Twenty thousand spectators, 15 million online viewers, and a total winner’s purse of more than $25 million. While you’d be forgiven for assuming these figures belonged to a college football final, they’re actually the statistics for 2018’s “The International;” Valve’s Dota 2 esports tournament.
This year, an average of 1.2 million monthly viewers watched over 9 billion hours of live gaming streams on Twitch alone.
In just a little over a decade, live-streaming has outgrown the domain of the hobbyist and become an international phenomenon, drumming up audiences never before possible, let alone imaginable.
While the numbers are astounding, the question is: how did we get here, and is the popularity of live-streaming a fad, or is this just the start?
The Early Days
The first recorded video game tournament was hosted by Stanford University in 1972 for Spacewar, a game created by academic rivals at MIT a decade before.
While the lucky champion’s prize – an annual subscription to Rolling Stone magazine – may pale in comparison to today’s jackpots, in less than eight years, Atari was hosting over 10,000 contenders from the United States in their Invaders Championship.
These figures were still nowhere near enough to establish a mainstream broadcast of such tournaments, so it was going to take a series of technological breakthroughs before they could be brought to the masses.
Ever since players have had access to screen capture software, many have recorded their on-screen antics, whether it be for walkthroughs, speedruns, or sheer entertainment.
Until the mid-2000s, anyone wanting to share or watch others playing video-games was limited to specialist forums and a handful of websites, and that was on the condition they had a halfway decent internet connection.
In 2005, three things happened which would bring the industry a step closer to hitting the mainstream.
Firstly, the earliest instance of a “Let’s Play” video was uploaded to SomethingAwful.com – a website credited with being one of the earliest to shape today’s internet culture as we know it – by user Michael “slowbeef” Sawyer.
While recorded walkthroughs of games existed, this was the first to popularize the format that now attracts millions of viewers across the world every single day.
Streaming for the Masses
The second paradigm shift that created audiences on this scale was the advent of YouTube in 2005, meaning people all over the world now had the means to share their own content on a truly global scale.
While YouTube didn’t initially offer live-streaming as a service, it did allow viewers to catch up on esports tournaments that they would have previously had to watch through a small handful of paid, dedicated cable channels.
The increased awareness of esports quickly became evident, with viewership and average prize pots growing as much as 20% the following year. The final event to be credited with cracking open the industry was the release of the next generation of gaming consoles and their polished online capabilities.
Online multiplayer gaming was by no means a new concept – PC gamers had long competed and cooperated online, and the short-lived Sega Dreamcast offered online multiplayer functionality back in 2000 – but the release of the Xbox 360 was the first time gamers were offered a truly comprehensive online experience, utilizing Microsoft’s evolving Xbox Live service.
The following year, Sony’s PS4 gave fans another massive platform and the number of players connected over the internet and sharing their content exploded. Faster, cheaper and more widely accessible internet connectivity continued to contribute to the growth of online streaming; however, the introduction of Twitch.tv in 2011 was the turning point of streaming as we know it.
Spun-off from Justin.tv, a general-interest streaming platform, Twitch began to dominate the gaming sphere. By the end of 2014, Twitch had obliterated its competition, becoming the fourth largest source of internet traffic – behind Netflix, Google and Apple – and Amazon had bought the service for $970 million, bringing both live streams of individuals and esports tournaments to the homes – and mobile devices – of more people than ever before.
Why is Streaming So Popular?
While these are the events that gave us the means to broadcast and consume live-streaming on a monumental scale, the tools alone don’t tell us why the industry has become so popular or whether it’s built to last.
Something YouTube and Twitch have in common is their vast user-base; gamers have long relished being part of a community and these platforms, while imperfect, have made it exponentially more diverse and inclusive.
Additionally, the sheer volume of games available today means most gamers are limited in terms of spare time and cash when it comes to what they can purchase and play, but streaming means they no longer have to miss out.
The factor at the heart of streaming’s popularity may come as no surprise; it’s money.
While YouTube may have been the first to enable creators to capitalize on their original content through advertising, streamers have found increasingly more lucrative ways to make money from their broadcasts, turning to modern digital marketing techniques and improving their channels branding to not only increase their viewers but to boost their online income.
Streaming isn’t just profitable for the streamers; it has the potential to make money for the majority of businesses involved, so for that reason alone it would appear that live-streaming won’t be fizzling out anytime soon.
What Does the Future Look Like?
The key to the continued growth of streaming, whether it’s for spectator esports or individuals’ broadcasts, has always been innovation.
Games have become more cinematic and watchable while the technology that makes streaming accessible shows no signs of slowing down, but much of the responsibility for future invention falls on the shoulders of the services themselves.
What does this future look like? Twitch has already expanded its offering to include non-video game categories, much like its predecessor, but the people running the show believe increased interaction is the natural course for streaming.
The first steps have already been taken in creating experiences that allow viewers to influence the outcome of games, and as long as there’s money to be made and high-quality content being broadcast, it’s safe to that live video game streaming is here to stay.