Amazon has just paid $970 million for the video gaming site Twitch. So is it on to a winner?
The numbers speak for themselves. The retail giant Amazon this week paid $970 million (£585 million) for Twitch, a site that allows users to watch video games online. At its peak, Twitch has 55 million monthly viewers watching 15 billion minutes of 900,000 people playing video games.
Just to make this clear: those 55 million people are not playing video games for all that time. They are watching other people play video games.
Amazon has paid a whopping price, but in return it has acquired a huge number of customers-in-waiting, ready to be sold gadgets, games and gizmos as they watch videos of the latest games. So the maths makes sense.
What is less clear is why these enormous numbers exist in the first place. Every child knows that nothing is more frustrating than watching over a sibling’s shoulder, waiting for your turn on a new toy. So why would anyone want to watch other people play new video games? Games are built on interaction: to experience, to explore, to play.
Yet the emergence of video games as spectacle is as broad-ranging as it has been swift. Twitch was only founded in 2011 as an offshoot of the (now defunct) streaming site Justin.tv. Three years later and Twitch claims the fourth largest website traffic in America, behind only Google, Netflix and YouTube. Video games are now played in professional competitions with huge audiences, and the best players have become famous .
One of these celebrities is Felix Kjellberg, better known by his online alias PewDiePie. Kjellberg, 24, films himself playing video games live, offering his usually loud, often obscene and occasionally babbling commentary as he does so. The PewDiePie channel is the most viewed YouTube channel of all time and has 30 million subscribers. The backlash from mainstream media has often been fierce, with Variety calling his broadcast style “aggressively stupid”. But being able consistently to engage a vast young audience requires talent. There’s business nous, too – in July this year it was reported that through merchandising and sponsorship Kjellberg earns $4 million a year.
PewDiePie is the superstar, but he is just the tip of the spear. Some have taken to 24-hour live-streams for charity, getting people to tune in, donate money and offer messages of support. And despite video games’ increased sophistication in storytelling and cinematics, the most successful are often the most abstract and creative. Tom Cassell, the UK’s most prominent player (known on YouTube as TheSyndicateProject), has enormous success with videos of him playing Minecraft, a construction game with famously basic graphics. The game lets players build worlds and interact with others online, allowing them to show off their creativity and, in their own barmy and thoroughly modern way, develop a curious form of artistic expression.
Expression, but also competition. While there is much focus on how games evolve as an artistic medium, the high-speed combat and strategy present in many games means that gaming is progressing just as fast as a form of digital sport.
In recent years, Activision has put much stock into making its Call of Duty tournament a prestigious event on the e-sports calendar, knowing that acceptance from the professional scene would further enhance the combat game’s already enormous profile. The forthcoming international tournament in Seattle has players of Valve’s arena-combat game, Dawn of the Ancients 2, competing for a prize pool of $10 million. A League of Legends competition has filled the Staples Center in Los Angeles (capacity 20,000), which is usually reserved for the Lakers basketball team, ice hockey and superstar music concerts.
It’s an extraordinary rise and Twitch has found its way to the heart of it. The site will stream these live tournaments, while allowing players to stream their own gameplay, should they want to pick up a controller and broadcast themselves. Games consoles such as Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s PlayStation 4 come with built-in Twitch support, allowing players to start broadcasting at the touch of a button.
For it is, above all else, a social thing: sharing, competing, collaborating. One of Twitch’s most interesting experiments was the successful “Twitch plays Pokemon”, in which more than a million people participated to help complete the Nintendo game. Another 55 million tuned in to watch.
So, yes, the numbers speak for themselves. But while on the surface it looks like Amazon is paying a fortune to let people watch others play video games, it doesn’t even scratch the surface of the vast and unusual potential that video game streaming unlocks. What Amazon will do to the service remains to be seen, but the unstoppable, unaided evolution thus far suggests there is plenty more to come.