When Zero Becomes Hero

On video game culture and new idols

Blink and you could have missed it.

2015 had been a rough year for Mango — arguably the greatest player of all time. With a handful of super major losses to “inferior” rivals and tournament placements outside the top ten, the field had caught up to him.

Much like the transformation Roger Federer had to make with tennis, Mango found himself in a corner, forced to start learning advanced techniques he had never really needed to rely on in the past.

And during the first large tournament of 2016, it was paying off.

More importantly, people were watching.

Nestled in between two NFL divisional playoff games and a Democratic presidential debate, a San Jose-based tournament that should have been buried beneath the plethora of events scheduled for that Sunday evening, wasn’t.

Genesis 3, a Smash Bros. video game tournament, had briefly managed to unseat America’s favorite past time as a trending Twitterverse topic.

At first glance, the numbers didn’t seem significant — especially considering that the NFL games had concluded a few hours earlier. But for an event being held on a grassroots scale to even challenge a sports entity like American football, it was more than just a blip on the radar.

It was a changing of the old guard.

For years, really decades, video games had occupied a strange corner of our cultural history — often depicted as a destructive taboo that rotted minds and encouraged extreme violence.

Digital pot, targeted for your kids.

While that stereotype still exists today to some degree, it’s decline is accelerating thanks in part to smart phones. We’re living in the age of mobile, and almost anyone with access to a phone can say they’ve dabbled in video gaming of some sort.

Angry Birds, Temple Run, Candy Crush, and a whole host of microtransaction app games continue to monopolize the attention of mobile user eyeballs, with 59% of Americans partaking in the culture.

Entertainment Software Association 2015 Report

Gone are the days of the industry catering to 13-year-old boys holed up in their parent’s basements.

They still exist, but now the average gamer is a lot older. And they’re not just men either, with women accounting for 44% of the demographic.

So, maybe we’re collectively playing more games, but does that necessarily mean we’re all watching them too?

To answer that we have to take a look at one of the biggest catalysts that popularized video game spectating — Twitch.

The Rise of Twitch

As one might suspect, Twitch wasn’t always the media powerhouse it is today. Launched in 2007 under the name of Justin.tv, founders Justin Kan, Emmett Shear, Michael Seibel and Kyle Vogta started the site as a quasi-dystopian streaming service — with Kan attaching a webcam to his hat and streaming his life for over nine months.

“Justin Kan and I were driving around Cambridge, Mass. trying to come up with ideas for a business, and we started talking about broadcasting the conversation we were having on the internet,” Emmett Shear says.
“It was like, this conversation is interesting. I bet it would be cool to share this online. That snowballed into, well, what’s the more extreme version of that? Broadcast all your conversations online! What’s the more extreme version of that? Broadcast your entire life online with video and audio!” [Emmett Shear during an interview with Polygon]

It wasn’t until four years later that the company would spin-off and rebrand itself as TwitchTV, catering to the gaming content that had become immensely popular under the banner of Justin.tv.

Another three years and a failed Google acquisition later, Amazon purchased Twitch for $970 million, cementing the website’s status as the premier live-streaming service.

In a 2014 report from the Wall Street Journal, Twitch commanded an astounding 1.8% of peak U.S. internet traffic, good enough for fourth overall and finishing above notable web monoliths Facebook, Amazon, and Hulu.

It’s a testament both to Twitch filling a vacuum and an increased acceptance for all things related to geek culture — from comic book movie adaptations to the national zeitgeist that is Game of Thrones.

But not everyone’s convinced.

Even for those who grew up with video games, the idea of watching someone else play them isn’t an immediately appealing concept — harkening back to childhood memories of staring endlessly at “Game Over” screens and sighing as your friends bartered for just one more life.

To their credit, those in charge remain divided on whether the company can actually tap into non-gamers, with older generations practically written off from future marketing plans.

Others, like Emmett Shear, are convinced Twitch will continue to reach unexpected demographics — provided the content diversifies.

On a recent airplane flight, his seat-mate listened to him explain how Twitch worked and then waved it off because “I’m not much of a gamer.”
“And then he pulls out his iPad and spends the next six hours playing video games!” Shear said. “I’m like, dude! You’re totally a gamer! We just don’t have the games you play yet. When we do, you’ll watch.” [Re/code]

Maybe the taboo of video gaming never ended. Maybe all it took was for our other vices to catch up.

And between the shame of binge watching Netflix, fetishism of reality television, and the homophobia, racism, and health concerns of our top sporting events — how can we continue to hold up video gaming as the poster child of degenerative past times?

No More Heroes

That isn’t to say Twitch and video game culture aren’t without their controversies. Scandals like Gamergate and frequent use of discriminatory slurs are still issues the community has to wrestle with — a product of social awkwardness and anonymity.

Then there are streamers who devise dangerous or manipulative ways to gain more subscribers, hosting multi-day, non-stop gaming marathons that often end with serious health consequences. Not only that, the use of Adderall in tournaments has managed to ignite a debate not unlike baseball’s steroid debacle.

But take a look at the majority of Twitch streamers and you’ll find them to be exactly as you’d expect—average people who have an incredible talent that they’ve worked to cultivate. Don’t come into the world of video game streaming expecting to find standards similar to their athletic counterparts.

Some are socially awkward, others are comedic, some specialize in giving insight, while professionals stream practice sessions. All of them are accepted by their respective communities — a collection of people who share a love of their favorite game.

It’s that “one of us” mentality combined with the accessibility of Twitch that makes them so likable. Their popularity reinforces the idea that it’s acceptable to be introverted, to be comfortable in your own body, and to not feel ostracized by society for living up to over-idealized expectations.

Whether they planned to or not, these gamers are filling a void that has been left increasingly vacant by those we once looked up to.

Granted, it’s a concept that may never fully be realized, the idea that those who were once society’s “zeroes” can become the role models for new generations. But with how easy it is to become jaded by our current politicians, athletes, and the reputations of our current stars, it’s only a matter of time until the rest of society starts wondering who will fill the void left in their wake. It raises the question…

What will we do when there are no more heroes?