Look at YouTube’s largest channel in terms of number of subscriber. Eliminating VEVO channels, and YouTube’s own curation channels, #1 is PewDiePie, the famous/infamous Youtuber whose videos are mostly about him playing games, with his reactions recorded. Love it or loathe it, he is indeed the king of YouTube with over 40 million subscribers. But if you look down the list, most of the channels are gaming related.
YouTube recently launched YouTube Gaming, a mobile app/site dedicated to games and livestreams of games, to compete with Twitch, the de-facto leader in livestreams service for games- so successful Amazon bought them for almost a billion dollars. This implies both YouTube and Twitch are doubling down efforts on attracting gamers, which now represents a lot of their use base.
All of this huge boom of numbers spawned from the culture of watching videos of others playing games, otherwise known as Let’s Plays.
Let’s Plays (LPs) are recordings of a video game walkthrough with added commentary of the people playing said game, whereas livestreams of gaming content are essentially live Let’s Plays.
This basic definition will cause people confused why would anyone would rather watch someone else play than play the game themselves? Jimmy Kimmel, a talk show host in the US echoed this question on his show, much to the disdain of gamers.
The answer is: Well, we have been doing that ever since gaming started.
The Evolution of the ‘Backseat Gamer’
Personally, I had experienced the joy of watching someone else play videogames. While I was 5 years old, I was playing games on the Playstation, but not all of them. Adventure games like Tomb Raider is something my 5-year-old self would not able to grasp, so those were games my father played, while I sat literally behind him and watched. As I grew older, I started to voice out and comment throughout my father’s playthrough, suggesting where to go, items he may had missed, and reacting to what was happening on-screen.
The term ‘backseat gamer’ does exist, which leads to my belief that my personal experience is not unique to me. Whether watching some dudes battling out in the local arcades, or going to a friends house to watch them play games, (and maybe get the chance to play), or even share a computer at a cyber cafe and take turns playing and watching, backseat gaming is a common thing when people are less inclined to buy games consoles and games.
Now that it’s cheaper to buy consoles (A PS4 is much more cheaper than the latest iPhone!) should have this trend die off? No, it didn’t.
Instead of going to a friend’s house to see games being played, now we can just look it up on the Internet. While in the early days these footages are rare, only gaming-centric sites hosts this, now site like YouTube are a heaven of video game footage.
And the heritage of backseat gaming is still quite intact in let’s play videos, manifested in the comments. People would point out mistakes, things being missed and the most peculiar of stuff. (sometimes with horrible language, some with no decent manners, some are both.)
Although there are perfect walkthrough videos that proclaims to go for the 100% (The Completionist), some give little to no commentary and rather show the game as it plays (TheRadBrad), some provide a lot of snarky commentary whilst playing. These sorts of videos give that back-seat gaming vibe.
That said, the more popular videos just make it pure entertainment, proper gaming skills begone.
(Caution: video contains mildly strong language)
LPs Can Be Funny and Fun
Goofing off is fun. Some find other people goofing off is fun. It’s no surprise that there are YouTube channels that focused on the Let’s Player make comedy either by gameplay- being not good at games has its LOL moments- some are witty by dropping jokes on the commentary.
PewDiePie’s reaction cams and silly commentary captured the imagination of millions of people- despite the very vocal critics who are not within his demographic voicing out disdain. There’s also tons more YouTubers out there that follow this formula, too, if your’e into it.
Achievement Hunter, who owns the channel called Let’s Play on YouTube, not most of them are of the competent of players, despite the name intended you to believe. Instead, their brand of entertainment relies on cracking jokes, the personalities of each member and the banter they have, and creating interesting challenges or game modes on existing games, like Minecraft and Grand Theft Auto V. They are very enthusiastic when they received achievements on camera though, so that’s something.
Then there’s channels that create comedy via clever video edits, or highlights of Let’s Plays in a convenient 5-10 minute chunks.
While some people can relate to the different sense of humours the entertainment-focused channels bring, others watch LPs so they can learn something, and improve their gaming proficiency.
LPs- Learning from the Pros
Replays are meant to be watched. From watching Dota 2 replays, to watching recorded streams of a pro exhibition match of Street Fighter, there’s a lot to learn from watching the pros duke it out. LPs of complex, hard-to learn games like grand strategy title Europa Universalis IV has been popular, as watching more experience players do, and mistakes, proved valuable for those who wanted to break into the game, especially new-comers. These long-running games don’t fit for replays, but do mighty well as LPs.
Recently, on a panel about Civilization V in Firaxicon, a question was asked to the panelists, key members of the Civ V team, how to get better in the 4X strategy game. To which the reply was: go watch let’s plays. Some companies are very supportive of any sort of coverage made by LPs. For Firaxis, they even invite prominent LPers of their games to stream them play their games on the company’s Twitch channel.
This may seem normal for a developer being supportive of the community, until you consider the thought that there are developers that are happy with people just watching the games played rather than playing themselves.
LPs Substitute Reviews, Not Sales
Hold on, why would a game maker endorse these Let’s Plays in the first place? Wouldn’t people who just watch a whole playthrough would cause them to not buy them, resulting a lost in sales? Why support people giving out footage of games- and let them make money out of it- which may discourage people from buying games and just watch it?
On the contrary, LPs do not substitute sales. If someone is willing to watch through a whole game most likely the person is either not willing to even buy the game in the first place- as they do not care to experience it for themselves, or do not have money to buy it and rather watch it- which is relatively nobler than outright pirating.
Nowadays, LPs are regarded as free advertising. YouTubers who covers games have huge subscription numbers and influence, and if the game got covered in a channel, and the video is in positive light, it would convince the fanbase to go buy it. If it’s fun enough, they’ll go buy it. More savvy buyers consult on video footages on YouTube- most likely LPs, as well as traditional reviews from gaming sites, before weighing in decisions whether to buy or not to buy. Some might even trust YouTubers doing LPs more than the traditional media. This is why some devs sought out coverage of their games as sponsored Let’s Plays.
The opposite effect holds true too. Jim Sterling made his job to scour the awful dark depths of Steam to find the worst of games and tell everyone it’s not worth the money, and pokes fun of them along the way.
However, while this resentment of letting YouTubers make money of games as free advertising echoes to most game devs, especially indies, not all agree. Nintendo has very specific rules on how content creators can monetise LPs of Nintendo games.
Yet, that hasn’t stop from games getting more and more coverage via Let’s Plays.
There are many reasons why Let’ Plays is now prominent and make the bulk of content on video sites. It has not come from nowhere, but an evolution of old trends adapted to modern times.
Yet, it is indeed hard to wrap around the concept. I personally didn’t get it myself until I found channels that make silly content from time to time (Achievement Hunter), helped improved my Civ V game (Quill18) and introduced me to how deep fighting games are and why it’s fun to learn them (Super Best Friends Play).
Of course, not many would understand why would anyone bother just watching video games rather than go and play video games?
Then again, why would anyone bother just watching sports games rather than go out and play sports?