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Why are more people watching video games instead of playing them?

If your gaming days stretch as far back as the peak of the Nintendo vs Sega console war, you probably have some memories of visiting the house of a friend, someone who’d got their hands on the latest Super Mario or Sonic the Hedgehog video game. Among other friends, you’d watch Mario fly and Sonic speed through a level, eagerly waiting for the controller to be placed in your hands and for you to play this new game everyone was talking about. Fast forward 30 years and things are quite a bit different. While playing games is still a major hobby for millions of people, watching games is just as, if not more popular.

In 2017 Google reported that 48% of YouTube gamers said they spent more time watching gaming videos on YouTube than playing games. As gaming streamers and streaming platforms such as Twitch, Facebook Gaming and YouTube Gaming continue to gain popularity, the percentage today could have shifted even further to the ‘watch’ side. Why is this? What makes the watching of games preferable to the playing of games?

Person playing video game on gaming PC

One reason is the investment playing games requires. Gaming takes time, especially if you want to play at a fairly decent level and hold your own against the more seasoned players out there. Video games are far more sophisticated than the games of old in which you could master limited movements within 20 minutes. Now, learning maps, multiplayer strategies, complex controls, teamplay communication and a plethora of other features makes gaming a steep learning curve. Sure, you could dedicate little time to learning a game but you’re likely to stay in n00b territory without sufficient time at the screen.

Add to this that many of us are working longer hours, the time investment becomes more difficult to meet. And so if we can’t play, we watch. And why not? People watch tennis. People watch basketball. You might not even play sports but you can still be a diehard fan watching every game. Why is this any different with gaming? Talented players and teams are a staple of esports, as are dedicated fan bases. And just like with ‘traditional’ sports, many people unwind after a long day by watching a game of Fortnite or PUBG.

Another reason people spend time watching video games is to get better. For many gamers, the act of watching other players isn’t a passive activity, but rather an active engagement in which they’re picking up strategic decisions and movement patterns of the best players. Up to a certain limit, there is likely to be a positive correlation between improvement in someone’s gameplay and their time spent watching other players. In other sports, watching ‘film’ is used extensively to give an athlete a better understanding of their chosen sport. Boxers and their coaches, for example, spend hours watching the fights of their opponents to learn about their tactics and to pinpoint weaknesses.

Whether one considers professional wrestling to be a legitimate sport is a topic for another time, however it’s worth pointing out that one of the best to ever do it, Stone Cold Steve Austin, attributes a large part of his success to some advice in his early years. After Austin had performed terribly, he was advised by seasoned wrestler at the time “Dirty” Dutch Mantel to grab a chair and watch every match on the card. It was the only way he’d get better. As Steve Austin would later say: “He had just given me some of the best advice anyone had ever given to me in the wrestling business… From that point on for the rest of my career I watched damn near every match of every card my whole career.

Esports team playing video game

Akin to corruption in the sport of boxing is cheating in gaming. Just as many people turn away from watching boxing because of corruption, it’s plausible that gamers make the switch to watch instead of play because of rampant cheating. One reason why gamers may prefer to watch a game instead of giving up on it altogether is because professional competitions tend to be free of cheaters. Although some pro gamers have been caught mid-tournament, a viewer can generally be confident in knowing the hosting organisation have done their part to keep the competition cheat-free.

For many people, gaming is a way to socialise and interact with others, something you can do more at ease when you’re not hyper focused on the game you’re playing. As streaming platforms are well aware, incorporating a social element to the viewing experience makes it much more enjoyable. When watching a movie at a cinema hall, you have to stay silent for 1 and a half hours. Only after the movie ends do you get to ask your friends what they thought about it. In a gaming stream, you talk to your friends and others in real time, getting instant reactions to a mistake or genius move. Watching a popular stream gives people the sense of being part of something bigger. There’s something special to it, particularly when you see the endless scroll of comments and the real-time count of viewers, which often goes up to the tens of thousands.

Esports also has an advantage over traditional sports in that you can view a game through the eyes of a player. In first person shooter (FPS) games, for example, the view you see in a stream is exactly the same as the gamer. As such, your understanding of their decisions, hesitations and opportunities are enhanced. The closest way to get this perspective in a traditional sport such as boxing, basketball or football would be to attach a GoPro camera to a player’s chest. Probably not going happen any time soon.

Streaming tech is also way ahead of the traditional sports curve. When you watch a boxing match, for example, you can get many different perspectives depending on where cameras or camera people are. But you get no choice in the matter. That choice is decided by the network that has rights to broadcast the fight. On streaming platforms, you have a choice of multiple perspectives from which to watch a game such as through Squad Stream on Twitch. Even on a regular 1v1 or teamplay FPS matches, a choice of which player perspective to watch has been available for over 20 years. And then there’s the communication. In gaming, one can hear team players communicating with each other, giving viewers deeper insight into their decisions, what they’re doing to maintain a lead or how they’re attempting to make a comeback. In traditional sports, we might get lucky to hear a few words exchanged from a coach and an athlete, relying on commentators to summarize what they might have heard.

Esports is continually pushing the boundaries of the gaming viewing experience, incorporating a social element that allows viewers to connect both with each other and with gamers. It provides an immersive experience that traditional sports is finding difficult to replicate and gives people a combination of entertainment, relaxation and socialisation that makes many people want to watch games more often than to play them.

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