I found there was a calming quality to watching some of the channels. As I drank my coffee this morning, I tuned in to watch an Eastern European guy tackle a game in which he played some sort of military sniper who stealthily stalks opponents in the wilderness. He wandered over a barren hillside, at one point muttering, “Who left this weehickle here?” when he encountered an abandoned Humvee. About 600 people were watching his stream, and they would venture guesses in the chat box as to where his enemies had concealed themselves. Sometimes he consulted his map, which came up on screen, and he indicated to us where he thought these opponents might be. For long stretches, not a whole lot happened, and we watched as his character huddled motionless behind a rock, clad in a Ghillie suit, peering through his riflescope to locate his next quarry. When he at last delivered a fatal head shot, the release was palpable.
I admit it was hard for me to grok, sometimes, why anyone would spend time watching this stuff. Some channels seemed to consist solely of people scrolling through videogame menu screens, clicking weapons options and looking for opponents, as speed metal raged on the soundtrack. But when I watched a tournament event, I suddenly saw why Twitch has a future.
It was the playoffs of the StarCraft II World Championship Series in Europe, and a player nicknamed Welmu was battling a player nicknamed LiveZerg. About 25,000 people had tuned into their head-to-head fight. There was a broadcast team of two dudes behind a logo-plastered desk who would commentate on every nuance of the action. I of course had no idea who the two players were, but the crowd in the chat box was very familiar with their playing histories, their favored strategies, their strengths and weaknesses, and so forth. One of the commentators marveled over how rare it is for Welmu to lose to “non-Koreans.” Turns out Welmu is a 20-year-old Finn named Vesa Hovinen (check out his intimidating photo pose here), while LiveZerg is 22-year-old Russian named Andrey Guldyashov (his decidedly less intimidating photo makes him appear to be a giant Adam’s apple surrounded by some attenuated limbs).
So: A pair of well-known combatants, a two-man broadcast team in the booth, an organized tournament with thousands of rapt spectators—I think you see where I’m going here. This is simply a televised sport, much like any other. In fact, fans refer to videogame contests as “eSports.” For instance, see this tweet in which a gaming fan advises other gaming fans:
Stop giving a shit what mainstream media thinks of eSports. If you enjoy something then fuck what other people think, it's your life.— Tazza 타짜 (@AnnPragg) August 25, 2014
Point taken. Perhaps I’m not fully captivated by watching people play StarCraft II. But presumably those people in turn can’t understand why I would waste hours on a Sunday watching people play golf on TV.
What about those low-key channels where it’s just one dude gaming, and shooting the breeze with his thousands of viewers? Well, those viewers are finding a community of like-minded souls, they’re engaging over a shared interest, and they’re getting tips from superior gamers on how to win at the games. How is this different from watching a cooking show that mesmerizes you while also teaching you how to make a soufflé? Or, for heaven’s sake, watching a show about remodeling nondescript houses in suburban neighborhoods?
A great deal of the bafflement over Amazon’s purchase of Twitch comes from people who, like me, are too old to understand gaming on a deep-down, emotional level. It’s a gaping generational chasm: I’m on record with my conviction that, sometime after I was born, there occurred an evolutionary leap in thumbs; that people under 30 simply have far more powerful and responsive thumbs than I do; and that we will elect a thumb president by the end of the 22nd century. I submit that for the younger, thumb-blessed cohort that populates Twitch, there’s nothing weird at all about passing an evening watching, learning, and chatting about the pastime they adore.
*Correction, Aug. 27, 2014: This piece originally misidentified Twitch.tv as Twitch.com.