A typical Twitch stream, with a user playing Dota 2, one of the most popular spectator games. Image: Screenshot
Show Hide image

Amazon's new acquisition is a billion-dollar site where people watch each other play games

The most exciting spectator sport in the world is gaming, and Amazon just grabbed the biggest broadcaster.

The latest big-money tech acquisition is likely to split people into two camps: those with an opinion of whether Twitch is worth the $970m that Amazon has paid for it, and those who don't know what Twitch is. Unlike most buys like this, the target in question has something of a limbo-like fame. Twitch is one of those things that is both extremely popular and yet of meagre reputation outside of its fanbase, like the NFL in countries that aren't the United States, or Nascar in US states outside of the Bible Belt.

Comparing Twitch to sports does make sense, though. The basic gist of Twitch is that it's a website that lets people stream their screens as they play video games, and lets other people watch as they do. The players can also appear within their videos as they want (giving a running commentary while playing is common), and audiences can talk to each other with chatrooms, but that's really the basic mechanic. It is extremely similar to YouTube in parts, with popular players attracting audiences of thousands, or even millions, on their channels.

Whether this sounds ludicrous or not will largely correlate with your age (the kids love it, and it's available on the Playstation 4 and XBox One consoles as well as PCs), or your involvement in the larger world of gaming. For those unaware, spectator gaming is on course to match some of the more popular spectator sports, and Twitch is the undisputed king of the field - the Sky Sports of gaming, if you will. It has 55m unique monthly users watching any of its one million players, and in one month alone Twitch users on average watch a combined 15 billion minutes of live or recorded gameplay. Twitch is three years old, and is roughly half the size YouTube was when that site was three years old. And, to simplify somewhat, Twitch is a success in spite of the existence of YouTube for the same reason Instagram is a success in spite of the existence of Facebook. There is little that Twitch does that YouTube doesn't, but it dispenses with the things that it doesn't need to do for the community which uses it.

The most popular games on Twitch, like multiplayer arena-battler Dota 2, are featured in tournaments which boast viewing figures that rival the biggest shows on television - a recent Dota 2 tournament, The International, boasted a prize fund of more than $10m, and was broadcast on actual TV sports broadcaster ESPN to viewing figures which "exceeded expectations across the board". Some Twitchers have enough paid subscribers to their channels that they can quit their day jobs and live on the proceeds from their gaming.

For months now Google has been courting Twitch, even going so far as to reportedly make a bid of $1bn. Yet Twitch chose Amazon (and, notably, a slightly smaller offer - albeit entirely in cash). Why? The likely reason is YouTube - after all, Google already owns the world's biggest video streaming site, and Twitch would likely have always stood as a backup or sub-site by comparison.

Conversely, Amazon's doggedly trying to get into video streaming and game distribution. Amazon Instant Video is morphing from a pay-by-title rental service into something more like Netflix, and the company has started producing its own games and TV titles. Amazon also, crucially, doesn't have its own YouTube competitor - Twitch goes a long way to filling that role - while also providing the experience and infrastructure to handle the site's rapid growth, which is reportedly beyond the ability of the current team. At peak times, Twitch generates more bandwidth than sites like Facebook; only Netflix, Google and Apple are bigger, bandwidth-wise.

It's unlikely we'll see Twitch become more like YouTube - it has no need to, after all - but Amazon will want to exploit all those watching eyeballs. YouTube currently generates $1.96bn in ad revenues for Google, and Twitch is likely to be able to match a reasonable fraction of that.

All this, for a site whose biggest mainstream success so far was when a user set up a camera to detect how his goldfish was swimming and used that to play Pokemon:

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

IBL/REX
Show Hide image

Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

0800 7318496