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.

And this is a shared cultural experience with importance beyond video games. “The childhood music I remember the most vividly is fragments from either live performances or, strangely, video games at my friends' houses,” the composer Nico Muhly told NPR in 2011. At the time, novelist Robin Sloan added:

I really think “memories of video games at your friend’s house” are, like, a thing. […] I can remember Ninja Gaiden on Chris Hayes’ NES (he lived down the street) with crystal clarity. Note that I never actually played the game; it was too difficult, and I couldn’t make it past the first screen. So I would just watch Chris play, utterly rapt.

Watching people play video games isn’t some new thing that Twitch invented, pioneered, and foisted on ignorant consumers. As long as there have been video games, people have been watching other people play them.

People watch Rihanna play Xbox in 2006 (Gamescore Blog/Flickr)

Which isn’t to say Twitch isn’t at least a little strange. Like Carr, I turned to a friend of the family, Aaron Briggs, to help grok Twitch. Briggs is 18, and described himself “mostly as a viewer but also a streamer” of the website. When he was most active as a streamer, he said his feeds had between 500 and 600 live viewers.

“It’s a really weird happening,” he said of the service. “It’s very strange but also enticing.”

“I grew up with a much older brother. I’ve been watching games since I was really, really young,” Briggs said. And with games, he agreed: “Watching is as important as playing.”

And watching on Twitch can be better than playing. The service exposed him to the more competitive, professional sides of video gaming, “things you’d normally never see,” said Briggs. Some players practice speed runs of certain games, like the original Mario Bros., and then live-stream their attempts at certain records.

But he quickly compared the service to an experience more familiar to Boomers, and, indeed, many Americans. “It’s a lot like going to a Super Bowl party.” It’s a community event gathered around spectating.

Key to that community is Twitch chat, the open chat window next to the viewing screen. Each stream has its own chat window, and streamers respond to questions and jokes in the chat as they’re playing the game.

​“It makes something like watching a video, which would normally seem anti-social” actually social, said Briggs. “You see other people doing it too, and you feel like you’re part of something.”

That phenomenon should be familiar to any media watcher in 2014, even the Boomer-iest: It’s a second screen. Just as Twitter or Facebook can become a running line of gags, comments, and complaints during an awards show or Presidential debate, so does the Twitch chat window. Which is just another reason Amazon can bank on it—it’s a video service (with more primetime viewers than CNN or E!) with its own built-in social network.

And that may be just the kind of new twist this old custom needed.