Why Twitch Numbers Don’t Matter
Esports on the weekend in 2017 is a joyful whirlwind. Every week, there’s a plethora of competitive titles with their own tournaments vying for the adoration of potential fans. A year ago it seemed like Overwatch and League of Legends would be dueling forever at the top of the viewership game, but we’ve repeatedly seen new games crop up and surpass them.
Think of Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) that seems to be locked in the top Twitch viewership spot. But that’s not particularly special since there are new great games that come out every week — some with esports potential, some without it. There’s been new mobas (MasterXMaster), new shooters (Gigantic, Lawbreakers, Destiny 2), and new card games (Gwent, The Elder Scrolls: Legends) among others.
And then invariably, when watching my friends stream, a viewer will make a statement like this:
“The player base is so small.”
“The viewership doesn’t exist.”
It’s usually said as if the implication is self-contained, like this is a premise and conclusion all in one. And thus we come to my first question of this article.
Why Do Players Care About Twitch Numbers?
In days of gaming past, it would be review scores or sales that determined the old “my game is better than your game” argument that kids and teenagers would have on their parents’ couches or middle school lunchrooms. But now there’s so much live data available because of streaming sites like Twitch.
I was watching my friend AskJoshy stream Lawbreakers a few weeks ago, and I couldn’t believe the number of people that came into chat just to say “I heard the playerbase is already shrinking” as some kind of self-righteous declaration. Surely, Joshy had heard this news before! Why was he still playing this unpopular game?
Time and time again Joshy just repeated “It doesn’t really matter, just play what you like.”
It took me back to my days of playing League of Legends regularly. I was only ever pretty mediocre at the game, but I was proud of getting to Diamond 5 or Diamond 4 for three seasons in a row. It was challenging and rewarding. You get to know a lot of people who are around the same rank and also trying to grind their way up the ladder.
So it was with great surprise that while I was playing, people would complain about the game ad nauseum. They’d talk about how bad the game is, talk about the problems with it.
If you are having miserable time playing a game, why do you play it? There are so many great games out there, and so many of them are different in so many ways.
Just because a game is popular, does not mean that you will enjoy it, nor does it mean that you should. Just because a game is niche, does not mean you won’t enjoy it. I started playing Life is Strange at E3 one year and it was amazing, and hardly anyone I know has even heard of the game. That doesn’t impact my enjoyment of the game in any way at all.
I must admit that there is something to be said for feeling like you’re part of a community, having friends to play with, and having friends to talk with about your game.
Sometimes Numbers Do Matter
To the effect that a game can have a thriving community, regardless of how small, the numbers do matter. You can’t have a competitive title that only has 1000 semi-active players. The skill diversity would be atrocious, and the queue times would be unbearable. But most games, even niche games like Lawbreakers or MXM don’t have these problems.
While I was playing MXM, a high MMR 5-stack would have queue times of upwards of 8–10 minutes. That’s still comparable to what I get playing League of Legends in similar situations. The player bases of these games aren’t even comparable.
For all intents and purposes, the numbers don’t matter.
But I do play MXM less often now, simply because my friends now no longer play as often, which makes games less fun. I am a social gamer by nature, and I like to have people to talk about and play games with. This is why I am having so much fun playing The Elder Scrolls: Legends right now.
I spend all day talking in a Slack with friends I’ve made from the Magic: The Gathering world and the esports world (sometimes I know people from both worlds). We liked a lot of things about Hearthstone — the changing meta, the card design, the frequent releases, the level of polish — but there were other things we didn’t like: the simplicity, the un-interactivity, the stagnant metagame. These are things that led us all to find and enjoy TESL. And at least for the moment, I have people to talk about the game with on a regular basis.
So I will be the first to admit that sometimes the population of a game does matter — but it’s people in my social circle. Not some arbitrary number on Twitch.
Sometimes it does feel good to take part in some kind of a gaming revolution — playing League in late 2012 felt pretty cool simply because so many things in the game were changing. But at the end of the day, I played League because my friends were playing it, and they liked it more than DOTA or Heroes of Newerth.
I hope you all can find some agreement in this, because I think your gaming experience will be more enjoyable because of it. And also because while the above is really important to me, it’s also a preface for what I want to talk about next.
I’m an esports jack-of-all-trades who plays terrible games that no one else likes. Also I really like esports.