Recently, YouTuber PewDiePie faced a slew of merciless headlines implying that he was involved in taking money to promote certain games. While he did receive payment, he also disclosed that fact. It is the apparent realisation that publishers are sponsoring well-known live streamers and YouTubers that is surprising for fans.
Watching other people play online is a relatively new phenomenon to the games industry, but it has managed to grow rapidly. Today, 486 million people watch others play games on YouTube and Twitch. It’s a no-brainer for consumers: getting to see a game before spending £45 on it is a great way to avoid buyer’s remorse. On a deeper level, video gaming content has managed to spawn a community of sorts, allowing individuals to connect to a larger group of people who share and enjoy the same things they do.
Publishers, in their effort to sell as many copies of a game as possible, will try to exploit any way possible to get their games in front of audiences. In the world of product-based game publishing this practice was fully integrated. Publishers have long relied on magazines and official reviewers to promote their games.
The role of gatekeepers is a precarious one. In 2012, celebrity reviewer Geoff Keighley found himself surrounded by bags of chips and bottles of pop as he attempted to give a well-meaning review of Halo. Audiences and industry alike immediately cried out, saying that the nefarious influence from advertisers had reached a point where Geoff could no longer be regarded as an objective source of information.
In response, game reviewing sites like Polygon go to great lengths explaining how to avoid any conflict of interest in their relationship with publishers. But now that audiences have moved online to download and discuss their games, publishers seek to influence the opinion leaders in online gamer communities.
A MATTER OF TASTE
Digitalisation has, among other things, lowered the technical barriers to entry, thereby facilitating a slew of titles coming onto the market. The problem that consumers face here is one less about price, and more about the allocation of time.
In a market where we find the combination of low capital investment and demand uncertainty, like mobile and PC, companies respond with overproduction. On the iOS App Store, Google Play and Steam there are thousands of indie developers willing to sell their games at a low rate or even give them away for free.
The role of influencers in this type of market is to draw people’s attention to what they themselves like or don’t like. Much like finding out about a cool new band from that hip friend, YouTubers and Twitch streamers are tastemakers in the current games market.
Certainly, this new model of audiences talking back is not without problems. For one, audience validity is an issue. In instances where advertisements are a natural part of the programming, it can be tricky to get a sense of the ‘real’ audience. The results of some of our early testing on Twitch audiences, for instance, showed that some streamers have 50 to 90 per cent ‘viewing bots’, fake accounts that are computer-generated to push a channel to the top of the rankings.
The accusation that YouTubers are inauthentic, that they are simply a mouthpiece for whoever pays them, is to misunderstand them. This is a generation that has grown up in the midst of a saturated and fully matured media environment, and it has flocked to YouTube and Twitch to have its own voice.
All of us, in one way or another, seek to see ourselves reflected in the media we consume. For many, what started as a fun side-project has now become a way to earn a living. But in the process of professionalising something may get lost. Let’s hope it won’t.