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Twitch and YouTube icons overlay a game controller Illustration: James Bareham/Polygon

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The people who watch video games, but never play them

YouTube and Twitch have changed video game fandom

Who can be considered a gamer? Depending on who you ask, it might mean enjoying a certain type of genre or owning special hardware. Recent pushes for inclusivity widen the label further to encompass anyone who plays anything, whether that’s Candy Crush or Call of Duty. But what if both of these modes of thinking are out of touch with how the world consumes games in 2019?

In 2018, YouTube viewers watched over 50 billion hours of gaming content on the platform, with 48% of viewers reporting that they spend more time watching than they do playing. Twitch, the leading live streaming service on the internet, was reportedly watched around 9 billion hours last year. If you’re watching a game, it follows that you’re not actively playing something at the same time, at least not usually. Many YouTube and Twitch viewers will go on to enjoy games on their own time, of course, but increasingly, there’s a growing section of fanatics who participate in the culture without ever picking up a controller.

The reasons, based on conversations I’ve had with dozens of people, vary widely. Perhaps the most common thing people cite is a lack of time. Games are becoming more and more demanding with each passing year, with mainstream titles often clocking in at dozens upon dozens of hours before completion. Anecdotally, many people I know are still working their way through games from 2018 and 2017, like Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, because the worlds are so expansive — and continue to get bigger with each new update or DLC.

“Games as service,” the biggest trend within the space, is all about time commitment. Games like Destiny 2 and Fallout 76 reward players for logging in daily, in addition to holding limited-time events that are only available during certain time frames. Games are becoming work, and work takes time and energy.

Destiny 2 - four Guardians mug for the camera before a Crucible match Image: Bungie via Polygon

Joaquin, a video game fan who used to play things like Counter-Strike, says that his video game habits changed dramatically once he got a job.

“I had money to buy games and consoles but I didn’t have time,” Joaquin told Polygon. “Or at least, [not the amount of] time I needed to invest on gaming,” he continued.

For others, watching video games instead of playing them is a matter of mastery. Gretchen, a devout livestream viewer, says that she considers herself a competitive gamer.

“I want to always be winning, and be good at the game,” she said. After college, she stopped having as much free time as she did growing up. But instead of giving up the hobby outright, Gretchen started watching high-level Counter-Strike instead.

“Watching someone play means that I don’t have to invest my own time ‘getting good’ at the game,” she said. “I’d rather see someone else who’s good at the game do it.” She estimates that she watches around five hours of livestreams a day, which may sound like a notable investment, until you consider how much easier it is to fit in a livestream than actual playtime. You can watch games while you do a chore, like laundry. Or you can cruise the web while listening to a stream in the background. Some people even use Twitch to fall asleep, with broadcasts acting like a modern lullabies.

For Zelda fan Melinh, watching instead of playing was how they were introduced into the hobby in the first place.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Image: Nintendo

“I was one of those kids who got into games by going over someone else’s house and playing their on their consoles,” they said. Melinh recalls watching over their cousin’s shoulder growing up, and that cousin was apparently much better at games than they were.

“He’d carry me through all the levels and I was too proud to want to continue playing like that,” they said.

Now that Melinh is older, time has also become a more precious resource — and they know that many good games can become a big timesink. Transitioning to watching rather than playing felt natural.

“I think a lot of the appeal that I find in games is the capacity to just get really, really into a piece of media for a period of time that’s lasts longer than, say, how long it would take me to read a book or watch a movie,” they said.

“I worry that if I’m actively playing a game, it’ll be too easy to ignore my responsibilities, like my graduate work.” Watching instead of playing allows them to enjoy the hobby while, say, eating dinner “without feeling like I was going to be super distracted for a long time.”

In my experience, whenever I tell people that I write about video games for a living, a good 60 percent of them will respond with the same thing: Oh, I love video games, but I can’t play them. I get too sucked in!

In Melinh’s case, it helps that consoles have built-in features that allow you to enjoy games a little more passively. They love using the PS4’s SharePlay to keep up with friends over long distances. The pal will work their way through a title while Melinh watches, or goes about their day.

Horizon Zero Dawn - Aloy nocking an arrow Image: Guerrilla Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment

“We’ve kept each other updated on our lives and given each other advice and support while she played through The Witcher, Horizon Zero Dawn, and the Dishonored games,” they said.

Another common thread among players I spoke to was a lack of money or access. Video game consoles cost hundreds of dollars, and triple-A video games often cost $60. Subscriptions to online services vary in costs, but add to the overall pricetag — never mind accessories, like controllers. While cell phones have opened up the floor for more types of players, those also typically cost several hundreds of dollars.

“Sadly, money’s tight most of the time now,” said Twitter user schreiraupeee. “But hey, at least you can show support for your favorite [YouTubers and streamers] who do play them.”

Younger kids who don’t have nearly as much spending money as an adult tend to enjoy games more freely on platforms like YouTube. In this case, titles like Minecraft or Grand Theft Auto V can function less as open-world games and more as Saturday morning cartoons. In some ways, video games are more expansive than anything you could see on TV: characters from all sorts different properties can be modded in, or any structure can be built by the video game players. Things like budget, actors, and locales aren’t really a concern. Spider-Man can hang out with Elsa from Frozen and Elmo from Sesame Street, and it’s no big deal.

Spider-Man stands in front of Elsa from Frozen in GTA V
Image: Take Two / Rockstar via Game Offline

YouTube and Twitch also make certain genres more palatable. It’s common, for example, for people to watch horror games on those platforms, but never actually play the genre because it’s too scary.

For some, watching but not playing video games isn’t a question of time or resources — but rather a concern over stigma. Viktor, a fan of Slay the Spire, says that people around him tend to judge his love of video games.

“Most of my immediate family reacts very negatively when I play myself,” he said. For whatever reason, his family seems fine with his fandom if he’s only watching, so that’s how he explores his interests.

Much of the gatekeeping around video games revolves around mastery — can you do this? Do you know this? But curiously, many of the viewers I spoke to could talk shop about their favorite games, despite never actually booting them up. Some seem to know their games of choice better than people who actually play them every day, because their fandom revolves entirely around knowledge.

This phenomenon of video game fans in the periphery isn’t limited to viewers. Thanks to games like Overwatch and Fire Emblem, which have expansive rosters and lively cartoon worlds, video game fandom also encompasses things like fan artists and cosplay aficionados. Often, when new characters are announced for a video game, it’s common for developers to release character guides to help people know how to draw or dress up as them. You also can’t go to a video game convention without being surrounded by folks in video game costumes. A not insignificant number of these folks don’t necessarily play the games they rep — they just like the character design, or the art style. But their enthusiasm is just as valid as those who play The Division 2 every day. We’re all operating under the same ecosystem.

Perhaps this progression of video game fandom was inevitable. I still remember being a kid, not a nickle to my name, dutifully checking out the magazine racks in my library. Nintendo Power, Game Pro, EGM — I read all of them, cover to cover, fantasizing about games I’d never get to play. Then I’d go home and argue about video games on forums with other kids who probably didn’t own everything that sparked a flame war.

YouTube and Twitch weren’t a thing back then, but if they were, I have a feeling I probably would have been obsessed with these platforms, too.

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