It's Totally Normal to Watch Other People Play Video Games

Twitch doesn't capitalize on something new or weird: Video games were spectator sports long before Mario first raced his Kart.

Incredible amounts of money invite incredulity. Last week, many media commentators found themselves in disbelief: In a deal worth more than $1 billion, Amazon acquired Twitch—a company and website that many had never heard of.

Twitch does one thing very well: It lets its users watch other people play video games. Who, reporters asked, would want to do that?

When you cover media, you get used to meta activities, but staring at my computer watching an audience watch others play streaming video games was a new level of remove,” shrugged New York Times media columnist David Carr on Sunday, after spending 90 minutes on the service.

Another Times reporter, helping bemused readers learn “What’s Twitch?”, framed the phenomenon as something mysterious, inscrutable, and new:

Video games have long been something people played. But in the last few years, thanks in part to fast Internet access and multiplayer games, the games have become something that people sit back and watch, too.

Both news stories make good points about Twitch’s business prospects and technical infrastructure. Like its new corporate parent, Twitch invested heavily in data centers, so it’s fast and reliable. At peak viewing hours, the website pulls 1.35 percent of U.S. broadband traffic, which rivals Amazon Video’s own 1.9 percent—except Twitch doesn’t have to invest millions to make content in the first place. Its game streamers provide it all.

And, in some ways, a website like Twitch only just became possible. In the past decade, enough homes have been hooked up to broadband Internet that there are now millions of users willing and able to view or upload live video feeds. (This is the same big, infrastructural advance that makes Netflix’s streaming business viable.)

But that’s not why the the service is interesting. Twitch is built on the proposition that watching people play games is entertaining. For some Boomers, that may recall comedian Brian Regan’s line about televised fishing shows: “I’m not even fishing, I’m watching fishing! I’m too lazy to fish!”

Yet Twitch’s success demonstrates that the thrill is real. And while I tend to think media reporters overstate the importance of generations (consider all the fuss around Vice, which apparently reeks of Millennial pheromones), there’s something generational going on here.

Indeed, I suspect there’s a cutoff: If you’re a middle-class American below the age of 35—that is, you were six when the Nintendo Entertainment System debuted in the States—then you understand the appeal of watching someone else play video games, because you have done it yourself. 

Some of my earliest memories of video games are in a basement, tan-walled and shag-carpeted. I remember fast cars, flashing swords, and fluorescent-lime meadows. I remember that, if the game stopped working, you had to blow in the cartridge. I remember all this—yet I’m not sure exactly what games were being played.

After all, I wasn’t the one playing them. We were at my grandmother’s house, and my cousin was playing his N64. I didn’t have one.

What is Twitch? Twitch is the modern, monetized version of an experience now decades-old. Twitch is watching friends play Mario Kart at a sleepover. Twitch is watching your cousin—the only familial owner of that precious N64—play Zelda. It’s losing early at Halo or Goldeneye and having to sit out; it’s watching your sister navigate the world she built in Minecraft.

Presented by

Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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