Living the stream

Video game streaming is a normal way for young people to consume media.
Twitch convention_2016 474x560
Twitch Convention 2016 CC BY-SA 2.0

Although video games are often considered a niche activity mainly pursued by teenage boys, the sector is now the largest within the entertainment industry, surpassing the revenues of both music and film put together. A by-product of their rise is video game live streaming platforms, such as; Dr Jamie Woodcock argues the site's success demands both our understanding and scrutiny., the market leading video games streaming site, is a social phenomenon; the site has more than 100 million (mostly young and male) visitors logging in each month to watch each other play alongside professional gamers.

Audiences for video games tournaments have surpassed those of major televised sporting events, such as America’s World Series Baseball Championships, while the site also functions as a social network for its highly engaged audience, with chat rooms allowing real-time interactions.

Dr Jamie Woodcock of the Department of Management was compelled to research video-game streaming due to the disparate response it receives, depending on the age-group. “If you speak to older people about video game streaming, they don’t really understand it. But if you ask them about what their children are doing in their free-time, they might say they are watching other people play games like Minecraft,” he says.

“A generational shift has taken place. Many young people who were born in the 1990s don’t read print newspapers, don’t have a TV licence, and may not watch live sports. But video game streaming is a normal way for them to consume media,” Dr Woodcock adds.

Twitch has enabled a few of the most popular video-game streamers to become global celebrities and earn vast fortunes. According to Dr Woodcock, one of the most appealing features of Twitch is the level of intimacy it offers audiences with other gamers, especially professionals.

“The personality and character of the person being streamed comes through when they play. For the most successful gamers, the audience is welcomed into their living rooms. They get closer than they might do to conventional celebrities, who usually have a carefully constructed public image,” he says.

After spending time with these online communities, Dr Woodcock emphasises the benefits individuals can derive from participating in video game streaming. “There is evidence video game streaming can be positive for many participants. They find communities that are supportive to their mental health, their precarious employment situations, or other issues that young people face today. That’s an overriding feature of Twitch audiences — people genuinely find they are connected to a group.”

Whatever the social value of video game streaming, it is indisputable that Twitch and the video games industry is highly profitable in monetary terms. Recent rises in U.K. inflation were attributed to the increasing cost of video games, while in 2014, Twitch was bought by online giant Amazon for $1 billion, with some analysts valuing the company much higher today.

Alongside the usual revenue streams for online media such as advertising and product endorsement, some streamed games offer the audience opportunities to gamble or pay in micro-transactions, where players are required to spend small amounts of money to continue playing or watching.

Dr Woodcock finds the growing prevalence of gambling and micropayments on these sites, and their popularity amongst young people, as the most persuasive reason the industry deserves scrutiny: “Gambling on the outcome of live video games is completely unregulated, but it comes from economic dynamics, there is a huge audience with disposable incomes."

“Is that the kind of dynamic we want in video games, particularly those targeted at children? With an industry as lucrative as this one, there will always those who push against social norms to try to make money,” Dr Woodcock adds.

Behind the article

 ‘It’s like the gold rush’: the lives and careers of professional video game streamers on by Mark R. Johnson and Jamie Woodcock was published in Information, Communication and Society in October 2017