When Vernie plays video games in Melbourne, his fans around the world watch. He’s part of a rising trend

Most nights, when Vernie “BlueRukus” Valentos boots up the PlayStation in his home in Western Melbourne, he’s joined by a few dozen online spectators who have gathered to chat and watch him play.

They come from all over, teenagers and the middle-aged, and have been doing so for years. For the 28-year-old, they appear as names and voices in the chat box on Twitch, the platform that streams his games to the world.

One man, Justinus, is a 23-year-old office worker in Lithuania who’s never been to Australia. He’s been a Vernie regular for five years.

“I don’t know why he comes back. He’s awesome. He’s one of the greatest people in the community,” Vernie said.

“Everyday I find it crazy that my big head is on a screen somewhere in Lithuania.”

A screenshot of a soccer computer game with the player in a box in the top-right corner Vernie has viewers from all over the world.(Supplied: Vernie Valentos)

Why Justinus watches Vernie play the football game FIFA is part of a deeper mystery: why do people like to watch others play video games?

This is a question with big implications. Gaming video content (GVC) is booming in popularity, with millions broadcasting themselves playing to an eager, mostly young global audience.

In 2021, more than 1.3 trillion minutes (yep, that’s a mind-boggling 25,000 centuries) of GVC were watched on Twitch, the most popular platform.

In Australia, video games are more popular than free-to-air TV, thanks largely to the rise of streaming during the pandemic.

Even if you’re not a participant, you may have noticed this phenomenon: your children huddled about screens, attentively watching, rather than playing, Fortnite or Grand Theft Auto.

Gaming the second-most popular entertainment in households

Bond University’s Jeff Brand has been following the popularity of video games for the past two decades.

The latest survey, conducted in 2020 and 2021, shows that 17 million Australians play video games for an average of just under 1.5 hours per day, and that most play socially rather than alone.

The key findings of the Digital Australia 2022 report The key findings of the Digital Australia 2022 report.(Supplied: Bond University and IGEA)

Games were the second-most dominant form of entertainment in Australian homes in 2020 and 2021, behind streaming TV and movies.

About half of adult players watch live streams or recordings of others playing video games, up from about 20 per cent in 2012, Professor Brand said.

Reasons given for watching others play games include:

  • Learning how to be better players themselves
  • Watching greatness and talent
  • Feeling part of a community

That is, the same reasons many would give for watching Lionel Messi play football, or Buddy Franklin AFL.

“They’re looking for authentic players or gamers — people who are really great at something, who have been embedded in culture from an early age and now in adulthood have reached a very high level.”

“They’re looking for the real gamer.”

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.Play Video. Duration: 11 minutes 3 seconds Esports: More than a Game(ABC News)

‘You either have them for life or they’re gone forever’

But witnessing greatness only explains some of the appeal of watching others play games: for every professional gamer with a legion of viewers, there’s thousands of small “community streamers”.

For Vernie, who works full-time in a nursing agency, streaming isn’t about winning competitions or having the largest audience, but about engaging with a core group of about 100 loyal fans.

“In a general sense, people watch streamers because they like the person they’re watching, or because they want to get better at the game,” he said.

“I like to watch people that I like. They could be not playing a game. They could be watching grass grow and I’d still watch them.”

When a new viewer joins his stream, Vernie has only a moment to catch their attention and make them feel at home.

“You either have them for life or they’re gone forever,” he said.

A young smiling man wearing headphones and microphone Tyler Smith is often one of Vernie’s viewers, and streams himself.(Supplied: Tyler Smith)

Tyler Smith, 19, is a Gold Coast bartender who streams FIFA up to 25 hours a week and wants to become a Twitch star.

Most nights, fewer than 10 watch his stream.

Recently, one of his viewers, who he’d never met offline, opened up to him in private about going through a break-up.

“They don’t know me, but they feel comfortable enough to share this information,” he said.

“That can be daunting, but I’m always there to support any viewers.”

‘If somebody is lonely … they can always chat with the streamers’

Stories like this show the rise of streaming is about more than dollar figures, brand endorsements and celebrity gamers — it’s also about new ways, and places, for people to connect.

The American urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg introduced the concept of the “third place” in the 1980s to explain the importance we invest in places like churches, cafes, clubs and pubs.

The “first place” is the home, which has obligations, the “second place” is the workplace, which has strict rules.

“The third place is where we go for conviviality — where we can be part of something with mates and people understand our own bizarre uniqueness,” Professor Brand said. 

“Those third places used to be pubs and surf life saving clubs, and maybe they still are, but if COVID taught us anything it’s that there’s other options.”

It’s no surprise, he said, that football, the unifying “world game”, should be a popular way to come together online.

FIFA is often among the top 10 most watched games on Twitch.

A young man in a hoody with a Lithuanian street in the background Justinus hopes to one day visit Australia and meet his friends there.(Supplied: Justinus)

In Lithuania, due to the time difference with Australia, Vernie is often up late and streaming when Justinus comes home from work.

“I like to watch streams while I play myself,” Justinus said.

“I wouldn’t say it’s lonely, but it’s a bit of a distraction — some listen to podcasts, streaming is in a way like that.

“You can hear somebody talk, whilst you can interact yourself.

“If somebody is lonely while playing something, they can always chat with the streamers, who will reply.”

Making games more ‘juicy’

But the parallels between watching video games and spectating at the football, or ducking down to the pub, only go so far: the big difference is that video games are exploiting better ways of hooking our attention as technology and our understanding of the brain evolves.

Kirsten Oberprieler is a Canberra-based expert on gamification, or the application of game mechanics and design to engage users.

“As technology is emerging, there are more and more opportunities to create what we call juicy experiences,” she said.

“Technology allows us to create increasingly juicy experiences that have sound, motion, haptic feedback, which are the things that make them really engaging.”

A 2017 study in Finland looked at why people chose to watch others play video games and identified the motivations mentioned above, such as to improve gameplay and interact with like-minded others.

But the strongest motivator, by far, was found to be the release of tension.

A screenshot of a fantastical world with a castle and distant mountains The latest games, like Elden Ring, are spectacularly escapist and immersive.(Supplied: FromSoftware)

Games are designed to provide a platform for escapism and diversion from day-to-day lives, Dr Oberprieler said.

“The danger is about the game world or the virtual world being more more juicy than the real world in some ways,” she said.

“And that’s where you get people going, ‘Wow, that game was so stimulating, I could fly and do all these things, and in the real world, I have all these constraints.'”

Dr Oberprieler envisions a future where technologies like virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR), the emergence of vast online metaverses, and the gamification of everyday experiences (such as work and learning) blur the line between the game world and the “real world”.

“We as designers are much smarter at creating engaging experiences,” she said.

“The game world is designed to reward me every step of the way, whereas the real world is a little bit harder.”

Given this, it’s no wonder big tech companies are scrambling to acquire best-selling video game franchises — and the companies that made them.

In January, Microsoft announced it would buy Activision Blizzard — which owns Call of Duty — for $US68.7 billion ($96 billion).

Publisher Take-Two acquired social game pioneer Zynga (maker of games like FarmVille and Words With Friends) for $18 billion.

And Sony snapped up Bungie — the creator of Halo — for $5 billion.

‘Older people might think that’s kind of silly’

The bemused reaction of parents seeing their children watch games rather than play them may come down to a lack of awareness of how much games have changed since their own glory days, when titles like Red Alert and Mario Kart ruled PCs and consoles.

For the first few decades of gaming, Professor Brand said, the whole point was that they were something you could play, rather than just watch.

“It went from passively viewing TV to engaging and playing video games,” he said.

Now, the whole point is you can watch them, not just play.

“Older people might think that’s kind of silly. They might think that games are inherently interactive.

“The whole point is to play them. Why would you go back around?

“The point of spectating is that it extends and deepens the culture of gaming.”

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