Streamers have quickly become one of the more dominant forms of entertainment on the planet, especially streamers that focus on gaming. On video sites like YouTube, gaming channels have managed to reach the top of the charts in terms of viewership and subscribers. With streaming sites like Twitch and video platforms like YouTube becoming so ubiquitous, it’s only a matter of time before these and other platforms like them become the de facto entertainment destinations.
Which raises some interesting questions in terms of what the landscape of entertainment and media might look like in the not-too-distant future, given how gaming programming has managed to completely dominate the digital space. Many times in the past, TV networks have tried to take a stab at bringing gaming-related content to TV and sometimes even into the world of film. You might even remember such examples like the old game show Nickelodeon Arcade, where young contestants would compete in a variety of arcade games after answering trivia questions and puzzles.
Rise And Fall Of The G4 Network
In 2002, Comcast launched the G4 network in its attempt to try to create an MTV-style programming destination dedicated entirely to gaming. G4 had a tumultuous history as it fought to nab an audience and soon merged with TechTV. Despite its desperate struggle to remain relevant, G4 only lasted until 2012, never quite gaining the numbers it so desperately needed to stay afloat.
Niche programming was something that would always have a difficult time in catering to the conventional model of television. While many gamers would be perfectly happy to see a 10-minute gameplay demo, or even a five-hour play-through, that’s something that would never fly on a traditional television show, where everything needs to be pre-packaged into digestible two- to three-minute programming that can be strung together between commercials.
The End Of Gaming On TV
Social gaming could not become a legitimate entertainment medium until the internet was capable of video sharing and supporting streaming sites like Twitch and YouTube. Conventional television was never going to work because of how interactive gaming is. It still didn’t stop people from trying. For years Spike TV ran the Video Game Awards in an attempt to replicate the glitz and glam of the Oscars, only sprayed over with more Mountain Dew style and attitude than a Christian Dior style and attitude. Despite shoehorning in celebrity guests and presenters, the awards ceremony was never taken seriously by gamers and stopped airing on the network in 2012.
What makes video games so wildly different from traditional mediums like literature or film is that it’s not a passive consumption experience. There is generally only one right way to interact with a book. There is only one way to view a film, and both reading a book and watching a movie are largely passive activities. But gaming is entirely automated by player choice. That gives someone who’s streaming or recording a Let’s Play a nearly infinite number of ways they can interact with the material.
Parasocial Co-Op Play
What’s also important is the parasocial dynamic that’s inherent in gaming. In traditional media, it’s not uncommon for an audience member to develop their own one-sided relationships with whatever media they're consuming. It’s the effect of having an imagined relationship with a fictional persona like a talk show host, celebrity, or character. That goes double for engaging with someone in a video stream or YouTube channel, given how the user can even directly interact with them as well having the experience of enjoying a relaxing couch co-op session. What really helped the memetic video game culture revolution take off is the interactivity spawned by the creation of social media and the plethora of new online tools. In their book Advertising Theory academic media researchers Esther Thorson and Shelly Rodgers found that interaction between a user and creator via social media platforms only further strengthened the parasocial bond, making the user feel even more connected than they would with a traditional media personality.
Social gaming entertainment experiences rely on minimal risk publishing platforms with next to no setup costs for potential broadcasters. CBS featuring an hour of programming each week dedicated to someone playing Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker makes absolutely no the sense in terms of appealing to the broadest possible audience that CBS needs to continue to fund its programming. But on a platform where that demand doesn’t exist, new possibilities open up.
Gameplay As Live Entertainment
While most of the audience that tunes in for CSI might not be interested, apparently there are quite a few people out there who are willing to devote hours to watching someone play Wind Waker. The broadcaster also has many different approaches on how it can tackle that one game. It can do a speed run, where players race against the clock to try to beat a world record and see if they can condense 10 hours of gameplay into just one. Players can perform a more natural play through, so viewers can enjoy the narrative of the game's progression. They can go do an achievements run as they go for every single possible unlockable or secret in the game. They can disregard the regular gameplay progression and use the game world as an improv studio, looking for comedy in any nook and cranny as they mess around. Every single game offers hundreds of potential choices for a creative broadcaster and this produces an endless feedback loop for potential entertainment.
What’s most exciting is the fact that we’re just at the beginning of this radical shift in our current culture. Many children are literally growing up watching YouTube personalities do Let’s Play videos for games like Minecraft as their primary source of entertainment. There are no TV shows and no movies, just people like PewDiePie or Captain Sparklez playing video games. Another recent advent that is slowly changing the gaming industry is how games have moved away from becoming static pieces of software to perpetually updating platforms. Perhaps this transition started with the proliferation of MMOs like World of Warcraft. Instead of producing a continuous series of sequels to the original game, Blizzard continued to update the core game with new content, and it’s still going on to this day as one single continuous gaming foundation that has been improved o, year after year.
The Growing Pains Of eSports In The US
That’s one reason why eSports has had such a difficult time gaining traction in the United States. Many networks tried to create competitive gaming TV shows, but because of the never-ending release slate of new games, a player base and audience never had the time it needed to follow just one or two games. If you look at older eSports-style programming like G4’s Arena, they always took a smorgasbord approach, featuring four to five new games played in one episode. Ultimately this resulted in a chaotic viewing experience that felt especially forced as competitors had to play in a variety of different competitive game genres instead of sticking to one game consistently.
The eSports revolution really came of age in South Korea thanks to its ubiquitous broadband internet access, which allowed a competitive player base for Starcraft that continued to grow and grow. The player base became so large and competitive that there was a legitimate interest in people watching televised matches just like they would a professional sport. There were entire networks dedicated to broadcasting Starcraft matches. Stadiums would be filled with throngs of adoring fans screaming the names of their favorite champions. The more popular ones were seen as rock stars having legions of teen girls fainting at the sight of their incredible APM skills and zergling micromanagement.
The Growth Of Twitch And eSports
Where Major League Gaming has struggled to build an audience for eSports, streaming culture has succeeded in transforming games like DOTA 2 and League of Legends into huge international spectacles where teams compete for millions of dollars in huge stadiums with hordes of adoring fans. Even ESPN, the network that could be considered as far removed from anything even remotely close to nerd culture, has capitulated and begun airing major tournaments. Little by little, the old guard is succeeding ground to a new gaming-driven entertainment culture. In fact, if you look at the figures, it’s very easy to see why ESPN has begun broadcasting eSports. But what does this mean for the future?
Episodic Gaming Leads A New Serialized Revolution
While many people have been proclaiming that new media will be the death of the old guard, traditional networks are not going away. The same goes for large film studios. But with a new generation of children growing up with this new form of content, it’s becoming a regular part of their media diet and abundantly clear that gaming as a form of cultural consumption is not going away. Perhaps the most interesting hybrid of the old guard and the new are the recent experiments in gaming-driven narratives that Telltale Games has been creating with its adventure games.
For the longest time, the next evolution of gaming was supposed to come via episodic experiences that would consist of two to three hours of gameplay released over the course of a few weeks, serving as a series intended to engage with players the same way they would with a weekly TV show. Valve Corporation famously started experimenting with this when it produced its Half-Life 2 episodic content. Unfortunately, Valve waited years between releasing installments, with close to a decade having gone by since the release of Half-Life 2: Episode 2. The third promised episode has been largely forgotten, despite fan petitions and a great deal of outcry for gamers looking for some kind of conclusion to the adventures of Dr. Gordon Freeman.
Telltale Takes Episodic Gaming To The Next Level
Many game studios sought to adopt this kind of TV-based episodic release schedule, but unfortunately the technical demands of producing a functional game can be far more intense than a TV show or movie. So most early episodic games would have months or years separating the release between installments or in many cases just plain disappear, like Sonic 4, which only had two episodes released and a third episode never being completed after disappointing sales. But Telltale had been working on perfecting its formula of turning its old adventure games into episodic adventures and securing licenses to huge media properties. While Telltale saw modest success with more lighthearted material like Back to the Future, Sam and Max, and Monkey Island, what really took it to another stratosphere was the release of The Walking Dead game. It turned out that the episodic narrative and dialogue decision-tree gameplay worked infinitely better with dramatic material, rather than with comedy.
Since then, Telltale has become a developer powerhouse, producing some of the best pieces of interactive fiction in the industry and getting the opportunity to work with some of the biggest licenses in entertainment. What Telltale has achieved is a potential new foundation for an entirely new interactive platform. While the gameplay in its games is generally pretty limited to standard adventure-style exploration — with a few quicktime events to help provide some action set pieces — it’s the timed dialogue system and the player-driven choices that have made its gameplay and stories such an emotional heavy hitter.
Turning A Single-Player Narrative Into Social Gaming Experience
Right now, Telltale is even in the midst of applying its approach to game design to a secret live-action interactive narrative project, tentatively titled the Super Show, that’s still under wraps. It's been pushing boundaries with its recent introduction of crowd-play multiplayer into its games. This first appeared in Batman: The Telltale Series and allows a player to share a link where other people can watch their gameplay and vote on critical decisions. This is a digital merger between gameplay and narrative that has never been seen before.
If Jame’s Cameron’s Avatar managed to completely change the film industry and force millions of moviegoers to sit through 3D versions of just about every major studio release, just imagine the potential of a tentpole film where audiences adjust the outcome with an app on their phone. It sounds farfetched, but the groundwork that Telltale is building could turn this dream into a reality. Now, the failed dreams of G4 and other gaming-centered programming are being realized.
What makes this such an exciting time is how new all of these formats are. Gaming is still in its infancy when compared to film or television, and the idea of gaming as a medium for social entertainment is even younger than that. It’s a bold new world awaiting new ideas as creators experiment with what they can do in the Let’s Play format as well as streaming their gameplay. It couldn’t be a more exciting time to be alive as we witness the birth of an entirely new form of entertainment that’s poised to take the world by storm.
We’ll just have wait and see if we get an entire cable channel devoted to Let’s Plays in the next 20 years, or there will be movie screenings of Telltale games. ESports will be as ubiquitous and pervasive as the Super Bowl. But the only thing for certain is that this era is new and it will be defined by the generation that is now uploading and streaming their Minecraft play throughs, among other things. It will be up to them to determine how they choose to shape the landscape of tomorrow.
Do you think that gaming streams, Let's Plays, and eSports are the future of entertainment? Let me know in the comments below.