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The 10 most innovative gaming companies of 2021

From Sony and Microsoft to Herman Miller and Dapper Labs, the most exciting companies in gaming this year demonstrate the power and possibility of virtual spaces.

The 10 most innovative gaming companies of 2021
[Icon: Assignment Studios]
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Every generation of video-game consoles ushers in faster, more realistic titles. This year’s releases by Sony and Microsoft continue that trend. The PS5 and the Xbox Series X deliver unprecedented levels of realism, with graphics processors that simulate shimmering reflections on puddles, controller vibrations that evoke the feeling of running through sand, and game worlds that are as large and detailed as actual cities. But games didn’t simply become more lifelike in 2020. They also became more intertwined with our everyday lives. In the year where everyone sheltered at home, escapism was accessible to more kinds of people than ever, whether you dreamt of the fashion runways in Paris, a quiet pastoral island life, or literal escape (from Zombies, aliens, enemy soldiers, the list goes on). And gaming companies further worked their way into pop culture, from sports to fashion to movies.

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1. Microsoft

For subscribing to an anywhere, anytime gaming lifestyle

Microsoft is increasingly becoming the everyman’s gaming system. The company aims to empower Xbox fans to play any game, on any device, anywhere, anytime. In the past year, the software giant didn’t just launch its next-generation console, the Xbox Series X, it upgraded infrastructure, introduced new services, and made a sizable acquisition to bring its vision of gaming ubiquity closer to reality. Games on the Xbox Series X load faster than ever thanks to a screaming-fast solid state drive. Subscribers to Game Pass, Microsoft’s “Netflix for Games,” can now play over 100 Xbox games from any Android-powered mobile phone or tablet by tapping into the company’s xCloud streaming service. A feature called Smart Delivery upgrades games automatically and installs them on the owner’s new console—ready to resume play at the moment a player left off. In September, the company announced they paid $7.5 billion to acquire Zenimax Media, bringing games franchises like Elder Scrolls, Fallout, and Doom in house. For more on why Microsoft is a 2021 Most Innovative Company, click here.

2. Sony Interactive Entertainment

For leveling up yet again

Long the gaming industry’s paragon of polish and ingenuity, Sony’s gaming division burnished its reputation with new hardware and software in 2020 that built on what games can do—and who can play them. Its next generation console, the PlayStation 5, employs top-notch graphics processors that enhance how the game looks, its new controller employs haptic technology that changes how the game feels—making it possible for players to distinguish between the touch of a sandy surface versus a shiny metallic one. Games like Last of Us Part II, developed by Sony subsidiary Naughty Dog, added accessibility options to make the game playable and fun for players of any ability level, including those who are partially or fully blind (sonar-like pings relay the approach of menacing zombies). Meanwhile, Dreams, a game developed by Media Molecule (another Sony entity) makes it possible for players to crate anything from games to gadgets to puzzles and paintings with the title’s game-making toolbox and social network. For more on why Sony Interactive Entertainment is a 2021 Most Innovative Company, click here.

3. Nvidia

For enabling auteurs with cinematic graphics

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Graphics in video games have always lagged behind Hollywood CGI for a simple reason: time. Movie studios can spend weeks rendering each shadow and reflection in a given frame with intense attention to realism and detail; games have to render graphics on the fly, some 60 times every second, as the player moves through virtual space. NVIDIA’s RTX 30 series graphics chips close the quality gap between games and movies using a supremely clever chip design that combines traditional graphics processing with ray-tracing, a computationally intense process that can simulate how light beams reflect and refract off smoke, shimmering water, or high-sheen chrome. Meanwhile an AI-dedicated processing core finds shortcuts and workarounds to speed the process up to game-appropriate speeds.

4. Nintendo

For crossing into everyday companionship

If quarantining during the COVID-19 pandemic had an official pastime, it would be Animal Crossing: New Horizons. The easy-going, wholesome and social game, in which players plant a garden and decorate a home while making friends with a collection of friendly anthropomorphic animals, was exactly the kind of virtual escape many millennials and kids alike were looking for as they sheltered in place. The game’s social elements—users can visit one another’s island and pass the time with meditative, outdoorsy activities like chopping wood and fishing—provided a way for real-life friends to hang out with one another and feel a little close without violating social distancing rules.

5. Dapper Labs

For putting collectibles on the blockchain

The blockchain-based game developer behind CryptoKitties launched NBA Top Shot, a blockchain-based collectible game, in 2020. The game offers a blockchain twist on sports cards collectibles, by allowing users to buy, collect, and trade video-clip “packets” of top NBA players and moments—pointing toward a new future for sports memorabilia. This year one such blockchain-encrypted video, also known as a “moment”, of the Milwaukee Bucks power forward Giannis Antetokounmpo charging to the basket, sold from one collector to another for $1,999.

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6. Fnatic

For upgrading esports teams into elite status

The esports organization is building a lifestyle brand that is synonymous with gaming excellence while selling every aspect of it: Its stable of professional esports players win championships in massively popular games ranging from League of Legends to CS:Go, while using Fnatic’s line of performance gaming equipment (keyboards, mice, chairs) and wearing the company’s co-branded apparel and accessories, which it makes in partnership with fashion houses like Gucci. The company’s CEO, Sam Mathews, sees Formula One as an inspiration; in fact he made Nick Fry, the former CEO of the Mercedes AMG Formula One team, the company’s head of commercial strategy.

7. FaZe Clan

For elevating video games into pop culture

Rivals may deride the sprawling collective of content-makers and gamers as a Gen Z mashup, but the company’s massive reach is undeniable: FaZe Clan members play video games professionally in tournaments, stream their lives on platforms like Twitch, and make short-form videos for sites like YouTube. The company, led by Lee Trink, a music executive who was once president of Capitol Records, is expanding into novel and traditional forms of content alike, from podcasts on Spotify and clips on TikTok to film and television projects, such as Crimson, which was released in October. The collective is also making its talent for Zoomer whispering available to mass-market brands from Verizon to Nissan to Venmo.

8. Herman Miller

For fashioning the gamers’ throne

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Herman Miller’s first official gaming chair, the Herman Miller X Logitech G Embody, is a good chair for everyone. The design is based upon the company’s Embody chair, originally built for office work. Teaming up with Logitech, Herman Miller revamped the fit and finish, while updating the chair to reduce the pressure on your sit bones. Herman Miller also offers a $725 gaming version of its Sayl office chair, complete with the option for mix and match colors.

9. Hollow Ponds

For killing us softly with its quirky creations

In October, the U.K.-based developer released the critically acclaimed I am Dead, an offbeat game where you play as the ghost of a deceased museum curator in a quirky seaside town who can peer into the souls of objects and the memories people have of them. The calming and therapeutic game play, which encourages players to ruminate on the emotional aspect of artifacts, both personal and historic, proved to be a balm during a chaotic time. The game developer is also behind the quirky and beloved Wilmot’s Warehouse, which tasks players with organizing packages in a warehouse.

10. Drest

For dressing up high fashion into a video game

Gearhead gamers who dream of driving rare luxury cars have long been able to take Ferraris and McLarens for a virtual spin; finally fashionistas can do the same with real-life haute couture. Drest, a mobile game created by a former fashion editor, Lucy Yeomans, gives players a budget, a challenge, and then opens the door to a virtual fashion closet that include real pieces from the most recent collections of designers including Gucci, Prada, Chloe, and Stella McCartney. Players create their shoots, then rate one another’s work to win bigger budgets and access to additional hair, shoes, makeup and jewelry options; they can also purchase additional virtual spending money with real dollars or click a link to the Farfetch marketplace and purchase the real pieces themselves for considerably more.