Cryptocurrency Mining Could Destroy PC Gaming as We’ve Known It
According to a recent report, Nvidia is increasing the supply of GTX 1650 cards to the desktop consumer market after having prioritized the GPU for notebooks. This is good news. The GPU market is so overheated, we’re currently recommending readers look at cards like the eight-year-old R9 290 or R9 290X if they have to buy one. Any improvement in this situation, including increased availability of low-end cards so that people have something to purchase, is a positive development.
Increased availability of a bottom-end Turing with no ray tracing capability, or a relaunched GTX 1050 Ti, however, is not exactly what PC gaming is supposed to deliver. Supplies of Ampere and RDNA2 GPUs remain extremely tight, with recent reports from ODMs such as Asus and MSI stating the situation has gotten worse. Some of these problems are reportedly caused by yield issues at Samsung, some by the pandemic-driven semiconductor shortage, and some by new demand in cryptocurrency mining. It isn’t clear how much responsibility should be assigned to each, but reports now indicate the GPU shortage might not improve until 2022.
Shortages are tolerable in the short term. So long as your GPU doesn’t die outright, it’ll keep offering acceptable performance in older titles, and plenty of people have a backlog of older games they’ve never played. In the short term, cryptocurrency mining is an annoyance. In the long term, it could be an existential threat to PC gaming as we’ve known it since the invention of the GPU. I am not arguing that PC gaming would die — I don’t see that happening — but it could change a great deal, and not for the better.
When prices of a good or service rise above what the market can bear, people look for alternatives. In this case, the alternatives to PC gaming are consoles such as the Switch, the PlayStation 5, and Xbox Series X, and cloud gaming services such as Stadia or GeForce Now. The three consoles are suffering from their own shortages and scalping problems, but the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 are now much less expensive than a graphics card on eBay.
An RTX 3070 ought to be a $400 GPU. They’re currently selling on eBay for between $1,200 and $1,700. An Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5 will set you back $750 to $850 based on a survey of recently sold listings on eBay. So long as console prices keep trending downward and GPUs don’t, the gap will only grow.
This problem is somewhat compounded by the ray tracing issue. Right now, turning ray tracing on in an AMD or Nvidia GPU carries a heavy performance hit that isn’t always mitigated by 1080p. Both Ampere and RDNA2 offer more ray tracing performance at a lower price than Nvidia debuted with Turing in 2018, but gamers who specifically want ray tracing cards have to buy in at a higher price point if they also want acceptable performance. The PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X support ray tracing out of the box, at a much lower price point than you’d pay for Ampere or RDNA2.
These results from our 6700 XT review show how heavy the hit can be. Turning on ray tracing on an RTX 2080 or 6700 XT can tank the frame rate depending on the game. Gamers who want ray tracing, even in 1080p, need to buy a higher-end GPU that can handle it.
What Happens When PC Gamers Can’t Buy New GPUs Long-Term?
Not all PC gamers build their own hardware and not all builders game. But considerable overlap exists between gamers and the DIY market, especially if you include people who might buy an OEM PC but upgrade the GPU. If the add-on board market for PCs stays this way, we’re looking at a future where paying OEM prices for component upgrades looks like the sane option. This does not bode well for the DIY gaming market or the CPU retail channel. If enough gamers are cut off from buying upgrades, developers will respond by targeting the capabilities PCs have, not those they don’t.
It’s tempting to say that this is a short-term problem that will work itself out, but this is the third cryptocurrency-driven shortage in seven years. By the time we hit Pascal’s five-year anniversary in May, the GPU market will have been overheated and overpriced for 29 out of 60 months. AMD and Nvidia may wind up launching replacements for RDNA2 and Ampere without the current generation ever being widely and regularly available at MSRP.
High GPU prices won’t kill PC gaming outright, but the sustained loss of access to high-end 3D hardware would fundamentally change the types of games we’re able to play. One reason why desktop GTX 1650 cards have a chance in hell at sticking around is that their 4GB VRAM buffers and small core counts make them less likely targets for mining. PC gaming drove the GPU market for decades, and now gamers are forced to hunt around its edges for the scrap the cryptocurrency market doesn’t want.
In a worst-case scenario, where GPU prices stay high and keep gamers locked out of the market, we’d see changes in the types of games people launched on PC. There’d be fewer AAA titles but most likely a thriving indie scene. One can even imagine AMD and Intel buffing their integrated GPUs in an attempt to partially compensate.
Persistently high consumer GPU prices might also push gamers towards cloud services en masse. This would still count as destroying “PC gaming as we’ve known it,” but it’s not the same thing as literally destroying PC gaming. There have been several “as we’ve known it” events in the past, including the invention of 3D acceleration itself.
I do believe GPU prices will eventually come down. The pandemic shortages will ease. The crypto market will almost certainly implode again. But if the next five years look like 2016-2021, we’ll be writing about how GPUs have spent less than half of an entire decade available for sale at MSRP, come 2026. The best-case outcome, if cryptocurrency mining remains a high and irregular source of demand, is that PC upgrade cycles also become highly irregular and kick off when crypto mining is unprofitable, with at least some gamers shifting to various cloud services for AAA titles. The worst-case outcome is that people abandon the hobby altogether in favor of other devices.
Either way, we’re looking at a situation where unchecked demand further slows the pace of progression in PC gaming by choking off new hardware sales to actual gamers. Nobody wants to be left holding the bag when the bubble pops and all that extra capacity isn’t needed. This makes foundries nervous about building out to meet the needs of a cryptocurrency market that might shrink 50-75 percent by this time next year or the year after that.
The kind of damage I’m referring to happens over multiple years. It shows up over time, and it’ll be illustrated by people hanging on to cards much longer than they have before. The most ominous aspect of our current situation is the implication that GPU prices might stay elevated for at least 15 months (counting from Ampere’s launch in September 2020). That’s a longer period of time than either of the previous cryptocurrency bubbles lasted. It’s long enough for people to get tired of waiting and buy something else.
Companies like Nvidia, AMD, and Intel are all making huge amounts of money thanks to ongoing high demand, but don’t be fooled. AMD reported strong results for its Radeon business when the first cryptocurrency bubble inflated, but its market share was dropping like a rock at the same time. In the case of crypto mining, what’s good for GPU manufacturers and what’s good for gamers appear to be two different things. None of what’s happening in the market right now is good for PC gaming if you like the way it works now.