“Console Wars” as they have been dubbed in recent years are the media and public-perceived battles that take place between hardware development companies. The “Bit Wars” was a famous market domination between Sega and Nintendo after the video game crash of 1983, and in recent years fans have shown their support generally to one company over others.
However, these console wars and attempts to dominate the market have been going on for decades. At the horizon of the ninth generation of consoles wars, with the releases of the Xbox Series X/S and the PlayStation 5, it is time to go all the way back to 1972. The dawn of the video game console started what is known as the first generation of video game consoles and we can follow that through to present day to see who dominated which generation and make a prediction about the next.
The first generation of video game consoles was during the original transition from theory, arcade-based hardware and an attempt to market consoles within the household. The generation began all the way back in 1972 when Magnavox launched their Magnavox Odyssey to the home consumer. Even though Magnavox was first to the start line other companies soon followed the ideas that had been booming within the scientific communities and began to release their own consoles.
One thing to note at this stage is that early generation consoles had many different variants released. This was due to the technology being new and different hardware and casings being used dependant on the times they were being produced and sometimes the localities they were sold in. An example from this generation is the Nintendo Colo TV-Game Series, which was a series of 5 consoles.
Within this generation there were five main competitors attempting to begin their domination in the market. Epoch Co. had created the TV Tennis Electrotennis console in 1975, three years after the launch from Magnavox. They only managed 20,000 sales but are considered one of the top five within this generation. Sears had produced the Home Pong variant of Pong for consumer use, which was soon taken by Atari under their branding and Coleco, a name which will be known throughout several generations, began their Telstar Series of consoles.
More notably is the entry from Nintendo, which achieved 1.5 million units being sold within this generation, surpassing the Coleco Telstar Series. Nintendo had a late start too, with the launch of their console occurring in 1977 and only staying in production three years before their 1980 discontinuation. Nintendo had dominated the early stages of the video game “Console Wars”.
The second generation would bring more competitors to the ring. Companies striving to get involved in this increasingly popular movement would begin to create their own hardware. This generation saw the rise of general electronics companies such as Fairchild Semiconductor and General Consumer Electric putting their hand towards this industry.
Within the second generation there were several consoles who’s unit sales are unknown and cannot be estimated. These are the Bally Astrocade from Bally Technologies, the ever-popular Vectrex from General Consumer Electric and Milton Bradley and the Emerson Arcadia 2001 from Emerson Radio Corporation. However, there were still several competitors who built up an interesting leader board.
The second generation did not have Nintendo producing hardware but saw the dawn of the video game cartridge from the Fairchild Channel F. Atari soon followed the same design of encapsulating the circuitry for a game within plastic so they too could release a cartridge-based console. This led to the Atari 2600 which utterly dominated the second generation of video game consoles.
Even though the Atari 2600 was released in 1977, it was only discontinued in 1992 due to popularity, however the sales still count towards its legacy.
The third generation of video games consoles was huge. With various companies attempting to make an impact on the industry. Unfortunately some consoles, such as the Philips Videopac+ G7400 (which rolls of the tongue) only made sales in Europe due to the video game crash of 1983 stopping American production plans.
There are other consoles that were so obscure that sales were never recorded for them such as The Nichibutsu My Vision, the Casio PV-1000, the Epoch Co. Super Cassette Vision and View-Master Ideal Group, Inc.’s View Master Interactive Vision (deep breath). We also had the Zemmix, Dina and VTech – the list goes on.
Generation three saw a triumphant return of Nintendo. The video game crash of 1983, often blamed on Atari’s saturation of the market, had caused Japanese hardware giants to start a new console and gaming market of their own. Atari had released the 7800 console within this generation but a lot of trust had already been lost. But now two giants were entering the Royale Rumble with Nintendo and another Japanese company called Sega. The Sega SG-1000 had only sold 160,000 units but had made way for the Sega Mark III or Master System as it became known. This console sold 17.8 million units and help restart the economy. Commodores entry was the Commodore 64 Games System which is known for being the worst-selling console of all time with only 2,000 sold from a production of 20,000 units.
An interesting point to make is that the NES was officially discontinues in 2003 due to the popularity of the Brazilian market. However the Sega Master System is still popular in Brazil and has not officially been discontinued, meaning it has been in production for 35 years since 1985.
However Nintendo once again dominated with a massive 61.9 million units sold, far surpassing that of even Atari within the previous generation of hardware. Nintendo were up two for one.
Once again a new generation of hardware brought more wolves to the feed. The likes of Commodore, who primarily dealt in home computers, Philips and Pioneer all had a hand in the market. We saw the rise of the Neo Geo AES and CD from another Japanese arcade giant attempting to enter the household market. Asides from the more obscure consoles that were launched there were a handful that are still increasingly popular today.
The Commodore CDTV was the attempt of taking the market from Commodore. Unfortunately it only hit unit sales of 54,800 in total and came bottom of the pack. The NEX TurboGrafx-16 made a massive impact of 10 million units sold and Sega had come out fighting in the 16-bit “bit wars” with their Mega Drive/Genesis selling 35 million units. However it fell short once more of Nintendo and their Super NES which sold 49.1 million units. Nintendo had dropped sales after the release of the NES but now the market was beginning to open up across more companies rather than one who dominates.
However Nintendo still managed to surpass all within the fourth generation meaning they were still victors in three out of the past four. The only generation Nintendo had not dominated was that in which they had no hardware brought to the market. At this stage people wondered if the Japanese market would continue to dominate, and if Nintendo could maintain their foothold on the industry.
The fifth generation once more saw technology giants attempting to gain footholds within the industry. Fujitsu would release their FM Towns Marty and achieve 45,000 units sold, whilst the ever-growing Apple would team up with Bandai to make the Apple Bandai Pippin, which sold only 42,000 consoles.
However there was a new player in the field by the name of Sony. Originally working in collaboration with Nintendo they were working on the Super NES CD-ROM, or Nintendo PlayStation. It was originally due to be an add-on for the SNES, and then subsequently a hybrid console. Due to a contract failure with Nintendo and Sony Nintendo had to align with Philip’s in the prior generation, bringing some Nintendo titles to the CD-i platform. Sony decided to independently develop their own stand-alone console and inherited the PlayStation title.
The PlayStation entered the market as the chief competitor against the Nintendo 64, the 64-bit successor to the Super NES. Sony utterly dominated the market, seeing sales of 102 million units, far above Nintendo with 32 million. Once again the Japanese market had taken the podium places, but now Nintendo had a huge giant to compete with as they lost the race to dominancy.
The previous generation had knocked many companies out of the race, especially after Sony’s dominance in the market. Japanese giants still continued to produce hardware with Nintendo bringing their first CD-based console, the GameCube, to the race. Sega had already been in the CD-based console market from the Sega Saturn and had developed the Dreamcast. Unfortunately this would be the last time that Sega would develop a console due to them only selling 9.1 million units out of a market which was 210 million units in total (a 4.3% share).
Sony had built a moment off the back of the popularity of the PlayStation and had brought the aptly named PlayStation 2 to the table. It was far superior than its predecessor and boasted a wide range of games and backwards compatibility along several models released. The PlayStation 2 would go on to sell a staggering 155 million units, making it the best selling console of all time to-date.
Within this generation there were only four competitors. The three Japanese giants, with Sega dropping off the hardware line and Nintendo not seeing the sales it would have liked for its GameCube. But now a new competitor had entered the fight from the PC software powerhouse Microsoft.
Microsoft was long known for developing Windows and not for home video game consoles. The Xbox (named after the DirectX architecture it used) was their first entry into the market and they delivered it as a ‘test’ of sorts to push for online gaming possibilities. The Xbox only achieved sales of 24 million units but it had found itself surpassing Nintendo and Sega to second place.
The seventh generation of consoles mourned the loss of Sega, who was now only concentrating on software for the three remaining platforms. All other opposition had fizzled out and now three giants remained in the fight. With a total unit sale of 273 million it was the most dominating generation of consoles across the last seven generations, and the camera had to be used at the finish line.
Microsoft were first off the line with a 2005 launch of the Xbox 360. The console was pushed as one with amazing online services as well as new features for the gamer, such as the new achievement system. Sony soon followed with the PlayStation 3 as well as Nintendo with the Wii. The Wii was unlike any console ever seen, with motion sensors, and balancing boards and an array of first and third-party games to make a huge catalogue that was suitable for most ages.
It is perhaps the tactic Nintendo takes in regards to the age rating on their games that worked so well within this generation – opening up the demographics of their audience to better sales. Nintendo went on to see 101 million units sold of the Nintendo Wii and once again had dominated the market, back to their origins as leader.
Sony was falling behind the Xbox 360 in sales for the majority of the 11 years of its lifespan, but thanks to some last minute marketing, some fantastic exclusives and sales they skipped into first place with a 3.4 million unit margin against Microsoft’s 84 million units sold.
Generation eight was then upon us, and once again the tides turned in a very interesting race for dominance.
Nintendo were first to the track with a 2012 release of the Nintendo Wii U. They would have to wait a year before Microsoft and Sony released the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 respectively.
The Wii U from Nintendo was unfortunately a commercial failure on Nintendo’s part. With a cross between a confusing arrangement of controllers, which games used which controllers as an example, minimal third-party support and no internal hard drive storage it struggled in the market. Many games, even Nintendo branded games, failed to utilise the Wii-mote at all, meaning that the core gaming community saw the Nintendo price-tags as unwarranted when they could purchase an Xbox One or PlayStation 4 for a similar price.
Xbox One and PlayStation 4 would surely be the two dominating elements in this generation of console wars. PlayStation took an early lead and were able to completely maintain that up until present day. Microsoft has only shifted 46 million units compared to the 113 million that Sony have sold.
PlayStation may have dominated this generation, but it may not be over yet. With the looming release of the ninth generation consoles from Microsoft and Sony there will be less emphasis on Xbox One and PlayStation 4. It is as this time that we see more trade-ins of older consoles, meaning that even if the consoles stay in production there will be plenty of cheaper, second-hand consoles for the consumer to obtain. This is where Nintendo might take a lame horse to the finish line.
Nintendo released the Nintendo Switch in 2017, so it has only had three years of production. Within this time is has stormed to second place with 68.3 million units sold. Breaking that down as a yearly average that’s 22.7 million consoles sold a year (remember this is an average, their first year only saw 12 million units sold). PlayStation 4 on the other hand was released in 2013 and it’s 113 million units converts to an average of 16.1 million units sold a year. With the upcoming ninth generation, and Nintendo bringing an 8.5 generation console to the table late in the day, we could see this graph change, perhaps dramatically.
So which company dominated the most? Who has sold the most life-time units? Let us do the math for you, so you don’t have to.
Firstly let’s take a look at the total console market across all eight generations. From known numbers there have been an approximate 1.1 billion console units sold and here are the top companies shares:
Next we can take a look at the total generational wins across all eight generations:
Finally we can look at what market share the victor had in each generation:
|Generation / Company||Market Share (%)|
In terms of units sold Sony far outweigh the competitors – but only when handhelds are taken out of the equation. If handhelds are introduced then Nintendo wins hand down. In terms of domination of individual generations then Nintendo is slightly ahead of Sony, with generation eight still yet to be finalised.
The total market share is an interesting one, with early generations having a very dominant winner, then the fourth generation causing some turbulence with Sega’s Mega Drive. However generation seven showed how the split was almost a third per company (Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony). With generation eight figures yet to be finalised it will be interesting to see how close to PlayStation 4 sales figures the Nintendo Switch achieves.
So with the ninth generation upon us this week and a whole lot of numbers to crunch we can make some observational predictions. In terms of hardware sales Sony is going to make a massive market share, on paper. However Microsoft are seemingly marketing towards the Xbox Game Pass subscriptions more than the hardware – their ninth generation games will play on their eighth generation hardware for the time being.
Will Microsoft have made a clever tactic by bringing in software houses to bolster their cloud services and Game Pass or will Sony still dominate in sales like they have done with their previous consoles? And will Nintendo have any further tricks up their sleeve or will they continue to sell towards the eighth generation market? Whatever happens it is going to be one hell of a ride finding out.