Call of Duty & Nintendo Top a Record Year for U.S. Game Sales in 2020

Alright, I might have lied. Can’t get rid of 2020 just yet.

That’s because industry tracking firm The NPD Group released its final batch of statistics for the U.S. market last year, and it’s a monumental one. Between the continued dominance of Nintendo, steadfastness of Activision’s multi-tiered Call of Duty franchise and the start of a new console generation, it turned out to be a record one for the domestic video games industry.

This past week’s release covered the highly-coveted holiday month of December, plus a report on full year figures. We’ll start with December then move into the broader 2020 as a whole, pulling back for context on a mostly forgettable year except for when it comes to gaming. I’ll add commentary and context in various spots.

A couple things to note. All of these statistics are solely for the U.S. market, and include those publishers that participate in NPD’s tracking. In particular, certain publishers exclude digital sales when it comes to software charts (Why? Well, that’s for another day.) There are three sub-categories, each of which has its own reporting: Content (Software, Add-On etc), Hardware and Accessories. We’ll go through them all, with links and sources at the end.

Bring on the numbers.

United States Games Industry Sales (November 29th, 2020 to January 2nd, 2021):

Overall, industry spending in December within the States reached a record high for a December month. Upwards of $7.7 billion, which is an increase of 25% since this time last year.

Driven by Nintendo Switch demand plus the first full month on market for PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S, spending on Hardware rose 38% to $1.35 billion. This is the best December for the sub-category since 2013, the start of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One generation, which totaled $1.37 billion.

This slight decline in early generation hardware contribution stems from supply constraints rather than lack of demand, naturally. When talking about Xbox Series X|S in particular, though I imagine it also applies to PlayStation 5, NPD Analyst Mat Piscatella said they “quickly sold every unit made. Just not enough stock to keep up with demand.”

Switch was the top-seller as measured by both units and dollars. This marks the 25th consecutive month where it’s led on unit sales, a staggering record for Nintendo. As I’ll write in a bit, this holiday push led its annual sales to a near record level. The manufacturer hasn’t shared anything publicly on specifics, I’d love to know unit sales to gauge how it compares historically.

In terms of the new generation, NPD didn’t share much in the way of specifics on December numbers alone. Rather, I’ll comment on annual hardware results a bit later, which really covers both November and December in aggregate.

Industry sales of software and add-ons within the Content segment reached $5.8 billion, up from $4.7 billion in December 2019. This impressive growth was driven by top-selling franchises likes Call of Duty, Animal Crossing, Madden and Assassin’s Creed plus a plethora of Nintendo-published titles, which accounted for half of the Top 20 list!

Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War continued the lead from its debut month of November, driving another year of commercial success as well. In an incredible run, Activision’s first-person military shooter has led every single December during the past decade except for one: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate in 2018.

Even during a shaky launch, Cyberpunk 2077 sold well as pent-up anticipation drove significant demand. The futuristic, open world RPG landed at #2 on the overall chart. And CD Projekt Red doesn’t even provide the digital share. I’m not sure digital would cause it to overtake the staggering levels of Call of Duty, though I’d surely love to know.

Ubisoft produced two games in the overall Top 10 during December. At third place is the consistent Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, which the publisher previously said was the best launch ever in the franchise. Then, open world action-adventure game Immortals Fenyx Rising kicked off at #9. As a debut for new IP during the busiest of months, this is a notable start (for a game I really enjoyed).

Lastly on the software side, just look at how many Nintendo Switch games are on the Top 20. Beyond Animal Crossing, like darn every Mario game on the platform is there plus Smash Bros., Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity and even Ring Fit Adventure sneaking in at #19. And that’s without even considering digital sales for any of them, a significant portion of the market by now. Clearly reveals just how high Nintendo’s attach rate is when people snag a new device. Which they didn’t plenty of this holiday season.

Before moving to the software chart itself, it’s briefly worth noting the final category of Accessories. This segment rose 15% year-on-year in December to $546 million. Driven by Gamepad spending, as Sony’s brand new DualSense Wireless Controller topped the monthly list.

Top-Selling Games of December 2020, U.S. (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  2. Cyberpunk 2077*
  3. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
  4. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales
  5. Madden NFL 21
  6. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  7. Mario Kart 8: Deluxe*
  8. NBA 2K21*
  9. Immortals Fenyx Rising
  10. Super Mario 3D All-Stars*
  11. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  12. Just Dance 2021
  13. Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity*
  14. FIFA 21
  15. New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe*
  16. Super Mario Odyssey*
  17. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild*
  18. Super Mario Party*
  19. Ring Fit Adventure
  20. Mortal Kombat 11

United States Games Industry Sales (2020):

Shifting into annual figures for the U.S., market, we’ll see similar trends within all three sales sub-categories especially at the top-end. Consumer spending across the games industry eclipsed a new yearly high during 2020, rising 27% to a whopping $56.9 billion. Driven mostly by the Content category, which accounted for 86% of the total.

Hardware achieved its best result since 2011, back when it was $5.6 billion. During 2020, this category jumped 35% year-over-year to $5.3 billion. Major contributors being Switch and transitioning generations, of course. Even if production limits cause the new boxes to under-perform a bit.

Nintendo Switch topped each monthly chart during 2020, and thus it was the best-selling piece of hardware on the year. Not only that, the hybrid console’s annual dollar result was the second best ever behind only Wii in 2008.

Flipping over to the fancy new generation, PlayStation 5 came in second during 2020 on dollar sales. Sony’s latest big (hah, literally) platform even achieved a dollar amount record for PlayStation hardware through each console’s first December. Separately, PlayStation 4 led the year on units sold. PlayStation 5’s dollar lead is attributed to a higher average selling price while its predecessor relied on discounts and higher inventory to clear boxes from retailers.

Call of Duty once again dominated the Software category, marking the 12th year in a row that a game in the franchise led the annual overall rankings. And not only that, the series occupied the top two spots! This year’s Call of Duty: Black Ops at numero uno then last year’s stellar Call of Duty: Modern Warfare at #2.

I’d have to look back over the entirety of tracked history since the start of Activision’s best-selling series in 2003. But I believe this is the first time since then that two titles in the same franchise led the combined chart. It’s a testament to the quality of Modern Warfare, its Warzone battle royale mode, continued free content updates and efforts toward cross-platform/cross-progression functionality that all keep players attracted to the ecosystem.

In a year full of notable milestones, Animal Crossing: New Horizons recorded yet another. It ranked #3 on the overall list. Its retail dollar sales, sans digital, were the highest for any game published by Nintendo since Wii Fit Plus in 2010. And we all remember how everyone and their grandmother bought the fitness board back then. (Likely even still collecting dust at a relative’s place, like ours.) I can’t wait to hear from Nintendo early next month on its global unit sales through year-end.

On a related note, the sheer number of exclusives on the 2020 sales list is wild. Both Nintendo and PlayStation platforms each boasted three games in the Top 10. Sony’s The Last of Us Part II ended at #6. Within Sony-published titles, it’s now behind only Marvel’s Spider-Man and God of War from 2018 measured by lifetime dollar sales. Ghost of Tsushima and Final Fantasy 7: Remake also landed in the Top 10. All of these prove the continued relevance of console exclusives, enticing players to spend on that platform.

There’s also certain titles noticeably missing to keen observers. No more Grand Theft Auto V. Farewell Red Dead Redemption 2. As I’ve discussed before, this is less a byproduct of slowing sales and more the way that publisher Take-Two now participates in NPD’s data gathering. “Take-Two remains a data sharing member of the Digital Leader Panel,” said Piscatella in a tweet reply. “However its digital sales are excluded from the published best-selling title charts.”

While not as major a contributor to overall results, Accessories generated $2.6 billion in spending during 2020. This is up 21% since 2019. On the year, Gamepad spend achieved a new spend record. Similar to December, the DualSense Wireless Controller for PlayStation 5 was the best-selling piece on units and dollar amount. Headset/Headphone actually surpassed its all-time spending high in 2020, with Turtle Beach’s Ear Force Recon 70 leading the charge. I hear ya!

Top-Selling Games of 2020, U.S. (Physical & Digital Dollar Sales):

  1. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
  2. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
  3. Animal Crossing: New Horizons*
  4. Madden NFL 21
  5. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
  6. The Last of Us: Part II
  7. Ghost of Tsushima
  8. Mario Kart 8: Deluxe*
  9. Super Mario 3D All-Stars*
  10. Final Fantasy 7: Remake
  11. Marvel’s Avengers
  12. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales
  13. NBA 2K21*
  14. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate*
  15. FIFA 21
  16. Mortal Kombat 11
  17. Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot
  18. MLB: The Show 20
  19. Cyberpunk 2077*
  20. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2

Whew. That’s a whole lot to digest. Typical 2020, am I right.

It’s an easy conclusion to draw, yet I’ll do it anyway: It was an incredible year for gaming, with broad critical success echoed by commercial performance.

Switch is starting to trend like no one could have predicted, both in terms of hardware sales and the ridiculous number of software products charting month-in, month-out. Call of Duty is going nowhere, the hard work of the development teams behind the annual series rewarded for their consistent output. Animal Crossing became the year’s biggest surprise, launching in March during a time of much-needed distraction. Sony exclusives proved that quality results in mass adoption. Microsoft sold out of stock during the holiday months, even if supply can’t possibly keep up with demand.

I’ll have a piece soon on my 2021 predictions, yet I find it hard to determine right now if it will be a repeat. Depends on a lot of factors, some unknown. But what I do know is that 2020 set a high standard, despite the most tragic of scenarios.

Hat tip to NPD Games and Piscatella for the various stats plus the chart visual. Totally worth giving both a follow to read more there on individual platform details and other tidbits.

Thanks for checking out the last NPD thread for 2020. Be safe!

*Digital Sales Not Included

Sources: Nintendo, NPD Group, Ubisoft.

-Dom

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