Twitch: when watching beats playing

How a crazy idea became a media juggernaut.
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In 2007, Justin Kan, Emmett Shear, Michael Seibel and Kyle Vogt had an idea for something that seemed so silly, it might just work.

Kan attached a webcam to his hat. For nine months, he didn't take it off. Everything Kan saw, the world saw. The webcam captured his daily interactions — 24 hours a day, seven days a week. When he went for a walk, ate, read, watched a movie, went on a date or answered his email, anyone could watch. When he slept, he placed the camera next to himself so the world could see him. And when he sat on the porcelain throne, he angled the camera toward the ceiling.

The four friends set out to create a new kind of entertainment — at a time when live-streaming technology was just emerging, when online video could barely run without lag and when the concept of broadcasting your life online was still novel.

Group_shotLeft to right: Michael Seibel, Justin Kan, Kyle Vogt and Emmett Shear

And a novelty was more or less all it was, Shear later said. The four friends weren't sure where their silly idea would take them. They had no idea how Kan's sometimes interesting but mostly boring video stream could support a business, or what that business was to begin with. But in the midst of uncertainty, their broadcasting experiment planted the seed for something much bigger than they could have imagined.

Running around after Kan at the time with battery packs, laptops and webcams — slightly frantic and full of uncertainty — the four friends had no idea their silly idea would change an industry and become the biggest and — in a way, the only — dedicated video game live-streaming service in the world.

Changing the industry

The Twitch office in San Francisco's Financial District takes up a whole floor of a Bush Street building that spans half a city block. The company's lobby has a wall of flat-screen televisions, each displaying a bright purple and white logo, "TWITCH, TWITCH TWITCH." To one side of the office are rows of desks that seat mostly 20-somethings typing lines of code while watching video streams. To the other side are meeting rooms themed after video game locations. There's the Rapture room, inspired by BioShock, which is decorated with its own fake fireplace and leather armchair. There's the Megaton room, inspired by the wasteland of a city from Fallout 3 — it's still a work in progress.

The 100 or so Twitch employees work to make sure the service runs smoothly, even when it's being slammed with traffic. In an average month, Twitch broadcasts more than 6 million videos and fans watch 12 billion minutes of footage. As of the end of 2013, more than 45 million people watch Twitch streams every month.

Live-streaming video games may seem like a niche activity that only die-hard fans would care about, but the numbers suggest otherwise. In a recent Wall Street Journal chart detailing the percentage of peak U.S. internet traffic and the company networks responsible for it, Twitch came in fourth, only behind Netflix, Google and Apple, placing it ahead of Facebook, Amazon, Pandora and Hulu.

When console manufacturers Sony and Microsoft sought to integrate live-streaming into the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One respectively, they chose Twitch.

"I think of Twitch as like an ESPN for games."

"I think of Twitch as like an ESPN for games," says George Jones of video game consulting firm Hit Detection. Prior to joining Hit Detection, Jones worked at Wikia, a community information-sharing website. "What's interesting is it's a legitimate comparison in a lot of ways. What you're seeing on Twitch is guys covering these games in much the same way as ESPN would. Ten years ago there was a nascent competitive gaming scene, and I think what we have now is largely due to Twitch. The vibrancy of leagues and teams and the characters is largely because people can watch it, and they can watch it in a way that's engaging."

A large portion of Twitch content comes from eSports, and Jones says he believes Twitch has validated pro gaming in a way that no one else has. Like any sport, spectating often plays a bigger role than competing, and Twitch provides the gateway. It's made watching someone play a game more accessible. It's made it easier to learn about skilled play. Gone are the days of trying to track down a combo video from a friend of a friend — the best players in any category now stream their practice sessions on Twitch.

"I think it's made more people realize that they might be the kind of person who wants to watch other people play games," says Jeff Green, who was previously editor-in-chief of Games for Windows: The Official Magazine and now also consults for Hit Detection. "I think that was a huge barrier to overcome. When I tell people I'm doing a live-stream of Dark Souls and I tell them I'm playing this game online and people are watching, citizens like my family — who are non-gaming people — always ask, 'Why would anybody want to do that? Why would anyone want to watch you play a game?' Which is the same reaction I had when I first started hearing about it.

"And I think that's one of the main things Twitch accomplishes here: Once you make the leap and watch someone do it ... once you see it done by someone who knows how to broadcast, who knows how to entertain, or someone who's an expert at the game, you start to think, well, this is pretty entertaining."

Jones and Green make another sports analogy: Why would anyone want to watch another person throw or catch a ball? Why would anyone want to watch a person ice-skate? Well, if the person can do it in a way that's entertaining enough and skilled enough, why not?

"once you sit down and watch somebody good, it's like, ‘Oh my god, this is great; this is super entertaining!'"

"Obviously there are plenty of people who think it's the dumbest thing ever," Green says. "But once you do it, once you sit down and watch somebody good, it's like, 'Oh my god, this is great; this is super entertaining!'"

THE BROADCASTERS

Jayson Love is a 34-year-old broadcaster from Montana. On Twitch, he is better known as "MAN." His stream, MANvsGAME, broadcasts his mission to "beat every game worth a damn ... and even some that aren't." Four years ago, Love was struggling to make a living working various retail jobs. Today, he live-streams on Twitch full-time and makes more money than any job he's previously held. He is one of Twitch's most popular streamers, broadcasting for up to eight hours every night to an average of 4,000 viewers who regularly tune in.

"Twitch has completely changed my life for the better," Love says. "It's almost too much to think about sometimes. I went from these dead-end retail jobs with no real long-term plan or goal, and Twitch has allowed me to become something of a minor e-celebrity, which is crazy to think about. My mother was talking to one of the guys she works with about my broadcast, and he said he knew me and told her he watched me all the time."

Love first started live-streaming four years ago on Twitch competitor UStream after seeing American comedian and rapper Andy Milonakis freestyle rap while incorporating lyrics that viewers posted into the UStream chat box. Having never seen this kind of interactive broadcast before, Love says he was blown away and decided that he should do something similar with video games. "The big punchline to this joke was I thought I was brilliant and sitting on this golden idea no one else had," he says. "Then I went onto UStream and saw all these other people doing it."

Twitch's game room

Love wanted his stream to be different, though. He wanted it to be like a show. He wanted to do it to entertain viewers. The broadcast would be about him struggling to beat certain games, but it wouldn't be eSports. "It's one man's struggle, so there's some drama in that," he laughs. "But a lot of it is just me trying to be funny, trying to make people laugh. It's like a performance for me. I am absolutely performing, and it's draining, but I love it."

In the early days, Love's stream had fewer than 10 viewers. Over the course of four years, this audience slowly and steadily grew. As UStream and its competitor Justin.tv (from which Twitch spun off) grew and added new features, Love would move his show back and forth based on which features he liked best. He eventually settled on Justin.tv because he liked its video player. When Twitch launched, he moved over with the rest of Justin.tv's gaming content.

"It's like a performance for me. I am absolutely performing, and it's draining, but I love it."

Bill and Jason Munkel are another popular pair of broadcasters on Twitch. Bill, 58, and Jason, 18, run the channel FatherSonGaming. Each night, father and son broadcast themselves playing Call of Duty together. The channel is a year old and averages 2,000-3,000 viewers a night. The pair have 130,000 followers on Twitch.

"It was actually my idea," says Jason. "I specifically remember being in the car, and I used to watch a lot of YouTube videos of Call of Duty commentators, and I remember thinking that Dad and I have something unique. Not many fathers and sons play Call of Duty together. It's kind of an unusual thing. And I remember thinking this would be cool if we could post these videos of ourselves on the internet. We could be different [than] what everyone else is doing."

Jason pitched the idea to his father Bill who, as a lifelong gamer, thought it was neat. "We have a great bond, and we thought it would be a good idea, and that was how it was born," Bill says.

The duo started by recording themselves playing Call of Duty and uploading those videos to YouTube. The videos were never really about the game — they were about Bill and Jason's relationship. Sometimes they'd post videos of themselves goofing around, dancing to music. Viewers got a kick out of it, and the two liked interacting with the community they built around their little show. "Our whole thing was always about interaction," Jason says. "We loved talking to people, responding to every comment, seeing the reactions. That was my favorite part of it."

"And people get a kick out of me because they wanna see how a guy my age can keep up with these young guys and this game," Bill says. "And I generally don't, but every once in a while, I'll surprise myself. I'll do really, really well, and all our viewers get excited because I did really, really well."

FatherSonGaming made the switch to Twitch after Jason saw the opportunity to do their show live. "I saw there was this immediate, live interaction. You could talk to people right there as they were watching. I thought it was amazing."

Bill and Jason stream for about three hours each evening and stick to a weekly schedule. While the two have always played games together, Bill says their Twitch channel has changed their relationship. "We were always close, but Twitch has brought us even closer than I could ever imagine," he says. "We're together all the time, whether we're streaming or thinking of ideas to do for our streams. Our relationship has grown immensely because of how often we're together, and I think we owe Twitch that."

Justin.tv

Despite the service now being a fixture of the video game community, Twitch CEO Emmett Shear says when he and three friends founded Twitch's parent company Justin.tv in 2007, they didn't know what they were doing.

"[Co-founder] Justin Kan and I were driving around Cambridge, Mass. trying to come up with ideas for a business, and we started talking about broadcasting the conversation we were having on the internet," Shear says. "It was like, this conversation is interesting. I bet it would be cool to share this online. That snowballed into, well, what's the more extreme version of that? Broadcast all your conversations online! What's the more extreme version of that? Broadcast your entire life online with video and audio!"

In hindsight, Shear admits this wasn't much of a business idea. It was certainly an idea, but they didn't have a business plan. How was broadcasting someone's life on the internet going to be a) profitable and b) sustainable? They would figure that out later. Kan jumped at the opportunity to be the talent and the two roped in friends Kyle Vogt and Michael Seibel to help them make Justin.tv.

Shear and Vogt worked on the technology side of the project, enabling a live-stream that could be available to thousands of people 24 hours a day. Seibel was tasked with finding interesting things for Kan to do and Kan had to wear a webcam broadcasting his every move. The webcam was hooked up to a laptop he carried in a backpack. The laptop was attached to four taped-together EV-DO cards to give him a constant internet connection. He carried multiple battery packs with him so he and his business partners could quickly change them out if it looked like the laptop was about to run out of juice. For the next nine months, anyone who logged onto Justin.tv could see the world through Justin Kan's eyes.

The four friends tried to create a new form of entertainment in Justin.tv — a kind of web-based reality TV show. It garnered attention for what it was doing, but as Shear now says, it was mostly a stunt. "The broadcasting 24/7 thing didn't turn out to be a business," he says. "But it did turn out to be pretty cool."

As the four founders tried to figure out the next step in their streaming experiment, viewers began asking if they, too, could create their own streams. In developing Justin.tv, Shear and Vogt had created a tool that allowed anyone to smoothly stream video from their webcam to the internet. People had started using a new video platform called YouTube, but YouTube didn't support live-streaming in 2007. The tech behind Justin.tv was designed specifically for live-streaming.

In summer of 2007, Kan retired the webcam attached to his hat. Justin.tv — the platform — launched.

Like other live-streaming services that launched in the same year, Justin.tv was divided into categories. There was a channel dedicated to sports content, there was a channel for animal-related video streams. The categories ranged from news broadcasts to live-streams of poker matches. But the one category that ballooned more rapidly than any other was video games, and this was happening across the board, not just on Justin.tv. People were connecting their computers to video streaming accounts and live-streaming the games they played. Even those who played on consoles set up external video capture devices in order to get Twitch to stream what they were playing. People broadcasted tournaments, speed-runs, footage of themselves talking about and analyzing games. Many just broadcasted the games they were playing and talked over their stream.

Two years into Justin.tv, the company knew there was a growing gaming audience. By late 2010, gaming on Justin.tv dwarfed every other category. By March 2011, it realized it had to give gaming its own home. In June 2011, it launched the first version of Twitch, a gaming-focused live-streaming service that was basically Justin.tv with a different skin.

They didn't know there would be more than one million unique broadcasters a month.

Did they expect Twitch to be a success? Shear says yes. Even before Twitch launched, the numbers in Justin.tv's gaming category pointed toward a ravenous demand for a service that allowed users to live-stream games. Did they expect it to be as successful as it was in such a short period of time? That, Shear admits, was a surprise. They knew people wanted to stream their gameplay. They didn't know there would be more than one million unique broadcasters a month.

"But I think it's natural and human to want to share your achievements, your experiences, with other people," Shear says. "I've never been a football player, but I can appreciate watching the Super Bowl.

"And it's interesting, if you go back through the history of gaming and think back on what it's been like over the years, where did gaming start? It started in the arcade. That was where the first video games were. And one of the interesting things about the arcade was you watched more than you played ... Everything that's old is new again."

Emmett Shear

DESIRE TO SHARE

In many ways, Twitch taps into the existing desire within gamers to share an experience. In the days of the arcades, players often spent most of their time there watching the best person play, because the best player would keep playing after the others lost their coins to the machine.

Watching others play wasn't only entertaining in its own right; it was educational. In the competitive fighting game scene, players produced VHS tapes and DVDs to share information with each other.

Watching others play wasn't only entertaining in its own right; it was educational.

"They called them combo videos in the 1990s," says Tom Cannon, the founder of the world's most prestigious fighting game tournament, Evolution (EVO). "They contained really creative stuff that nobody thought was in games like Street Fighter or Tekken."

These VHS tapes would typically originate in Japan. Someone — usually a fighting game player who had figured out an impressive combination of moves — would make a recording of themselves executing the combos. The VHS tape would then get passed around through fighting game circles. Slowly, these copies of copies would make their way overseas, where the copying would continue.

Twitch's office

"You had to know someone and borrow their tape to make your own copy," Cannon says. "Amazingly, that's how tapes got distributed. Someone would go to Japan, they'd find it on a shelf in a store or they'd be visiting a friend who had it, they'd make a copy, bring it back to the States, and it would slowly make its way around the country. It was kind of crazy. There was no online space where you could buy these things. It was all [through a] friend of a friend."

By the time the videos made it to the U.S., they'd been copied so many times the footage was barely visible on the screen.

The VHS tapes and DVDs are now relics of a bygone era. Today, when game players want to share their experiences, whether it be through the broadcast of a global gaming tournament or their own combo videos, they do it through Twitch. With a few button presses, the whole world can watch what they're doing, live.

Over in the StarCraft community, players skipped the tapes and DVDs in favor of a different way to share their matches.

Derek Reball manages the eSports team Nv. He recalls the days before streaming when players would record low-quality video files of a game's replay. The game's commentators would record audio files of themselves speaking while watching the replay. The video and audio files would be zipped and uploaded to a website. People would download it and play both at the same time, crossing their fingers that it was in sync. "It was like this old-school radio concept," Reball says. "It was really bad, but that was how we did it."

Across the StarCraft and fighting game communities, the VHS tapes and low-quality audio files have been replaced with live-streaming, making tournaments and educational resources more accessible than they've ever been. Twitch currently has more momentum than any other streaming service. With that momentum, it has become the go-to platform for video game streaming.

Focus of success

Shear pins Twitch's success to its focus: It's the only streaming service that devotes all its energy to gaming. "I don't think there's any real doubt about that," Shear says. "We won [the video game live-streaming audience] because of focus. We were 100 percent dedicated and focused on doing whatever it takes to get the very best gaming content ... That was the only thing we thought about, and when you're trying to build something that's good for everyone, it's hard to beat someone who's making something that's good for just one segment, because they're superfocused.

"For every hour some other company could spend on gaming, we could spend 10 because that was the only thing we were doing."

This focus led to tools that differentiate Twitch from the competition. The technology behind Twitch gives users options specific to video game streaming.

"For example, when you're broadcasting a game like League of Legends or Dota or any MOBA (multiplayer-online battle arena), it's critically important that no one be able to see your stream for about six minutes, because there are certain items you can buy that, knowing you have it, is a big advantage to the other team," Shear says. "So you really don't want the other team to find that out in advance.

"If you're in a tournament, and the results really matter, it's critical that it doesn't leak. So we built in a delay server that lets you choose how much delay you want on your stream, which seems totally counterintuitive. Normally, you're trying to reduce latency for video, not increase it. But in this particular case, to run this kind of tournament you need a delay server. You can't not have that feature.

"When we built this feature, we won this huge chunk of content that had been waiting for someone to build this for them."

Advertising is also built with the video game streamer in mind. Twitch currently has more than 5,100 partner channels — streams run by ordinary people, like MANvsGAME and FatherSonGaming, who make money from broadcasting. Instead of having ads popping up at set intervals that could potentially disrupt a stream during an important part of a game, Twitch lets its users choose when they want to run an ad. So between matches, a streamer can hit a button to run a string of ads, and they get a cut of the revenue share. Depending on how many viewers tune into a channel, a broadcaster could feasibly make a living of being a Twitch streamer. Twitch's VP of Marketing Matthew DiPietro can't reveal how much its broadcasters are taking home, but says that some of them are able to live quite comfortably just from revenue earned from Twitch advertising. How comfortably? "Six figures," he says.

It's this focus on video games that attracted console manufacturers Sony and Microsoft when they were looking to implement live-streaming into their new consoles.

"I think there's some supersmart people who were paying attention to the way things were going and realized that streaming was now a big part of the experience," Green says of Microsoft and Sony, the latter of which launched the PlayStation 4 with Twitch integration on day one. "It was good forward thinking on their part."

Chad Gibson is the general manager of Xbox, where he oversees Xbox Live, Achievements, multiplayer and Twitch integration. He says Microsoft initially brought the Twitch app onto Xbox 360, which allowed users to access Twitch and watch streams through their console. The response, he says, was huge, and highlighted the importance of streaming for the next generation of consoles. When it came time to develop the Xbox One, live-streaming had gained such momentum that it couldn't be ignored. Twitch, he says, was an obvious choice.

"I think their focus on gaming is phenomenal," Gibson says. "I mean, there's been other streaming companies, but they've all been more general in nature. Twitch's focus on gaming really helps provide a product that the community has really responded to."

Gibson says when he first started working with Twitch, the competitive play angle made sense to him, but he didn't realize interest in live-streaming went beyond eSports.

"I was thinking of the best Call of Duty players in the world and how I'd love to see them play," he says. "And then I remembered when we first met with Twitch and they said Minecraft was superpopular, too, and that was one of the first facts that just blew my mind, because it's not a competitive game. It's a game about building worlds and creating and collaborating. It's got a phenomenal presence on Twitch, and it made me realize that it spans far beyond the competitive eSports angle."

Developers are now using Twitch to show their games to the public before they're completed. Publishers are using Twitch as a marketing tool to speak directly to consumers, and users are creating their own form of entertainment and breathing new life into games that launched years ago.

users are creating their own form of entertainment and breathing new life into games that launched years ago.

Microsoft's Xbox One Twitch integration is a relatively recent addition, but Twitch has already shown its popularity among console users via the PlayStation 4. In early January, Sony reported that from Dec. 23-Jan. 3, 20 percent of Twitch broadcasts came from PS4 owners. In the first six weeks following the console's launch, PS4 owners created 1.7 million streams. Of course, not everyone initially understood that the console's Twitch functionality was reserved for video game content. The service had to be pulled from the PS4's Playroom — a feature that points the PS4's camera at the player and turns the living room into an interactive experience — because people were streaming non-gaming material, some of which was raunchier than Twitch and Sony were willing to broadcast. But people are slowly getting it.

"Having it built into the system legitimizes Twitch beyond anything they could have done on their own. It's basically sending a message that this is part of the PS4 and Xbox One experience now. We're telling you this is not some extra third-party thing that only weird people do. This is part of the experience of owning this console."

The service isn't perfect, though. As a relatively new platform that is dealing with enormous amounts of data and a rapidly growing user base, it's encountering teething issues. "The kinds of problems they're dealing with are the best kind of problems to have," Love says. "They're bandwidth costs, and they just have too many people coming to the site. So much that, for instance, their chat is constantly breaking."

During busy weekends, particularly when there is a big game tournament or, most recently, when thousands of users decided to play a game together, Twitch's chat function will struggle to keep up. Sometimes it won't show new messages. Sometimes it will freeze up entirely.

"They're going to need to scale appropriately," says Green. "I don't think there's a chance of this right now, but Twitch could become a victim of its own success just in terms of its ability to scale and keep up with the demand the sheer volume of people using it."

[According to a Twitch representative, "We remedied the chat issue with Twitch Plays Pokemon by moving the channel off of our general chat servers onto a dedicated event chat server, which we typically use for large events like The International and League Championship Series (LCS)."]

Matthew DiPietro

SILLY IDEA NO MORE

Less than three years on, Twitch and Justin.tv share the same office on Bush Street. Shear, who is still CTO of Justin.tv, says the service is performing well, even though its numbers may not be as good Twitch's. Twitch's gargantuan success just makes everything else look small in comparison. To wit: Twitch grew out of Justin.tv, but the Twitch to Justin.tv staff ratio is now 15-to-1.

Twitch's dining area mural

Shear is the only one of the original Justin.tv founders to remain at Twitch. Michael Seibel — the man responsible for ensuring Justin Kan did interesting things — served as CEO of Justin.tv before moving on to be CEO of SocialCam, a video-sharing app for mobile devices. Kan, a serial entrepreneur, went on to found Exec, an errand service, which he recently sold. Vogt, who along with Shear developed the technology that would power Twitch, is now CEO of Cruise Automaton, a company developing self-driving cars.

The four friends may have started with a silly idea. From their initial conversation while driving around Cambridge, to strapping cameras, battery packs and laptops to Kan, to not having a plan for their business — everything that led to Twitch seemed like a bad idea. But when a new combo video is live-streamed, when a father and son share their love for Call of Duty and each other with the world, when an eSport tournament is broadcast, and another person finds a community that laughs and shares and shouts with them as they watch a game being played, none of it seems so silly any more. Babykayak

Images: Enrique Espinoza
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