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Watching others play video games is the new spectator sport

As the UK’s largest gaming festival, Insomnia, wrapped up its latest event on August 25, I watched a short piece of BBC Breakfast news reporting from the festival. The reporter and some of the interviewees…

Screens are a must. Toffelginkgo, CC BY

As the UK’s largest gaming festival, Insomnia, wrapped up its latest event on August 25, I watched a short piece of BBC Breakfast news reporting from the festival. The reporter and some of the interviewees appeared baffled at the huge popularity of “videogame livestreaming”, otherwise known as gamers watching other gamers playing games.

The Wall Street Journal recently christened videogames a “spectator sport”, but for millions of us who inhabit the worlds of gaming and technology, this is actually old news.

Livestreaming received even more attention with the news that Amazon had acquired Twitch, a global leader in videogame livestreaming, which the company’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, called a “global phenomenon”.

While the purchase of Twitch was hotly anticipated for months, it caused a stir when it was announced that Amazon, and not Google or Yahoo, as experts had been predicting, had purchased the three-year-old firm for a hefty price of US$970m.

Regardless of which online behemoth ended up acquiring Twitch, however, all the buzz suggests that online firms want to have online broadcasting in their bags of goodies. And with the huge popularity of the site – boasting 55m unique visitors to the site in a single month – it is really not a surprise.

So why does watching videogame livestreaming seem strange to some? After all, we love to watch people doing things. I am not so good at playing tennis, for example, but I love watching Wimbledon. I have never had the courage to climb a mountain, but I am absolutely fascinated by mountain-climbing documentaries. Cooking programmes, football matches, gardening shows – what haven’t we turned into a spectator sport? And just as hundreds of millions of us tuned in to watch the World Cup final this year, perhaps we should not be surprised that another form of play – videogame play in this instance – would draw a crowd as well.

This is how livestreaming works. A player broadcasts their own gameplay – that is, whatever the game is showing on their own screen – for others to watch. While it is similar to the pre-recorded and uploaded videos of gameplay on YouTube, Twitch focuses strictly on live play. These can include live commentary, often with added humour, from the gamer. It is not limited to those gamers who have achieved great fame; any player can set up a stream on the site.

Livestream represents just one of the many ways that gamic action is both expressed and experienced in online gameplay. During my own doctoral research into group play in World of Warcraft (WoW), I observed an active engagement by gamers to record and broadcast their gaming activity. It was a chance for those on display to demonstrate their expertise, accomplishment and knowledge, while those watching could learn about new areas of the game or improve their gaming skill.

Though not designed as a feature of WoW by the game’s creators, Blizzard Entertainment, gamers themselves used video capture in their gaming activity. Early examples, like the Yogscast which began in 2008, were originally humour-filled videos on how to play WoW uploaded to YouTube by a group of players. It then progressed to videos and livestreams showing the group playing games like Minecraft among others. Their humorous approach to gameplay proved a huge success. In 2012, the Yogscast was the first UK YouTube channel to reach 1 billion views.

PewDiePie, a Swedish video game commentator, has the largest subscriber base on YouTube of any channel, outpacing pop superstars like Rihanna, One Direction, and Katy Perry. In July PewDiePie’s videos also became the most viewed videos on a single channel, again beating Rhianna.

The stereotype of the lonely gamer playing against the computer in a darkened basement no longer applies, if it ever did. In the case of some gamers, they are opting to live broadcast their gameplay while they are doing it – and millions of gamers are enjoying the view.