Both the Xbox Series X/S and the PlayStation 5 have now been revealed, with their respective prices, launch line-ups and release dates disclosed. The world is ready for next-gen -- except, perhaps, for the biggest gaming market in the world, China. But is that really the case?
Xbox and PS5 coming to China?
While Microsoft has not publicly addressed the issue yet, Sony did mention China in its recent PlayStation 5 showcase when the release date and prices were announced -- "PS5 launch date for China is still under exploration and will be announced at a later date" could be read in small print when the launch dates for the rest of the world were displayed.
That the PS5 and the Xbox X/S wouldn't be available in China at the same time as other major markets doesn't really come as a surprise, as I explained in a previous article. While both the PS4 and Xbox One (and Nintendo Switch) have been officially launched in China with specifically targeted, region-locked machines, they arrived in the market years after being released elsewhere. Tight regulations and licensing issues for entertainment media and content in the country are the main reasons for that.
While the official versions of the consoles are available, they could never realistically challenge the appeal and availability of imported hardware, which largely outsells the licensed versions in this case. Imported consoles and games are easily available on e-commerce platforms like Taobao -- the biggest e-commerce platform in China -- and most console gamers in China simply acquire what they need there. Pricing isn't even an issue, as even these "smuggled" products generally match officially recommended prices for other markets, in particular the US and Hong Kong.
This is the part where I always feel the need to emphasize just how easy and common it is to find and buy imported games in China (that do not have a publishing license to be commercialized). By using Taobao, or other commonly used online platforms, one can order a physical edition of a game in the morning and still have it delivered in the same day, if ordering from a store in the same city.
There's nothing "shady" or secretive about it. Taobao is the de-facto online platform to buy virtually anything in China, and one simply needs to type the names of whatever games or consoles, and they will likely show up with detailed information displayed.
PS5 and Xbox Series X/S are already everywhere in China
While both Sony and Microsoft are not yet ready to release their new consoles in the country, Chinese consumers already have plenty of choices available to get their hands on the machines very soon after the official release elsewhere. For both the Xbox Series X and S, most sellers are accepting a 500 Yuan deposit (roughly US$ 73), while for the PS5 with the blu-ray player, the deposit is usually 1000 yuan (US$ 147), with 500 Yuan also being the current standard for the digital-only version.
Some games are also easy to find already, and all sorts of accessories are either becoming available for pre-order, or will very soon.
Where exactly will the consoles come from? Mostly from Hong Kong and Taiwan, but also from Japan, the US and other territories. It's hard to say as there is no clear authority tracking imported games and consoles sold in China -- simply because it would be virtually impossible to track, considering its not-legal-but-nobody-really-cares status.
One thing is certain: a considerable amount of hardware will be diverted from other markets into China. Countless traders are making sure of it, as I write this.
Will it have an impact on China's console market?
What this all means in practice is that the console market in China will remain as it is. Meaning, imported consoles and games will be the primary choice for most consumers, and once (if!) the consoles are actually launched in China, it will be already too late, just as it was for the Xbox One, PS4 and Switch.
By then, millions of consoles will be in Chinese households already, and whatever officially launched models may come, they will more likely than not have very strict restrictions, at the very least for the number of games available.
Since all console games in China are required to have a publishing license subject to the regulator's approval, a huge proportion of games don't stand a chance of being officially launched due to their content -- violence, gore, politically sensitive themes and/or references, paranormal and religious themes, and gambling mechanics are just some of the issues that could prevent a title from getting a license to be published in China.
As long as Chinese authorities don't effectively crack down on imports being sold online, China will continue to have most games and consoles available to interested consumers -- minus, of course, the official marketing and distribution support from the companies producing these products.
Daniel Camilo lives in Shenzhen. He is the overseas business developer for Apptutti, a specialist in publishing games in China.