November 29, 2022

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Why Nintendo Switch Sports is as important as Zelda: Breath of the Wild 2 | Opinion

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Don’t say it too loud, in case we scare them off again, but some of that Wii and DS audience might have come back.

It’s incredible to think Nintendo sold over 250 million games machines during that Wii/DS generation. The decision to avoid going head-to-head with Xbox and PlayStation and instead target entirely new audiences was a brave and ultimately triumphant one.

Nintendo won over millions of customers through brain training puzzle games and virtual bowling. But then, almost as quickly, it lost them again.

We can make an educated guess about where some of those players went. The DS experience was replicated quite well on smartphones. But the Wii experience? Perhaps it was smartphones that did for that, too. Maybe players traded swinging and waggling for swiping and tapping. Or maybe they didn’t trade it for anything. It’s not unfathomable to think that, for some people, the Wii was the one and only time they dabbled in console gaming.

“This isn’t 2007, but it’s clear that there’s a considerable and active audience of casual gamers on Nintendo Switch”

Nintendo has tried to appeal to that audience a few times since. Sometimes in the form of sequels (Nintendogs + Cats on 3DS or Wii Sports Club on Wii U), and occasionally with completely new concepts; one of the more ambitious things the company did during the early years of Switch was Nintendo Labo, an educational toys-to-life series aimed at families and children.

It’s harsh to call any of these failures, but they hardly convinced that Wii and DS audience to return.

Then the pandemic happened, and that changed. The lockdowns meant that lots of people had time on their hands, including non-gamers and used-to-be gamers. These people wanted different things from their games. They wanted something accessible to occupy their time, something to play with the family and even something to keep them fit.

Animal Crossing became the fastest-selling game in Nintendo’s history. Wii Remotes were spotted in the Amazon charts. And Ring Fit Adventure, essentially this generation’s Wii Fit, sold out instantly. It’s now approaching 14 million sales. And it wasn’t just Nintendo’s games. Just Dance is now a multi-million seller once again.

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Ring Fit Adventure has sold nearly 14m copies

It’s not quite the heady days of the Wii era. Wii Fit sold more than Ring Fit, and Just Dance hasn’t hit the heights of its early games. But there has been a noticeable increase in sales for dancing, party and fitness games.

Since the lockdowns have stopped, it’s not surprising to see those numbers drop. Yet the audience is still there. Last year’s Just Dance game, although significantly down compared to its lockdown predecessors, is still comfortably shifting over a million copies across Europe. In just six months, Just Dance 2022 has already sold 40% more copies than Just Dance 2018 did in its lifetime (GSD data).

Even Brain Academy is in the charts again. That latest game — Brain vs Brain — has been ever-present in the Top 20, and across Europe it’s outsold games like Metroid Dread, Monster Hunter Rise, and the Grand Theft Auto Trilogy. It’s also been backed by a celebrity TV ad featuring actor Neil Patrick Harris, making me nostalgic for when Patrick Stewart and Julie Walters promoted the DS original.

This isn’t 2007, but it’s clear that there’s a considerable and active audience of casual gamers on Nintendo’s hybrid machine.

We’re at an interesting point in the lifecycle of the Switch. It is into its sixth year and looks certain to become Nintendo’s longest serving console since the Game Boy. That 1990s classic enjoyed a lengthy lifecycle thanks to Pokémon, which simultaneously brought in new players and kept older audiences engaged. It’s rare for a single title to do that, and certainly not something you should expect. The usual strategy is to develop some titles for newer audiences you’ve yet to win over, and others to keep your existing fanbase engaged. In other words, make sure your schedule has a balance between Nintendo Switch Sports and Game Builder Garage, to sit alongside big sequels like Splatoon 3 or Breath of the Wild 2.

Nintendo Switch Sports launches this month

Nintendo Switch Sports launches this month

Nintendo Switch Sports has potential. The performance of Just Dance and Ring Fit highlights that, and it makes sense to add a casual sports game to that line-up. Yet the real opportunity is to win over even more of those old Wii customers. The original Wii Sports was a phenomenon. And its sequel Wii Sports Resort was also a massive success, selling over 33 million copies worldwide.

The lockdowns, which caused that resurgence in more casual players, may be over, but that doesn’t mean the opportunity is over. If you believe the press, it’s going to be a summer of parties and BBQs. Of families and friends reconnecting after years staying away. It’s potentially the perfect environment for a motion-controlled sports game.

It’ll also have another moment ahead of the Christmas party season, with Nintendo planning to add free DLC before the end of the year.

There’s little chance Nintendo Switch Sports will manage the sort of sales of its predecessors. But if it can deliver a good experience, it has the potential to be a more significant system seller than any new Zelda or Mario game.