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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Game On: GameStop executive chairman wants to force consoles to support physical media

The Xbox Series S (pictured) and PlayStation 5 Digital Edition retail for $100-$200 less than their disc-drive-equipped counterparts. All games must be acquired via digital downloads, doing significant damage to GameStop’s profit margins.  (Microsoft Corp.)
By Riordan Zentler For The Spokesman-Review

GameStop executive chairman Ryan Cohen stirred up controversy earlier this month when he took to X (formerly known as Twitter) to state that “disc drives should be required on consoles.” Given two current-gen systems exist without a physical media slot – the Xbox Series S and PlayStation 5 Digital Edition – this is a pointed proclamation.

The comment was made in response to Apple’s impending shift from Lightning to USB-C ports on all their new devices, a decision which was forced upon them by legislation from the EU. Cohen called it a “big win for consumers,” who “have also invested their hard-earned money into physical video games.”

Without context, it would be easy to assume Cohen to be some paragon of consumer choice – but his ulterior motives on this subject are blatant and undeniable.

The once-dominant video game chain has been circling the drain for years now, recently reporting to its shareholders that it “only” lost $2.8 million in the most recent quarter rather than the projected $43 million, and compared to a whopping $108.7 million loss in the same quarter last year.

It’s hard to feel sympathy for GameStop. After Barnes & Noble bought FuncoLand in 2000 and merged it with Babbage’s to form GameStop, national video game storefronts began to change dramatically. Following its buyout of competitor EB Games in 2005, GameStop’s “deals” on used games, systems and peripherals gradually ceased to be enticing – consumers would save about 10% versus buying new.

I can’t recall a single positive experience at GameStop – their inventory is geared entirely toward brand-new releases, they consistently fumble pre-order bonuses and I’ve had multiple occasions where my “confirmed” day-one game wasn’t ready for me to pick up on day one. GameStop is also notorious for severely undervaluing trade-ins and employing a surprising number of staff who know very little about video games.

In early 2020, GameStop ordered its retail employees to keep stores open even in regions where full lockdowns were being implemented in the face of COVID-19, claiming “due to the products we carry that enable and enhance our customers’ experience in working from home, we believe GameStop is classified as essential retail.”

GameStop equipped its employees with this statement and instructed store managers to present the document to law enforcement as needed. This happened at the height of the pandemic, when many jurisdictions only permitted transit, police, fire, pharmacies, banks, health care, gas stations and grocers to remain open.

It would be hilarious if it weren’t so despicable. Whatever one’s opinions are on the lockdown measures, I think everyone can agree that not one GameStop employee was paid nearly enough to risk being arrested for the sake of selling video games on behalf of a corporation.

It’s ironic, then, for GameStop’s CEO to tacitly support the idea of legislating console manufacturers into including disc drives on all systems. Tragically, it’s pretty standard for corporations to only support the letter of the law when it’s beneficial – but it takes incredible audacity for a corporation to do this while also outright rejecting public health and safety orders.

Admittedly, GameStop is a victim of changing technology. It was established as a middleman, and in recent years, digital storefronts have become increasingly popular – the Entertainment Retail Association reports that 89.5% of game sales in 2022 were digital downloads, up from 74% in 2020. There is far less demand for a middleman.

Regardless, I struggle to believe GameStop would be suffering quite so much if its stores ever offered customers a decent deal. Digital storefronts have frequent sales, with some older titles being offered for as low as 90% off at times. The best deal you’ll ever get from GameStop is 20% off, and it definitely won’t be a Super Mario or Call of Duty game.

No major console manufacturer has made the decision to go all-digital – after all, consumers can purchase the Xbox Series X or standard PlayStation 5 – but Microsoft and Sony have made it no secret that it’s been considered internally as far back as 2012.

The next generation of consoles – likely to arrive around 2028 judging by previous cycles – may do away with physical media entirely. Should that happen, GameStop shall be well and truly doomed – if they haven’t gone under already.