There’s a question in gaming that I hear fairly often and it has been making the rounds for about a decade. I’m talking about the classic, “why do people watch streamers when they can just play games themselves.” I don’t understand this line of thought. The question might make sense if you only examine it with a cursory glance, but very reasonable answers start to appear almost immediately after critical inquiry begins. There are a lot of reasons to watch video game streams.
My initial inclination is to make the obvious comparison to sports. Traditional sports are something that a lot of people can feasibly play but they are far more likely to participate in sports passively from the comfort of a living room sofa. It’s not a perfect analogy, though, because sports can actually be pretty hard to organize, require a lot of people, and become difficult after a certain age. But, still, to a degree we can still talk about how viewing an activity is an accessible means of participation, and there’s value in that.
But there’s another element at play here. Playing a sport, or video game, with friends is playful competition and is often between people of a relatively close skill level. When you watch streamers, or professional athletes, you are given the chance of watching people far exceed expectations. A speed runner or MOBA pro can astound with maneuvers that previously would seem unthinkable. Also, I’m going to detangle myself from the sports analogy going forward, but if it’s helpful for you, it shouldn’t be hard to see the parallels when applicable.
The fact that streaming is passive can also be part of its appeal. I tend to think of myself as a relatively person, and it is my understanding that a lot of people are pretty active in their day to day. That means we have to be efficient in the consumption of our entertainment. A video game stream is something we can put on in the background while we take care of the day’s tasks. We can be entertained by countless hours of commentary or even just a game’s narrative. In some cases, narrative is the main draw of a game for people, and there isn’t much harm in letting someone else handle the controls. All the better if they can do it while I fill out invoices or write this article; I can just tune in for the narrative bits.
Streamers also build and maintain communities. Chatting and donating and, in some cases, affecting the stream, feels like a way of connecting to the hobby on a person to person level. Some streamers even put together their own discord channels, which might help people feel closer to one another. Community is important. Well, when things function in an ideal capacity. Chats can also be the worst part of some streams.
There’s also the excitement of watching something live. The universe is chaos and it can be enthralling watching someone play, because every moment is packed with the potential for the unexpected. Randomizers and games with Twitch integration capitalize on this effect.
In the end, streaming has value because it is something beyond video games. I won’t say it’s better than games and I won’t say it’s worse. I’ll just say that it is entirely different. Video games are part of the formula, certainly, but the full experience is rounded out by other variables intrinsic to the platform. So the next time someone asks “why watch people play video games when you can just play them yourself,” ask them how much time they have because, realistically, you could likely list reasons to them for quite a long while.