Nintendo’s Switch may have made the company that created Mario cool again, but for many gamers console competition has always been about two brands: Sony’s PlayStation, and Microsoft’s Xbox.
The battle between this pair has been as partisan as any football rivalry, with devoted fans picking the product of their favourite corporation and defending it to the hilt – while dropping thousands of pounds on software and accessories. But how and when did this face-off come about, and evolve into the billion-dollar battle it is today? Our 33-year timeline charts the complete history of video gaming’s most heated turf war.
Winter 1988: Inauspicious beginnings
There’s a reason we mentioned Nintendo to kick things off. The Play Station (note the space) is first dreamed up by Sony in collaboration with the biggest name in Japanese gaming, as a CD-Rom add-on for the Super Nintendo.
The machine is revealed at 1991’s Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas. One day later, Nintendo announces it’s switching partners, dropping Sony in place of Phillips. The former sets to work turning Play Station into its own standalone console.
December 1994: PlayStation launches
After three years of further development, Sony launches the first PlayStation – now all one word – in Japan, the Nintendo relationship long over. It sells 100,000 units on day one.
North American and European launches come eight months later. The popular machines shift 800,000 units in the US alone by Christmas 1995. Classic early hits include racer Wipeout and action-adventure Tomb Raider, immediately turning protagonist Lara Croft into a household name.
1997-1998: PlayStation domination
A huge cultural breakthrough for Sony, as its debut console smashes hard into the entertainment mainstream like none before it.
Paramount Pictures nabs the film rights for Tomb Raider, Ross and Joey play Twisted Metal 2 in Friends, Simon Pegg hallucinates from an all-night Resident Evil 2 session in Spaced, and 80% of movie-set living rooms contain the recognisable and sleek grey box nestled teasingly beneath a ginormous telly.
Sometime in 1998: Microsoft makes plans
Microsoft boss Bill Gates assembles a four-man console-manufacturing dream team, nervous that the upcoming PlayStation 2 is likely to eat into the company’s home-computer user base with its rumoured abilities to play CDs and DVDs.
Sure enough, PS2 launches in Japan in March 2000 and by year’s end has shifted 6.4 million copies worldwide, with the help of essential sports sim Madden NFL 2001, cult-hit snowboarder SSX, and four-player fighter Tekken Tag Tournament.
November 2001: Xbox arrives
With rival PS2 edging towards 25 million sales, Microsoft’s black box finally lands in North America. The first Xbox sells 1.5 million units within six weeks, and will eventually notch 24 million worldwide in its lifetime – but at a loss of $4 billion, given the machines’s staggeringly expensive manufacturing cost.
Still, powerful brand names are born – not just the console, but software such as racer Forza Motorsport, and sci-fi shooter Halo, too.
November 2006: A Sony setback
After a decade as undisputed pop-culture heroes, Sony gambles on the complex and expensive ($499 for a basic model!) PlayStation 3. Indifferent feedback gifts Microsoft an open goal, which it accepts ruthlessly.
Having launched a full calendar year earlier, Xbox 360 spends the mid-2000s hammering its rival, clocking up 9.3 million sales by September 2007 – well ahead of PS3’s 5.63 million haul.
Winter 2008: Planning ahead
Wounded by the adverse reaction to PS3 after so many years as top dog, Sony lead architect Mark Cerny gets to work on the follow-up machine.
The company sends a questionnaire to third-party developers asking what they want most, and works with Bungie – developer of Microsoft’s Halo shooter series – to improve its controller design, for the console that will eventually become known as PlayStation 4.
January 2010: Neck and neck
With popular games such as FIFA 10, Call of Duty: World at War and Grand Theft Auto IV available on both formats, PS3 and Xbox 360 start the noughties on an even keel. Sony has edged back ahead of its rival sales-wise, but only narrowly – both formats will continue to sell well for the next decade.
PS3 ends the decade on 87.4 million units sold, to Xbox 360’s 84 million. However, neither manages to surpass PS2: as of 2021, that’s still the all-time best seller at over 155 million units.
November 2013: A winter of disc content
A new precedent is set ahead of Christmas 2013, with both Sony and Microsoft consoles launching weeks apart from one another. PS4 drops in North America on 15 November; Xbox One lands worldwide on 22 November; Europe gets PS4 on 29 November.
Yet while both consoles make huge technical strides, it’s all a bit of a farce for the paying customer. Demand far outstrips supply on both sides of the Atlantic, making for lots of unhappy faces come Christmas morning.
2017-2020: Sony pulls away (again)
The mid-to-late-noughties see PS4 develop a reputation as the go-to console for exclusives. Treasure-hunting action-adventure Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, apocalyptic survival game The Last of Us Part II, and incredible baseball simulation MLB The Show are only available on Sony’s machine, and help give it an unassailable sales lead.
At the close of the decade PS4 has sold 108.9 million units, to Xbox One’s 46.9 million.
November 2020: History repeats itself
Microsoft’s Xbox Series X and Sony’s PS5 go on sale within one day of each other, and both consoles score praiseworthy reviews for their uncannily lifelike visuals and lightning processor speeds. But like seven years beforehand there aren’t enough consoles to go round, with pandemic restrictions denting availability further.
Six months later, both machines remain painfully tough to track down, making this a console war which – at least in the present – has considerably more losers than winners.