We're just four months away from the launch of Google Stadia, a 100 percent console-free video game system that will let users stream games on almost any device they already own.
We're also right in the middle of a raging debate about its chances for success.
Serious gamers and technophiles are some of Stadia's most vocal pre-launch skeptics. But, while some of them ask smart questions, they're also in the worst possible position to appreciate the clear advantage Google Stadia will have over current video game platforms.
That's a paradox for sure. But this single, unappreciated advantage means Stadia has a great chance to emerge as the worldwide leader in the $140 billion video game market -- ultimately even leaving Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo in its wake.
Greetings, 99 million Americans
To understand the advantage Google is bringing to the market with a no-console gaming system, you just need to step back and do the math.
In the United States, about 211 million people currently play video games. That's almost two-thirds of the population. (We'll focus on U.S. numbers since they're readily available.)
The breakdown goes like this, according to a recent industry study:
- 90 percent play on their phones or tablets (189 million)
- 52 percent play on laptops or desktop PCs (110 million)
- 43 percent play on consoles (90.3 million)
- 9 percent play on handheld systems (19 million)
Again, simple math: Subtract the people who play on consoles from the total number of people who say they're into playing video games, and you get a potential market -- in the United States alone -- of 99 million people. That's 57 percent of the market without a console preference.
That's who I think Google is in a great position to capture with Stadia: the strong majority of gamers who can get sucked into games as much as anyone else, but who just haven't been willing to spend money (and time) on yet another electronic device.
In other words, there's a giant market of less-hardcore gamers who might very well make the leap -- if only they could do so without buying a console.
Don't think. Just react.
There's another part of this: the impulse purchase factor.
This casual gamer market isn't as sexy as the hardcore gamer market (even though it's much bigger).
They've been playing lower-quality, less-exciting games than they could if they had a console, sure. Heck, most of them haven't even heard of Stadia yet, and they probably couldn't tell you the difference between a PS4 and an Xbox.
If Stadia can become their go-to choice, then Google doesn't need that many of the hardcore gamers (who are emerging as its critics) to hop on board, except maybe for social proof in the early days, and to attract developers and top titles.
Even that can be overcome pretty easily, if you're willing to throw money at the problem. And Google has giant pockets.
After that, Stadia becomes more vital with every new gamer who signs up, even on a complete whim. Ultimately, it's a market-defining opportunity to attract devoted new customers, before they've even tried the competition.
Attack of the cannibals
The irony is that Google would have been far less likely to develop Stadia if it had already had enjoyed success with a console.
That's because a company that already had a giant console business -- like say, Microsoft, Sony, or Nintendo -- would only be cannibalizing its own product by mimicking Google's no-hardware plan.
Maybe those competitors will ultimately head in that direction if Google lives up to its potential, or if manufacturing and importing consoles and hardware becomes even more of an unprofitable headache.
Of course, nothing is guaranteed. Google has a big advantage, but it could squander it. We've seen this happen before.
And I'm still convinced that the biggest potential Achilles heel here is bandwidth and streaming. Google's wishful thinking about how Internet service providers will react could easily prove insufficient.
But if Google is right and that won't be a big problem, or if it figures out a creative solution, it could be uniquely poised to dominate. It's all hiding in plain sight, because the customers who matter, and who could ultimately make it very successful, haven't even heard of it yet.