke out against corporate toxicity and harassment. Mobile’s growth trajectory withstood as other areas cooled from the peaks of quarantine times, especially amidst supply concerns for hardware. For social media, the infamous Facebook Files, TikTok’s dominance and Twitter’s CEO departure hit the headlines.

Time to dig into six of the most significant trends of 2021. Fair warning, it’s not all good!

Workplace Culture & Whistleblowing

This story is a holdover from my 2020 list, and it’s only gained in relevancy this past year. More people were louder than ever on toxic cultures in the workplace or poor actions by executives, especially at big gaming publishers and social media giants. Over the summer, both Ubisoft and Activision Blizzard faced lawsuits related to discrimination and institutional harassment. Employees banded together to fight back against executives, to varying degrees of success.

Then there’s Facebook, now Meta, which saw a September leak reveal its self-realization of the harm it can cause younger users and its contributions to extremist activities worldwide. Not to mention the potential for fake research and incorrect information across its platforms. This is all thanks to whistleblower Frances Haugen and media investigations.

2021 did see some bright spots in these areas. Vodeo Games was the first gaming company in North America to formally unionize in December. Just recently, an IGN article detailed slightly improving conditions at Bungie while the Washington Post reported Riot Games must pay $100 million to settle a 2018 discrimination lawsuit. Toxicity at work and a “boys club” mentality is still prevalent in many industries. The hope is the more people talk about it, the more bad actors depart and these companies clean up their acts.

GameStop & Popularity of Meme Stocks

In a perfect swirl of internet camaraderie, corporate resistance and capitalist tendencies, 2021 became the year of the “meme stock” highlighted by names like GameStop and AMC Entertainment. At one point in January, GameStop closed at almost $350 per share. It opened the year under 20 bucks.

The frenzied swings of stocks like these are mainly due to online communities, especially Reddit’s WallStreetBets, forming narratives and collectively pushing them to historic highs. They tend to target securities with major short interest, which means a lot of other people were betting their prices would decline, to cause a massive upsurge in buying which skyrockets a stock’s intermittent value.

It’s the type of trend amplified these days when everyone is online, with entire sub-sections of the Web dedicated to chest-puffing against retail investors and major investment firms. A super curious phenomenon, especially when the underlying companies aren’t changing in value. It’s all about the market’s short-term perception. We couldn’t go a few days at times in 2021 without hearing about meme stocks, even from people who aren’t usually interested in social media or digital communities.

The Unavoidable Blockchain, Cryptocurrency, NFTs & Play-to-Earn

Apologies. I had to bring it up. It’s everywhere nowadays in tech, impossible to avoid plus impregnable for even those well-versed in the sector.

And that’s the undying realm that is blockchain, crypto and NFTs. Terms that you’ve probably heard numerous times now, whether via online posts or bros at a dinner table, and still find them wholly impenetrable. That’s because they are, plus it’s only getting worse.

These topics aren’t necessarily new at all. And I won’t dig into the specifics, that information is out there. Technologies surrounding digital ownership of goods, alternative forms of currency and decentralized systems have existed for years. It’s just the loudest right now. That’s primarily because of the astronomic popularity of NFTs, which are mainly used to make (or even launder) money under the guise of owning rights to a digital image.

Environmental impact, regulatory ramifications and opportunities for theft take a backseat to profitability in these realms, especially as company management teams start thinking of ways to capitalize and integrate into their products. Within gaming, that’s where areas like “Play-to-Earn” pop up in a ploy to entice people to play for the sake of generating money as opposed to leisure. Ubisoft introduced Quartz within its floundering Ghost Recon Breakpoint while developer GSC Game World tried, and failed, to incorporate NFTs in the forthcoming STALKER 2. This trend isn’t going anywhere, so I wager it could be a part of my 2022 predictions thread soon.

The Buzzword That Is The Metaverse

Every now and again, those at the top run a term into the ground to where it feels old before it’s even realized. That’s how “Metaverse” felt in 2021, a somewhat nebulous term combining aspects of augmented spaces, virtual reality, video connectedness and low quality online avatars to create a digital world where people can exist alongside one another. Lately it’s used by various companies claiming each wants to build the singular place where people can get together virtually.

Shoot. Facebook even changed its name to Meta in an attempt to monopolize the term.

This metaverse is another concept that’s not necessarily brand new. Just that lately, corporations see a clear opportunity to monetize a fancy buzzword and layer it on top of their existing brand identity. The aforementioned Meta, Microsoft, Apple, Alibaba, Epic Games, Roblox, Niantic and plenty more are using this phrase to describe its virtual offerings.

But what the heck is a metaverse and which will be the “one” that works a la the OASIS from Ready Player One? Well, many experts (and writers like yours truly) don’t think it’s possible. The space is too fragmented, companies are inherently driven to differentiate services rather than collaborate and getting all users to agree on a single platform is impractical. If 2021 is any indication, there will be much smaller, less defined metaverses competing for our virtual selves.

Hardware Shortages, Supply Chain & Product Delays

The global semiconductor shortage that heightened in 2020 partly because of coronavirus shutdowns had the carry-on effect of slowing all sorts of consumer industries including consumer technology, video game hardware, mobile phones and automobiles. Anything that used a chipset was more expensive to build and took longer to distribute in 2021, leading to supply shortages everywhere.

A major result is this combination of low availability and launch delays. Using the example of gaming consoles, the latest generation of PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S were notoriously difficult to purchase this past year. When retailers did have inventory, it was short-lived and prone to scalping. Then there’s the console delays, including Valve’s Steam Deck and Panic’s Playdate handheld among others were pushed into next year.

Even so, there’s data showing resilience propped up by demand. Sony said PlayStation 5 shipments reached upwards of 13.3 million as of the quarter ending September. Sell-thru to consumers is higher than PlayStation 4. Nintendo Switch reached nearly 93 million sold lifetime, even as the company reduced its annual target for this fiscal year. Microsoft doesn’t share public figures, though anecdotally and from U.S. data, the Xbox Series S is more prevalent likely due to lower input costs. The NPD Group shows hardware sales up 20% in the U.S. through November 2021, even if compared to late console generation cycle the prior year. Unfortunately, many covering the chip industry think the supply chain issues will continue through 2022 and even beyond.

Mobile Driving Increased Global Games Industry Spending

Revenue numbers are in for the global games space, where overall value was up slightly in 2021 on a year-over-year basis. That’s attributable to gains in mobile and digital spending, while areas like console and personal computer (PC) dipped overall. Digital skew leads the charge as downloadable games plus additional content increased in traction and revenue generated.

According to Newzoo, worldwide video games industry value surpassed $180 billion in 2021. That’s up 1.4% since 2020, a durable figure that illustrates consistent spending on mobile experiences. Mobile as a category contributed $93 billion, showcasing 7% growth. Console was the next highest grouping, declining 7% to $50 billion. PC gaming reached $37 billion, down around 1% since 2020.

Overall, digital sources contributed 93% compared to 91% during 2020. Within console gaming, 77% was digital which is up from 72% prior year. Within mobile, Garena Free Fire led downloads with nearly 230 million. Subway Surfers and PUBG Mobile rounded out the Top 3, with 181 million and 172 million respectively. From a revenue standpoint, Honor of Kings, PUBG Mobile and Genshin Impact drove mobile sales.

On Twitter, Genshin Impact was the most-discussed title around the world followed by Final Fantasy XIV and Apex Legends. Looking at Google’s analytics, PopCat, FIFA 22 and Battlefield 2042 were the most searched. The top-selling games in 2021 for the U.S. as of November were topped by the two most recent Call of Duty titles, Black Ops Cold War and Vanguard in that order, followed by Madden NFL 22.

This recap of an eventful, and sometimes disheartening, year marks the first Year-in-Review post for 2021. Pop over to the megapost for more categories!

Sources: Christian Wiediger (Photo Credit), GamesIndustry.Biz, IGN, Marvin Meyer (Photo Credit), Meta Inc, Newzoo, Wall Street Journal (Photo Credit), Washington Post, Ubisoft.

-Dom

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