March 3, 2021



What Valve’s top Steam titles of 2020 say about the state of video games

Bethesda and id Software’s Doom Eternal was one of the highest-grossing 2020 releases on the Steam digital storefront. (id Software Image)

Valve Software announced the top 100 best-performing games of the year on its digital storefront Steam. While there aren’t many surprises, it further indicates that in the games industry, the concept of a simple end-of-year breakdown is quickly becoming a historical artifact. Many of the “games of the year” for 2020, especially on Steam, weren’t actually new releases.

The way that Valve presents Steam’s top sellers is an interesting counterpoint to many of the other end-of-the-year lists, which have naturally been more focused on what’s come out in the last 12 months. While Valve’s thumb is slightly on the scale here, since its own games like Team Fortress 2 are perennial high earners on its storefront, the Steam top 100 paints a fuller picture of the overall marketplace than a simple yearly top 10 can.

The latest list shows that in 2020, making money in game publishing isn’t just about finding an audience, particularly on the PC. It’s about keeping it for as long as possible, and the best-earning games on Steam have managed to hold their communities’ attention for years.

As usual, Bellevue, Wash.-based Valve measures a game’s annual performance by its gross overall revenue, rather than just individual unit sales. This includes content packs, expansions, cosmetic purchases, in-app paid currencies, and other assorted income streams. Valve also doesn’t provide hard-and-fast numbers on the subject, preferring to assign games into one of four categories – Platinum, Gold, Silver, and Bronze – based upon their overall financial performance. We know the overall top 12 games of the year, since they earned a Platinum rank, but not exactly how they did relative to one another.

As has become the norm, only a relative handful of 2020 releases were among the top-grossing games of the year. Of the 12 games that hit Platinum on Steam’s chart, only three – Doom Eternal, Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout, and Cyberpunk 2077 – actually came out in the past 12 months.

Expand that to the top 40 games overall, in Platinum, Gold, and Silver rank, and that only adds another five modern releases: Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord, Baldur’s Gate 3, Phasmophobia, Microsoft Flight Simulator, and Hades. Of the full top 100 for 2020, only 31 of them were released on Steam this year, and a handful of those are recent ports of older games, such as Hideo Kojima’s 2019 dream-logic adventure Death Stranding.

Valve also cut a deal with California-based mega-publisher Electronic Arts to bring some of its games to Steam back in early September, which were previously only sold via EA’s personal online storefront. The result is that some of Steam’s best-performing games this year are ports of some of EA’s highest recent earners, like The sims 4 and the head-to-head hero shooter Apex Legends.

The rest of the top 100 are an assortment of “games as a service,” which put out new content for their players year-round, ie Microsoft’s Sea of ​​thieves; titles with recent major expansions, like the free-to-play dungeon crawler Path of Exile; and a handful of perennial best-sellers, such as Grand Theft Auto V, The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, and the action-adventure sandbox Terraria, which released its fourth and final major update in May.

Defense of the Ancients 2, Valve’s multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA), was one of the best-earning games on Steam in 2020, as well as a popular esport. (DOTA 2 Image)

The highest-grossing games on this year’s Steam top 100 are, in the order Valve presented them:

  • DOTA 2, Valve’s own multiplayer battle arena
  • Doom Eternal, the latest installment in id Software’s classic series of shooters
  • Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout, a streamer-friendly competitive game where players try to be the last one to fall off a cartoonish obstacle course
  • Grand Theft Auto V, the # 2 best-selling game of all time, further buoyed by its multiplayer sandbox GTA Online
  • Monster Hunter World, the latest and most popular entry in Capcom’s best-selling fantasy survival series
  • Red Dead Redemption II, which was ported to Steam right at the end of last year
  • Rainbow Six: Siege, which successfully blends its series’s pseudo-realistic action with the “hero shooter” mechanics of something like Overwatch
  • Counter-Strike, Valve’s seemingly eternal head to head shooter
  • PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, the original “battle royale” experience
  • Among Us, this year’s sudden viral success story
  • Destiny 2, riding the release of its latest expansion, Beyond Light
  • Cyberpunk 2077, CD Projekt Red’s science fiction RPG

Some other Pacific Northwest high earners on Steam in 2020 include 343 Industries’ Halo: The Master Chief Collection, a compilation of the first four Halo games that made its belated Steam debut right at the end of 2019; Grounded, a Xbox Game Studios-published survival / adventure about kids who’ve been shrunk to microscopic size; ConcernedApe’s indie farming hit Stardew Valley, which pushed out a major content update on Monday with its 1.5 patch; Marvel’s Avengers, developed in Bellevue, Wash., by Crystal Dynamics, which charges players with rebuilding the famous superhero team; and Valve’s own Half-Life: Alyx, which recently cleaned up on industry awards as a virtual reality “killer app.”

2020 was a good year for Steam, as life under the COVID-19 pandemic left a lot of people without much else to do besides play more video games. The service broke its own record for concurrent player count three separate times over the course of the year, topping out at just under 24.7 million simultaneous users on Dec. 12. This is assumed to be related to the Dec. 10 launch of Cyberpunk 2077, one of the most anticipated games of the year, and which actually runs reasonably well on higher-end PCs.

Steam celebrated its 17th anniversary in September. Initially founded as a specialized client to make it easier for players of Valve-developed games like Half-Life to find and install software patches, Valve slowly evolved it into one of the first all-digital storefronts for PC games. Despite recent competition from Epic, Discord, GOG, and others, purchases on Steam are still estimated to account for a significant portion of PC game sales worldwide, with some analysts attributing as much as 18% of the overall market to Steam.