The announcement comes as a surprise, not because no one expected Twitch to be bought, but because YouTube was widely expected to be the buyer. Three months ago the sale of Twitch to Google’s video service, for a cool billion, looked all wrapped up, and the pairing seemed natural. Twitch, founded only three years ago as Justin.tv, set out to be a general streaming service—a live version of YouTube. Instead, it quickly became a platform for gamers to broadcast their in-game feats; a “YouTube for live gaming,” in Business Insider’s words. And “let’s play,” a genre of videos in which wiseacres give (mostly older) games the Mystery Science Theater treatment, are already popular on YouTube. The point is, YouTube comes up a lot when describing Twitch, so the news that YouTube was acquiring Twitch was greeted with a yawn, a textbook example of an entrenched tech company buying out a potential competitor.
It’s a mystery why the deal with YouTube fell through, considering it was reportedly willing to pay no less than Amazon. All we have at the moment is this statement from Twitch CEO Emmett Shear: “We chose Amazon because they believe in our community, they share our values and long-term vision, and they want to help us get there faster.”
Another mystery, frankly, is Twitch’s incredible success. To snobs like me who declare that they’d rather play sports than watch them, it’s hard to see the appeal of watching games rather than taking up a controller myself. It’s one thing to look over your friend’s shoulder at 3 in the morning as she creeps through Resident Evil, and quite another to watch some rando get 20 headshots in a row in Call of Duty. Another problem is that many of today’s most popular games are first-person, so watching footage of them, without controlling the viewpoint yourself, can be a Do It Right-worthy recipe for a headache. I concede that speedruns, in which the Roger Bannisters of our electronic age complete entire games in record time, are entertaining. But unless someone is a virtuoso at gaming or humor, his Twitch channel isn’t likely to be all that interesting.
How, exactly, will Amazon capitalize on this? It’s hard to imagine Twitch being folded into Amazon Instant Video as elegantly as YouTube could have just swallowed Twitch. But Twitch has something any company would love to attract: hordes of advertiser-coveted young men. As Twitch chief Shear said, Amazon and Twitch “are both believers in the future of gaming,” and the medium shows no sign of shrinking, even—gulp—as a spectator sport.