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How 'Animal Crossing' and the coronavirus pandemic made the Nintendo Switch fly off shelves

How the Nintendo Switch became the hottest video game console in America
How the Nintendo Switch became the hottest video game console in America

The coronavirus pandemic and resulting stay-at-home restrictions unsurprisingly led to American shoppers stocking up on various essentials — like toilet paper, hand sanitizer and non-perishable foods. 

But other less obvious items have also flown off shelves in recent months, with millions of people cooped up in their homes for long periods and desperate for new ways to pass the time. The result has meant shortages of products like baking supplies and even jigsaw puzzles, while video game companies have also seen a record sales surge.

Nintendo has been one of the companies to see a surge in demand during the coronavirus pandemic. Sales of the Japanese gaming giant's popular Switch console more than doubled in March 2020, compared to the same month a year earlier, according to market research from the NPD Group. (In comparison, other leading gaming consoles like Microsoft's Xbox One and Sony's PlayStation 4 saw their sales jump by 25% in March, according to NPD.)

One major factor that contributed to the surge in Switch sales was the release, on March 20, of the massively popular "Animal Crossing: New Horizons" game. 

A social simulation video game, where players interact with other gamers on an island while collecting and building items, "Animal Crossing: New Horizons" was an immediate success, selling more than 13 million copies in the first six weeks after its release to become the Switch's fastest-selling game title ever.

Nick Fiondella is a gamer who regularly plays "Animal Crossing: New Horizons" while streaming to his more than 170,000 followers on the live-streaming platform Twitch. He attributes the game's widespread popularity, in part, to the fact that it is a "super casual" game that is relaxing and filled with opportunities to meet other online players within the game. Those aspects help the game appeal to both hardcore Nintendo fans as well as more casual players, Fiondella says.

"'Animal Crossing' came out when the lockdown started [and] if you were not a gamer, this was a game that you could still get into," he says.


In fact, virtual "world building" games that include social interactions, like "Animal Crossing," can especially be a draw during a stressful time such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Those types of games allow players to continue to socialize virtually, even while they remain in physical isolation for long periods of time, while also offering an escape from the stresses of the outside world, a psychology professor previously told CNBC Make It.

Of course, Nintendo's Switch was already popular with gamers before the pandemic hit and  "Animal Crossing" came out. Having sold more than 55 million consoles in total since the Switch was released in 2017, as of the end of March, the Switch has helped reinvigorate Nintendo's brand while allowing the company to better compete for gaming customers with Sony and Microsoft.

But interest in "Animal Crossing: New Horizons," which is only available on Switch, combined with people needing more indoor activities during quarantine, certainly helped fuel a surge in recent demand for the console.

In fact, the Switch sales spiked so quickly that many retailers have sold out of the consoles completely, forcing gamers looking to snag a Switch to look to online marketplaces like eBay and Amazon Marketplace, where prices for the console on some sites have surged as high as more than double the Switch's standard price of $299.99.

It doesn't help that business shutdowns stemming from the global pandemic have disrupted Nintendo's supply chain and resulted in production delays, the company said in early-May. As a result, Nintendo has not been able to restock stores that are sold out of the Switch, which puts the company in a tough spot as it is currently unable to capitalize on increased demand for its gaming consoles. 

That might not change until summer, at the earliest, as Nintendo is reportedly hoping to replenish Switch supplies by June. The company also reportedly plans to eventually increase its overall production of Switch consoles for the year by 20%, to 22 million consoles, according to Japanese newspaper Nikkei.

For more on how Nintendo's Switch became such a hot item, watch the video embedded above.

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