Innovation & Insights: 3 Predictions of Live Streaming Content on Twitch
Don’t look to video games to see where streaming content is headed.
I recently logged on to Twitch to catch a few minutes of Dr. Disrespect, one of the most popular streamers on the platform. I had heard that “The Doctor” is a genuine performer, authentically blending self-promotion with humor to create a character that transcends his own identity as a gamer. I wasn’t disappointed. His stream was immediately engaging (as the other 20,000 concurrent viewers could no doubt attest) and included access to everything from online discount codes to branded “energy formulas” for sale right off the stream. The sheer volume of viewers and donations flowing through his channel was staggering but this wasn’t what piqued my curiosity. Instead, it was a little button on the home page titled “IRL” that had about 60,000 viewers, which at the time of writing made it the 5th most viewed category.
“IRL” stands for “In Real Life” and has been one of the fastest-growing sections on Twitch over the past year. Unlike the six or so games that typically garner more viewers (namely, Counter-Strike:GO, PUBG, Fortnite, League of Legends, Dota 2, & Overwatch), IRL is a category defined by streamers who stream non-video game related content. There are IRL streams where you can watch a streamer construct figurines, make music, even participate in an online therapy session, giving “social explorers” and casual gamers an entry point into the world of streaming. Virtually anything that can be captured on camera and doesn’t involve the playing of video games qualifies as IRL content. While this seems strange for an esports streaming platform to include, it makes quite a bit of strategic sense for a platform attempting to position itself at the center of all things streaming. It’s clear that video games aren’t the only thing that people enjoy watching their peers engage in, but the question is just how engaging these other categories could end up being. Do they present an opportunity for streamers and viewers to engage in completely new ways? Twitch is starting to find out.
In late September, the platform rolled out an “IRL” category update that allows streamers to self-identify with more detail than just “In Real Life,” offering a preliminary list of over 10 categories for describing and organizing a stream. These categories include such descriptions as “Food & Drink,” “Music & Performing Arts, and “Science & Technology” among others. While we’re still in the first fortnight of these categories being rolled out, we’re confident that they will improve the navigational efficiency of streamers and viewers as well as provide a new level of organization to the wider Twitch community. No doubt this is what Twitch had in mind; however, there are likely to be ripple effects in both content and community engagement.
Doubling-down on non-video game streaming is a step away from the “esports-centric” roots that have traditionally defined Twitch for its users and the media. Twitch is effectively empowering its streamers to self-identify in new ways and therefore to find their respective niche in the wider community. Will this inspire a new wave of IRL streamers? Maybe. Will it enable existing streamers to better build their stream, their following, and their engagement with viewers and fans? Yes.
The formation of more engaged communities on the platform has already begun. Being able to identify with a niche skill, stream, or persona gives viewers a taste of ownership and a shared sense of adventure with the streamer, which is ultimately one of the key draws of the streaming model itself. For Twitch, focusing on non-video game content makes perfect sense: increase the availability of content on your platform and compete more directly with “mainstream” digital content platforms like YouTube and Instagram. For streamers, more categories under IRL means more opportunities to be seen, attract a following, and perhaps even achieve modest renown and revenues. It’s a win-win.
As Twitch continues its moves toward the center of the streaming universe, it is important to remember that things in the streaming space are constantly in flux. As recently as 10 months ago, PUBG was the uncontested king of streaming content. Enter Fortnite. Just a few years ago Twitch had virtually no competitors in the streaming space. Enter YouTube Gaming & Mixer. Just last week Google’s “Project Stream” unveiled its landscape-shifting technology that will allow for the streaming of actual games. So knowing this, where is the live streaming content landscape headed?
1) Popular Streamers’ Influence Will Continue to Increase
Do viewers watch Ninja because he’s playing Fortnite, the most popular game of the day? Do they watch Ninja because he’s on Twitch? Our answer: neither. They watch him because he’s Ninja. Unlike real sports, esports doesn’t require a distinction between viewer and player; you can’t interact with LeBron while he dribbles down court, but you can interact with Ninja while he kills off the competition. Because viewers are primarily tuning in to interact with, identify with, or be entertained by their favorite streamer, it’s likely that those viewers will follow their favorite streamers across games, possibly even platforms. As Twitch’s move into IRL and YouTube’s move into gaming have made clear, platforms are doing less to distinguish themselves as unique offerings as they strive to accommodate wider and wider circles of streamers and therefore content. We got our first taste of this “sticky audience effect” just a few weeks ago – Dr. Disrespect tried out the new beta version of the “Call of Duty: Black Ops 4” game and his followers came with: he hit a peak concurrent viewership of 85,000 viewers versus 56,000 for his traditional PUBG stream over the same time period.
Back in May, “The Doctor” handed PUBG developers Bluehole Entertainment an ultimatum, threatening to never play the game again if they did not release custom in-game “Dr. Disrespect” content within a week. In fact, they released the content several days early. That “The Doctor” has gone on to actively denigrate PUBG on his stream in recent weeks (the game through which he almost exclusively gained his fame and following over the course of the last year) is further evidence of the fact that influencers are not bound to titles and are likely capable of steering an audience of hundreds of thousands of weekly views. While this trend in no way means that new influential streamers won’t continue to rise to the top through gaming and IRL in the future, it does indicate that the current & future streaming leaders will be able to mobilize their audience in ways unavailable to other content mediums.
2) Expect Innovative Content & Distribution
One of the core attractions of the live streaming model is the ability of viewers to engage with each other and with the streamers themselves. Exactly what motivates this desire for engagement is a hot topic of debate among scholars and businesses, but the fact remains and the results of catering to increased engagement are evident in the meteoric rise of platforms and streamers. In the past few years, a whole new genre of content has been opened via the live-stream, as hundreds of thousands of viewers tune in concurrently to watch their favorite personalities. But it’s more than just “watching.” It’s donating, emoting, conversing, engaging with the other viewers of the stream and sometimes, actually becoming a part of the stream itself. Microsoft’s platform Mixer has taken this idea to heart and made viewer interaction with the stream a key feature of the service.
As we have seen with In Real Life streams, this format is not limited to video games. The nascent process of expansion in the IRL landscape can be expected to expand the application of this unique “streamer-viewer” engagement in innovative ways: a return to content that crowd sources viewers’ feedback to inform the story or plot direction, integration of merchandising into the content itself, or perhaps most likely, “gamification” of the content experience by pitting viewers against one another. In the video game sphere, these trends have already surfaced and audience reaction has been positive on the whole. These are examples of format innovation, but substantive innovation is happening too. Premium content focused on gamer’s and their backgrounds has already proven a runaway success – the enticing story of the “World’s Fastest Gamer” is one example of how video game-driven content has inspired a unique fusion of audiences telling a new type of story.
Another example of innovative content is Dr. Disrespect himself: unlike other top streamers whose popularity stems more from their authenticity as gamers, Dr. Disrespect is very much a character whose actions and image are entertaining in and of themselves. A viewer doesn’t need to have any knowledge of the game he is playing to enjoy the stream. This kind of streaming content is important because it creates a familiar character with an audience that is independent of the context. Despite all this movement, perhaps the biggest area of innovation will be in distribution. As streaming platforms continue to aggregate huge numbers of daily active users, it’s only a matter of time until premium content is specifically created for these audiences, using material and personalities they are familiar with, distributed via the platform they already use. Traditional content has already begun to creep into the streaming world in the form of Thursday Night Football, YouTuber boxing matches, and even live-streamed concerts. Could this be part of a larger content shift to streaming services? Only time will tell.
3) Look for Merchandise Integration
The trend of merchandise and IP being integrated into streams is only going to increase as streamers big and small seek to monetize their audience. As can already be seen on the “big” streamers’ channels, products both endemic and foreign to the esports space are clamoring to be associated with anyone who can command hundreds of thousands of eyeballs per week. As IRL streams expand the scope of what it means to be “endemic,” expect more brands from all corners of the marketplace to set aside portions of their marketing spend to target hyper-specific audiences. Got an off-brand figurine glue you’re trying to market? There’s a streamer for that. Got a new mindfulness product you want to raise awareness for? There’s a community for that. The extent to which brands and partners engage with non-video game related streams depends on the magnitude of the IRL expansion and the speed of adoption, but the trend is toward more engagement over a much broader scope of content.
“In Real Life” streaming is only a part of the puzzle, but it’s an important one. It reveals part of the larger strategy being employed by Twitch as it seeks to become the home for all things streaming. It also marks the dawn of new period of innovation in traditional content categories that will be able to take advantage of streamer-to-viewer engagement in ways previously not possible. As the major platforms & publishers in the space jockey for users, it will be fascinating to see how influential streamers affect the distribution of users. We’re staying tuned.