Words: 1741 Approximate Reading Time: 10-15 minutes
A while back, around 5-6 months ago, I started streaming on Twitch. It’s not easy, as anyone who has tried streaming for themselves can attest.
One thing I’ve done long before streaming, though, is consuming a lot of stream content. And of course other forms of entertainment in the genre of “everyday person records themselves playing a video game and talking over it for other people to watch.” Something sort of neat about the growth of YouTube and Twitch is that they allow people who love video games to make money – and in very rare circumstances a living – from that content. There are, of course, a lot of criticisms to be leveled at those platforms for how they exploit content creators and make it significantly harder for people to make money or a living. But that won’t be our objective here.
Instead, I wanted to address a somewhat strange topic…why do people watch streams? I wanted to address this for a few different reasons. But a core reason is that it’s a useful topic for a streamer to think about and understand. Because I think so many small-time streamers and other types of content creators – people in the exact same boat as I am – are wondering how to “grow” their channels. And it’s easy to see when people chase that objective, to the point that they make content that undermines their own purpose.
Arguably, the simple answer to “how do you make a successful channel?” is “be lucky.” Because there is a lot of luck that goes into crafting a successful streaming channel. But there are still things people can do on the margins to better seize the opportunities they might get.
This essay isn’t really meant to be “Here are tips on how to succeed at Twitch.” Firstly, because so many of those guides already exist. You can find all sorts of tips if you want to set up your own channel. Secondly, because as was implied above, I don’t think those guides really work. Or more appropriately, there isn’t a guide on “how to succeed” at streaming or anything like that. Thirdly, I’m much more interested in how people relate to games. I am curious about the topic of streaming success more from the perspective of how people consume content, rather than maximizing the number of eyeballs and donations that come rolling in. And lastly, well…I’m not a successful streamer. I can’t write such a guide.
So my objective here is to try to break down as best I can why people watch other people play video games. The idea is that by understanding the psychology of viewers, we can sort of reverse-engineer what we do.
Of course, understanding why people watch and actually producing good content are different matters. Like I said, this is not an essay on “how to succeed.”
Why Watch Rather than Play?
When we’re trying to understand why people watch YouTube playthroughs or Twitch streams, our starting point should be asking why anyone would want to watch a game. Because video games are fundamentally interactive media. They are designed to be played, not watched. Strictly speaking, it’s not absolutely required that you play a game to “understand” it. But nevertheless, why would a person watch a game be played, rather than play it themself?
An obvious answer is that they’re watching for the sake of the game itself. This can boil down to a number of possible explanations.
For one, perhaps the viewer doesn’t have access to the game, but is interested and wants to see that game. Maybe they don’t have enough disposable income. Maybe the game is for a console they don’t own. Maybe their computer isn’t powerful enough to run the game. Maybe the game is difficult and the viewer thinks they couldn’t get through it on their own. All of these cases would be reasons for why someone might watch a game rather than play it.
In addition, a person might watch a game being played because they’ve already played it. You can often find viewers who focus on a particular game because it’s one that they loved, and they want to see other people play and react. It is a form of sharing one’s experience with others…for better or worse.
Insofar as we’re trying to understand the psychology of such viewers, what should be noted is that if a viewer is watching because of a particular game, then their attention is limited. That is, they will only stay so long as the game they are interested in is being played.
But in terms of creating a community on these platforms, the more important draw is not the game itself, but the creator. The person behind the controller who is streaming or recording. Sometimes viewers watch specifically for that creator, and the game being played is of relatively little importance.
So why would that happen? What is it about a streamer that might warrant attention – especially when we would think the point of watching someone play video games on the internet is to…watch someone play games?
Here we will find a few possible explanations.
For one, viewers might be drawn to the specific way that the streamer plays the game. Usually, this will come in the form of highly-skilled play. Some of the most popular streamers you can find are those who play a popular game really well. There is something inherently impressive about seeing a master work at their craft. Which is why speedrunning events like Games Done Quick and e-sports competitions draw such large audiences.
Additionally, viewers might be more interested in information about the game. A creator who can provide some interesting insights into the game that they’re playing – explaining the lore, how to build a character, where to find cool secrets, and so on – will tend to draw some sort of crowd. Because this is information that the player might struggle to find elsewhere. Potentially because the information doesn’t exist, or because it does but not in such a consolidated and easy-to-digest format.
And finally, viewers might be genuinely more interested in the streamer specifically. That is, perhaps the person behind the screen provides interesting or entertaining commentary. Plenty of successful channels such as Game Grumps are built more around the premise of being entertainment that is done while playing a game. That is, the game comes second to the comedy. There are plenty of ways to provide interesting commentary – from being funny to being informative to providing a space to talk about complex subject matter. Although a lot of content obviously gears toward trying to be funny.
Okay, so why go into this stuff? I’m not trying to provide an exhaustive list of why every possible person uses these platforms to watch video games. Instead, I want to examine these broad categories for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, because I think a problem that a lot of people run into when they try to start a stream or channel is to just think that the ticket to success is simply playing a game. Or perhaps they look at more successful channels and then copy what they see. Which is why it’s easy to see so many smaller streamers that feel…perhaps a bit like cheap knock-offs. The result, of course, is that those channels will likely remain tiny.
And by stepping back and examining why people watch this content, it allows creators to decide what they have to offer. How can I better appeal to a potential audience?
I will note that not everyone is running a stream or putting together videos on a YouTube channel with the specific intent of making it their job. Some people are doing it for fun. But “I’m just doing it for fun” is also an easy thing to say. Yet at the same time, the knowledge that there are people who make a lot of money – even millions of dollars – from this enterprise is something you can’t unlearn. It will always hang over every streamer and YouTuber.
Secondly, I wanted to investigate this because it helps to put into perspective how we are shaped by these media. I’ve written before on how playing games filtered through the lens of “I am playing for an audience” changes how we interact with games – both on- and off-camera. But it also means that watching people play games through this lens impacts us as well.
The number of possibilities in being able to watch a game being played means that video games can essentially become something to see rather than play. I’ve also written about the idea of whether you need to play a game to “really understand it,” and in that essay I came down on the side that you generally don’t. And the easier it is for people to treat games like they would television or a movie, the more true that conclusion becomes. So the way that people watch streams and Let’s Plays in turn alters how we relate to video games.
At the end of the day I’m writing this essay as a way of examining the content that I consume. I tend to watch a handful of smaller streamers, often for reasons that have very little to do with the games that they’re playing. The parasocial relationships that we talk about with this kind of content create all sorts of weird pressures.
And in seeing a lot of these smaller streamers – the ones I follow and the ones I don’t – I see a lot of similar errors cropping up. As I mentioned above, I see a lot of people attempting to copy more successful people, hoping that the same lightning will strike for them. It is, so to speak, a cargo cult mentality: people mimicking the trappings of success while not understanding the underlying substance that caused that success.
Because putting together a successful stream requires a massive amount of work. I can look at that work and see it is not the kind of stuff I am able or even really willing to do. But I suspect that there are plenty of streamers and channel owners that do want to put in that work, and yet just aren’t quite sure what they’re doing. It is a case of working smarter, rather than harder. And so understanding why people watch this stuff – and thus how to think about appealing to them – is important knowledge to have.