Why is watching others play games more popular than ever?

Earlier this month at the PRACTICE conference, Christine Norman started her presentation on narrative in League of Legends with an aside about audience engagement. Norman, the lead creative developer on LoL, showed footage of the game’s World Championship, which was live streamed globally and featured ESPN-2 quality announcers. Well, maybe ESPNU. The LoL World Championship, it turns out, is the largest event in the world of eSports, or competitve online gaming. 

But the LoL tournament is also only part of an exploding trend in gaming: watching others play, live. Competition in games is being reconsidered broadly; this past month Stephen Totilo wrote a terrific piece in the Times asking us to consider Halo as a sport; local multiplayer with all of its social joys and agonies seems set for a comeback.

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Yet it appears spectatorship is as much a part of gaming competition as participation. Gamasutra today wrote about Twitch, the service that live streams play and lets others watch: 

Companies have lined up to offer the feature in their titles: Paradox Interactive was the first to announce its implementation in The Showdown Effect, Red 5 is adding it to Firefall, Sony Online Entertainment has already rolled it out in PlanetSide 2, and Electronic Arts is integrating Twitch across its entire Origin digital distribution service.

Twitch boasts 23 million monthly viewers and could gain a large audience, according to the piece, in “non-competitive” online games like World of Warcraft and Day Z

Why the explosion in game-watching? As a boy, this was something the owner of the system made his friends do while he got the first turn. As an adult, I might trade off online matches of FIFA with a roommate or less recently, see which among a group of friends could create the largest rampage in Grand Theft Auto IV. But I confess I don’t understand the impulse to watch people far away play. Is this a way for viewers to learn new strategies? For people on limited budgets to experience games they can’t otherwise afford? To experience a tense game without the stress of participation? 

The closest parallel I can think of in my gaming life is watching ghosts in the Souls series. This, of course, is immediately useful as a survival strategy but also contributes immensely to the mood and texture of the game.

The closest parallel I can think of in other media are television episode recaps. I have never understood why people read these incredibly popular features; sometimes they don’t even gloss an episode but just literally recapitulate everything that happened. Isn’t the real pleasure in experiencing the thing?