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  1. Life & Culture

Amazon's deal for Twitch makes perfect sense — if you're young

Published Sep. 4, 2014

While we're all awaiting Bungie's Destiny to consume our lives (and our hard drives) next week, there's been a lot of talk about Twitch lately — almost $1 billion worth of talk, in fact.

Burgeoning multimedia superpower Amazon on Aug. 25 agreed to pay $970 million in cash to the streaming video game channel. That forced many oldsters on the business- and media-analyst side to scratch their heads and wonder, why did Amazon pay that much for an outlet to watch other people play video games?

That question may be the fastest way possible to telegraph that you're older than, say, 40.

Actually, let me amend my statement about analysts to say, the business people understand that 55 million unique visitors watched some 155 billion minutes' worth of other people playing video games in July. That's a lot of eyeballs to whom a company can sell a lot of advertising.

For a company like Amazon trying to launch original programming, a gaming platform and anything else besides books (remember those quaint days?), a product like Twitch makes perfect sense. It has a built-in audience of hardcore nerds who, like me, go back to the days of watching gameplay in between rounds of Futurama reruns back when it was a channel on Justin.tv.

But then you have a critic like David Carr, who said in the New York Times after the sale that while he understood the business aspect of it, he was mystified by gamers willingly viewing what was traditionally an interactive medium as passive entertainment. He said he didn't get gaming in general, and that had he "taken more of an interest in Madden NFL rather than the actual NFL, (he'd) be in the know."

But that's precisely the point.

While a platform like Twitch may seem odd to the older set, age really isn't an excuse for not understanding why spectator viewership of gaming is even a phenomenon. No one seems to have a problem with watching grown men play a kid's game for hours on end, complete with exhaustive over-analysis, entrenched gender demarcations, loud music, graphic overlays and enhanced sound effects. Maybe the beer commercials make it different.

Even if we consider age, it should be clear that video games as prime viewing has been a long time coming. Home video game consoles have been around for 40 years. Sanctioned, organized competitive leagues number in the thousands. Sitting and watching your friends play a game while you wait your turn or even just admire their skill is a time-honored tradition going back to before the days of Pac-Man. So what's the mystery?

In fact, the biggest difference between watching someone play a video game and watching a professional sports team play a game is that when the show's over, you can actually play a video game yourself. It's doubtful Bucs coach Lovie Smith is going to put me in at outside linebacker next week, no matter how much critics say Lavonte David is undersized. Meanwhile, if I watch a Counterstrike tournament or sit through two hours of Titanfall multiplayer on Twitch, I can learn and use strategies I see when I go play those games myself. I'll be in prime shape as long as my thumbs aren't in splints and I haven't been drinking too much.

That's certainly not the case in the Stanley Cup playoffs or the World Cup, but somehow it's still more socially acceptable to sit around and discuss why Joe Maddon shouldn't have put in that lefty or that last pitch should have been a breaking ball. Meanwhile, my online profile as a consumer is already being used to filter what advertisements I'm shown. Using that on Twitch will line Amazon's pockets quite well, so it can continue to sell me incrementally improved Kindles in the future.

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That will translate to a big win for Seattle, who wrested Twitch away from Google after talks with Mountain View for a similar price eventually went south. Once we get through another generation of game consoles and potentially switch to mobile gaming apps for good, the metadata for the average media consumer will dispel all notions that video games aren't a legitimate spectator sport.

All that leads me to the question, why didn't Amazon have to pay more?

— Joshua Gillin writes about video games for tbt*. Challenge his opinions at jgillin@tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jpgillin.

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