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Three reasons streaming is replacing the Let’s Play industry

A story of Twitch and YouTube, and how streamers make money

Twitch and YouTube icons on PS4

YouTube personalities recording themselves playing games is big business, and it seems to be the dominant way for gaming influencers to make money on the platform. The art form is known as “Let’s Play,” although that term doesn’t have much in the way of a set definition. But why does it seem like so many personalities on YouTube are moving to livestreams?

You might notice LPers also stream, but some are making that move more permanent. Ray Narvaez Jr., for example, left his friends at Rooster Teeth — known for produced content and owning — to do streaming full time. This isn’t a rare situation, and the pace may be increasing. Is Let’s Play as a business really in trouble as streaming moves in to eat its lunch?

For my part, I had been doing Let’s Plays since 2006 in screenshot form — I even had a 2004 “strategy guide” for Metal Gear on my website — and video since 2007. I have a YouTube channel with 125k subscribers and I’m friendly with a few of the big names. Kotaku even interviewed me about starting the whole trend. I’ve been streaming for a couple years and I know that world less, but I do network with a lot of folks, so this isn’t shooting from the hip.

So, can streaming kill Let’s Play?

What is the difference?

Let’s Plays tend to be more curated experiences; there shouldn’t be a lot of dead air. The videos are recorded in advance and edited to be watchable. Streams happen live and don’t involve editing after the fact. For this reason they tend to be a bit more exciting. You never know what’s going to happen, and you’re watching it live with everyone else.

Here’s footage of a Mario ROMhack where control jumps between two players every five seconds. It’s interesting as a Let’s Play, but seeing two people managing the same jump in sync is exciting live.

You may like one way of watching gaming content, you may like both or you may be baffled by the whole business. But there are some good reasons talent seems to be moving towards streams rather than producing Let’s Plays for YouTube.

The Dollars and Cents

Suppose you are, or want to be, a video game content producer (read: Let’s Player/streamer/Internet personality/guy apologizing weekly for off-color remarks). How do you make money?

YouTube has two direct revenue streams if you want to do it full-time, and I’ve written in the past about why doing this as a job is so hard.

You can sell ads, and how much you make is dependent on the CPM (cost per thousand views) that your ad sales group negotiates. In short, companies pay YouTube or an MCN (multi-channel network) for ad space, but the price they pay is dependent on market conditions and the demographics of the people watching your videos.

Your CPM is volatile. If you post a video in June, it’ll likely make more than if you’d posted it in February due to consumer trends. It makes more sense to advertise when people buy the thing being advertised, and those trends are seasonal. All CPM goes down in a recession, but it can come flooding back if the economy is booming. General market trends reflect how much companies have to spend on advertising.

The other cash flow is YouTube Red, an odd system where paying subscribers don’t see ads but their money is pooled together and distributed to all YouTube content creators based on “Watch Time,” which is calculated by figuring out how many minutes of your footage were actually watched as a percentage of all videos on the site. This is dependent on other content creators, but it tends to be more stable than CPM/ad revenue.

Now let’s go to streaming sites like Twitch and Hitbox. When you get partnered — which is instantaneous on Hitbox but requires a certain level of popularity on Twitch — there are ads like YouTube, but ad revenue pays like garbage on streaming sites. This is because you see only one ad at the start of a multi-hour stream, so the CPM is super low; the bulk of the money comes from donations and subscriptions.

Donations are weird, and you can’t really build a business off of them because they’re so random. One day, out of the blue, a benefactor might give you $800 and you’ll never see them again. Then one December, you might get a few thousand dollars out of nowhere. Then nothing. Then a week of slow single dollar drips that add up to $100. Bits fall under this category too, they’re just Twitch’s way of horning in on the donation cash flow. I mean, they’re doing the broadcasting, so I guess that’s fair, right?

It’s hard to pay the bills under this model, or re-invest in something like new equipment when you’re not sure when you can pay it off.

Making up for this is subscriptions, a monthly ad-free payment that gets you little icons and other small bonuses. Recurring payments tend to be stable — if you have 100 subscribers one month, you’re likely to have about the same number the next. You can budget your money because it’s relatively easy to estimate how much you’ll be making every month. Subscriptions are what can make streaming go from a lucrative hobby into a business proper.

A note: Twitch Prime complicates this a bit, as it doesn’t auto-renew. This is a marketing tool Twitch (which was acquired by Amazon) uses to sell Amazon Prime. You get a free Twitch subscription, meaning Amazon floats the subscription fee and the streamer gets paid. It’s free money for any streamer you like! (Cough: my info is in the footer.) But as such, when I talk about subscription stability, I mean the auto-renewing kind like a traditional Twitch sub.

The difference between YouTube Red and stream subscriptions is that you know how many people are subbing with the latter, therefore you have a good idea how much you’ll make month to month. YouTube Red is dependent on the amount of Red subscribers on the site, proper, and how much of your footage they’re watching in relation to everyone else. It’s harder to predict (are you attracting Red subscribers or just the general populace, and how can you even know?), although it’s still more stable than straight ad revenue.

YouTube has one other fiscal advantage in that any video you post is ostensibly there for the lifetime of the site. You’ll get revenue for years after the video is posted as long as people continue to watch. Streams are ephemeral. The donations and subs are driven by what’s happening at that moment, even if you post the recording (known, confusingly to non-streamers, as VODs, or videos on demand) later.

Again, stream VODs on YouTube make you money too, but the idea is that hopefully the curation of an LP makes it easier for people to find your videos or moments in them that they want to watch, leading to views, leading to ad revenue, leading to a long and happy career playing games for an audience before the whole system collapses when the world realizes people are paid to play video games for an audience.

This is complicated stuff — you didn’t think it was going to be as easy as playing games online, did you? — but the gist is that it’s slightly easier to carve out a steady income on streaming services due to the stability of the subscription system. That’s not to say the money is better, there are a lot of variables here, but there is more stability in Twitch/Hitbox revenue over YouTube, and stability means you can budget things regularly.

If you ever want to buy a house, go out on the weekends or pay your bills, that’s important, and it’s why personalities may seem to be shifting over to streams once they understand how it all works and how to best work with their audience to make a living. Which brings us to ...

Stream Chat Is actually Better Than YouTube Comments

This is the hard part of the article, because as most of you will say: “Aren’t they both cesspools?” Well, yeah. Buuuuuuuuut ...

Twitch chats are rightfully scorned, but their worst examples tend to be around very large events like Games Done Quick or the Nintendo Switch unveiling. And, while, yes, you’re better off avoiding chat there, that’s only a small fraction of streaming use cases.

It’s more likely that people are watching a particular streamer they enjoy who has manageable chat traffic and designated moderators built around a community the streamer and their mods have cultivated. Very large streams still have the problem of assholes sneaking through, but things often aren’t that bad for most streamers who aren’t in that upper echelon. More importantly, the streamers have some control over that community.

Sometimes the comments become self-aware
YouTube via Polygon

The fact that Twitch, Hitbox, Beam and other services allow multiple chat moderators is a killing blow over YouTube comments. You can get anywhere from twenty to 1,000 new comments a day on all your videos once you’ve had some success, and you’re not allowed to delegate the work of cleaning those up to other users.

This is a feature YouTubers have been asking for for a long time, and the only recourse was YouTube Heroes, a wonderful non-solution where people you don’t know are designated by YouTube’s algorithms to figure out what’s an acceptable level of audience communication for you!

Wonder why they scrapped that.

So your choice is to either give up and know the comments on your YouTube videos will be terrible, curate them by hand from your one account or turn them off completely. Each option is uniquely bad.

Most Twitch streams are transitory; you just need a group of good mods to be around for a couple of hours. And, odds are, they’re there because they enjoy the community as well, so it’s win-win! Bad actors only have a relatively brief window of time to be an asshole before the chance to troll the stream is gone forever, and they can be shut down instantly by your moderators. If you have a friend or viewer who wants to help keep your chat clean and friendly for a few hours a week, you’re in business.

But YouTube is a mess. You keep publishing videos so the number of entry points for jerks grows and grows, but your resources for dealing with them stays the same. You can’t ask for help, and you can’t deputize anyone from your community to take the burden off your shoulders unless you’re willing to share your Google account, which you should not do.

This is likely why popular Let’s Players are finding that it’s more pleasant to stream. You get to interact with an audience that’s mostly rooting for you, or at least commiserating, and dickheads get timed-out or banned on demand. But with VODs? You just sort of wake up to a new group of people telling you how you played the game wrong, how you’re not funny or how it’s so weird that your video reminds them of content on their very own channel that maybe you could shout out?

Look, you already have that experience in Twitter, so there’s not a lot of benefit to be had there. Streaming can be a much more preferable way to interact with your viewers and the general public, despite how it seems from larger, more general interest streams.

YouTube is hard to manage when it comes to copyright claims

You might notice I haven’t mentioned YouTube Streaming at all, and that’s for good reason. It’s not viable if you want to stream full-time. Let’s define a couple terms.

A copyright claim is when a third-party sees their content in your video and says “This is okay to keep up, but I want the ad revenue on this video since it’s my content.” If the video does not run ads, but is copyright claimed, YouTube will force ads on the video and give the revenue to the claimant. Fun fact, courtesy of Jim Sterling, two companies with conflicting copyright claims mess up the whole system and remove ads altogether!

A copyright strike is when a third-party sees their content in your video and says, “This person is a pirate. Take this whole video down and I’d like to issue a vote to remove their account from the site.” It’s called a strike because if you get three, you lose your YouTube account.

If you get a copyright strike, you lose YouTube features such as custom thumbnails, videos over a certain length … and if it’s on YouTube Stream footage, you lose the wholesale ability to live stream. It is far too easy to knock a streamer out of commission for 90 days waiting on the strike to clear while you contest what may be a fake copyright claim. That’s three months with no way to pay the bills if you want to stream as a job.

Standard LPers run into this issue in different ways. Copyright strikes, first of all, can be fatal. Copyright claims merely take away the ad revenue; but if you’re doing this for a living, that’s still a problem.

These strikes and claims mean some companies’ games are off-limits entirely; you can do videos of Nintendo games for example, provided you remove cutscene footage and sections that appeared in the trailers. Konami? Ha, good luck: they’ll claim anything. In one infamous example, Sega issued copyright strikes on Shining Force videos to force their official trailer to the first search result. They killed a bunch of YouTuber’s accounts because they sucked at search engine tagging!

Games with licensed soundtracks get hit from the artists (or more likely, companies representing the artists) so you have to turn the radio off in Grand Theft Auto, or just take the hit on games with a licensed song. A shame, because I could definitely go for more Crazy Taxi videos.

And at least those claims are legitimate. YouTube’s Content ID system also misidentifies footage and audio, so you sometimes lose monetization due to error. Or sometimes shitheads register generic sounds, hoping to copyright match and steal revenue from content creators who aren’t paying attention or fear disputing the copyrights.

YouTube’s language mentions legality and punishments, so younger LPers can get scared off from fighting false copyright claims. And yes, you can fight them, but the escrow system wasn’t in place until recently. Before that, you just lost out on two weeks of revenue while disputes were resolved. Now YouTube holds onto the money and awards to whoever wins the dispute, a definite step in the right direction. But you never know when one of these issues can cause you a massive headache, and those headaches can take enormous effort on your part to solve.

The problem is that YouTube is a general video hosting service, not just for gaming, right? Google wants to be friends with big media companies. Since it’s so easy for people to pirate movies and TV shows, they need a pretty easy-to-use “strike down the bootleg footage” system to avoid being sued by the MPAA or other such groups. YouTube wants to play nice with the corporate rights holders who can afford the legal teams that can hurt them; they don’t want to turn into a Napster. YouTube certainly wants to promote its gaming side (see: YouTube Gaming), but it has to balance that with all the other types of footage it can host.

However, video games are Twitch’s whole racket. To that end, Twitch restricts movies altogether and just has to worry about the licensed soundtracks; they accomplish this by muting the VODs of streams past. That’s it. You don’t worry about losing the channel and you weren’t making that much ad revenue anyway since you’re more reliant on subs and donations that go directly to you, so it’s just much less of a headache.

It’s possible this could change in the future, but for now you can save yourself a whole lot of time fighting false claims and random attacks on your ability to make money by sticking to streams and VODs. You also don’t have to worry about game publishers blocking the content or taking your ad revenue. It’s just easy.

So, CAN Streaming Kill Let’s Play?

The major issues with Let’s Play that I keep bringing up tend to be on YouTube’s side, but YouTube is big enough that any of YouTube’s problems are Let’s Plays problems as an industry. Streaming services may struggle with some of these issues down the road, but it may be more accurate to say that how YouTube treats gaming content may kill Let’s Play much faster than streaming will. Streaming just gives the content creators another place to go if they get tired of dealing with YouTube’s bullshit, and there is a lot of bullshit.

And yes, there’s always the unpredictability of market forces. It’s still possible that tastes will change in a few years and video game footage just won’t be as appealing to talk over and both die.

What’s more likely is that both methods of playing games on video will somehow learn to live next to each other. I did a Bloodborne Let’s Play and my partner and I streamed the final episode. That is, we did the last boss live while the rest of the experience was edited. Even more interestingly, Chip Cheezum did an episode of his Wonderful 101 Let’s Play with a live studio audience at C2E2. That’s live, but not streamed, so what the hell is that even?

When we talk about one way of playing games hurting the other, we’re mostly talking about secondary market considerations that may move the talent away from Let’s Play to streaming. Anyone making money in gaming video is at the mercy of the platform they use, and Twitch is currently more welcoming and easier to manage than YouTube for a number of reasons, and it’s likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future.

One final note: I do think YouTube is at least trying to take steps in the right direction with YouTube Gaming and other efforts. Let’s Play is tied pretty tightly to the site itself, so maybe if YouTube tightens some screws, we’ll still have two viable categories of commented playthroughs and I can update this article in ten years.

Anyway, please like and subscribe and drop some bits in the glass on your way out.

Michael Sawyer goes by the alias "slowbeef" and has been doing Let's Plays since 2005, despite being incredibly unsuccessful at them. He is a self-described video game humorist and is officially way too old to being doing that. You can find him on Twitter, Twitch or YouTube.

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