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.

Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear