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.”