Newsletter Archive

What the Nintendo Switch can teach us about competing effectively...

Last Updated:

June 20, 2024

Table of Contents

Welcome to Edition #56 of Did You Know? (DYK), the weekly newsletter by Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules, where we deconstruct the untold story of how someone (or something) became successful—and what you can do to follow in their footsteps.

Sign up now to receive weekly career strategies!

Did You Know? Avoid the competition!

(1) A story from the past

Did you know? Video game company Nintendo knew they were being outperformed by other video game systems, so they invented a console to beat the competition—by avoiding it.

It’s March 2017. Japanese video game company Nintendo released a new console called the “Nintendo Switch”: a device that “transform[s] from home console to portable system in a snap.”

But Nintendo and the rest of the world were holding their breath. Just 2 months prior, Nintendo had halted production on a similar console called the Wii U due to low sales. (The Wii U was expected to sell over 100 million units. It sold only 13 million.)

What happened?

Nintendo was fighting  “The Console Wars”, a three-decade-long battle between video gaming companies Nintendo, SEGA, Sony, and Microsoft. 

It started in the late 1980s when the U.S. video game market, which saw a flood of too many low-quality games, crashed. 

At first, Nintendo did well. It released the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) to consumers who wanted better consoles and gameplay—and single-handedly “revitalized the industry.”

But Nintendo’s dominance didn’t last long.

New competitors emerged that quickly beat out Nintendo in popularity. First, it was the Genesis, a console by SEGA that “controlled 65% of the home console market” by 1992. Then, Sony released the PlayStation in 1995, followed by Microsoft’s Xbox in 2001. The PlayStation alone sold over 100 million units (the most a console had ever sold at the time).

With PlayStation and Xbox dominating the market, Nintendo faded from the conversation.

Realizing that it couldn’t compete in the console category, Nintendo did what no one else did: It pursued a “blue ocean strategy” of looking for “a new market where there is little to no competition.” How? Not by trying to outperform the horsepower and picture quality of Sony and Microsoft, but by focusing on “its own unique selling point[s].”

So, in 2004, Nintendo released the Wii, which boasted interactive remotes that encouraged users to stand up and move, unlike traditional remotes that were used sitting down. It sold over 100 million units.

But no strategy is infallible. In 2012, Wii’s successor, the Wii U, failed miserably

Demoralized, but not yet done, Nintendo revisited its “blue ocean strategy”—and introduced the Switch.

The strategy? To be “most advanced, yet acceptable”—or MAYA—by creating a portable console that’s as if the iPad Mini tablet (in portability) met the Wii (in gameplay) met the PlayStation 4 (in processing power).

It was a hit: the Switch sold 10 million units within 9 months. Today, 7 years later, the Switch is the second best-selling console of all time with over 140 million units sold. Despite the console’s age, Nintendo has kept the momentum going, earning praise as “one of the most innovative gaming companies of 2024” by Fast Company.

So, the next time you find yourself in a race to the bottom (perhaps because you’re competing against a dozen people for the same promotion at work), remember Nintendo—who won the battle by leaving the battle.

From left to right: the Nintendo Switch by Nintendo, the Xbox One by Microsoft, and the PlayStation 4 by Sony.

(2) A strategy for your future

Did you know? Sometimes, the best way to compete is by avoiding it entirely.

Are you tired of competing—whether it’s because you’re working on a product that’s the hundredth in the industry or because you’re the hundredth in line for a certain role?

Fill in these blanks:

  1. ⁠"I’m working on _____ product/service, which means I’m competing against _____, _____, and _____.” Or, “I’m vying for _____ role, which means I’m competing against _____, _____, and _____.”
  • E.g., “I’m working on this new online marketplace for buying things easily at a discounted price, which means I’m competing against e-commerce apps like Amazon, Temu, and Wish.” Or, “I’m vying for the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) role, which means I’m competing against 10 other people in the company, many of whom have better connections and visibility.”
  1. “Like all of our competitors, _____ does _____.” Or, “Like all of my competitors, I do _____.”
  • E.g., “Like all of our competitors, my online marketplace does quick and cheap (or no cost) shipping.” Or, “Like all of my competitors, I have a BA in accounting, an MBA, and 10+ years of experience in the finance function.”
  1. “What if instead of competing in the game of _____, I competed in the game of _____?”
  • E.g., “What if instead of competing in the game of offering lower-priced products, we competed in the game of offering aesthetically pleasing products?” Or, “What if instead of competing in the game of leading an existing finance function in a dinosaur company, I competed in the game of establishing a professional finance function in a fast-growing company that currently lacks the finance expertise?”

You might find yourself in a situation like Nintendo, where you simply can’t win against something or someone who has more certifications than you. Or, you might find yourself in a situation like Sony, where you’re competing against someone or something that has easily comparable features or backgrounds.

Either way, it’s worth asking yourself: “Why compete against 10 when I can compete against 0?”

I know it because I’ve experienced it: I started my career in investment banking and management consulting—industries filled with people far more talented than I. It was then that I asked myself: How likely am I to succeed when everyone else around me is not only better at the job but also likes it more? I left—and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Avoid the competition!


Sign up now to receive weekly career strategies!