Video game livestreaming has gone from a niche subgenre to a cultural phenomenon in just a few years, with huge communities dedicated to specific platforms, games, and personalities.
Professional streamers might make it look easy (and it can be!), but if you want your stream to actually look and sound good, you’ll have to make a few investments. A professional microphone, for example, will go a long way in making your stream stand out from the crowd. And there’s plenty of free, easy-to-use software that will add professional features to your stream.
This guide is mostly for people who are brand-new to streaming and want some advice on how to get started and casual streamers who are looking for suggestions on equipment and software upgrades. For our purposes, we’re going to assume you’ll be streaming video games. The advice will be similar though, if you’re broadcasting board games, a talk show or your dinner.
Where to stream: Twitch or YouTube?
The first thing you’ll need to figure out is where you’re going to broadcast. You’ll most likely be choosing between Twitch and YouTube, the two largest platforms for livestreaming. Microsoft’s Mixer is also easy to use on Windows, Xbox One and Android devices. (Switch and PS4 users can stream to Mixer with the help of a capture card.) There aren’t major differences when it comes to uploading your content, especially since streaming companies have borrowed a lot of each other’s features. There are a few small differences, though.
YouTube recently launched a new gaming hub that it says will make it easier for viewers to discover new creators. YouTube Gaming has the benefit of a familiar interface — it looks very similar to YouTube proper — and most people already know how to navigate YouTube. It’s also easy to upload pre-recorded videos to your YouTube channel, a feature that Twitch is still not great at.
While YouTube is a larger platform in general, Twitch was built specifically for streaming. There are also more tools for channel customization on Twitch. If you’re only interested in streaming and don’t plan on uploading any compilations or pre-recorded videos, Twitch is probably the way to go. And of course the biggest streamer in the world is on Twitch.
Twitch and YouTube also have different monetization structures that should be considered if you are hoping to make some extra cash by streaming. Both Twitch and YouTube have partner programs that allow streamers with a large audience to make money by running ads. And most popular streamers use sponsorships, affiliate programs and donations from viewers to supplement their income. It can take years to get to that level, though.
For newer streamers, Twitch’s affiliate program is the easiest way to make a bit of cash. Twitch affiliates can earn a small amount of revenue — we’re talking a few cents at a time — with subscriptions and “bits” (a kind of Twitch currency) from viewers.
We get into more granular guidance for streaming on individual consoles below, but no matter where you’re streaming from you’ll need a way to broadcast audio and (probably) video.
If you’re streaming alone, you can probably get away with using a high-quality headset and mic. Polygon’s guide is a great place to look if you don’t yet have a set of gaming headphones. We recommend the SteelSeries Siberia 840 as the best multi-platform option because it can connect to and toggle between multiple devices at once.
If you want a bit more control over your audio, a standing microphone will give some added flexibility. Plus, if you’re streaming with another person in the room, multiple microphones will pick up each other’s voices (assuming you don’t have professional audio software to filter it out). The Blue Yeti is a favorite among streamers and podcasters — it’s the one I use at home, and I love it. It plugs in via USB and is pretty intuitive to use.
The vast majority of streamers also broadcast video, though it’s not an absolute requirement. If you do plan on showing your face, you’ll want to invest in a better camera than whatever’s built into your laptop.
Logitech’s C922 webcam was built for streaming. It has a high enough frame rate to avoid lag, autofocus and lighting adjustment tools, and a background replacement feature that works like a virtual green screen, capturing just your image.
Streaming on PS4
By far the most user-friendly game streaming experience is on the PlayStation 4. The DualShock 4 controller has a “Share” button that allows you to broadcast to Twitch or YouTube directly from the console. Just log in to your account from a computer and start streaming. To stop streaming, press the Share button again. It’s really as simple as that.
Before you start broadcasting, you can adjust settings like stream title and quality, enable comments, and adjust the screen layout. That’s also where you’ll turn on your microphone (you can set up a headset or USB in the PlayStation Settings menu). Video is supported too, but for that you’ll need to set up a PlayStation Camera.
Streaming on Xbox One
The Xbox One has a built-in system in place to seamlessly broadcast to the Microsoft-owned streaming service Mixer. Like on PS4, you can set a title, enable audio and video, and turn on chat from the settings page.
To stream directly to Twitch from an Xbox One, you’ll have to download the Twitch app. From there it’s a pretty similar process: log in and activate your account, adjust your settings and start streaming.
Mixer is currently the only Xbox One streaming service that allows the use of a third-party camera. Again we’d recommend Logitech’s C922 if you’re going the Mixer route. To capture your image on Twitch, you’ll need to set up a (discontinued) Kinect camera. Refurbished models aren’t too difficult to find, but you’ll also need an adapter if you have an Xbox One S or Xbox One X, since Microsoft removed the dedicated Kinect port from those models.
There’s currently no way to stream directly to YouTube from an Xbox One. For that, you’ll have to capture your gameplay and route it through a PC. More detailed instructions on how to do that are in the PC section below.
Streaming on PC
Streaming from a PC gives you the most flexibility and options, but it also takes the most work. First you’ll need to make sure that your PC can handle running a game and streaming at the same time. Twitch recommends an Intel Core i5-4760 processor and at least 8 GB RAM, but that’s the bare minimum.
If you’re planning on streaming smaller indie or retro games, you’re probably OK with those specs. However, you’re not going to be able to even play a AAA title at higher resolutions, let alone stream it, without spending some extra money on better hardware.
If you ask Reddit, it’s blasphemous to buy a PC instead of building it yourself. But manufacturers like Alienware and Origin are good at what they do, and can guarantee that their computers’ parts are optimized to work well together. You can always upgrade individual components if you need more power or memory.
The next step is downloading a broadcasting software. There are several free ones to choose from; my favorite is StreamLabs OBS. It’s an open-source software with a user-friendly interface that makes it easy to set up a basic stream, but includes a bunch of fun customization widgets if you want to get creative.
To broadcast a PC game, you’ll first have to link your profile to the streaming software. The software will ask for a “stream key” that can be found on your Twitch or YouTube profile. That key is what gives the software permission to broadcast to your channel, so be sure that you don’t share it with anyone who you don’t want streaming under your name.
After you entered your stream key, you’ll need to choose what you’re broadcasting. StreamLabs has a drop-down menu where you can select audio and video sources like a USB microphone or webcam. It should automatically capture a full-size game, but you can also choose to broadcast any open window or your full screen via that menu.
Streaming console games on a PC
The StreamLabs menu is also where you can choose to stream console games from your PC. There are a few reasons why you’d want to do this: Either your console doesn’t support streaming directly, or you want to take advantage of your broadcasting software’s customizations.
To stream to a PC from a console you’ll need a capture card, a device that picks up your gameplay on the console and routes it to your PC via HDMI. Elgato is the capture card manufacturer of choice for most streamers I know. It’s pretty easy to set up — just run an HDMI cable from your console to the capture card, and another from the capture card to the PC. Once everything is connected and you’ve downloaded Elgato’s free game capture software, you’ll be able to select the capture card in StreamLabs’ drop-down menu.
Streaming on Nintendo Switch
The Nintendo Switch doesn’t have built-in streaming capabilities (there’s a video capture button, but it just clips your last 30 seconds of gameplay), so you’ll have to use a capture card and route it through your PC. Since the capture card works via HDMI and the console’s HDMI port is on the dock, you won’t be able to stream Switch games in handheld mode.
And unless your TV is right next to your PC, you’ll probably want to pick up some HDMI and USB extension cords, especially if you’re using a USB webcam and/or microphone. You’ll have to start the stream on your PC and then run over to your TV to start playing. It’s not an ideal setup, but it works.
Streaming on mobile devices
Want to stream your mobile games? There’s an app for that.
For Android users, the easiest way to stream from your phone is through the YouTube gaming app. Like on the PS4, you’ll be able to stream directly to YouTube after a brief setup where you can enable audio, video (via your selfie camera) and chat. To stream to Twitch from an Android device, you’ll still have to route through a PC. The app Vysor will let you display your Android screen in a PC window that you can then capture in StreamLabs.
iPhone users will have to rely on a third-party app to stream to Twitch or YouTube. The app Mobcrush captures your screen recording (which you’ll have to enable in settings) and broadcasts it. Just like with other software you’ll have to enter your stream key in the Mobcrush settings. Then, once you start playing your game, go to the control center (swipe down on the top of the screen), hit the screen record button and choose Mobcrush from the drop-down menu. That will start streaming your screen and audio. There’s no video functionality yet other than screen share so you won’t be able to film your reactions.
It’s important to remember when streaming from your phone that you’re basically just screen-sharing to all of your viewers. That means you should probably turn off preview notifications unless you want everyone to read your texts and emails.