Words: Lu-Hai Liang
It has been a rollercoaster ride for those looking to buy a PlayStation 5. In the UK, where many players remain loyal to the Sony brand, many have been left wanting. News sites run regular updates, noting when PS5s become available, while eager punters scan countless online retailers for a hint of stock. Walk into a brick-and-mortar store in any major British city and you've more chance of finding a brand-new PlayStation 2 for sale than a PS5.
But as demand continues to outstrip supply, PS5s have become a hot commodity, leading to inflated prices. A quick check on eBay show consoles for sale from £599.95 for a digital edition to prices pushing beyond £700 for disc versions. Popular second-hand-goods retailer CeX will also sell you the great white beast, but at greatly inflated prices. For context, recommended retail prices for the disc version PlayStation 5 are £449.99 in the UK and $499 in the USA, while the PS5 Digital Edition costs £349.99 in the UK and $399.99 in the USA.
A range of factors have led to this console crisis: pent-up demand for gaming consoles due to pandemic lockdowns in the UK, a swell of resellers and bots snapping up supply, and a global computer chip shortage have led to many being frustrated in their wish to update to the new generation of console gaming.
But in one country purchasing a PS5 seems relatively straightforward, simple even. According to both foreigners living in China - as well as console enthusiast locals - buying a PlayStation 5 in China is "easy."
"I check it daily," says Daniel Camilo, a video games consultant based in the southern Chinese metropolis of Shenzhen. Camilo is talking about taobao - China's equivalent to eBay - where he once bought an Xbox Series X. But as he is now preparing to purchase a PS5 he regularly scans listings on the ecommerce site, to keep track of prices. He sees "dozens of listings" daily, he says. For those listings he likes he'll add to his 'wishlist'.
These PS5s are almost always imported machines - from Hong Kong (a Special Administrative Region of China), Japan, or, less commonly, the United States. The average price of these imported PS5s are around 5300 to 5500 Chinese Yuan - which is £599 to £621.50. (The PS5's RRP in China is ¥3,899, around £440, for the disc version. However, the actual street price appears to have risen since the console launched in China.)
In addition, the official licensed Chinese PS5s are also available, with electronics retailers such as Sundan and the online store JD possessing stock, according to Camilo. Which is to say that yes, you can just buy a PS5 from a regular store in China right now, no desperate online rush or round-the-block queuing required. But for those in the know, it's the imported machines are more highly sought after, despite the premium, in order to get around China's region and online restrictions for games and PSN.
Michael Ashe, a Canadian computer science teacher based in Shanghai, said he bought his PS5 close to launch on December 16, 2020. He paid a premium, ¥5200, for the digital version from an online store. Ashe says his gamer friends in China have had options over the past year to buy a PS5, but that they were not willing to pay the surge prices.
"Prices have dropped," Ashe says, comparing current prices to earlier in the year. "Honestly, I think it's always been easy to get one here [in China], just people didn't want to pay that much."
For residents of China there could be various reasons why securing a PS5 might be relatively straightforward compared to elsewhere in the world - especially if you're willing to pay a premium. Chenyu Cui, a senior analyst for market research firm Omdia, says PS5s may not be selling out in China because of the high price, which "makes it much less urgent a purchase for most gamers, apart from a small group of hardcore players," she says.
However, perhaps the biggest reason why PS5s are not selling out like they are in the United States or United Kingdom might be because Chinese gamers are mostly not console gamers. Most Chinese gamers play on PC or mobile. Meanwhile, among consoles, it is actually the Nintendo Switch that enjoys the largest market share in China.
According to Niko Partners, a games market research firm and consultancy focused on Asia, China's console games software market only accounted for 2.1% of China's total mobile and PC and console games revenue in 2020. This means console games account for only a tiny slice of China's $43 billion games market.
There are good historical reasons for this: from 2000 until 2014 consoles were banned in China. They were banned because the government feared the consoles and their games would prove too addictive for its citizens (and we're still seeing that thinking in today's headlines, with strict restrictions on play sessions). This, however, meant online games became hugely popular, leading to an entire generation that have become accustomed to MMOs, or more casual fare such as browser games and sims (for farming or pets, for example).
But this also led to a shadowy economy. "There has always been a large grey market for consoles in China, especially during the console ban," says Daniel Ahmad, a senior analyst for Niko Partners, who focuses on China and Asia.
"We are seeing the grey market play a large role this year due to the global chip shortage. Chinese resellers are purchasing the Japanese and Hong Kong versions of consoles to sell them to gamers in mainland China," Ahmad said.
For Zhang Yang, a food content editor in Beijing, the PS5 was essential so he could make the most of his new TV setup (OLED; 4K). "I paid double and now it's still not easy to buy at the original price. But if you don't mind adding money, it's very, very easy," he says.
Born in 1987, Zhang remembers the early days of consoles in China, before the ban. "Back then most people couldn't afford a legal copy [of the SNES], and the SEGA Mega Drive was more popular not only because the console was easily hacked to run fake copies, but also people love the arcade games experience," he says. Today, Zhang is a fan of Sony's branding and games, and especially likes the PS5's DualSense controller.
The success of the PS2 and PS4 turned things around to Sony's favour, in China, among the hardcore console gamers of the country, as the grey market grew - but the PS5 hasn't been as popular so far due to its high price. Additionally, compared with the appeal of the Nintendo Switch, with its incredibly popular Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Sony is on the backfoot in terms of market share.
But for devotees of Sony's PlayStations, at least it's fairly simple to actually get hands on one and enjoy some DualSense action - although a deep wallet might still be needed.