From spin-off to 1 million streamers: How Twitch became a live streaming giant
18th Feb 2014 | 21:22
eSports and PS4 are part of the picture
Twitch's small beginnings
Twitch recently revealed it reached a heady milestone; one million active broadcasters streaming their gaming sessions to the masses.
That's not the only number to take notice of. The site now attracts over 45 million unique visitors a month. They come to watch six million different streams and consume 13 billion minutes of internet video every month.
News of the broadcaster numbers came on the heels of a report putting Twitch in fourth place during US peak internet traffic. According to a Deep Field analytics study published in the Wall Street Journal, Twitch came in just behind web titans Netflix, Google and Apple to capture 1.8% of all US web user interest during prime time web browsing
The unprecedented popularity of game live streaming on Twitch and at large has been partially aided by the rise of eSports. What's more, the inclusion of PlayStation 4 users accounts for an additional 200,000 new Twitch streaming accounts.
The site has come a long way since its humble beginnings just three years ago. To get the inside scoop of Twitch's meteoric rise, we sat down with Matthew DiPietro, vice president of marketing, for the story of how the small Justin.tv spin-off became the official brand of video game broadcasting.
Catching lightening in a bottle
Despite Twitch's prevalence today, its creation was actually an afterthought spun out of Justin.tv, the live video streaming startup. Originally Justin.tv launched out of Y Combinator in 2007 as a place for anyone to share a live video experience from sports to music. Within a few years though, the gaming community began popping up with a vengeance. Broadcasters hooked up their consoles and gaming PCs to the web, sharing live footage over Justin.tv.
"The gamers was just emergent behavior that nobody had considered," DiPietro said. "We just noticed lots and lots of gamers come into Justin.tv and at first it was just new and interesting and novel and we weren't quite sure what to do with it."
Luckily Emmett Shear, then chief technology officer and now CEO at Twitch, was a hardcore StarCraft II player who saw the rising community as a business opportunity. Shortly after, Shear began leading the charge for more gaming oriented content.
"We started building features for gamers [and] reaching out to game broadcasters to ask them what they want, and that was all a run-away success," DiPietro explained. "At some point it became an oversized piece of the content of the site at any given time and the features became very specific for the gaming experience."
It became obvious that gaming had to be rolled out into its own brand. This spin-off would become Twitch as we know it.
TwitchTV, as it was called then, launched on June 6, 2011 during E3. In launching, TwitchTV ported over 3.2 million users, including combined viewers and broadcasters, from Justin.tv. Along with the new space, Twitch provided game broadcasters with tools for streaming their games.
Despite being side-loaded to a new site, TwitchTV thrived as the online network saw immense growth in only one month. By the beginning of August that year, unique monthly visitors coming to the site jumped from 3.2 million to eight million. Viewership went from 4.5 hours per user every month to one billion minutes across the site.
DiPietro explained that soon after launch, TwitchTV was out to find every game broadcaster it could, a task as these streamers were scattered across the web.
"[We] gave them a home that was entirely dedicated to the video game experience and the natural evolution of that outreach became the partner program," DiPietro expounded. "The way we envisioned it was to take the very best cream of the crop game broadcasters out in the world and give them a way to make a living at what they were doing."
The partner program launched towards the end of July 2011, which enabled some broadcasters to earn money from their live streams.
Through a mix of advertising and channel subscriptions, broadcasters could create by running their streams. This shake up would bring on a new wave of live streamers to the already established community of internet celebrities including Jayson Love, Sean "Day" Plott, and Marcus "djWHEAT" Graham.
eSports and next-gen consoles
The video game broadcasting company
TwitchTV originally launched with a very PC-centric lineup, including League of Legends, Dota 2, StarCraft and other big eSports types. It was a natural progression then for the online videogame broadcasting company to go after exclusive eSports streaming rights.
TwitchTV signed partnerships with the Electronic Sports League, Major League Gaming, and various teams on October 31, 2011. Over the years, Twitch signed more contracts with companies, including CBS Interactive and Xfire. These partnerships would eventually allow the company to set new records during eSports events with viewership in the many millions.
"The League of Legends championship series not that long ago sold out the Staples Center in Los Angeles, and that's just on site," DiPietro said. "It generated many millions of unique viewers on that content which has an audience size that legitimately eclipses broadcast and cable size television audiences."
Twitch broke its own record again during the International Dota tournament held last August, which boasted over five million viewers in just one day. By September 30, 2013, Twitch reported that it reached a milestone of 45 million unique visitors per month.
"Those two are standout examples but the broader point is that eSports have expanded so far beyond the large marquee events," DiPietro said of the record-setting events.
"What we're seeing is where there used to be very large spikes in traffic based on a couple of huge events," he continued. "Now we're seeing that become just a 24/7, 365 day schedule of many, many different seasons of competitive gaming content that goes on all the time."
Beyond eSports, DiPietro explained that "out of those million broadcasters, the vast majority - 99-plus% - are sort of casual individual and independent gamers that are just doing this as a way to share their gameplay."
In the same way some might use Facebook, Twitter or Reddit, Twitch has become a form of social media network for sharing the hobby of gaming.
It's also turned into a home for live streaming experiments. Just a few weeks ago, an anonymous Australian programmer streamed live footage of Pokemon Red in an emulator that was slowly played by thousands of spectators. It was a spectacle of technology and community involvement that drew in over 10 million viewers.
"Whereas it used to be very shaky in terms of audiences, it just this rapidly growing plateau all the time," DiPietro said with a bit of glee. "It is really exciting for us because its just goes to show the way broadcasting live gameplay online has become ubiquitous."
At E3 2012, TwitchTV was rebranded as Twitch. At the same gaming expo, it announced Paradox Interactive's The Showdown Effect would be the first game to feature its broadcasting SDK. It would be the first in a long series of games - and later consoles - enabling gamers to start streaming their gameplay sessions by clicking on the option in-game.
The next bump of broadcasters would come from next-gen consoles. Microsoft debuted the Xbox One at E3 2013 complete with a Twitch demonstration of Killer Instinct. Although Twitch promised broadcasting and viewing would be integrated on the console level, it's a feature users are still waiting on.
As for the PS4, Twitch functionality debuted at Gamescom in August 2013. Sony kept its promise and streaming was available from launch albeit with a required patch download and a crackdown following a few Playroom-related abuses. Within a month of the PS4's launch, Twitch counted more than 100,000 new broadcasters thanks to Sony's popular new console.
"PS4 launched with one button broadcasting functionality, now [it] represents 20% of our broadcasters every month," DiPietro said. "It's really exciting to see broadcasting become a central piece of the broad gamer experience outside of the really hardcore gamers that were the genesis of Twitch."
Xbox One Twitch integration is coming on March 11 with some newly implemented console-side community interaction and new achievements. It seems the video game broadcasting company has nowhere to go but up from here.
Twitch, once just an offshoot of the young Justin.tv, is now the umbrella name for the entire company. On February 10, the live streaming site announced its two sites would now be under the Twitch Interactive moniker with Justin.tv carrying on as a "mature product."
"Early on we were very ambitious, we knew we had something people wanted to use and we knew there was a business model there [with] an audience and user base," DiPietro recalled. "I think that the success we've seen over the few years has really floored even the most ambitious of folks that created the concept of Twitch originally.
"We're now built into the PS4 and Xbox One ... and we have these kind of viewers and over a million broadcasters is just amazing. [It's] something that just suprises all of us."