I've developed a lot of strange obsessions over the years, but I never thought I'd be addicted to watching other people play Pokémon Go, Niantic's not-world-consuming-at-all mobile game. Yet here I find myself every night, watching random dudes and dudettes walking around their local towns, snatching up Pokémon from their smartphones while hanging out at their favorite burger joint or ice cream shop.
You see, Pokémon Go isn't just the biggest mobile addiction ever — it's also one of the hottest things on Twitch, where tens of thousands of gamers tune in daily to watch their favorite streamers do, well, pretty much nothing. Pokémon Go's massive popularity on live-streaming platforms is indicative of how much people love the game. More fascinatingly, it's also allowing fans to connect to their favorite gamers in a way that traditional games simply don't allow for.
A Twitch Full of Trainers
One of the most captivating things about Twitch streams is their ability to make you feel like you're hanging out in the living room with your favorite broadcaster. But what if you could join them when they're at the mall or grabbing a drink with friends? That's a niche that Pokémon Go fulfills.
"Pokémon Go takes that social experience to a new level, since [you're] on the go and enjoying the park they're in or exploring a city you might never visit in person," said Justin Ignacio, Broadcast Success Engineer at Twitch. "It's essentially a live social adventure game enjoyed vicariously from wherever you are watching Twitch."
Watch a channel such as SeriousGaming for a few minutes, and it's easy to see just how oddly addicting Pokémon Go streams can become. The channel is run by a couple named Alan and Victoria; when one streamer is out catching 'em all, the other is holding it down at their home base interacting with fans.
This leads to silly, multicamera-stream moments in which you get to watch Alan explore San Diego while Victoria hangs out with their cat. The game is just a backdrop at that point; the real fun comes in getting to virtually walk through Comic-Con with Alan, or enjoying the playful banter exchanged between him and Victoria.
Pokémon Go streams also put a fun new spin on what I like to call "unboxing culture." A quick YouTube search shows that folks love to watch their favorite gamers open digital goodie bags (such as Overwatch's Loot Boxes or Counter-Strike's Cases) in hopes of scoring a super-rare in-game item. Pokémon Go provides that same layer of suspense, except this time you and your favorite streamer are collectively getting excited about the prospect of hatching a Charmander out of a randomized egg.
Gotta Stream 'Em All
Streaming from a mobile device isn't quite as accessible or intuitive as it is from a console or PC, especially when you're also trying to record a live video of yourself walking down the street. As a result, Pokémon Go streams often have a fun, guerrilla charm to them, whether they're just a video-camera feed of someone walking around or a full production with multiple camera angles.
Streamers such as Reckful simply record their adventures with a video camera without any fancy production tricks. (Photo: Twitch/Reckful)
The typical Pokémon Go stream setup is far different than what you'd use to just broadcast a game at home. Many streamers use two phones ─ one for playing the game, one for keeping up with chat. You can mirror your phone's gameplay feed to a PC with programs such as Mobizen, and simply call your PC from your phone with Skype to set up a camera feed.
From there, most streamers use PC broadcasting apps such as OBS to set up those two video sources in a way that makes it easy to see what's happening both in-game and on the road.
"We've seen streams where people hold up an iPhone to capture another phone, or apps on Android devices that do everything from chat to front-facing camera support," said Ignacio, of the wide variety of ways people showcase Pokémon Go. "We're hoping iOS app developers start matching up with the Android apps that currently broadcast to Twitch to enable capturing of their screens."
Android gamers can broadcast directly to YouTube Gaming, and there are some third-party apps that help you go live on Twitch, but there are currently very few simple solutions. Android emulator BlueStacks has Twitch integration, but you won't be catching all that much sitting at your desk — and don't even think about spoofing your GPS to "visit" new locations. Fortunately for fans, these roadblocks haven't stopped streamers from rolling their sleeves up and getting creative.
Pokémon Proves Streamers Are Just Like Us
I recently watched one of Twitch megastar Jaryd "Summit1G" Lazar's Pokémon Go streams, in which he nonchalantly said something that I found quite telling.
Pokemon Go allows fans to see a whole new side of Twitch stars like Summit1G. (Photo: Twitch/Summit1G).
"Yes, I am a human that goes out of my house sometimes," joked Lazar, inadvertently summing up what's so appealing about watching other folks catch 'em all. When you usually watch Lazar, he's nailing sick headshots in Counter-Strike or pulling off ridiculous heists in Grand Theft Auto V. But when you watch him play Pokémon Go, you get to see him explore his local Colorado neighborhood, interacting with fans both in-person and on the web while hitting up his favorite parks and eateries. He's no longer just another extremely talented gamer in a chair — he's one of us.
(Oddly enough, while I was writing this, Lazar was the target of a tasteless prank in which the cops were called on him as he was playing outside. Fortunately, there were no issues between Lazar and the police, and he's continued to stream the game since.)
By combining two things people love — vlogging and Pokémon — Twitch streamers have successfully created a wonderfully weird new way to broadcast games. But when you look at the breadth of content on Twitch these days — which includes music, art, cooking and, somehow, the Republican National Convention — these quirky Pokémon Go streams fit in quite well. Heck, Twitch even added a new category dedicated to watching people eat, which is what you'll be doing half the time you view a Pokémon Go broadcast.
With all this in mind, it's clearer than ever that streaming has very little to do with games and has everything to do with the vibrant personalities playing them. Just as Pokémon Go is getting us off our butts and into the real world, it's also getting us to pay closer attention to the real lives of our favorite streamers. Thanks for that, Pikachu.