Will a Pro model open Switch's second act in 2021? | Opinion
Nintendo was likely forced to shelve any planned hardware revisions -- but pushing the rumoured Switch Pro into 2021 may be a great commercial decision
All the way back in January -- in a very different world that somehow simultaneously feels like it was five minutes ago and also several decades ago -- rumours swirled that Nintendo was going to follow up the successful launch of the Switch Lite in 2019 with a step in the other direction; a "Switch Pro" console that would boost performance, battery life and, crucially, display resolution, bringing 4K display support to the device for the first time.
It all seemed very credible, from the contents of the rumour itself to the line-up of sources behind it. But then 2020 happened, and indeed continues to happen, and the chances of Nintendo pulling off a significant new hardware launch went flying out the window.
Here we are almost nine months later and the carousel has come around again; Switch Pro rumours are once again the talk of the town, with the delayed device now supposedly aiming at an early 2021 launch window. A cynic might wonder if this hardware is becoming something of a great white whale -- lots of people talking about how they've glimpsed it, little evidence that it's actually going to surface -- but Switch Pro is a pretty different beast to vapourware of the past.
"A cynic might wonder if this hardware is becoming something of a great white whale"
It seems fairly likely that it actually was planned for a 2020 launch, just as January's rumours suggested. But as Chinese factories shut down in the early months of the year and Nintendo started to face huge challenges in keeping up with demand for the existing Switch hardware, retooling factory lines to produce an as-yet-unannounced new hardware variant would have been one of the first things to get shoved off the bottom of the priority list.
Switch Pro thus moves into 2021 -- still in the world of rumours and speculation, of course, but also firmly in the "that makes sense" column. On the surface, this just means that there's been a delay of six to nine months in the new hardware's launch plans, but that could be a much more interesting factor than it initially appears. This year, it goes without saying, has been weird; weird in ways that have upset various apple carts around next-gen launches, and in the process, I think, potentially opened up a significant competitive opportunity for updated Nintendo hardware -- with the right launch plan and support, at least.
This is a bit of a 180 degree turn for me, I should say. Last time I thought about the Switch Pro was back in January, just after Kantan Games' Serkan Toto included a Pro launch in his predictions for 2020 for this very site. At the time, though I hadn't personally heard any kind of insider scuttlebutt around this topic, I agreed that this was probably accurate -- betting against Serkan's Nintendo insights is rarely wise to begin with -- but I wasn't sure how big a deal a Switch Pro would actually be.
To be specific, I wasn't convinced it would be the kind of game-changing, demographic-expanding launch that the Switch Lite had proved to be for the platform. Where the Lite solved a number of problems that had been a barrier to entry for potential Switch consumers and created a whole new tier for the console, the Pro seemed to be more of a luxury upgrade for a minority of existing users.
"The first half of 2021 seems likely to feature multiple, heavy-hitting first-party titles in relatively close succession"
Shifting the Pro launch into 2021 changes things somewhat. The original position that would have been occupied by Switch Pro would essentially have been: "Xbox Series X and PS5 are here, with all their fanfare, but here's a more expensive Switch that can cope with 4K displays!" It's not the worst pitch in the world, but it would be hard to escape the sense of being a product designed to plug up a single criticism of the platform rather than to really boost it in the face of enhanced competition from competitors' new hardware. By comparison, the (entirely speculative) new position of Switch Pro looks significantly stronger -- partially due to the reorganisation of Nintendo's broader schedule, and also due to the comparative weakness likely to be experienced by rival console launches.
Let's talk for a second about that broader schedule. It's not unreasonable to assume that Nintendo at this point is starting to get a handle on what the development timelines for its major titles look like in the wake of COVID disruption -- which has at least somewhat settled down in Japan -- and one strong possibility is that it's actually looking at a very packed slate in early 2021 right now. So much so, in fact, that it might look somewhat like a launch window slate, and it feels like it's not entirely a coincidence that talk of a Switch Pro is being resurrected just as that schedule would start to be firmed up.
The first half of 2021 seems likely to feature multiple, heavy-hitting first-party titles in relatively close succession. If combined with updated hardware and a major marketing push, it would effectively make this period into a "reintroduction" of the Switch as a viable, up-to-date competitor to the newly launched next-gen systems. Indeed, the Switch back catalogue, combined with several new major titles, would likely leave competitors' offerings in the dust in terms of software appeal, at least during that time period.
"Switch Pro doesn't need to go toe to toe with PS5, but it does need to make a solid case for itself"
Another key question is whether the delay to the Pro might also have given the company an opportunity to upgrade some aspects of the new console. Considering the prospect of a Switch Pro in 2020 back in January, I was concerned that the new hardware -- tied as it would be to NVIDIA's Tegra roadmap to a large extent -- wouldn't offer the kind of boost in performance and features people might expect from a mid-lifespan update like this. Moving to more recent Tegra silicon at that point would certainly have given the console the ability to push enough pixels for 4K support, but it would be a stretch to expect the kind of all-round boost to performance (especially in undocked mode) that came from the PS4 Pro / Xbox Series X upgrades.
Generally with Nintendo consoles we don't care too deeply about specs, for fairly good reason -- but a console selling itself as a faster, better version of an existing device doesn't really have much else upon which to base its appeal. A delay into 2021 arguably makes it more possible that Nintendo and Nvidia have managed to make a notable upgrade to the device, perhaps integrating some of Nvidia and TSMC's design and process innovations from the more recent Xavier and Orin SoCs back into the Tegra architecture.
Switch Pro doesn't need to go toe to toe with PS5 or anything like that -- that's entirely not the point of the Switch platform -- but it does need to make a solid case for itself both to existing Switch owners wondering whether to upgrade, and to 4K TV owners who have held off on Switch due to picture quality concerns. If advancing technology, improving yields and falling costs make a 2021 Switch Pro more capable than its hypothetical 2020 version would have been, that could make a big difference to the viability of the new hardware.
The prospect laid out by this week's rumours is overall a more appealing one than the notion of a 2020 Switch Pro launch ever was; a new device, potentially representing a solid leap in power and functionality over the existing Switch line-up, appearing in early 2021 during what's likely to be a market lull after the initial hype around PS5 and XSX quiets down, and crucially, supported by a steady beat of major first-party titles that have been pushed back and somewhat crowded together on the schedule by 2020's disruptions.
If anyone has wondered how Nintendo can continue the momentum of its console past the next-gen launches and keep the platform relevant and vital in the years to come, this seems like a pretty solid way to open Switch's second act.