Congratulations to the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One; you're both winning this console battle. As bizarre as that sounds, it's the only way to read the latest press releases from Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT ) and Sony (NYSE: SNE ) regarding their competing gaming systems.
We're No. 1!
Research firm NPD just published video game sales data on the month of November, which included the launch of the two next-gen systems and the critical Black Friday rush. Sony took a look at the numbers and labeled its PS4 as "the top selling console" and "#1 in sales overall." Microsoft came to just about the same conclusion on its own system, calling the Xbox One "the fastest selling console on the market," which is quickly "outpacing the nearest competitor."
Of course, these statements aren't mutually exclusive. The PS4 won November overall, partially because it launched a week earlier. Meanwhile, the Xbox One sold more units during the nine days it was available in the month. But that's not a fair comparison either, as it's weighing Xbox One's first week against the PS4's second week, which was probably held back by low supply. Plus, the two devices were first introduced in a completely different set of markets. All of that gray area makes the horse race impossible to judge, and it lets both companies get away with claiming to be in the lead so far.
What we really know
But here's the thing: None of it matters. Demand is still comfortably ahead of supply for both devices. For that reason, early sales numbers tell us more about production capabilities and supply chains than they do about gamer preferences.
The only thing we know for a fact right now is that millions of consumers want a PlayStation 4, and millions want an Xbox One. That shouldn't be too surprising, given that it's been eight years since these two giants refreshed their consoles.
So when will there be enough information to crown one device champion over the other? Maybe not for years. Remember that the lead changed a few times during the prior generation, with Nintendo's Wii outperforming the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 at times, before stumbling near the end of the cycle.
Still, once all of today's pent-up demand is satisfied over the next few months, the PS4 and Xbox One should begin selling at a steady sales pace that reflects the ongoing demand, giving us some useful points of comparison.
Until then, investors can be confident that the overall industry is the real winner here: It finally returned to sales growth on the software side in August, and on the hardware side last month. Despite the worries that gamers would abandon consoles in favor of tablets and smartphones, that doesn't appear to be happening: Sony and Microsoft helped push the video-game hardware market higher by 58% last month. December promises to be even better, and we won't need a photo finish to tell.
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