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

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge