In 2007, as YouTube was heating up, a startup called Justin.TV opened its doors, with multiple categories of streaming video. It quickly became clear one category was outstripping the rest at Justin — the gaming content. So the site quickly shifted to focus on streaming games as they were played, and it got a new name, inspired by the response times of gamers: Twitch. Since then, Twitch has grown from obscure gaming phenomenon to the ESPN of video games. But what does better tech mean for its future?
When Twitch was first starting out, nobody had any idea if there was even an audience for it. Streaming live video was still a new technology; few people had the internet bandwidth to watch streams, and fewer still had the necessary technology to stream video live. When you see a video game streamed, you’re seeing an incredibly complicated dance where not only is the game being played — with all the complicated tasks that entails from rendering graphics to staying connected to the internet — it’s also taking what the player sees and converting it, on the fly, to a compressed video stream designed for fans to watch. Think of it as a juggler doing two tricks at once and you’re not far off.
Many streams, at first, just cut out the PC altogether, as T.J. Lauerman, better known as ThatSportsGamer on Twitch, tells us: “The first time I streamed was for the Extra Life Charity. I was in my living room, with a laptop on a folding side table, with a webcam on a tripod recording my TV.” Many early streams were much like T.J.’s: It was easier and cheaper to have a laptop streaming and to play the game independently. The hardcore PC gamers had “capture cards,” dedicated processors inside the computer built to pull the video from the game as it played, often in custom-built PCs.
Even then, streamers had a problem that lingers today. Their internet wasn’t what it claimed to be, as Lauerman, who’s also community manager for Out Of The Park Developments, a sports sim game developer, explains: “Many providers give big number download speeds, but upload speed is what you need to stream, and I’ve talked to a lot of people who’ve had to go back to their providers to upgrade their service or equipment to be able to stream at a high video quality.”
Finally, there was the question of the games themselves. A decade ago, independent games were just finding outlets to be released. “Genres were once slow to evolve, with improvements to fidelity and a modest evolution of mechanics taking place across the seasonal time cycles that major publishers and retail allow.” Ian Tornay, Head of Community at Phoenix Labs, which just launched their multiplayer game, Dauntless, explains. “Improvements to the accessibility of making a game, and the lower cost of entry of self-publishing set the stage for the creative explosion we’re seeing. But without viable PR pipelines, being a flash in the /r/gaming pan was what most independent developers could hope for.”
Dauntless itself is an argument for how much Twitch, and the technical advances behind it have changed gaming. The independent co-op action RPG recently launched an open beta where over a million gamers showed up, in large part thanks to how the team managed its Twitch streams. “Twitch will take as much of your time as you choose to give it,” Tornay says, “It is a ton of work, but it’s also rewarding to see people enjoying themselves in real time and connecting in new ways.”
But none of this was clear back in 2007, with the awkward setups, the fuzzy streams, and the difficulty for both streamer and fan to stay connected. Why did it endure? Tornay thinks he knows: “Streaming is storytelling, weaving a narrative that allows for memorable moments of excitement, humor, and emotional connection along the way.” And Lauerman notes that the community that arose was a reward in itself: “I wish I knew how great the relationships you could make with your viewers and other streamers would be. The people that come to my streams really make me love doing it, and I’m happy to call many of them friends.”
So they were willing to put up with it, but the technology moved shockingly quickly. Technology always gets better, smaller, and cheaper; webcams became higher resolution and able to fit the player in the corner of the stream to watch them react to jump scares, PCs became more powerful, and when the new generation of game consoles, the PS4 and the Xbox One arrived, they came ready to roll out Twitch streams. “For people that just want to get started, on PlayStation 4, there a button on the controller for you to press and you can be streaming directly from your console in seconds,” says Lauerman. “It’s amazing!” It helps that the games also started to become very different. Games like League of Legends and Hearthstone arrived that were free to play and, importantly, fun to watch.
The rise of battle royale games, Tornay notes, has changed what was already a rapidly growing industry of both streamers and indie games: “PUBG (or PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds) was the catalyst that broke down one of the few remaining perceived barriers to becoming a successful developer. The game was rough beyond existing standards of quality and there was no clear avenue to publicity – and it’s arguable that the very pressures that should have doomed PUBG to failure were what made it work.” In other words, the game didn’t have to be perfect; it had to be fun, both to play and to watch.
But all this brings up a question: What’s the future of streaming? We know, technologically, that it’s going to keep getting better as fresh tech makes streams smoother, clearer, and easier to upload and watch. People are already testing the bounds of where they can stream and continuing advances will only unlock greater freedom and portability without the need to sacrifice performance.
4K is the upper limit to play and stream, but as power advances, whole new avenues are opening. Instead of watching a stream in 2D, fans might be able to put on a VR headset and watch the game unfold from virtual stands, or even swoop through a play like a drone, winding it forwards and backward looking for the exact bit of luck or a brilliant move, much like fans can do with live sports now. Fans might be able to record streams, have their computers learn how their favorite eSports athletes play, and then try to beat them in a competition, as AI systems are learning how we play and even rebuilding games just from watching us play them. They might be able to hop into a session of a game, seeing it on a Twitch stream, and help or hinder the player, which already happens on the channel Twitch Plays Pokemon.
Live streams may have grown shockingly fast in a decade, but it, and the technology behind it, is just getting started.