Bread and circuses. A phrase coined to describe the appeasement of masses. It first referred to cheap food and entertainment used by Roman emperors to curry favor and rapidly gain influence. The Roman Empire has since fallen but the concept nevertheless remains.
Billions of people around the world tune in to radio and TV broadcasts of their favorite sports. The most recent 2014 FIFA World Cup received 3.2 billion viewers, almost half the world’s population. Biologically, it makes sense for the players themselves to feel an adrenaline rush and sense of accomplishment from winning each game, but what do spectators have to gain? The easy explanation is that watching sports is similar to watching a live-action movie. Perhaps you have team preferences based on their geographic locations. Or fan loyalty is a family tradition. Or their colorful mascot simply appeals more to you. No matter the case, one competitor is rewritten in your mind as the hero that must overcome conflict to defeat the villain, and you are invested in seeing them win.
The advent of more affordable and faster computers in the 21st century has driven the rise of e-sports, or competitive video gaming. With competition comes the same levels of enthusiasm and fanaticism seen in athletic sports but channeled into a different emotion, anger. A viral video of a German kid raging at his computer when failing to register for a tournament is an excellent case in point. Although the video was later revealed to be staged, the creator stated he wanted to parody the all-too-real emotions of a gamer.
Twitch.tv is a live-streaming service started in 2011 that now distributes gameplay to over 15 million daily viewers. It hosts 2 million monthly streamers for almost every video game on the market and has also expanded to music and real-life events. But what’s different about Twitch.tv is the interactivity for viewers. Twitch incorporates a chatbox with a variety of emote icons as well as messages accompanying donations that facilitate direct communication between streamer and viewer.
Twitch.tv compounds the active frustration experienced by the gamer by superimposing the taunting of viewers. This is especially evident in the game Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy which challenges the player to traverse an obstacle course of nigh impossible jumps with only a hammer. The game itself is already programmed to provoke the player with philosophical quotes about perseverance in the face of failure each time the player loses progress, and having to read a flood of laughing emotes would surely push the streamer over the edge, right? This brings me back to my original point: entertainment. Many of the streamer’s actions are exaggerated because he plays for an audience. It is without a doubt that players become invested in the game and experience a catharsis during frustrating gameplay but to what extent?
This question is especially relevant when discussing the now-popular League of Legends streamer Tyler1. Initially having a small following, Tyler1’s notoriety skyrocketed when he was indefinitely banned from the game for toxic language and intentionally dying. The #freetyler1 movement to unban him consequently exploded on Twitter with thousands of retweets, and despite Tyler1’s ban from League of Legends, he prospered as a Twitch streamer by playing other games. Tyler1’s hothead personality only seemed to grow more extravagant after such operant reinforcement. After petitioning for 2 years, Tyler1 was finally reinstated, and his first League of Legends stream received 400,000 concurrent viewers at its a peak, a record number for an individual streamer. The events surrounding Tyler1’s ban and reinstatement are comically dramatic for the billion-dollar company Riot Games that created League of Legends and rival the plot of a reality TV show.
Are e-sports simply a revamped version of gladiator games designed to entertain the masses? What role does a spectator analogous to the jeering crowds in an amphitheater play in polarizing performers? Is it even accurate to compare streamers to performers? Albeit interesting, these questions pale when considering the Hawthorne effect on a larger scale. News media today has a prominent role in agenda-setting, in which topics covered by reporters are deemed more important. This directs the populace’s view to controversial issues. How do world leaders react differently when they realize they are being watched?