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.

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

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