When New York Times media critic David Carr turned his attention to Twitch this week after Amazon’s $970 million cash acquisition of the video game streaming network, he asked what a lot of people have been wondering.
“Is this really a thing?”
The cash makes that sound like a stupid question. As do the numbers. As Carr notes, 55 million unique users tuned in to Twitch this July to watch a whopping 155 billion minutes of gaming.
But while figures can show where there’s fire, they can’t explain why it burns.
I have a few ideas about that, thanks to a guy I know who wakes up at 5 a.m. four days a week to stream his games before breakfast.
Early last year, Jason got into a PC shooter game by Valve Software called Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Within weeks, he’d hooked up with its player community on Reddit, consumed hundreds of player-made tips posts and videos and set up both his own YouTube channel and a weekly Reddit game night where players shot at each other into the wee hours of the morning.
He loved it.
Then one day, I found him sitting on the couch with his phone, headphones in, completely absorbed. He wasn’t on a call. He wasn’t browsing YouTube. He was watching a player named Eric ‘adreN’ Hoag play CS:GO live on something called Twitch.
This spring, he set up his own Twitch channel. And there was no turning back.
A few things started to change around the Preston household.
I learned to listen for shouts, laughs and curses before opening the office door in the morning, especially if I hadn’t showered. A careless walk in could broadcast my gross morning self to an audience of mostly teenage boys.
We’d already learned to communicate around his play or suffer the consequences. There’s no pausing CS:GO, and once, when I stopped home in a panic between appointments to find my otherwise helpful life partner locked in under headphones, gunfire and the hopes and dreams of four invisible teammates, I nearly dive-tackled the computer.
And there were a host of new signals. If Jason trudged to the shower post-stream or made his amazing morning pancakes with a distant look in his eyes, I could be pretty sure he’d played terribly. If he popped in to our son’s room at 8 a.m. with his eyes big and his arms out for a toddler-sized hug, I knew he and his viewers had had a blast.
Jason has a theory about why people outside gaming are confused by the popularity of something like Twitch.
“Fans of games have learned not to bother talking about it to folks who aren’t also fans,” he says. “That means people think, ‘Weird. That’s so boring, and nobody I know thinks it’s interesting.'”
And those people, he says, are wrong.
Still, we can’t help but test things out once in a while. Usually, though, when we find a way to bring up his stream in conversation, even some of our most techie friends will glare at us, faces blank, completely stumped.
If there’s one thing that intrigues me most about hard-core gamers, it’s their steely self-reliance.
Gaming doesn’t need to court a mainstream audience to boom, and digital tech is making this more true than ever.
There are not just games anymore, but hungry game communities. Those communities are finding such rich new depths to mine, that all game companies have to give them — other than brilliant, engrossing titles — is shovels and dirt.
I see those depths in Jason’s gaming. Twitch is now essential to his CS:GO experience, but so is Reddit, YouTube, Valve’s player-oriented Steam platform and e-sports tournament channels like ESEA and CEVO.
In every one, he’s digging.
I don’t watch Jason’s CS:GO stream for the same reason I don’t watch golf. I don’t like the game.
But I get a vicarious jolt when he tells me — after trudging upstairs to join me and our 2-year-old for waffles or cereal — that he’s picked up another regular viewer.
These viewers don’t just watch, by the way. They talk to Jason and to each other on the stream chat, reacting to what’s going on in the game and sharing what’s going on in their lives. One regular is a teen in Hungary. Another, a mother out east.
And while his dozen or so viewers are nothing next to, say, his 4,000+ Twitter followers, they don’t see one tweet in one second over one week, but tune in day after day for hours.
He is in bed by 10 for these people. And then some.
One morning, I woke up to see Jason come upstairs from his stream looking … smoother.
It hit me all at once. He’d shaved his year-old beard. He’d promised he’d do it live on stream if he ever got 75 viewers. pinworms666, the popular streamer who tuned in to Jason’s stream the previous week, must have followed through on his threat to send dozens of viewers his way and make it happen.
“No tienes barba,” our son said when he saw his dad. “You don’t have a beard” in Spanish. That was a good day.
Jason is no superstar CS:GO player. He just loves his favorite hobby too much to keep it to himself.
Is that really a thing?
That sounds like a stupid question.