To hardcore gamers, of whom there are millions, three hours is not a terribly long time to sit parked in front of one’s laptop, watching a bearded man shout about things like “minions.”
This was my virgin foray into Twitch, the live game-streaming platform that Amazon just bought for a mind-melting $970 million. (Not that anybody’s counting, but that is, for the record, almost four times the amount Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos paid for the Washington Post.) By all accounts, it’s a phenomenon: The platform has, in little more than two years, grown to a cultural behemoth that 55 million people visit each month. I might not play video games — hell, I don’t even like video games — but I was determined to “get” why everyone from my little brother to my distant corporate overlord considers this site the future of media.
And so, at 9 p.m. on a Thursday night, I forewent the latest episode of “Masterchef” and watched “Najin Shield” face off against “KT Bullets” in the League of Legends regional semifinals. After that I turned, with increasing incredulity, to livestreams of everything from Call of Duty to Diablo.
These are the things you notice as a gaming newbie (n00b?) watching Twitch.
The announcers on professional games are, well … professional.
South Korea is currently in thrall to its regional qualifiers for the world League of Legends championship, an event that drew 32 million viewers last year. This is pro gaming — people make actual money — and the commentators go to great pains to make that clear. Two breathless men with made-for-TV voices parse strategies and debate moves. They spit cryptic phrases like “we’ve seen them so far as a team that likes to turtle,” or “there’s nothing to learn about Najin Shield here because his dominance is so complete.” At one point in the game, the announcer yells “Spirit rush? More like Spirit CRUSH” — a phrase I do not understand, but may attempt to use in real life. My boyfriend, who does play video games from time to time, wanders through to see what’s going on. “Oh, this is real?” he says, bemused. “I thought the announcers were, you know … making fun.” (He proceeds to plop down and watch the rest of the game, not because his job requires him to, but because he finds it legitimately entertaining.)
Everybody is friends here.
Away from the professional games, the mood on Twitch changes. These live-streams, some of which attract tens of thousands of viewers in one sitting, are casual, friendly, reciprocal — just a bro (because they’re always men!) chilling with his Internet friends. The screen on these sessions is set up almost like Skype, with the game itself front and center, and a small corner pane displaying the player’s brow-furrowed face. You can often see the gamer toggling between the game and Twitch’s live chat bar, where viewers comment on his technique.
“Hey, what’s up moo, how’s it goin’ man,” the player will say to some loyal viewer when he logs into chat. “Man, nice lightning bolts. I like those lightning bolts.”
It feels surprisingly two-way, more a conversation than a performance. It also feels startlingly analogous to the real-life experience of sitting on a friend’s couch and watching him play — not something I’ve ever enjoyed, admittedly, but a sensible IRL proxy. Emmett Shear, one of Twitch’s founders, put it this way: “Every channel is its own microcommunity, where everyone gets to know each other over their shared interests.”
People aren’t just watching for the lolz.
We tend to hear Twitch described as “entertainment,” as if the whole thing was mere fun and games for the bored and basement-bound. But the chat window updates constantly with questions from viewers, many of which the gamer will answer while he plays. “So the goblin vaults only in tournaments?” maybe. Or, as in the above screenshot: “where’s best spot to get a unity ring?” The gamer’s answers, in most cases, are so full of jargon and acronym that I don’t even bother trying to write them down.
But as the constant stream of geek-speak washes over me, punctuated by the occasional sound of deployed weaponry, I imagine a corollary platform that lets me live-stream, say, a famous chef cooking and answering questions from a live chat. I would totally watch that. Hell, I’d pay money for it. The appeal suddenly makes more sense.
People PAY for this.
This, speaking of payment, is perhaps, the most extraordinary part of the whole extraordinary operation: On an Internet where #content is free and its creators forgettable, Twitch invites viewers to “subscribe” to gamers — merely out of the kindness of their hearts (!). Subscriptions run somewhere between $5 and $10 a month, and subscribers don’t get much in the way of exclusive features, besides a badge and some extra emoticons to bust out in the chat room. They can watch the streams anyway. And yet, in many a sidebar, chattering viewers will boast an icon that marks them as paying members.
Still, the game feels kind of … remote.
Perhaps I’d feel differently if I too had sweated over Ultra Street Fighter IV. But unless the player was particularly expressive — and many of them weren’t, with their attention narrowed breathlessly on their screens — I couldn’t quite bring myself to care whether they won or lost. It’s not like the Olympics, where every underdog has some grand, empathy-inducing narrative that has you cheering at your TV. Or even football, a sport I have never enjoyed watching, where you can at least see the disappointment on the athlete’s face when a play falls through, or the euphoria and endzone-dancing and other demonstrative shenanigans when a team does well.
Instead, the main protagonists in many a livestreamed game are expressionless digital avatars that shoot lightning bolts and die in ambiguous flashes of light. The pull, if there is one, does not relate to the player’s humanity. It’s not, despite the best insistence of esport advocates, quite like watching “real” sport.
In other words, it seems unlikely that video gamers — and their foremost broadcaster, Twitch — will ever attract an audience of non-gamers, the way that football or baseball or soccer do.
All that said, of course, Twitch doesn’t need non-gamers like me to go mainstream. It’s mainstream already. According to the Entertainment Software Association, an industry group, 58 percent of Americans play video games — which works out to something like 180 million people. During primetime hours, Twitch viewers regularly outnumber the audiences of networks like CNN, MSNBC and MTV, logging as many as 773,000 simultaneous viewers.
Frankly, it doesn’t much matter whether we lame n00bs get it or not. Twitch is surging onward, with or without us.