Why Gamers Watch Gamers

So it would seem that Jimmy Kimmel has ruffled some feathers with his jabs at YouTube’s new service for video game streams:

And indeed, it would seem that many gamers can’t take a joke and their response has been childish at best (though it can be assumed a solid chunk of those replies were from actual children).

But one can’t help but empathize with the gamers a bit. The entertainment they enjoy has from its inception been regarded as somehow inferior to other media, lacking some sort of quality that earns it status as true art. And gamers themselves are not held in very high esteem in contrast to those with more traditionally revered hobbies. Perhaps it’s only to be expected that when Kimmel joins those piling on them, they’re not in the mood to take a joke.

Kimmel dismisses the comparison of video game streaming to spectator sports by saying it “isn’t like watching people play football, it’s like watching people play fantasy football.” But are spectator sports themselves as intrinsically fulfilling as some examples of seeing others play video games?

To watch another person play a video game is to see them experience entertainment and have their skills tested simultaneously. Even watching another person view entertainment can be entertaining in of itself, for example, seeing audiences react to a certain scene in The Empire Strikes Back for the first time:

And seeing others performing feats of skill can always be enthralling, from showcases of athletic prowess to acts as simple as food preparation:

Surely, many would deem it worth their time to watch others show their skills at video games as well?

But there’s a glaring difference between spectator sports and spectator “e-sports.” There are only several sports that are watched by wide audiences. Their athletes are restricted by the rules of the game, and there is no backstory to the game besides the backgrounds of the teams and players. All the action is constrained by those rules, and there will be no twists in the narrative, or at least none that extend beyond those that are possible given the game’s constraints.

Yes, you can make this stuff up.

However, there are thousands of video games, most of which strive to create both their own unique set of rules and a dramatic narrative.

So while people can watch a few seasons of football and see nearly all of the passes and plays possible given the game’s rule set, it would be practically impossible for them to watch other people choose all the possible means of playing through a highly complex computer role-playing game, let alone play through them themselves. Many developers pride themselves on constructing games so exhaustively crafted they will respond logically to whatever input the player gives them. Many games are so intricately designed that it’s impossible for one person to experience everything the writers, programmers, and voice actors have prepared for them. Why not provide a platform to show gamers the routes they have not taken themselves, and what would have happened to them if they had? Otherwise, the developers’ efforts would have been for naught.

And as it was with The Empire Strikes Back, it’s entertaining to see others react to plot developments in games as well. Who wouldn’t be interested in how others reacted to the big twist in Knights of the Old Republic (perhaps the greatest Star Wars game yet released)?

So perhaps there really is an appeal to watching others play video games that Kimmel has not considered. If it’s socially acceptable to spend a solid portion of one’s waking hours watching other people play one game, it should be just as fine to watch people other types of games as well.

Don’t knock it till you try it.