After taking a back seat to consoles for the past few years, personal computers are enjoying a resurgence in gaming, thanks to the popularity of e-sports, customizable machines and faster software releases.
This week's Tokyo Game Show will feature a main-stage tournament for PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, a hit online survival PC game that's been downloaded more than 10 million times since March. Sony Corp.'s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox One consoles are heading into their fifth years, while Nintendo Co.'s Switch is in a bit of a lull before new titles are released for the year-end holiday shopping season.
Spending on gaming-ready PC rigs are on track to climb an average of 6.6 percent per year through 2020, while the market as a whole is projected to decline 3.8 percent annually, according to Gartner Inc. Revenue from PC titles will grow by 3 to 4 percent over the coming years, while console-game sales are seen flat, according to DFC Intelligence. Written off years ago for being too expensive, complex and bulky for mass appeal, gaming PCs are seeing a resurgence that could even threaten consoles, according to Kazunori Takahashi, Japan gaming head at Nvidia Corp.
"The abundance of titles and the popularity of e-sports is bringing a lot of excitement to PC gaming," said Takahashi, whose employer supplies graphic chips to PC and console makers. Even in Japan, "it's not unreasonable to think that PCs can eventually become a presence that threatens console gaming."
Although consoles have traditionally dominated in Japan, their long development cycles and lead times for new game releases have started to frustrate consumers who want to get their hands on new titles. Consoles also can't offer superior graphics and cheaper online networks for multiplayer gaming. Valve Corp.'s Steam, a popular game downloading site, lets developers release titles for PCs months or years before they're available on consoles.
PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, known within the gaming community as PUBG, was released through early-access six months ago. Since then, it has sold more than 10 million copies and achieved a record for the most concurrent players on Steam, beating out well-known titles such as Minecraft, League of Legends or Counter-Strike. That's even driving gamers to buy PCs just to play PUBG, according to NVIDIA's Takahashi, a phenomenon that's more common in the console market.
Sony and Microsoft haven't ignored the threat, and last year began releasing upgraded versions of their consoles to prevent gamers from migrating to PCs. Consoles are also priced lower than PCs, and have a rich library of exclusive titles that keep customers hooked on their platforms for years. The console market is also much bigger; Sony forecasts that it will ship 18 million PlayStation units in the year through March, and Nintendo is predicting 10 million units for the Switch. By comparison, PC gaming-rig sales will be about 7 million units this year, according to Gartner.
In June, Microsoft announced a deal to release PUBG on Xbox by the end of the year. Sony hasn't said when a version might be available for the PlayStation 4. Meanwhile, the game's graphics demands make it unlikely it will appear on Nintendo's Switch.
Laptops are another reason for the renewed popularity of PC games. With graphics chips getting smaller, along with better cooling systems and battery technology, some laptops now offer performance that can rival desktops, letting PC gamers play outside their home offices and living rooms. Gaming notebook builder Micro-Star International Co. has seen revenue from gaming notebooks in Japan doubling every year since 2014, according to Ricky Chang, head of sales and marketing in the country. Shares of the Taipei-based company have more than doubled since 2013.
At the Tokyo Game Show, Japanese publishers, which built their businesses through consoles, are also showing signs of change. Square Enix Holdings Co. will unveil new title Left Alive, which it plans to release on PC and PS4 around the same time in 2018. Similarly, Konami Holdings Corp.'s Metal Gear Survive will see a PC release at the same time as the PS4 version next year.
The Tokyo Game Show is open to the public Saturday and Sunday.
"PUBG isn't even available on consoles, so being able to play it on PC is hugely appealing," said Satoshi Fujiwara, a 25 year-old Tokyo gamer who grew up playing consoles but recently spent $2,000 on a PC gaming rig. "All the YouTubers and streamers and pro-gamers are using PCs. For those who really want to play competitively, they all end up going to PC."