The much-anticipated launch of two of the most powerful consoles in the history of gaming has been delayed — not just by a pandemic, but also because they are sold out across all retailers.

Non-gamers might wonder why the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X are so sought after.

As we know, this has been a good year for working in your pyjamas, if nothing else. While businesses around the world scrambled to transition to work-from-home and faced dire economic challenges and staff retrenchments, one industry had a great year.

That industry is gaming, which is already bigger than Hollywood and is the most lucrative form of entertainment in the world. Adjust your view slightly about 2020’s massive curveballs and you’ll see that it was the perfect year to launch new consoles and gaming hardware. People in lockdown increasingly turned to video games as a form of both entertainment and social interaction. This resulted in revenue spikes for gaming firms and record sales for consoles.

Microsoft doubled its Xbox shipments year on year, according to Neil Barbour, an analyst tracking the technology and media sectors at Kagan, a media research group within S&P Global Market Intelligence. Software companies including Activision Blizzard, Electronic Arts and Take-Two Interactive also had double-digit revenue growth in the second quarter.

"That is noteworthy because there weren’t a lot of new games from these companies," Barbour said on MediaTalk, an S&P Global Market Intelligence podcast. "All three of those companies made basically as much revenue as they make in a typical fourth quarter when they release their big new games."

Enter the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X — the newest entries into the world of casual (and competitive) gaming. Both feature next-generation hardware, as industry insiders call it. It’s a strange term, considering that the hardware — ray-tracing graphics and speedy solid-state hard drives — has been used by PC gamers and laptop users for years.

But this is the first time the tech has been packed into a console. And the world is going mad for it.

Sony and Microsoft have kept to their respective launch schedules to produce a new console every seven years. The previous range of hardware — the PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X or One S — has aged significantly. Many users still holding on to them may have been at the front of the line (virtually) to pick up one of the next-generation options. This time, however, it’s not as simple as deciding between PlayStation or Xbox. That’s just step one.

On the Sony side, the PS5 is the core console, but there’s also a cheaper digital edition that kicks the disc drive for a download-only future.

And while the Xbox Series X represents Microsoft’s supercharged vision of native 4K gaming, the Series S hits the middle ground between power and price, ideal for SA consumers.

As expected, neither launch is happening completely unscathed by the state of the world. Xbox arguably took the biggest hit with the late-breaking delay of its headline launch game, Halo Infinite, into 2021, but both launch lineups are thinner on the big system sellers than expected. Add to that manufacturing delays and small numbers allocated to SA, and many diehard fans won’t wake up with a new console under the Christmas tree this year.

"Everything is sold. Absolutely everything is sold," Sony CEO Jim Ryan told the EssentiallySports website in November. "I’ve spent much of the last year trying to be sure that we can generate enough demand for the product. And now … I’m spending a lot more time on trying to increase supply to meet that demand."

It’s an interesting phenomenon, in that console producers are convinced the global shortage of hardware would have happened even if there hadn’t been a pandemic. It’s hard to fathom, considering previous generations were sold en masse at Musica and HiFi Corp retail outlets. Scarcity of the PS5 console especially has caused some panic among consumers, who have begged for help in search of some next-generation hardware.

"Gaming as an industry, and more so as a hobby, has grown exponentially over the past generation to such an extent that even without a pandemic, stock of this console was going to be in short supply," says Brad Lang, deputy digital editor of Stuff.

"The stock was there but the demand has increased to levels producers have never seen or could have expected."

This may come down to a "chicken or egg" situation. The lack of next-generation consoles may have been caused by the increased popularity of gaming as entertainment as much as by production and shipping issues caused by Covid-19 restrictions.

Anyone looking to invest in a new console and who missed out on the first few rounds of pre-orders (which all sold out within minutes in SA), may only get their hands on new consoles come 2021. Sony and Microsoft have ramped up production to meet the demand of more gamers per capita globally.

*Bester is digital editor of Stuff

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