Gaming Trend: The Art of (Watching) Play

“Stop playing videogames and go outside!”

This has been a common refrain of parents for several decades now. However, if you haven’t already, prepare to start hearing this: “Stop watching videogames and go outside!”

Over the last couple of years, watching other people play videogames (whether live or pre-recorded) online has become an increasingly common activity among gamers throughout the world. The videogame site Twitch has 55 million users, 58% of whom watch a mind-boggling 20 hours a week.

How & why

Why are people flocking to this new source of content instead of actually playing games themselves?

It’s simple really, for the same reasons we watch sports on TV but don’t play them: a lack of ability or means to play, a vehicle for social gatherings and—of course—for pure enjoyment.

But why is this phenomenon happening now? In an era where the line between creators and consumers continues to blur, our idea of what constitutes worthy viewing material is rapidly changing. The democratization of content creation together with open platforms are allowing long underserved niches and sub-cultures to service themselves, revealing new models and forms of content in the process.

This trend’s main channels are YouTube and the aforementioned Twitch, which was specially designed for streaming live games.

These videos aren’t merely a fringe activity or fad to big business either. Amazon recently bought Twitch for $970 million, after they were heavily courted by Google. Amazon and Google both see how these videos can become a major part of both their advertising and content strategies.

Beyond serving as advertisement vehicles and a source of cheap content, there are some other important uses and considerations regarding this trend that need to be understood.

Two main avenues: “Let’s Play” and streaming dev

Indie developers should be excited by the opportunities opened up by this new consumption method as a way to help them spread the word of their games in the grassroots marketing style. The two main avenues here are “Let’s Play” videos and streaming dev.

Let’s Play videos are simply videos (whether pre-recorded or streamed live) of a player going through a game while providing running commentary. This allows fans and prospective purchasers to view a game through the lens of an average player like themselves, seeing the actual game play (warts and all) rather than a polished, cut-up trailer that will often obfuscate the true game-play experience in the name of marketing.

Streaming development is simply the live broadcast of a game’s development, either via screen sharing or a camera set up in the office. Indie stars Vlambeer streamed the development of Nuclear Throne to great fanfare, while also seeing the value of getting feedback and suggestions so early. This saved them from potentially costly mistakes down the road which are endemic to a less open development process. These benefits go hand-in-hand with the analytics-driven “games as a service” revolution that episodic titles and live games like Clash of Clans use to thrive. Transparent development and the implementation of suggestions received from the audience also build trust with fans and allow them to develop an ownership stake in the game as its development progresses. This turns them into purchasers and evangelists for the game by the time it is released.

Legality and profit sharing

24 year-old PewDiePie (real name: Felix Kjellberg) is the most popular creator of Let’s Play videos on YouTube. Thanks to his 30.5 million viewer subscriber base, he makes $4 million a year via ad sales. This leads to the question of whether or not the developers of the games that PewDiePie and other players film are entitled to any of this profit. Nintendo believes so and that led it to take down videos last year (amid great controversy) and announce a YouTube affiliate program that would give it a cut of the advertising revenue.

How does this affect game design?

The game-watching phenomenon can most certainly influence game design as companies begin to realize the importance of making games that are as entertaining to watch as they are to play.

As the popularity of professional E-sports and cyber-athletes with dedicated fan followings continues to grow, competitive multiplayer games will remain popular. Such competitive games require UI elements akin to graphics seen in sports broadcasts for tracking scores, important statistics and match-changing events.

From a single-player perspective, it’s no surprise that games such as Spelunky that focus on emergent game play and randomization are more popular to watch than heavily scripted linear games, which offer the same experience on every playthrough. This fact will likely help to perpetuate the already high popularity of such games on the indie development scene.


Media as a whole is seeing sweeping changes in delivery methods, consumption patterns and business models, and games are no exception to this, as illustrated in part by the popularity of watching videogames and the doors this market opens.

No matter which side of the consumer-business fence you’re on, this is more proof that there’s never been a better time to be a part of the gaming market.

Kevin Oke
Kevin Oke is co-founder of Victoria BC-based LlamaZOO Interactive, an award-winning educational technology start-up. Kevin has worked as an employee and consultant in digital interactive entertainment for 10 years. He has worked with Fox, Electronic Arts, Sky Sports and Nickelodeon on 40+ projects.
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