Walkthroughs Turn Video Games into a Spectator Sport

Studio 360

This week on the Sideshow podcast, we asked: why would thousands of fans watch or read a TV recap after they've already seen the episode? That question led us to an even more perplexing one: why would millions of gamers hit YouTube to watch other people play video games?

For starters, they're useful. "Walkthrough" videos, which combine recorded footage with spoken commentary, offer how-to guides: people stuck on a level can learn how to beat a difficult boss; newcomers get tips about where to find rare items and shortcuts. They're also a way to preview a game before buying it. The RadBrad, self-proclaimed "King of the YouTube Walkthrough," has attracted 3 million subscribers with nearly 3,500 videos, guiding viewers through franchises like Grand Theft Autoand Call of Duty.

And vloggers alsouse gameplay videos to showcase their own creativity. With 5 billion views of his 1,800 videos, PewDiePie may be YouTube's biggest star. His posts are aggressively loud and spectacularly frenetic, featuring quick cuts, rapid-fire profanities, and flashing colors (which might just merit an anti-seizure warning). His fans are so legion that he can sell t-shirts.

It helps that video games are increasingly cinematic. Games like BioShock Infinitelapse into long, expository scenes during which the player can nosh on nachos. Naturally, fans respond by stitching these scenes into the movie they dream it could be. CommunityGame turns The Last of Us into a pretty decent zombie flick:

And now walkthroughs have turned into something of a performance. Video game livestreaming allows the greatest (or goofiest) gamers to draw huge audiences, who gather to watch them play and listen to their commentary. Top stars receive small donations from loyal viewers, even snagging corporate sponsorships. YouTube is rumored to be in talks to buy Twitch, the top streaming service, for $1 billion. And another company,Major League Gaming, is vying to become the ESPN of video games. For more than a decade, it has been organizing massive "pro circuits" of Halo and Call of Duty tournaments -- the prelims are online, the finals are in actual convention centers and arenas. Pro players require pro commentators, and so they've launched streaming service of their own, hoping to attract more users and advertisers with their Sports Center-style analysis.

Walkthroughs may seem to take all the "play" out of games. But they've helped turn video games into something more: a hybrid between cinema and sports that's brought this pastime out of the basement and into arenas--- virtual and real.

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