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Video Games as Spectacle and Sport

Video games are for playing, right? I mean, one of the things that medium offers over others is interactivity. Whether you’re responding to text prompts while playing Zork or mowing down members of the opposing team in games like Modern Warfare over Xbox Live, PSN, or any other internet connection, you’re engaged and therefore invested in the outcomes determined by your inputs.

But watching others play video games has also grown right alongside the hobby. Previously, you only really watched someone else play while you waited in line at the arcade cabinet or while your brother took his turn with the laser gun in Duck Hunt. Now there are entire markets dedicated not to hosting the play of video games, but streaming them so they can be watched. (We’ve also talked about the growing popularity of watching others play Dungeons and Dragons, which you can read here.)

And the numbers are bonkers. I’m going to share some statistics from the leading video game streaming service, Twitch, which claims to corner about 70% of the video game streaming market.

GDQ is a convention all about watching others play video games.
Only one person in this photo has a controller in his hands, but look at all the fun being had by those that don’t.
GDQ photo by Richard Ngoc Ngo

Twitch By the Numbers

  • In 2019, Twitch users viewed 660 billion minutes of gaming. That number is nearly double that of 2017 (355 billion). And just for some perspective…660 billion minutes is the equivalent of 1,255,707 years worth of time. And the numbers rolling in for 2020 are indicating that it will see growth once again.
  • Approximately 15 million users are active daily on Twitch consuming an average of around 90 minutes per day.
  • At any given time, nearly 1 million users are active concurrently on Twitch.
  • At least $75 million has been raised for charities by streamers since the site’s launch in 2011. Some data reflects $100 million.
  • Twitch is the 26th most popular website in the world, and 13th most popular in the US.
  • eSports account for nearly 1/4 of all Twitch viewership (~21%)

eSports

I don’t have the space (or the desire, really) to argue whether or not the term “sport” can be fairly applied to playing video games here, but the numbers associated with them are skyrocketing, as well.

The number of people tuning in to watch eSports has risen steadily from 121 million in 2016 to 165 million in 2018, with projections for upwards of 250 million by the end of next year. The number of minutes they spend watching events climbs by an average of 1 billion minutes per year, with the numbers knocking on the door of 8 billion minutes as I type this.

There are teams, high level competitions, world championships, and massive salaries and pot earnings. It may have begun as a sort of spinoff of or underground element to video games, but it is its own legitimate industry now. Many high schools and universities now feature teams for games like League of Legends.

There is an interesting symbiosis between certain video games and the eSports industry. On the one hand, eSports wouldn’t exist without video games, of course. But on the other, certain video games would not have nearly the life and longevity they do without eSports.

The Astralis eSports team out of Denmark is one of the best and winningest in the world at Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.

Commentary

I’ve written for NoE before about my own penchant for watching other people play video games, specifically speed runs. But I’ve also come to notice a few things about my own viewing habits that reflect some of the trends I noticed in the statistics.

For instance, I don’t really enjoy watching a video game get played that doesn’t involve commentary or dialogue from the player and/or a host. With literally billions of messages sent from the viewers to the players each year, that interaction seems desirable for most. These messages can be easily seen, read (or dictated in some cases), and responded to by the player as they play. This creates a point of connection between the viewer and the viewed. Not to mention connection and communication amongst all of the various viewers. Seriously, you should watch a chat on a stream sometime. There is legitimate community happening in those spaces.

That alone serves as a distinction between watching video games and watching a TV show or movie. While in neither case are you controlling the outcomes, there is a unique means of interactivity when it comes to streaming video games that doesn’t exist in the other mediums.

The gamers and content creators are also personalities, many of whom earn subscribers based on who they are (or project) as opposed to what it is they might play. I regularly watch a couple of streamers based on their personalities and humor, unable to care less about what they’re playing. I just enjoy them as people. We could be friends if given half a chance.

A randomizer does as advertised! Sometimes players will discover that their particular “seed” (or random state) makes the game impossible to beat. Otherwise it forces them to play the game in an order that deviates drastically from the factory settings – delivering a unique play experience every time.

A single video game also offers the player and viewers more than one experience – another deviation from a TV show or movie. You might see a speed run (which, in and of itself as a category of play, has dozens of categories per game which drastically affect how it is played and thereby what viewers see), or a challenge performed (like “Can you beat God of War 2016 using only your fists?” or “Can you beat Pokémon Red using Ash’s exact team from the anime?” and about a kajillion others like them), in-game myths tested and proven or debunked, campaign play throughs, multiplayer matches, randomizers, achievement hunting…the list could go on.

When it comes to eSports, you’re not just watching a game get played, you’re watching it played by the best. It is the difference between watching your kid’s little league game and watching an MLB All-Star game: same game, same rules, very different levels of play. We pay to watch those little league games because we love our kids. We pay to watch the MLB games because we love the sport and enjoy seeing it played by those with the most skill. If eSports is like a “real” sport in no other way (again: something I don’t have the desire to debate here), it is similar to them in this regard.

And I haven’t even touched on the massive gaming conventions that exist!

How to Get Started

The phenomenon of watching others play video games isn’t accidental, in other words. Surely part of it is attributable to new technologies and infrastructures, but the reasons for its popularity far exceed that foundation, I think. Big, BIG money is being invested in growing the industry, and it’s working. The terms “millions” and “billions” were used multiple times in this post to describe its growth. Who knows? Perhaps you’ll add one to those numbers.

You can get your feet wet by just searching for the title of a video game you enjoy or are interested in on Youtube and scanning video options there. Many Twitch streamers also upload to Youtube to benefit financially from that pot, as well.

If you find a streamer that you enjoy, look them up on Twitch (most usually include a link to their Twitch channel in the description of their videos) and consider subscribing to support them. If you’re an Amazon Prime member, you get one free subscription to a Twitch Partner or Affiliate per month (and there are about 250,000 of them)! You’re sure to find at least one of them entertaining.

I’m not arguing that watching people play video games is a substitute for playing them yourself. But it is another option within the medium that is proving popular among a growing many.


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