As I am writing these words, there are more than 90,000 people watching the top five games listed on Twitch.tv. While likely a miniscule audience compared to the number of people watching Netflix, Hulu or HBOGo, there is something remarkable to me that as many people as live in Albany, New York are at this moment relaxing somewhere, taking in someone else’s play session of League of Legends, World of WarCraft, StarCraft 2, DOTA 2 or Marvel vs. Capcom 3.
So apparently, I’m not alone.
There can be at any one moment a couple hundred thousand people watching games on Twitch.tv. The popular streamers, like Day for example, can attract ten thousand or more people for any one broadcast. When there is an event, that number can leap dramatically. That’s not limited to e-sports, either. Last November the group Loading Ready Run attracted significant viewership for their Desert Bus for Hope event, and raised nearly a half million dollars in charity donations from viewers. Streaming marathons often provide remarkable spikes in attention and viewers.
That’s to say nothing of the equally staggering numbers that casters and streamers can attract through YouTube. Popular streamers like TotalBiscuit can attract as many as a half-million viewers to any single upload. While it’s nothing like the kind of audience you might get for your average prime-time procedural drama, it is getting within the ballpark of basic cable numbers. Taken in the macro, however, with more than 1 billion unique visitors per month, YouTube can and should count itself among the kings of content providers in any medium.
Those are all nice, big numbers, but it still doesn’t really help me understand why I watch this stuff. If I have an hour at night, and can choose between watching someone play a game or actually play one myself, why would I not choose the latter? I actually think the answer is as simple as the nature of the medium. I like games, am engaged by games, am very interested in games, but sometimes what I want is a passive experience.
What I don’t understand, though, is what I’m getting out of that deal. I’m usually not getting a narrative like I would on even the worst television show. I’m not getting the same kind of competitive play I would from watching sports, the “E” version or otherwise. In many cases I’m not even getting that great a viewing experience — rather getting stuttering video and often vapid chatter. Yet, I am compelled.
Usually when I’m in the same room with someone playing a game, my thoughts are on when I will have my turn. But, counting myself among the growing number of people who spend some part of their day tuned into the play of people I don’t know -- people who, frankly, I often don’t actually like all that much -- something is different about watching through the magic window of my laptop. The context changes and I don't care that I'm not playing. It is somehow like reality TV for internet-addicted gamers.
In my head I am inclined to equate both my interest and the interest of those umpteen-thousands to the growth of e-sports, and events like MLG, WCS and the like. But tuning in to casually watch someone streaming their ladder play on a Tuesday evening isn't actually the same. It's less like watching Monday Night Football and more like suddenly finding a way to watch Aaron Rodgers practice throwing footballs through a hoop in his backyard. And, now that I say that, I actually realize that if someone suddenly started streaming that, I’d very likely watch that too.
So why do this instead of actually play the games? It goes back to that active versus passive thing. Games are, by their nature, actually quite demanding of the gamer. They often force you to move quickly and accurately, to think about complex spaces or situations. They want more than your attention. They want your participation. Sometimes, I just don’t have that much to give. Sometimes, I think, I take almost a perverse pleasure in having someone else sort of do it for me.
I realize that essentially what I’ve just said is, “sometimes I’m too lazy to play a video game.” I guess I’m just going to have to live with that kind of self-awareness. But, hey. Apparently a few hundred thousand of you guys are too.