Video games are increasingly becoming a spectator phenomenon. Esports are the most obvious example of this, with large tournaments garnering tens of millions of viewers. But this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to watching other people play video games.
The first thing many people ask about “watching games”, as I will put it, is “why watch someone else play when you could play the game yourself?“. This isn’t an unreasonable question, especially considering that the most popular YouTube channels are Let’s Play channels. Randy Kulman, with a PhD. in psychology from Kent State University, breaks the reasons down into three categories: skills boost, social connection, and entertainment. To briefly summarize these categories, people watch games either to learn how to play them better, to have something to talk to their friends about, or simply to enjoy the same way they would a TV show or movie. What makes watching games different from watching TV is the connection between creator and audience. On YouTube, any viewer can leave comments on videos to engage with the video’s creator, and many creators respond to at least some of these commentors. More popular creators also have separate systems for interacting with their audience, such as setting up Reddit channels or going to conventions to meet fans.
From the Let’s Play movement has spawned a more recent trend in streaming games. Services like Twitch provide users with tools to create live streams of their play, allowing for immediate interaction between the creator and their audience. Even YouTube recently started their own version of live streaming called YouTube Live. These live streaming tools can even facilitate truly interactive games, such as Twitch Plays Pokemon (TPP). In February of 2014, an anonymous Australian programmer set up an instance of Pokemon Red to respond to commands entered into Twitch’s chat system. Essentially anyone viewing the stream had control of the player, but only for the brief moment when their command was processed (this is made worse by the delay between the chat and the stream). Eventually the chaos of this system made certain sections nearly impossible to navigate, so a democracy system was introduced to take only the most common command every few seconds. From the chaos of TPP emerged an immersive lore created entirely by the community. You can find a brief overview in the video below, and read a bit in this post.
However, all of these examples come from the West. In China, streaming is still mainly focused on Esports, especially professional gamers. China has its own versions of Twitch, such as Douyu (斗鱼), with viewership numbers that far exceed those of Twitch and other streaming services, although these numbers are often treated with suspicion. Still, the streaming service is a major market, and Tencent has recently looked into acquiring Douyu. It seems unlikely that Chinese streaming will develop the same trends that Western streaming, especially since China lacks the Let’s Play culture which now dominates Western streaming.