In front of a crowd of enthusiasts adorned in purple swag, veteran streamer and Twitch community director Marcus "djWHEAT" Graham spent around 25 minutes embarrassing himself on purpose. It was the keynote address for TwitchCon, held last week in San Francisco to bring together community members and employees of the website where you can watch others play video games live. Recalling his past blunders, Graham reminded the crowd of thousands of attendees and tens of thousands of online viewers what it was like before Twitch got big. In a word: crappy.
The video was low-quality, the audio sucked, and video game consoles and PCs needed elaborate video capture equipment to get it out to the world in real time. And if you burned through lots of bandwidth, as Graham did in 2006 while holding a live event, you might have gotten smacked with an $18,000 bill. Along the way, as Graham illustrated with plenty of geeky photographs of himself in front of the camera, streaming improved.
In 2015, all you need to accomplish what would have cost thousands of dollars just eight years ago is Twitch’s free software. It’s available on the web, built directly into the PlayStation and Xbox, and watchable on almost anything with internet access. That shift has catapulted Twitch and its 1.7 million broadcasters, 12,000 of which are official partners, to the forefront of the live game-streaming market. It’s one of the fastest-growing and most lucrative segments of the greater live-streaming movement, which includes Twitter-owned Periscope and a slew of sports-oriented products from companies like Baseball Advanced Media, the streaming powerhouse division of the MLB.
Twitch has bold plans to grow
Graham’s message, "let’s talk about the past," was meant as a thank you to the community members who grew up tuning into the early days of live game-streaming and real-time video podcasts. But the trip down memory lane was also important because Twitch is beginning to change. It has bold plans to grow its audience and expand its offerings. Twitch says it was always the plan, though ruthless expansion is also a hallmark of Amazon, which shelled out $1 billion to acquire Twitch in August of last year.
Onstage at TwitchCon, CEO Emmett Shear announced a new feature, coming next year, that will let Twitch users upload video to the service without having to stream it live. If that sounds familiar, it’s because uploading videos to the internet for others to watch later is what YouTube has been doing for more than a decade.
YouTube and Twitch, though they both focus on consuming video, couldn’t be more different. YouTube became a destination for even the most casual of web users to discover the latest viral videos. Now, it exists as a place to explore any number of rabbit holes burrowing deep into every corner of global culture. And despite hosting some of the most toxic comments on the internet, YouTube is still one of the few places on the web that can earn you a lot of money and fame just for making home videos about whatever you love to do.
Twitch CEO Emmett Shear onstage at TwitchCon
Twitch, on the other hand, is a place of smaller, intensely passionate video game fans who, in essence, watch others play video games. It’s a new kind of television built for one of the world’s largest subcultures. The goal has never been to mimic the polish of television talk shows, but to coexist as both interactive art and a platform for the interactions between broadcaster and audience member.
Twitch has a chat stream that, unlike a typical comments section, can be filtered by partnered broadcasters to show only viewers who subscribed to them for around $5 a month, and the stream often feels like the collective id of your audience. (Compare it to YouTube, where comments are left at the end of a broadcast and are often abusive or spammy.) Twitch viewers can acquire special emoji to use in chat, and over time they begin to absorb the deep well of inside jokes unique to the channel.
So why would either service want to ape the other?
"It just makes sense," says Kevin Lin, Twitch’s chief operating officer, in an interview with The Verge. "Live is always going to be our focus. Gaming is going to be our focus. But as we expand and more people build their Twitch channels as their primary outreach mechanism to their audience, it just makes sense for them to find all the content they want to push to their community in one place."
"Live is always going to be our focus."
Of course, Lin is aware of what YouTube announced back in August. The Google-owned video service, which has long been a destination for gamers to watch pre-recorded videos of gameplay, launched YouTube Gaming. The vertical has its own Twitch-style live-streaming component and aims to make it easier to find and surface much of the existing gaming-oriented videos on the site for viewers. But it also maintains the core elements of the uploading service — the same appeal and toolset that made Felix "PewDiePie" Kjellberg the most watched and subscribed-to channel on YouTube thanks to his pre-recorded "let’s play" gaming videos.
"Many people may think about uploaded videos when they think of YouTube, but we've actually had a live streaming platform for years," Alan Joyce, a YouTube Gaming product manager, tells me in an email. "Despite having one of the best live infrastructures in the world, we initially designed our system for massive scheduled events, not gaming streams. With YouTube Gaming we overhauled our live system to make it easy to just go live and play games."
In other words, YouTube can do what Twitch does from a technical standpoint with ease. What it doesn’t have is the community of live streamers that make it a destination as popular to young adults and gamers as live television was (and somewhat still is) to Gen Xers. Still, Twitch needed to counter. After all, as Li told me of PewDiePie and similar blockbuster successes, Twitch "would love for that to be on the platform."
The company’s response — its own direct upload feature — has been met with both excitement and trepidation. The company so often plays up its dedication to the community, and so Twitch executives have always been sensitive to that when rolling out new features that threaten to alter the DNA of the community.
"I want to see how it plays out," Twitch streamer ThatsCat tells me at TwitchCon. With an energetic and happy-go-lucky demeanor, the 26-year-old New Jersey resident, who requested we call her Cat, has amassed a following of more than 31,000 people who watch her stream herself playing video games. "People enjoy the constant interaction between the streamer and the chat," she says.
On YouTube, she adds, you can’t "engage with these people, you don’t know who’s commenting and you don’t get to have a personal connection." The connection with the community is what drove ThatsCat to Twitch in the first place. "I don’t think anybody can challenge it for the sheer fact of the community and the face-to-face interactions," she says.
On YouTube, "you don't get to have a personal connection."
The same holds true for the co-creator of the Twitch gaming-oriented comedy show The Mav Show, who goes simply by Mav. "It’s a finished product," she says of post-edited video, or what Twitch calls VOD, for video on demand. "It’s not an inclusive product. It’s not something that you say, ‘Oh my god did you just see that?’"
For broadcasters like Mav, whose fans self-identify on social media as #Mavicorns in reference to T-shirt designs from her e-shop, the entire process of live streaming is akin to hosting a party where anyone is invited. The act of watching video then is less about sitting by yourself, falling into a YouTube loop, and more like hanging with friends in one giant room.
"On YouTube, they [viewers] come to your videos, they binge watch, and then you don’t see them for a while," Mav says. On Twitch, where it’s always been live, you can tell who someone is by their expressions and their reactions and how they interact with viewers. "Then you meet them in person and they’re exactly like that," Mav adds. All of this is to say that Twitch’s success, and its business model, is about being just as much a place to connect to people in real time through video games as it is an antithesis to YouTube and the video-on-demand world.
Of course, Twitch could do to VOD what it did to live streaming, turning it into something people watch together and discuss in real time, like gathering around a flat-screen in the living room to watch Game of Thrones. Twitch’s Lin says the team is thinking about ways to make uploaded videos more interactive by creating tools to launch simultaneous viewing. "We want people sharing those VODs just as they do VODs from other platforms, but it’s still a shared experience," he says. "Social video is our core business."
Still, it’s easy to believe that for most creators YouTube is still a better investment; there’s still no wealthy PewDiePie equivalent on Twitch quite yet. Twitch hopes that, through its subscriber model where viewers can pay $5 a month for special access to a streamer’s channel, it can create those types of superstars. Though the company has made it clear it’s open to fostering all kinds of video talent.
"Our goal is to be entertainment for gamers," Lin says. "Right now, live is the biggest piece of that." But if you’re interested in videos of all kinds, he adds, the ultimate aim is for you to be able to go to Twitch and find it — every video, whether it’s being broadcast live to thousands of strangers or was recorded, carefully edited, and uploaded later.
Correction at 11:42 a.m.: A previous version of this story said Twitch had 20,000 broadcasting partners. Twitch has 1.7 million broadcasters, but 12,000 partners who are able to monetize their channels. Marcus Graham's online moniker is djWHEAT, not djWheats. We regret the errors.