I have a cousin who’s a geek (and I say that in the nicest possible way), who now lives in Canada. On his first return visit to South Africa a few years ago, his parents threw him a large welcome home party. His geek friends arrived, armed with their laptops, which they proceeded to set up on the dining room table. They connected their machines and then spent the rest of the afternoon staring at their computer screens, gaming with each other in cyberspace. For a group of friends who hadn’t seen each other in years, I thought it a rather odd way to spend a reunion, but then I’m not a gamer so don’t quite understand the nuances of the subculture – and what a subculture it is.
This year there have been prolonged negotiations by Google to buy a website called Twitch TV – for $US1 billion. I say “website” just to irk the gamers who might be reading this, but in essence that’s what Twitch TV essentially started out as in 2011: an offshoot of a live-streaming website called Justin.tv. What Twitch TV does today is stream, or more accurately broadcast, any video game being played live, online, from the gaming device to an audience who wants to watch a video game being played in cyberspace. Who, you might ask (if you’re a non-gamer like me), would want to watch a video game being played online?
Well, you’ll have to take the word of the 55 million unique viewers per month who view around 155 billion minutes of gaming via Twitch TV. Due to its live streaming nature, Twitch TV gobbles up bandwidth and has now become the 4th largest user of Internet bandwidth on the planet. No wonder Google was prepared to shell out $US1 billion for the acquisition. In the end the deal eventually fell through – due to antitrust issues that would arise from the deal – so Amazon stepped in and snapped up Twitch TV for a lesser bargain of $US 970 million. A not so insignificant subculture after all.
To understand the gaming subculture you need to think back to the non-digital beginnings of gaming: the halcyon days of arcade games of the 1980’s and early 1990’s. Twitch TV CEO Emmett Shear explains the thinking behind the success of the online streaming platform. “When you think about what it was like to play a video game in an arcade, you put your money in the arcade machine and you waited your turn,” he says. “And what did you do while you were waiting your turn? You watched the people who were playing.”
This simple dynamic began evolving when the popularity of arcade games collapsed in the late ’90’s, and gamers started playing competitively online, instead of face to face. Communal gaming had moved to cyberspace.
Anyone who games, or knows a gamer, will know that online gaming is now a global game. Who you compete with and where they reside on the planet are unknowns. In the game, your battle is with avatars in an increasingly realistic virtual world, and as virtual renderings become more real, so too does the allure to watch these games play out in real time, just like any sport. Apparently.
South Africa has its own claim to fame in this virtual world. Meet Trevor “quickshot” Henry (formerly known as “qu1ksh0t”). Henry is a shoutcaster for one of the most popular online multiplayer games, League of Legends (LoL). Shoutcasting is a new, but very real career linked to online gaming, otherwise known as the eSport industry. Just like a sports commentator, Henry comments live on video games being played online. If you think I’m making this up then consider the vast numbers of people who are involved in his commentary: 67 million people play LoL every month, 27 million per day and 7.5 million concurrently during peak hours.
Henry grew up in Johannesburg, and started his career with a degree in Marketing and Business Management (as one does) but soon heeded the allure of professional online gaming. He assembled teams and competed professionally in competitive online game leagues (yes, they do exist) like BF2 (Battlefield 2) and CoD4 (Call of Duty 4). Today he is based in Cologne, Germany but travels extensively throughout the week. (Why a commentator for a virtual gaming world has to travel, is still a mystery to me, but like I said, I don’t quite grasp the nuances of the gaming world.)
My point is that there is a parallel universe out there, which most of us are oblivious to. We might think that gaming is a world for hoodie-wearing, teenage slackers, but the reality is that it is a massive business that the likes of Google and Amazon are fighting over. So if you’re a parent intent on forcing your child to take a “sensible” university course and they bring up gaming as a career, you’d better reconsider. I bet Henry’s parents never thought that their son would find fame and fortune shoutcasting in cyberspace.
By: Dion Chang
Image credit: sk-gaming.com