Some people tend to think of gaming as a niche hobby. But I always felt otherwise.
Video games have consistently out-earned Hollywood. Most people probably have at least one gaming app on their phone. And “gamification” is a term that’s been used so much in reference to UX design that it’s become blasé.
In fact, over the past few years, you could track changes in media by following trends in gaming culture. For better or worse, gamers have led the charge into new types of content, from live streaming to virtual reality, changing how audiences interact with the media they consume.
While gamers can’t take credit for making YouTube an internet behemoth, they’ve certainly done their best to colonize it. In August 2015, YouTube launched YouTube Gaming, a separate platform just for gaming content. Why? Because excluding Vevo and YouTube Spotlight, which are channels curated by YouTube itself, seven of the site’s 15 most popular channels are related to gaming.
The biggest YouTuber is PewDiePie, who has run the site’s most popular channel for almost three consecutive years. His claim to fame is the “Let’s Play,” which is a video of someone playing a game with commentary over the visuals. PewDiePie wasn’t the first person to post a Let’s Play, but he is the most popular. He’s done a lot not only to publicize the medium, but also to promote the games he plays.
Many smaller, independent games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Five Nights at Freddy’s owe much of their success to influencers like PewDiePie giving the games free publicity. Once gaming companies noticed that let’s players were getting millions of subscribers, the Let’s Play medium became a lucrative form of promotion. A video game publisher could give an early copy of a game and some payola to an influencer in exchange for positive publicity.
Players with big audiences, like PewDiePie, suddenly found themselves on the forefront of influencer marketing. Last year, PewDiePie allegedly made $12 million. However, a few users, like Ohmwrecker, Boogie2988, and PewDiePie, have been accused of unsavory advertising practices when it comes to marketing games for big-name publishers like Warner Bros. Maybe Mr. Pie and the Kardashians could have a nice sit-down and discuss disclosure.
But disclosure issues aside, gaming was one of the first truly lucrative avenues for digital influencers before Instagram and Snapchat came along, showing everyone else they, too, could become internet millionaires.
As popular as the Let’s Play is on YouTube, it’s arguably more popular on live-streaming platforms. The influencers began to record their gameplay and commentary live, giving them a greater means of interaction with an audience. The Let’s Play became one step closer to the experience of watching a friend play a game on the couch.
When players started streaming, they did so on services like livestream.com, ustream, or Justin.tv. Eventually, other companies to see the value. In June 2011, Justin.tv launched Twitch.tv, which Amazon eventually acquired for $970 million in 2014.
Today, live streaming is everywhere on social media. Products like Periscope and Facebook Live—both launched in 2015—made live streaming something that influencers and publishers outside of gaming could do as well.
Still, thanks to the publicity behind Facebook Live, live streaming appears to have wormed its way into mainstream digital culture, for both lighter fare and legitimate news. BuzzFeed blew up a watermelon and Chewbacca Mom became a thing. On a more serious note, the police shooting of Philando Castile was broadcast live on Facebook. A few months ago, ABC News showed viewers a 24-hour stream of the political conventions.
The most natural fit, thus far, seems to be sports, which also owes a debt to gaming. The 2015 League of Legends World Championships on Twitch had over twice the viewership of the NBA Finals or World Series.
Now, Twitter is spending millions of dollars per game to stream Thursday Night Football. Yahoo lets users watch MLB games live. Periscope experimented with streaming commentary during this year’s U.S. Open. And the NBA offers free streams on its website.
Virtual reality and augmented reality
Virtual and augmented reality have been heralded as technologies that could impact everything from movies to travel to real estate. But both were pioneered mainly as platforms for video games before investors adopted them in other industries.
The Oculus Rift began as a gaming peripheral on Kickstarter in August 2012 and initially raised over $2 million before Facebook bought it for $2 billion two years later. Following the success of Oculus, Google, Sony, Samsung, and HTC have all developed their own VR headsets. Meanwhile, gamers with a Nintendo 3DS could have played with the system’s built-in AR games back in 2011. That was three years before Snapchat would introduce filters, and five years before Nintendo would once again blow up the augmented reality space with Pokémon Go.
So, as content creators look for the next big thing, they might want to keep an eye on gaming. Gaming’s reliance on new technology as a means of digital interaction has helped it to break ground in new media already. As society craves more digital innovation, it’s a trend that’s unlikely to slow down.