South Korea’s PC gaming cafe market suffered a 25% decline in hours played in March due to the pandemic, but surprisingly the market has stabilized as players returned in April and the first week of May, according to market analyst Interpret.

The PC gaming cafe market is a huge part of the game industry in South Korea, as players have historically been more social and hang out at the cafes, dubbed PC bangs, rather than play in densely packed homes and apartments. But during the pandemic, sales of home PCs are rising, and more players are opting to play at home, said Jesse Divnich, vice president of research at Interpret and a fine Apex Legends player, in an interview with GamesBeat.

What explains this?

South Korea got hit hard early on by the coronavirus, but it has been opening its economy back up more recently as it has been able to reduce the rate of infections.

“During COVID-19, the PC cafes were not shut down. And a lot of people who had to self-quarantine still stayed engaged and played,” Divnich said. “It took a 25% hit, as some people migrated home and just played there. Gaming prevailed.”

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Interpret’s data shows that total average daily PC gaming hours played at cafés in South Korea fell from 5.65 million in February to 4.38 million in March, directly coinciding with the peak of COVID-19 cases in the nation. But in April, the daily gaming hours at PC gaming cafes were almost flat with March at 4.21 million while South Korea’s confirmed COVID-19 monthly cases fell sharply.

You would think that the country’s PC gaming cafes would be shut, as they were in China. But these places have managed to stay open. South Korea’s proactive measures to contain the outbreak were universally praised, and the country’s quick response might have saved the popular PC gaming café industry, Interpret said. One of the measures was widespread testing of the population.

Interpret estimates that average daily hours played at cafes in May will rebound from April, as the first-week data already shows a 9% increase in time spent.

Rising home PC playing

Divnich doesn’t think things will return to how they were, which explains why PC sales are rising for home consumers. “People probably felt safer at home. And they also probably had the means to buy their own PC rigs,” Divnich said. “The overwhelming majority still went, which is astonishing, right?

According to Danawa, a leader of online shopping services in the country, unit sales of assembled PCs jumped nearly 20% in the first quarter. When looking at year-over-year results in April, parts used to build PCs saw sales rose across the board, from 26% for keyboards to 34% for CPUs to 49% for RAM. Correlation should not be confused with causation, but Interpret suspects former PC gaming cafe patrons were just as engaged at home.

“We do think we are seeing a slow recovery,” Divnich said. “I don’t think we get back to the high levels that we’ve seen before because it is clear there are a lot of South Korean gamers that have chosen to buy their own PCs and therefore don’t need to go to PC cafes anymore. So this does look like the new normal.”