No longer anything resembling a niche industry, video games now rank among the most popular forms of entertainment the world over. Many have grossed enough to make movie studios blush (or try to get in on the action, like with big-screen releases like "Tomb Raider," "Resident Evil," and "Mortal Kombat"), with gamers of all ages spending a great deal of time (and, let's face it, money) on their interactive hobby.
Though there are many metrics to measure a game's overall popularity — sales, revenue, number of players — here's a cross section of the most widely played video games of the past few years.
Even before much of the world realized it would be spending a minimum of several weeks indoors, the latest version in this long-running, much-loved series was among the most anticipated releases of 2020. The premise is simple: Players create a character who arrives on a deserted island and, well, goes about their day. "Animal Crossing" is an idyllic life-simulation game, which is to say that the lion's share of gameplay focuses on building a house, fishing, crafting furniture, and other low-pressure activities.
It isn't just a retread of "The Sims," though. Your villager is the only human on the island, but it eventually becomes populated by anthropomorphic animals. Further, it's played entirely in real time. If you turn on your Nintendo Switch at 5 p.m. to catch some bugs, that's what time it will be on your island.
The series is beloved for its relaxing, low-key gameplay, which makes for a sharp contrast from first-person shooters and more goal-oriented franchises. And, considering that it was just released on March 20, 2020, "New Horizons" has become an instant success — not only did it sell 1.88 million units during its first weekend, making it the fastest-selling game in Japan ever, its low-key, fantasy escapism has made it verified hit worldwide.
Like genre companions "Apex Legends" and "PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds," "Fortnite" is a battle-royale game in which 100 players are air-dropped onto a large island and fight it out until only one remains. It was an instant success following its June 2017 release, accruing more than 125 million players within a year and generating $2.4 billion in revenue in 2018 and $1.8 billion last year; making those figures even more remarkable is the fact that "Fortnite" is free to play.
How does it make so much money? Simple: microtransactions, an increasingly common — and controversial — system in which players have the option of spending money on cosmetic items like character skins, emotes, and other items that don't alter the actual gameplay but do make characters look more stylish. Purists take issue with microtransactions, especially those that lend a competitive rather than merely aesthetic advantage to those who partake in them, but they've emerged as an extremely profitable business model in recent years.
"Fortnite" is especially popular on Twitch, a streaming service in which millions of people watch others play video games, and at esports tournaments. $30 million in prize money was distributed at last year's inaugural Fortnite World Cup, where the winning team received $3 million.
Six years after its release, "Grand Theft Auto V" shows no signs of slowing down. The third best-selling game of all time is also one of the most profitable entertainment properties ever, having amassed more than $6 billion in revenue — more than twice the worldwide take of "Avengers: Endgame," the highest-grossing film ever released.
Its staying power is due in large part to its online ecosystem, which may surprise some longtime players of the "GTA" franchise; where previous installments didn't even have multiplayer capability, "V" successfully adapted its sandbox-style gameplay (read: you're dropped into a large open world with the freedom to do whatever you want, including and especially creating mayhem wherever you go) to the format.
Not to be confused with the 2007 game of the same name, "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare" was the best-selling game of 2019, with publisher Activision confirming in December that it had earned more than $1 billion worldwide. The latest installment in the extremely popular first-person-shooter series seeks to be as realistic as possible, with players taking on the role of a CIA Officer in the fictional country of Urzikstan.
The game earned rave reviews, including from Forbes, which called it "the best single-player campaign experience in the history of the series." For "Call of Duty" diehards who like the multiplayer format, this update allows 2-on-2 up to 32-on-32 battles, meaning even if you're hunkered down, you can still duke it out with 60 or so of your closest frenemies.
Most people greet the mere idea of "Rocket League" with skepticism upon first hearing about it: It's soccer, only with race cars instead of athletes. But, strange premise aside, the arcade-style game is more fun than it has any reason to be.
Usually played in five-minute, three-versus-three rounds, "Rocket League" is as unrealistic as it is addictive. The vehicles themselves are rocket-powered, meaning they can fly around for quick bursts when they aren't colliding with one another. As with "Fortnite," the game offers microtransactions for cosmetic items and is popular in the esports arena. The Rocket League Championship Series (RLCS) has taken place twice a year since April 2016 and recently implemented more online regional tournaments rather than convene for its usual World Championship. There is currently $300,000 in prize money on the table — a pittance compared to the "Fortnite" winner's purse, perhaps, but much more than any kids who grew up playing "Tetris" ever dreamed they'd win for playing video games.