Limelight survey: The pandemic is driving a boom in gaming

Gaming screen time hasn’t necessarily come at the expense of more traditional TV. (Getty Images)

A new survey suggests that for many people around the world, games have become the new stuck-at-home distraction, the new social network, the new sports TV — and the new source of broadband complaints.

The State of Online Gaming 2021, released Wednesday morning by Limelight Networks, reports a boom in gaming as seen both in soaring popularity for phone-based casual games as well as in a rise in hours-long binge-gaming sessions.

The report for Limelight, a Scottsdale, Arizona-based content delivery and security service, drew on insights from consumer panels covering 500 respondents in each of eight countries — the U.S. as well as China, Germany, India, Indonesia, South Korea, the United Kingdom and Vietnam — in early January.

It found the average number of hours gamers play each week rose 14% worldwide to 8.45 hours, with the U.S. figure 7.71 and the highest being China’s 12.39. And 34.2% reported that their longest gaming session clocked in at five or more hours; the U.S. figure, 5.9 hours, jumped from 5.1 hours a year earlier.

That can seem bad in the context of respondents saying that gaming led them to neglect daily activities. In the States, for example, 25.2% cited missing showering, 36.6% admitted to skipping a meal, 54% said they’d missed sleep and 38.8% reported missing socializing.

Or it can seem good in that 53% of people in Limelight’s survey said they’d made new friends in online games.

Conversely, gamers in all eight countries reported that their smartphone was their primary gaming device. In the U.S., for example, mobile phone games topped a one-to-four scale of usage intensity at 2.3, with computer games at 2.1 and console games at 1.6.

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And casual single-player games such as the now-venerable Angry Birds remained the most popular genre worldwide, with casual multi-player games (the also-now-venerable Words With Friends) in second place and then first-person shooter titles.

Charlie Kraus, Limelight’s senior product marketing manager, said in a Zoom interview that he suspected these divergent stats suggested a deeper split between casual gamers on phones in their living rooms and hard-core gamers in their basements, but this year’s survey questions didn’t cover that.

“There’s a mix of that,” he suggested. But, he added, “we don’t have enough data to really break that down.”

This screen time hasn’t necessarily come at the expense of more traditional TV. The survey found that time spent watching traditional sports online went up 34%, versus a 27% increase for time spent watching games streaming on the likes of Twitch.

But for the youngest gamers, games clearly outranked sports: respondents aged 18-25 said they spent four hours a week watching people play video games online versus 2.6 hours spent watching older sports, either on TV or online.

Kraus noted how networks such as Turner Broadcasting have moved to capitalize on this interest in esports—“basically treating it like an actual sport.”

Broadband providers may not like the survey’s findings much more than sports networks will. Respondents complained worldwide about downloads — those that took too long, those that got interrupted, and those that didn’t start. In the U.S., for instance, only 15% reported that downloads were not frustrating, the second-highest figure after China’s 20.3%.

The survey did not get into detail about a common complaint among hard-core games: slow or inconsistent latency. But Kraus emphasized how the rise of cloud gaming services will only make the problem more evident. Already, 29.5% of survey respondents said performance concerns made them less likely to subscribe to platforms like Google Stadia.

“Where you really see the latency come in is things like Google Stadia,” he said. “People shoot, and what they’re shooting at isn’t there anymore.”