Is Watching Video Games a New National Pastime?

While it might not have the same nostalgia as a trip to the ballpark, gathering around to watch someone play a video game has been happening since the age of arcades in the 1970s. This week, a company called Twitch, that lets audiences around the world watch people play video games, sold to Amazon for nearly $1 billion. Frank Lee, PhD, director of Drexel’s Entrepreneurial Game Design Studio, contends that this move sheds light on the underappreciated social nature of playing video games – a phenomenon Amazon hopes to capitalize on with the acquisition.

Amazon paid $970 million to acquire the video streaming company that boasts 50 million viewers each month. While this figure is still a lot less than the numbers of people who stream video through Netflix and YouTube, it represents a significant audience that views hours of gaming.

According to Lee, the competitive nature of gaming can make it just as appealing and addictive to watch as a sporting event.

“This should come as no surprise,” Lee said. “People like watching other people compete. Even thousands of years ago, why did people like watching other people in the original Olympics in Greece? We are fundamentally social animals and by nature we like watching other people, especially if it is a competitive activity that we enjoy or understand.”

Since the time of video arcades, gamers have been intrigued by watching others go after a top score.
Since the time of video arcades, gamers have been intrigued by watching others go after a top score.

The drive to win a game, or see if someone else can beat a high score draws loyal viewers to Twitch in the same way that anyone who has played a sport likes to see what their competitors can do, and how the game is played at the highest level.

“Within video games, there is also a long history of people watching others play,” Lee said. “Go back to the early arcades and the arcade machines. When someone interesting is playing, such as someone trying to break the high score on Pac-Man, you would have a crowd around them. Even today games like Dance Dance Revolution will typically draw a crowd. Twitch is just that phenomenon multiplied by the internet.”

Many of today’s most popular video games are designed to connect players across the globe in multi-player missions, which helps to expand gaming as a social network.

Many of today’s most popular games, like Minecraft, Call of Duty and League of Legends connect players from around the world in multi-player missions or competitions. These games build a community of players and Twitch is one of the ways that these groups are linked as a larger network of gamers.

“Twitch is a product of the globally connected world we live in,” Lee said. “And given that the video game industry is estimated to be between $80-100 billion globally in 2014, that’s a lot of people who like video games who are just a click away from socializing and watching. So unlike the old arcade days in the ‘70s and ‘80s, behind the shoulders of a gamer today are potentially millions of people who like that game and can watch with a click of the link.”

The massive number of gamers worldwide is both a dedicated and growing audience that comes along with the Twitch acquisition –factors that certainly played into Amazon’s decision to buy the company, according to Lee.

“There is a passionate base of people who are visiting Twitch and they have grown rapidly in views and hours watched,” Lee said. “I think some of the views of their videos rival professional sports on TV. I don’t believe there is anything special about what Twitch is doing –but the game industry continues to grow, so the prospects are good for leaders who can capitalize on aspects of the gaming sector. The fact that Twitch established itself as a leader in this specific product and created brand is why it has been successful. ”