T. L. Taylor on Watch Me Play: #Twitch and the Rise of Game Live Streaming

TaylorEvery day thousands of people broadcast their gaming live to audiences over the internet using popular sites such as Twitch, which reaches more than one hundred million viewers a month. In these new platforms for interactive entertainment, big esports events featuring digital game competitors live stream globally, and audiences can interact with broadcasters—and each other—through chat in real time. What are the ramifications of this exploding online industry? Taking readers inside home studios and backstage at large esports events, Watch Me Play investigates the rise of game live streaming and how it is poised to alter how we understand media and audiences. The first book to explore the online phenomenon Twitch and live streaming games, Watch Me Play offers a vibrant look at the melding of private play and public entertainment.

What led you to write this book?

I was captivated by a live esports tournament broadcast I saw in 2012 and originally set out to write an article about how streaming was amplifying that industry well beyond its roots as a grassroots scene. As I started to research what was happening on Twitch, one of the main platforms for game broadcasting, I realized esports was only part of the story. Seeing so many people sharing their play and watching the cultural impact it was having, I quickly understood there was a much bigger research project at stake. What started as a small update on the esports story became a book not only on how people are transforming their private play into public entertainment but profound changes in media more broadly.

Has live streaming changed the culture around esports and gaming more generally?

Absolutely. It used to be a lot of work to be an esports fan. You had to know where to find recorded match videos, download special files to watch competitions, and follow all kinds of specialist sites. Live streaming has made it incredibly easy now to watch esports events and it’s not unusual for there to be matches being broadcast from around the world 24/7 on Twitch. It’s also made it much easier to keep up to date with your favorite teams and players, even watching their practices. For players who aspire to improve, they now have regular access to people they can try and learn from. Live streaming has helped expand and grown esports fandom. Beyond competitive gaming, live streaming has tapped into some of the pleasures sites like YouTube offered in terms of watching, and learning about, games. But it’s extended spectatorship to include real time interaction between viewers and broadcasters, the growth of new gaming communities, a whole new infrastructure around regulation and monetization, and lots of fascinating experiments in sharing live gaming content.

How has the increasing popularity of Twitch impacted live streaming on the Internet overall?

Though the platform originally operated as a niche site catering to gamers, it has gotten real momentum and attention broadly in a relatively short amount of time. More people started watching, and broadcasting themselves, and really big productions caught the eye of those outside gaming. Live streaming taps into a longstanding pleasure in game culture— watching others play and sharing your own— but also syncs with broader changes around media distribution (think about the rise of Netflix and “cord cutting” where people forego cable television entirely) and the tremendous energy of user-generated content. The platform has also been very adept at transforming itself and now not only hosts gaming but all kinds of creative and “in real life” shows. And in a fascinating twist, traditional media has started folding itself back into Twitch. Just the other day I watched the Washington Post’s  https://www.twitch.tv/washingtonpost channel where reporters were talking about the stories of the day and fielding questions in real time from the audience.

How is live streaming changing how we understand media and emerging technologies?

Live streaming offers us an opportunity to understand how various domains—the televisual, the internet, and gaming—can weave together on an emerging platform. It takes the notion of “social media” and “social TV” and extends it well beyond the typical conversations about spaces like Twitter or Facebook. Ultimately we need to do a better job understanding the links, amplifications, and interrelations between what we sometimes think of disparate technologies and sites. The case of game live streaming gives us a path into thinking not only about changes in game culture, but new socio-technical platforms and network life.

How do you predict Twitch will grow and evolve in the coming years?

I always say I’m a sociologist and not a futurologist so I’m hesitant to make any predictions. There are still too many contingencies (around everything from user practices to regulation and economics). What I will say is that while Twitch is itself a relatively new platform, it’s part of a much longer history of broadcasting on the internet going back to the earliest days of webcams in the 1990s, and it sits alongside a wide range of user-generated content that plays a huge role not only online, but in traditional media. The themes of sharing yourself, your play, and of the rise of co-creative media and alternative distribution practices isn’t going away anytime soon.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

I hope readers will get a sense of the pleasures, and work, involved in game live streaming. Game live streamers who are broadcasting out of their homes give us insight into what it means to transform your private play into public entertainment. The book also tackles how live streaming is affecting other industries, not only esports but traditional media companies that are trying to understand—and catch up with—this slice of gaming. Finally, I hope readers will come to see how game live streaming offers a powerful case to thinking more broadly about things like regulation and governance—from community practices to law and corporate policy—on emerging internet platforms.  

T. L. Taylor is professor of comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her books include Raising the Stakes and Play between Worlds.