Over the past two decades, the console release night has asserted itself as a cultural force to be reckoned with. Crowds gather across every electronics retailer, not just in the U.S., but abroad. The emotions on display cover some of the deeper ways humans are capable of feeling. Launch events are held throughout the country for gamers, whether that means a “rather raucous rave” in Los Angeles or a SoHo club night in New York. Before console drops take place, the companies behind these systems deliver grand keynote events, which immediately capture the attention of the tnternet.

This year’s biggest game-related purchase is without a doubt Sony's PlayStation 5. News stations prepare segments whenever Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo are ready to release their next piece of hardware, but regardless of the year or console iteration, the same broad statement is made: We are entering a new era. So what exactly does that look like during a pandemic showing no signs of slowing down, when the world largely remains at home?

The PS5 is set to release on November 19, one of the uglier nights of the past month. New York City has been gray all day and a drizzle forms early. By the time the sun sets at 4:30 p.m., the drizzle has turned into a solid rain. Due to the global pandemic, electronics retailers have attempted to limit mayhem and crowds by making the PS5 available exclusively through online pre-orders. The route for tonight is ambitious but pales in comparison to what gamers in the past have done

I leave my apartment at 6:30 p.m. and head over to the Atlantic Terminal mall near downtown Brooklyn. It is pouring. My first stop is Target. The store is relatively packed with customers looking to buy everything but a PS5. As far as the general atmosphere goes, it feels like a standard Wednesday evening—there are a couple of paper notices around the Sony aisle that reiterate all the information I knew beforehand.

PlayStation 5 release night sign
Image via Will Gendron
PlayStation 5 release sign
Image via Will Gendron

GameStop has a couple of patrons inside but looks like it would under normal circumstances. The lone associate mentions there “have been a lot of questions” and that “we actually had one dude who had his camping stuff and asked if he could stay in the mall or outside in the parking lot.” Luckily for the associate, his PS5 is already secured and he plans on grabbing it at work the next day. “Something has to go well in 2020.”

Maybe the days of staking a location out hours ahead of a console release are behind us. Before going into Manhattan, I stop by a GameStop on Fulton Street. One person sits on an American-flag-themed lawn chair under the awning—his name is Lewis. Lewis tells me he secured his PS5 in October and has been waiting in the rain since 8:30 p.m. He seems doubtful about a future with no physical console releases. “Sony will release another one. They innovate too much—more space, different colors. That’s how they catch the consumer.” Advancements in cloud and VR gaming technology do not faze him, though. “I haven’t touched no VR,” he says. “I don’t play none of that VR porno stuff. I’m good.” He maintains this would be the last camp-out due to age. Lewis looks to be in his 40s and is sitting in the rain amid a global pandemic for a product that could have been delivered to his home. I assume he will be doing the same thing whenever the next PlayStation comes out. 

PlayStation 5 release night
Image via Will Gendron
PlayStation 5 release night sign
Image via Will Gendron

The scene in Manhattan is barren—out of five stores I visit, zero people await. When I return to Lewis’ setup, he is about to go home. “It’s not happening at midnight; it’s dropping at 10 a.m. tomorrow.” If Lewis is giving up, that means it’s over. I go home to rest.

At 7 a.m. the next day, I see a PS5 for the first time in the flesh. Someone exits the Atlantic Terminal mall Best Buy holding one. The box is the size of a small suitcase. There’s a store associate who is letting people inside on a by-appointment basis. No email confirmation, no PlayStation. The line is small; only a couple of people wait outside, including a man in his 50s who is pacing around the entrance. The associate apparently told him about “five extra consoles.” There’s no way he scores a PS5, but his heart is in the right place. “I don’t know much about it, but grandkids bring you out here. They want to play the Call of Duty.” 

Back at the Fulton Street GameStop, a handful of people have gathered; Lewis is among them. A crowd member tells me he has been there since 6 a.m. “First thing I’m gonna do is an unboxing for my YouTube channel, set up Astro’s Playroom, and then hit the gym.” Gamers are a disciplined group. When asked about his approach to unboxing, he has a method laid out: “I’m gonna take my time; it’s a beautiful box.”

Reselling comes up and another crowd member who plans on flipping his PS5 for an Xbox Series X, joins us. The two met at a different pre-order and start pointing out how they know everyone else in the crowd. “Gaming brings people together, man.” They are open to the possibility of a console-less future. “I like to be up to date. I don’t like being a dinosaur; when that time comes, I’ll be ready for it.” Our conversation drifts towards the current generation of gamers, who are spending this day in the comfort of their homes, trying to beat automation software or run it themselves. “A lot of people are pampered. They’re sitting with five bots running, ready to scoop up five consoles. That’s not cool. People like us put in that grind. It’s the experience.”

PlayStation 5 release night
Image via Will Gendron

There is another GameStop within walking distance on Court Street, and a few people are standing outside. This new group has been here since 5 a.m. because they do not have pre-order confirmations. Despite no realistic way of landing a PS5, they are hype. Their view on reselling is also more severe. “Hell no,” one responds when asked if they had plans to flip the PlayStation 5. “Why would we stand out here all morning just to resell? That’s a waste of time. To me, that’s corny. Basically, you’re wasting time you can never get back.” They keep reiterating that GameStop is going out of business and cannot afford to turn down money. Another person trickles in during the conversation, saying this is the first time they’ve waited in line for something hours in advance.

PlayStation 5 release night
Image via Will Gendron

I head back to the first GameStop closer to the 10 a.m. opening. At this point, the crowd is an animated group of 30. Everyone has massive tote bags ready to store their PS5s. An associate arrives to unlock the front gates while the crowd quickly forms a line without much commotion. A few people at the front hold the place of someone who dipped out momentarily. The excitement is palpable as people begin entering the store, five at a time. Handshakes and daps are given out as congratulations. One line member FaceTimes a friend who came up short on every online drop. Another man in the middle says he isn’t wasting any time once he gets his. “I’m trying to get my shit and bounce. I gotta go live on Twitch and test it out.” For the first time, it feels like any other release date.

PlayStation 5 release night
Image via Will Gendron
PlayStation 5 release night
Image via Will Gendron

With that, it's time to catch up with the trio from the Court Street location, who have been replaced by an entirely new line of people. No one has seen them. Before I go home, the first customer exits the store holding his PS5. I ask him how it felt to be No. 1. “Oh, I don’t know, man. I woke up. I got here. [I] was second in line, but the first guy left. I used to wake up at 3 a.m. to get Comic-Con tickets, but it’s not worth it.” 

PlayStation 5 release night
Image via Will Gendron

Enduring the grind of a console release night is not just an exercise to own the latest piece of technology. It offers a sense of belonging and access to community. If the general level of pandemonium at retailers across the country diminish, that same chaos is just being redirected in more mundane ways online.

Over text, a friend outlined the standard war room that has emerged: “For the pre-order, I had my iPad running Target, Walmart, and a multitasking window running Twitter. My phone was running PS Direct and Best Buy. I got my W from a Twitter notification telling me when Best Buy went live. I just went to that link at lightspeed and refreshed until it worked. Also, I was inches away from my parents’ router.”