All of us crave entertainment and escapism—especially during these COVID years. Our old reliable vectors of relaxation, like the movie theater, have been pushed to the brink of collapse. Through adversity, innovation thrives and evolution is born; as theaters struggled to avoid bankruptcy, streaming companies like Netflix grew. Now there’s a bigger disruption lurking in the water, circling Netflix and other traditional entertainment companies. It’s getting stronger every day.
Long dismissed as niche and nerdy, gaming (and game streaming) aims higher on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs than Netflix et al. By offering a two-way relationship between viewer and content creator, platforms such as Twitch and AfreecaTV scratch a universal itch to connect and build kinship. To a market thirsty for connection after three years of COVID isolation, the combination of entertainment and interaction is a vibrant oasis in a desert of dry algorithmic templates.
Game streaming leverages the priceless advantage of another person on the other side entertaining you with the help of an attractive MacGuffin—the game itself. But the form we see today isn’t the same as when it started, and it certainly isn’t the final evolution. To understand how game streaming will become the future of entertainment, we must start at the beginning.
Live streaming can trace its roots back to many points, but the strongest of those tendrils began with Justin.tv. Justin.tv put a laptop in a backpack and a camera on a hat and followed Justin Kan around in his life 24/7 (barring showers, bathroom breaks, and other private moments). 2006 saw the rise of highly produced hits like Dexter and 30 Rock; antecedents to prestige TV juggernauts Mad Men, Breaking Bad and, ultimately, Game of Thrones. On the unscripted front, the staggering success of shows like American Idol spawned a revolution in reality TV that would culminate in the 2007 launch of Keeping Up With The Kardashians. To a market saturated with high-production-value glamor, outrageous storytelling, and obscene inside baseball, Justin.tv was a fascinating view into the doldrums of daily life. The truest version of reality TV, it was a tamagotchi you didn’t need to feed.
With Youtube and Skype both still in their infancy, investors were hungry for more prototypes of video tech. In August 2007, Justin.tv spawned a platform with 60 channels where content creators could build their own Justin-like channels. By October, 60 channels had become 30,000 and the groundwork for Twitch had been laid. In 2014, Amazon bought Twitch for $1bn, which at the time was thought to be an absurd sum of money, but which proved shrewd as the platform evolved into the big kid in the playground that it is today.
There are also regional competitors who innovated and customized themselves to their local content desires. In Korea, AfreecaTV reigns, but faces harsh competition from the likes of Twitch. In China, behemoths like Douyu and Huya clash, but leave plenty of scraps for upstarts in the billion-person walled garden. These regional competitors are highly-resourced and competitive on the world stage, even generating types of content that would ultimately be adopted in the West.
Having seen the success of live streaming, megacorps like Google, Facebook and Microsoft have built up proprietary attack dogs. Microsoft’s attempt failed; their Mixer platform showed that deep pockets and technology are not sufficient to guarantee success. Google and Facebook continue to invest, but Microsoft’s failure in the space looms large in their boardroom discussions. All these companies know that we only have 24 hours a day to spend on all the activities in our life, and they have grand aspirations to not only to win against their rivals but ultimately to compete for every entertainment hour of our day, in much the same way that Coca-Cola claims its greatest competitor is water.
STREAMERS AS CONTENT CREATORS
While live streaming has embraced a diversified set of content that includes streamers, esports, and events, live streamers are the source of its most exciting evolutions. While the platforms fight their own battles, the real war for viewership is among the content creators. Without these innovative (and mercenary) creators, platforms dwindle and fail (see Mixer).
Back in 2013, when Twitch was still niche and novel, I worked on Hearthstone. Our game was generally the #2 title back then, and jumped to #1 during events and releases (it remains the 6th most viewed game of all time). Live streaming was different during those early years. The game was the central content that people came for; the streamer was secondary. They wanted to learn about new games and continued to be engaged even when they couldn’t play the games themselves. You could see this in the content being created at the time, where some of our top streamers like TotalBiscuit (RIP) didn’t even have cameras facing them—they just streamed the game itself.
Over time, the impact of the streamer rose relative to the game. Variety streamers like Day, Hafu, and Lirik were able to establish themselves as the brand, while the games became interchangeable background noise. Communities of viewers grew, attracted to the streamer’s personality and their openness to a semi-intimate experience.
At the same time, streamers were getting smarter about metrics. Gone were the days of just putting a camera in front of their face; now it was a business. I distinctly remember a conversation with Forsen at an event, where I was blown away by his reliance on data to determine what made his stream successful. He built data-backed hypotheses, tested each with new content, then conducted exacting post-mortems to assess and learn. Even at this time—the Wild West of making a career out of playing video games online—many streamers were already well-armed and prepared.
As the focus on games fell to the wayside, making way for the force of persona, two major shifts occurred that would change everything: fictitious personas and Just Chatting.
In the former category, streamers like (my personal favorite) Dr. Disrespect, who created a caricature of an 80s testosterone-fueled action star turned video gamer. His mustache, terrible wig, and costumes launched him directly into the uncanny valley and into a totally-new global maxima of entertainment. Unbounded by his legitimate real-life self, he could tickle fans with obnoxiousness, becoming a star in his own movie. His boldness, which paid off with a huge following, inspired other streamers and skewed the landscape from grounded interactions to larger-than-life entertainment. Viewers knew Dr. Disrespect was phony, but the connection was real. If anything, direct access and kinship are more satisfying when the “person” on the other side of the screen talking to you and saying your name out loud is a stuck-in-the-80s Action Star.
While the Dr. was flaunting his mullet, Twitch took a cue from platforms in the East that were winning at non-game content and created the “Just Chatting” category. The ultimate in reality live TV, Just Chatting opened the floor for streamers to chill in hot tubs, opine about pop culture or politics, or even speed-date with viewers. Instead of facilitating the content, streamers now were the content. No more training to get real good at video games; now they could win big, broad viewership by just being themselves for entertainment. Just Chatting quickly became Twitch’s top category.
THE BUSINESS OF STREAMING
In some ways, the business of streaming aligns more closely with quote-unquote Traditional Media. Screen, music and sports talent have long used representation to handle the dirty work of show business, allowing them to focus purely on their craft. While smaller streamers (or those filled with hubris) may go it alone, the Big Names are mostly all represented. Agents and managers earn their 10% several times over by securing valuable sponsorships; a major source of revenue for streamers who can otherwise expect no more than the occasional chat tip.
One reason agents and managers are keen to build up a roster of streamers is that streaming is a cheaper and more agile business model. Platforms host streamers rent-free, thus ensuring themselves a full spread of niche subjects to appeal across a broad audience. Netflix pours money into sustaining algorithms that examine viewer data for what to produce, how much and for whom. Game streaming platforms avoid this by letting streamers manage their own expensive processes of content development.
By democratizing content creation, streaming platforms can focus entirely on getting the right content in front of the right folks. However, this is where they stumble. Twitch doesn’t have the data or the algorithms to understand us as well as Apple, or Google, or Facebook. Unlike YouTube, the behemoth in the pre-recorded video space, Twitch has yet to perfect the art of ad targeting and content recommendations. These omissions cost Twitch valuable viewer minutes, letting down streamers whose expert content arguably deserves better. If Twitch, AfreecaTV, or any of these companies can perfect the trifecta of business, viewers, and streamers, then we’ll have a clear winner.
While the streamers were getting smarter, the viewers hungered for something beyond the bounds of pre-recorded content. They craved the energy and addictiveness of unfiltered live-action and real-time participation, and streamers were keen to oblige.
Twitch responded by bulking up on chat features. Simple tools like donations and subscriptions allowed viewers to make it rain, engendering a newfound frenzy among streamers to capture viewers’ eyes and dollars by stoking endorphins. What began as “click a button and see your name on screen!” evolved into streamers reading submitted sentences or jokes, stepping into deliberately-laid verbal traps, and generally hot-footing around like the highly data-backed performing monkeys they were. Capitalism flourished, as did griefing your fellow humans.
By and large, viewers realized their value and wanted something back. With smaller streamers, the aspiration was building kinship; larger streamers set their sights much higher. As a result, viewers needed exclusive emotes, access, and higher-quality content to compensate for the loss of kinship with quality fandom. Big streamers kept up by building expensive teams to help supply their fans with differentiated content to keep them ahead of the competition. The lean, mean model of a streamer-plus-business-manager grew to include graphic designers, VFX artists, whole production houses, and more.
With the arms race continuing on all three sides—streamers, platform, and viewers—there’s still no clear winner. There’s no King or Queen of streaming, with the mighty (like Ninja) having fallen back down to earth. There’s no obviously-perfect platform, as large Eastern competitors continue to leverage their massive populations and adjacent companies like TikTok or YouTube try to decide if live streaming is worth chasing. Even we viewers continue to build a deeper understanding of the value we bring to the streamers and the platforms. One thing remains clear: entertainment is king, and each participant in the ecosystem understands this better and deeper each day. The innovation won’t stop—it simply can’t. Streamers will always be chasing the perfect personas, the fickle viewers, and the elusive algorithm that will drive their streams to the top.