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Why Amazon Paid a Billion Dollars For People to Watch Video Games

Why Amazon Paid a Billion Dollars For People to Watch Video Games

In LA, we have a saying — “what do you do?”
It’s less of a question and more of a self-defense mechanism for wayward
screenwriters looking to slip you a first draft, or the occasional actor
looking to get in on the latest shoot. 

But I hate the question because of my
own answer – I write about games. Unless you’re in a group of your own nerd
kind, you never know how the resulting statement will turn out. For example, instead of the
expected eye roll, I recently got a follow up question. 

“What’s this Twitch thing all about?”

This came from across the table at a recent birthday
party, but her question, I’m sure, was on more than a few lips, after Amazon
spent nearly a billion dollars acquiring the new business. Before that, rumors
ran wild that Google was going to be ponying up the cash to add the service to their
YouTube site.  Even some people who
are familiar with Twitch are probably scratching their head over the buyout. 

But if you ask me, Amazon got the better end of this
deal.

If you were to type Twitch into your browser right
now and hit enter, you would find a page filled with live video of people
playing video games. Yes, somewhere out there, many someones have set up a
camera, pointed it at themselves and started playing a game as usual. Click on
the different little icons on the screen — those are the individual feeds or
channels, as they’re called — and you’ll see people sitting in their bedrooms
playing videogames. (Honestly, sometimes I just turn it on to feel better about
the state of my own bedroom.)

But they are not alone. For every hand gripping a mouse
or a controller, there can be dozens, even hundreds, of others watching them
play a game. Every channel comes with a chat window where you can talk to other
people watching, or even the person playing — if they happen to be paying
attention.

“Wait. So people just watch other people play a
game. Isn’t that boring?”

She swirls her drink again and the power of the eye roll
is increasing, as she mentally starts to figure out better ways Amazon could
have spent a billion dollars.

This is the part where I talk about one of the big reasons
behind the site’s popularity — eSports.

Now if you’ve never heard of eSports before, or are
vaguely aware of it, don’t worry — I’m not about to drag you through the murky
depths of this genre. It would be like trying to describe the ending of “Lost”
to someone who has never seen a TV. All you need to know is that eSports is
insanity and that the ending to “Lost” was terrible. Six seasons and
you have no explanation why Walt was so special… Maybe explaining the
popularity behind eSports won’t be so tough after all.

One of the most popular games to watch on eSports is
“League of Legends,” a game that blends role-playing, managing
resources and shouting at your friends. Again, if I had another thousand words,
I might be able to scratch the surface of this game, but all you need to know
is that gamers love to play it and even more of them love to watch it. Last
year, more than 32 million people watched the World Finals for “League of
Legends.” This one event overshadowed all other live streams including
that of the Olympics.

And that’s just one game. If you include other games,
like “DOTA 2” or giant tournaments for fighting games like “EVO,”
you’re looking at millions and millions of eyeballs turning on and staying on
during a live event. While the Super Bowl still smashes records for butts in the
seats, eSports often run longer and never blinks. There’s no commercial break.  There’s no halftime show. From start to
finish, someone is going to walk home a champion and you don’t want to miss a
second of it. Imagine being able to reach out to millions of people with only a
couple of cameras and a strong internet connection.

“But it’s still people watching a video game.”

But it’s far more than that. When you watch a game,
you’re becoming a better player; learning how the game works, what are the best
strategies against the best characters, and picking up habits from the best
players in the business.  Imagine
watching a football game and being able to run faster than before. Viewers
absorb information as the game plays out. They’re not just watching, but
talking to other viewers in chat, creating a community as the game plays out,
and sometimes they even get to be a part of the event if one of their questions
gets picked.

With this, I could tell she had about enough talk about
Twitch. The drink was empty and she didn’t seem swayed by the new technology.
The fact is not everyone plays video games, and even fewer people will actually
spend time watching someone else play one. Amazon knows this and that’s not why
they just spent a billion dollars on a company.

It was my turn to turn the table. “So,” I
asked, “what do you do?”

She quickly mumbled over the day job to get to what she
was really excited about, managing a band. That’s when I told her that she
needed to sign up for a Twitch account that night. Before the big buyout, the
company started to experiment with their format and one of the things that
seemly slipped under the radar was that of a live concert. Fans logged on,
watched their favorite band live, and chatted with others as the band played
on.

Twitch is a platform. Switch it on and you’ll find
thousands of channels of pure gameplay rolling around with people talking in
the background. Dig a little deeper and you’ll also find people talking on
camera, with sets built like an actual talk show, and schedules of events posted at the
bottom of the web page. I told her to get a channel dedicated to the band, have
them play a couple of songs at the same time every week, have live interviews
with the band, and even bring in other bands to keep people coming back
for more.

Where YouTube used to be a place where you threw up old VHS videos or
illegal TV shows, it’s now a place where you can find unique entertainment from
a wide range of sources. Twitch is on the verge of becoming the same. Video games
will always be a majority of its content, but in the next couple of years, more
people will be jumping on the site to create their own live events to bring
together their community. The future of entertainment is going live in 5… 4… 3…
2…

You’re on.

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