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Why the new PlayStation and Xbox are such a big deal

New video games are released all the time. New consoles are much, much rarer.

A customer wearing glasses and a face mask holds a box containing the new Sony PlayStation 5 console
A shopper scores a new Sony PlayStation 5 on November 12, 2020, in Seoul, South Korea.
Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

A lot of people spent a lot of time refreshing their browsers the week of November 9.

“How I look after staying up all night just to get no PS5 from Best Buy or Target,” reads one characteristic tweet from a browser-refresher Twitter user named RyanReallySucks.

Attached is a familiar meme pic of a dude dressed in a clown costume while sitting at his work computer.

RyanReallySucks was one of many disappointed customers that week who compared themselves online to sad, embarrassed, video-game-console-less clowns. They were united in their brutal failures to buy the new Sony PlayStation 5 on the night of its release, thwarted by restricted stock and much quicker trigger fingers.

As of now, the only options for RyanReallySucks and his cohort of console-less video game enthusiasts is to put their name down on a long waitlist for whenever there’s more stock — or to head over to eBay, where they’ll be looking at a minimum $1,000 spend on average.

While it’s pretty easy to buy a new video game — you can usually do it without ever going outside, by downloading it to your console or computer — it’s not quite as easy to buy a new video game console. And the opportunity to do so right when it launches is one that comes only a handful of times a decade.

In that sense, a new video game console is sort of like a new iPhone: People sometimes wait in line for hours to be the first to get one when they come out, too. But Apple, predictably, releases several versions of the iPhone every fall, whereas the debut of new video game hardware is a once-in-half-a-decade event, one defined by sky-high demand and highly constrained stock.

Once they’re released — and you manage to get your hands on one — you’re set. You’re not going to upgrade or replace it every year, as you might with your smartphone. Instead, everyone who’s excited about the prospect of the newest, shiniest, best tech has been waiting a long, long time for these consoles.

This year’s new consoles are Sony’s PlayStation 5 and Microsoft’s Xbox Series X, which launched just two days apart on November 12 and November 10, respectively. The consoles are available at almost identical price points, and each one comes with big technical advancements over their predecessors, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

They’re also both incredibly hefty boys. Look at them:

That two hugely anticipated pieces of gaming hardware arrived in the same week — during a pandemic and right after an anxiety-inducing election — is almost overwhelming to reconcile. No matter what else is going on in the world, though, the most loyal of gaming lovers will put everything else aside to get their hands on a new console.

New console launches are a rare event

In late October 2019, Sony and Microsoft announced the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X would be available by the end of 2020. The news came after months of speculation and a drip feed of teasers about what the hardware would look like. It also came years after the November 2013 launch of the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One, the new consoles’ immediate predecessors. Their successors, then, arrived almost seven years later.

Seven years might sound like 70,000 years to someone who’s accustomed to the constant refresh of new content to stream or glossy smartphones to inevitably drop on the sidewalk. But a lengthy gap between new systems is par for the course in the gaming industry.

For some striking numbers, consider the PlayStation console timeline: Sony released the first PlayStation in Japan in December 1994, followed by its US release in September 1995. The PlayStation 2 didn’t arrive until the spring (in Japan) and fall (everywhere else) of 2000; the PlayStation 3 followed in November 2006. That gives each PlayStation console an average life cycle of 6.5 years or so.

Console hardware takes a long time to design, test, and promote, and to sell someone on a big purchase of any kind, you need great incentives to push them over the edge. For a console, that means you need marquee, day-one launch games; surefire, eye-catching features; and, hopefully, enough supply to meet at least a high percentage of the demand. This all helps to put the price in context.

Right, the price: The highest-end models of the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X each retail at $499.99, while less full-featured versions cost $399.99 (PS5’s digital-only edition) and $299.99 (the digital-only Xbox Series S, a smaller and less-powerful version of the Series X). Those prices aren’t terrible compared to the cost of a phone or computer, neither of which typically last as long as a console. But then you factor in the cost of games (which can run $60 to $70 apiece), annual subscriptions to play those games online with friends, extra add-ons … and the endeavor can be costly.

A console buyer may see these costs as a fair trade-off, as the release of the PS5 and XSX is undoubtedly exciting: New console hardware marks the start of a new “generation” of video games. A new generation means more power, which often allows for newer, more diverse, and more interesting ideas. There aren’t always many newfangled games to put the newness into practice at launch; the PlayStation 5 has only a few console-exclusive games available right now, and the Xbox Series X has none (!). But once new consoles are out, a new era in gaming immediately kicks off.

Over the next half-dozen years — until the next consoles are out there — the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X will continue to iterate on what gaming looks like and can be, in ways both surprising and necessary. On a technical level, each one offers a lot over their predecessors: Both have much faster processors, which will greatly reduce load times for games and allow for vastly improved graphical features. (The Verge has great reviews of each console that dive deeper into those aspects.) Both have more stable solid-state drives that are less prone to getting hot and overworked, which should translate into longer-lasting hardware. And both offer more storage to let you download more games with abandon.

The day-one PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X buyer is ready for all of that, and they’re in it for the long haul. What they’re also ready for are the iterative, bolder elements that aren’t as quantifiable as processing power: the new features of both consoles that will help reconceive gaming as a whole.

The most intriguing change is that both the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X offer digital-only, disc-drive-less editions of their hardware, a move that dares to eliminate physical media from our gaming experiences. Microsoft in particular is leaning hard into adopting a streaming service model for its gaming library with Xbox Game Pass, a subscription service that grants members easy access to a vast library of games from every Xbox generation to play. Through Game Pass, and Sony’s more restrictive but similar on-demand gaming service PlayStation Now, console owners can cultivate a wider library of games they’re tinkering with instead of having to solely take bets on big-banner games that you pay for piecemeal.

Industry-redefining features like this kind of streaming model can shake up gaming in a much more visible way than new graphics or hardware alone. It’s the combination of the two that often dazzles fans into wanting a new console, stat. Testing out a new controller that adapts to your play style and offers rumbling feedback with every slight movement is a cool trick; the hope that we’ll one day try so many more interesting games with less of an access barrier can be downright empowering.

So it’s not just a financial investment for many of these most excitable console buyers, it’s an emotional one, where buying a console often comes with the intense anticipation of a novel future. But the emotions also play into something that exists outside of playing games themselves: brand loyalty.

Console wars are fierce — even if they’re not real

Two new consoles mean countless reviews and debates and breakdowns about which one is more worth your time and money. They mean new, exclusive games meant to entice buyers over to one “side” or the other. And they mean time to fiercely defend your console of choice.

This has often been noted in the mainstream as “the console wars,” a pithy framing device that dramatically portrays video games as opposing armies. The concept is a longstanding, mostly economic one whose origins stem from way back when video games were young. There’s a pretty interesting Netflix documentary series that gets into a lot of this called High Score, but the gist is the console industry was volatile in the 1980s and early ’90s. New hardware companies would enter the fray, hoping to edge out the others to ensure their place in people’s living rooms. There were so many options to choose from, and the costs of production were so high, that companies were taking huge bets every time they put out a new console. A lot of them didn’t make their money back and eventually exited the industry.

The console wars have always been more theoretical than real, though. There are only three big console makers now: Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony. There are hundreds of big and small studios developing games for these consoles (as well as for personal computers), so there’s still a ton of variety and options out there, more than there’s been at any other point in gaming history. There should no longer be much concern, at this point, that your favorite console maker and its systems are going to go away.

Most people who play video games recognize that and operate as such, enjoying whatever it is they like to play. There are Pokémon fans (c’est moi), Call of Duty fans, Halo fans, and countless others. Most of these people are not oppressively insistent that their favorite games are the best games and that all other games are terrible, crying, “How dare they push their favorite games out of the sales spotlight!” But the minority that does feel this way — that anyone who plays such-and-such game or owns such-and-such console is an existential threat to their own platform of choice — is very, very vocal.

Between the high cost of entry attached to gaming and the amount of effort that goes into making a big-deal video game purchase — all that waiting in line or refreshing of websites — people sometimes feel a strong attachment to their console purchase. They want their console to come out on top sales-wise, so they prove they made the right call in buying it. If Microsoft sells fewer Xbox units, for example, it can feel invalidating to the Xbox-exclusive owner, as though they wasted their money on an unsuccessful system. PlayStation fans determined to see the Xbox “fail” might dunk on the other console as much as possible, saying the Xbox has no games, the PlayStation’s games will always be better, or owning an Xbox is disgraceful. And Xbox owners could say the same things right back at them.

Fandom can breed resentment and ferocity. The public fallout of Gamergate six years ago gave the mainstream a taste of just how bad things can get when self-righteous, easily angered people get their games mixed up with their politicking and biases. Although the scale of Gamergate, which saw developers and journalists harassed, doxxed, and bullied for their progressive values and personal relationships under the guise of “ethics,” was anomalous, it did bring a legitimate issue to light. There are people out there who love video games, just as they do any other thing, and there are people out there who take their love to an abusive level.

This can make the entire idea of getting into video games daunting (or even a turnoff) to some people.

It’s important to recognize that these hardcore fans are a niche among the more than 160 million US adults who play video games. The happiest video game player is the one who puts allegiances aside and buys whichever consoles and games interest them, if they can afford to do so. I’ve got a Nintendo Switch and a PlayStation 4 sitting side by side near my TV, just like a pair of old friends. It’s 100 percent possible for all video games, and video gamers, to get along.

The release of PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X — in this, the Lost Year of 2020 — may also seem ill timed to the skeptics. They may balk at the idea of charging people upward of $1,000 (for the most fully featured version of each console, if you buy them both) for anything during tough economic times. And I don’t judge them for it; consider me on the side of “that is way too much money for me to spend on fancy gaming toys right now.”

I might not be able to convince you that celebrating a pricey product launch during a pandemic is a good thing. But what I do want to impart is how, regardless of whether you can or even want to buy a console right at launch, the kick-start to a new generation of video games is absolutely a cause for celebration. For those of us who find so much joy and pleasure and art within video games, experiencing the dawn of a new era in gaming produces a rare euphoria. Booting up a new device after years of using an old one feels so special and mesmerizing.

With video games, that feeling of getting a new phone is multiplied by the long wait for the hardware and a glimpse of years of possibilities ahead: the software improvements that create more immersive worlds, the potential to let everyone try out way more games, the quality-of-life changes that let us jump in and out of our games with more ease. And to experience that magic, we’ll wait on a retail website with our fingers on the refresh key for as long as we have to.