live streaming, games, and twitch.tv

As I mentioned in my last post, perhaps the one clear absence at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference panel on e-sports was Justin Kan and the Twitch.TV site. If you are interested in gaming, especially pro e-sports, and you don’t know about Twitch yet, it is worth checking out. It’s a spin-off venue launched in June 2011 from the Justin.TV gang, one of the early sites that helped facilitate “live streaming,” real time video broadcast over the internet. Back in the ‘90s our broadband and tech were usually struggling to keep up with our ambitions of connecting through internet video but things have changed; fast net, solid processing speeds, good graphics cards, HD cams, and all at a pretty affordable cost. Justin.TV, UStream, and a variety of other sites are quirky outposts where you can find average folks broadcasting everything from their own entertainment and talk shows (formatted with all the common television tropes) to strange, beautifully mundane feeds of empty rooms or puppies sleeping. Most recently the Occupy movement was also using these sites to broadcast ongoing local events or just simply open feeds of their camps. Perhaps because so many of these “channels” tended to the almost painfully everyday in their content they haven’t been as strongly on our radar as they should. But these sites, while clearly having some link with old cam culture, are also moving it forward.

Twitch is a space is dedicated specifically to gaming and they’ve been active at various events in the past year or so. They had a massive presence at the last DreamHack I attended which is when they really got on my radar. Their figures from that event alone? Unique viewers: 1,673,270, peak concurrent viewers: 94,932. Yup, you read those right. If you pop onto the site now (which I encourage you to do) – via web or iPhone/iPad app – you’ll find hundreds of people streaming their play in real time with thousands watching. You’ll also see professional gamers broadcasting practice matches, as well as major tournaments streaming competitions. They’ve created partnerships with major e-sports outfits (from popular broadcasters, players, and teams to strong leagues like the ESL). PR figures need to always be taken with caution but Twitch is claiming 16 million people tuning in per month to watch (yeah I know, uniques? repeats? Elsewhere the figure of 12 million uniques in Dec 2011 appears so that gives some clarification).

I don’t want to lean too much on internal stats, but I can say that pretty much whenever I check-in there are tons of streams and large numbers of viewers sitting in various channels watching. These spaces were something I mentioned briefly in my recent e-sports book and I noted there were interesting things brewing. But my manuscript was essentially pre-Twitch and now, in the space of just over a year, there has been a boom. It appears that live streaming has met its kindred spirit in gaming and e-sports. I want to just briefly mention a couple key angles I’m currently mulling over about this scene.

Tech and distribution

When you talk to broadcasters and commentators who’ve been around in e-sports for years, you hear about the incredible technical challenges they have long faced and creatively worked around. Expensive equipment, insufficient network capabilities, fussy or unstable software, and ad hoc channels of distribution… the list of things they’ve had to contend with goes on and on. That e-sports has had the amazing broadcasting and commentating it has so far is a testament to their skill and dedication (though it has long struggled with having sizable audiences to match that effort). The development of a site like Twitch combined with the lowered costs of many basic hardware and infrastructure components has been significant. There appears to be real growth in the numbers of people broadcasting and watching. As Marcus “djWHEAT” Graham, long-time e-sports broadcaster and one of the sharpest people involved in the scene put it in an interview about Twitch for Forbes last year, “Now I can create and deliver content from anywhere in the world using technology that doesn’t cost you an arm and a leg.  What we can do now at live eSports events used to cost television crews millions to pull off.  Now streamers are empowered to deliver more content for less money… to a larger audience.” He is, perhaps unsurprisingly, one of their key partners. For him and many others looking for venues to bring broadcasts to an audience, Twitch seems to be proving a valuable resource.

“Social”… audience

As is hinted in Graham’s quote though, it’s not just the pros (be it players or broadcasters) piping out video feeds, but all the average folks who want to share their play. This issue of anyone becoming a streamer leads me to the funny tagline I encountered this last week when starting to poke around and read up a bit about sites like Twitch. “Social TV” is apparently the word tossed around for these spaces (and yup, it already even has its own summit). Tbh, I think that is as strange a term as the absurd “social games” tag that gets tossed around with ease. Television, and games, are always already social (yes, even when you are alone – shout-out to Bart Simon and his insightful “Never Playing Alone” article for reminding us of this). What I think the folks who use the term are fascinated by is the inclusion of interaction that take place real-time alongside the viewing. This typically means you have a chatroom window sitting alongside the video where you can talk to all the other people you are watching along with and the broadcasters themselves can directly engage with you.

Of course sometimes the game action is intense and focused and the talk reflects an edge-of-your-seat quality. But a lot of the time it is just… chat. Mundane, about this and that, commenting on the broadcaster’s room, musing about the configuration of the UI or keymapping. (Unfortunately chats can, and sometimes are, filled with all the lousy sexist, homophobic, and rape-culture inflected speech that is far too typical in certain outposts of game culture.) The person streaming can have their eye on the visitor window, as when I popped into a channel with no other viewers the other morning to watch a guy playing SWTOR. Seeing he had finally gotten a someone watching (albeit an anonymous, silent observer since I wasn’t logged in) he fairly quickly said via his mic, “Hi there. You can make an account if you want to chat or talk or whatever”  and then continued playing while talking to me about what he was doing. (Oddly, I waited till someone else came in to watch before I left cause it felt… impolite (?)… to leave otherwise.)

This desire for, and pleasure of, being together in some way around play is, I think, interestingly even reflected in Justin Kan’s own article about Twitch for Gamasutra. It animates this kind of site. While the space is heavily leveraging the pro e-sports scene right now (they made a recent deal with CBSi, something I’ll discuss in another post), it’s also building on and growing the always vibrant culture of sharing our play with one another. This is certainly one of the roots of e-sports. The desire to always not sit by ourselves and play (though there are absolute pleasures in that), but connect with others, often in head-to-head competition or cooperation.

But connection also comes in the form of spectating. Sometimes we watch, sometimes we’re watched. And that experience of finding yourself watching with many others, of becoming an audience, is part of what e-sports has been trying to build for years (with very mixed results). It’s something now being facilitated by live streaming with more ease than we could imagine even a decade ago. And let’s be frank, “audience” underpins a number of the economic issues that have long plagued the scene. Sites like Twitch are no small thing. They are allowing pro and amateur alike a fairly easy consolidated space in which to share their play and build communities. I’ve been watching e-sports too long to want to suggest that Twitch solves everything. It doesn’t. We’ve seen that said before and only to watch things implode dramatically. But (for now) it certainly is a notable addition to a scene long struggling to find paths to build audiences, expertise, and sustainability.

That said, there are pretty fascinating, and latent, issues still to be unpacked in relation to these sites. Because, unlike the quasi talk shows taking place in someone’s living room, these streams are broadcasting games – content typically seen as owned by a company and subject to serious intellectual property regimes. Online media have already hit thorny issues where (re)broadcasts of regulated sports content are being piped out via their service and, as I briefly discuss in my book, we’ve seen at least one scuffle over this issue in relation to e-sports. Right now there’s still a lot of experimentation and feeling of unknown territory when it comes to gaming and online broadcasting, but the advertising and revenue involved leads me to suspect it won’t stay that way forever. More on that next time.