Last week, when news started floating around that Google might pay a billion dollars to acquire Twitch—an online video platform that aims to be the ESPN of video games, live-streaming gaming tournaments and other related content—a friend sent me a prickly email. “They’ve finally come up with a start-up for dudes who are so lazy they’d rather sit on the couch and watch other people play video games,” he wrote. “Western civilization is doomed.”
Long derided as the embodiment of the sedentary lifestyle, it’s hard to imagine video games taking yet another step toward passivity. It’s even harder to fathom why anyone would wish to spend hours—nearly two per day per user, according to Twitch’s 2013 report—watching someone else’s pastime.
But Google’s reported interest in Twitch makes perfect sense, and for two reasons. The first is financial: Google is not only buying Twitch but also keeping Twitch from falling into the hands of Apple, Microsoft, or Facebook. Each one of these behemoths would be thrilled to devour a platform that draws more than 45 million unique viewers each month, and which accounts for 1.35 percent of broadband traffic during peak hours in North America—that’s more than HBO GO. If it controlled Twitch, Google could offer advertisers what advertisers like best, namely access to a very large community of people who are deeply, madly, and truly passionate about their specific and popular pursuit.
Of course, Google already owns a very large repository of game play videos, YouTube. But YouTube, unlike Twitch, isn’t live, which underlines the second reason: In moving on Twitch, Google will show that it—alone, perhaps, among tech juggernauts—understands what video games ought to become. And what they ought to become, surprisingly, are a spectator sport.
If this sounds like an audacious claim—most of us, after all, have experienced the medium primarily as players, not viewers—kindly contemplate golf. In the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, the game rose to national prominence, with hundreds of clubs popping up across the nation to accommodate players. By 1953, however, the sport was sufficiently beloved to merit that its key tournaments be televised. In 2013, the number of Americans who play golf declined by 400,000, while the number of people who watched the Masters on television stood at two million. In other words, a lot of people still love playing golf in their local country club, but the sport as such is now primarily defined by the marquee names that take up long stretches of TV air time and big advertising budgets.
And video games have much more in common with golf than they do with movies, say, or television. When we watch television, we’re engaged in a subjective intellectual and emotional experience, trying to make sense of the content that unfurls on the screen in front of us. When we play video games, we live in the moment, twitching our thumbs and arching our shoulders and calling on hand-eye coordination to do its thing. Look at seasoned gamers playing, and you’ll notice that they frequently aren’t looking at the screen. They don’t need to: They’ve memorized the playing field perfectly and are guided largely by muscle memory.
The same is true for golfers, basketball players, boxers, fighter jet pilots, and anyone else engaging in a pursuit that depends heavily on reflex and repetition. Which is why it’s often more fun to watch these masters at play than it is to get up and join in the game. When I step in the ring—which I did, in my younger, trimmer, and more foolish days—I get a few minutes of sweat and satisfaction. But when I watch Manny Pacquiao, I see the same familiar practice perfected, the same moves and jabs executed with the grace and the might that I, poor amateur boxer, will never have.
This, in part, is why so many people love watching sports. Although each game gives birth to a hundred little stories—the catch made in the bottom of the third, the shot that scorched the net just as the buzzer rang—sports aren’t primarily about narratives. They’re about transcendence, reminding us that our minds and our bodies are capable of so much more than we do with them each day, and allowing us to experience a sense of elevation by fixing our gaze on our skilled and muscular betters. Which is why watching a sporting event, unlike watching a movie or a television show, entails going into a mild sort of trance.
If you’ve ever sat mesmerized on the couch as a sibling or a friend played Mario, say, you know that watching video games being played achieves the same effect. It doesn’t matter that you’re not the one pressing the buttons: You cringe with every near miss and leap with every enemy slain because, by watching, you’re every bit as much a part of the game’s great kinetic torrent.
The millions watching Twitch, then, aren’t that different than the millions watching a game of football. Standing on the 10 yard line in the Super Bowl must be a special kind of rush, but it’s one not entirely lost when translated into a televised broadcast. Google understands this, because Google’s primary business isn’t search or selling ads but deciphering the human experience: The more it knows about what we feel and what we want, the better it becomes at finding a way to monetize these emotions. Everybody knows that we love to play video games; only Twitch intuited that we might love watching them even more, and buying the company may prove to be one of Google’s biggest coups yet.
Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet magazine.