The driving force behind the contest for the Christmas No. 1 is, of course, money. But it's not just the publishers that can win big if their title comes out on top. Thousands of punters place bets on the sales race year after year, hoping to win Christmas riches on the fortunes of their favorite franchises. Indeed, last month, as software sales broke all records, bets on the 2007 Christmas videogame No. 1 were up 220 percent on the previous year, making it the second largest seasonal bet after the No. 1 music single.
Sharon McHugh is Novelties Market Manager (aka "wacky wagers expert") at British betting agency Paddy Power. The company has been taking bets on the Christmas videogame No. 1 for five years now. She explains from where the ideas to take bets on this unusual medium first came: "It was obvious, really. We try to take an alternative approach when coming up with new betting markets. We'll bet on anything that interests our punters. At the time we were thinking of new ways to bet around Christmas. Videogames are such a huge talking point of Christmas. There are very few Christmas stockings that don't contain a videogame. As the years have gone by, the games are getting more advanced, and as new consoles continue to come out the videogames chart has evolved into a ferocious battle amongst developers to get to the No. 1 spot."
Not all of the bets are small wagers, either, as McHugh explains: "The largest bet we took was probably £2,000 ($3,953) on Need for Speed in 2006 at 8-to-13. The biggest win for any one customer was the punter who placed £300 ($593) on FIFA 07 last year at 8-to-1, winning himself £2,400 ($4,744). It was a terrible year for us in 2006, as we paid out on both Need for Speed and FIFA 07 for No. 1 videogame. The reason was simply because we did not make it clear enough what week we were settling on. As you can well imagine, we were very careful when setting the stipulations and settlement since."
With so many publishers risking their titles in the run up to Christmas (where there is a very real danger their title may still simply get lost in all the noise), it can be extremely tricky to predict the winners - especially for a betting company with no in-house experts. "It's a combination of things that contribute to coming up with the odds," explains McHugh. "First of all, we look at all the games releases that are scheduled from October to December. We research what publishers are behind each game (be it EA, Nintendo, Sony or Eidos) and what consoles they're available on - this makes a big difference, as we saw last year. Gears of War was hailed as one of the best games, but the fact it was only available on the Xbox 360 meant it was virtually impossible to get to No. 1 in the videogame charts.
"Sometimes we factor in marketing spend - the best recent example would be The Simpson's Movie. They were spending big bucks on promoting not only the movie but the videogame, too, and as a result the odds plummeted from 12-to-1 to 9-to-4. As well as taking into account past years' games performances and chart results, we look at reviews available in the industry and take a lot of the forumites' opinions. ... We also get expert opinions from folks in the industry. There are a lot of industry anoraks out there who know a hell of a lot more than we ever will."
Of course, to those who take a punt on the Christmas No. 1 at the betting shop, it's mostly just a bit of fun, an insignificant wager to add extra spice, drama and hope to the holiday. But to videogaming's heavyweight PR men and marketers, dominance of this most important season is of paramount importance, their title's chart position a clear measure of their successes and failures. As the industry continues to balloon in size and stature, it's a battle that will only intensify in coming years.
Simon Parkin is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.