Thursday, 1 December 2016

California Streams

game streaming

...and so does half the world, it seems. Kevin Pocock skims a gaming phenomenon

Whatever the future of media creation, it's fairly likely there'll be someone sitting at home, broadcasting to the world while receiving support, followers or some sort of income. In a sense, the die is cast: YouTubers can earn millions and command book deals. So what's next? If I had to wager. I'd place my polymer notes at the feet of streaming. Not the streaming of on-demand services, or the watching of 'professionally created' content. No. I'd bet that streaming of games is where the money, mass entertainment, and next surge of interest leads. I'd be cheating a bit as well, because it's already happening.


Big brother


Professional or competitive gaming has existed for some time. As such the idea of gaming tournaments, or teams from around the world battling it out in front of an area of fans, may seem old news. In a sense it is. Around ten years ago, you would either have to actually be at an e-sports event to witness a world championship, or really know the interested corners of the internet. But it was still possible. Back then, in the mid-200s the mainstream wasn't interested, and gaming was still to some a niche interest.

Nowadays e-sports still remains an odd concept to many non-gamers. Yet it's increasingly growing its profile, and as a form of watchable entertainment it's just huge. In 2014, a Red Bull Gaming article, "E-sports in numbers: Five mind-blowing facts", reported that some 71.5 million worldwide watched 'competitive' gaming in 2013. Earlier this year, the senior VP of Activision Blizzard Media Networks (and a co-founder of Major League Gaming), Mike Sepso, said this: "[In 2015] more than 225 million people watched competitive gaming...". If accurate, that's a three-fold increase in viewers of e-sports in two years. That's a stunning increase. Also stunning is the signing of pro-gamers by real-world sports clubs and franchises, such as West Ham United, Manchester City and Philadelphia's 76ers. Safe to say e-sports is booming.

Streaming both benefits from and supports the trend in two key ways. First, it is now possible to see tournament pros playing in their 'downtime'. Gamers can interact with them, investing money in merchandise and studying their game. ESports reaches more people, and streaming services get more viewers. The second is that it's now possible to watch anyone else who with a stream. An increased interest in e-sPorts drives interest in the amateurs. And amateur streamers may want to become e-sports stars. Or, if tournaments are of interest, streamers can benefit from increased interest to grow their own channels.

While e-sports undoubtedly represents the pinnacle of competitive gaming, streaming enables what we might call 'everyone gaming'. By the hand-in-hand nature cannot be overlooked. Streaming may not exist in its current state without e-sports; and e-sports' rate of evolution is without doubt reinforced by the availability of content, streams and streamers.

Begin Streaming


ESports is a huge industry, with roots tracing back to the mid-90s (perhaps even earlier for those who feel like falling down a wiki-hole). Streaming is a far more recent phenomenon though, and so is Twitch, tv. In March 2007, 24-year-old Justin Kan created what would become one of the big two streaming services, by founding Justin.tv. Originally a self-serving exercise in what would become known as 'lifecasting', the site allowed Kan to broadcast his life, 24 hours a day and seven days a week for eight months. Although strapping a camera to his forehead sounds a little unusual, it attracted attention, and the site gained viewers.

Once Justin.tv was opened up to the public, its true potential began to shine. Google bought YouTube in 2006 for $1,65bn, and user-generated content became a rather valuable investment of time; if not monetarily, but creatively. However, while YouTube focused on pre-recorded videos, Justin.tv was attempting to build public-powered broadcasting. October 2007 saw the site open up registration, and 2008 added categories, user made and moderated networks and more.

Over the next two to three years, something happened - the corners of the internet where game-streaming lived began to square in on Justin.tv. By 2011 it was clear that, among other more regular, irregular and mature content, streaming of games was driving a sizable portion of the site's traffic. So much so, that in June 2011 Justin.tv's 'Gaming' section was lopped off, finding a new home at the domain 'Twitch.tv'.

Of course Twitch isn't the only general or game-specific streaming service currently around (see 'Other Streaming Services' below). Although beaten to the punch, YouTube Gaming has been offering an alternative to would-be streamers since 2015. It's slick, it ties in with a huge existing platform and viewer base, and it's the biggest possible competitor. Yet since 2014 Twitch.tv has been owned by an e-tail colossus - Amazon. While some suggest it's Twitch playing catch up you streamers can hardly move for 'streaming battle' headlines. Audience figures offer little clarity: As of June this year, Twitch had over 100 million unique viewers per month. YouTube's gaming audience, meanwhile, is around five times that. However, YouTube's recorded content isn't live streaming. Yet Twitch has begun to allow users to upload pre-recorded videos too (not the last of the similarities in service features). Multiple nuances are at play here, and at this point it might be foolish for anyone to cast a vote for an eventual 'winner' in the battle. Whatever happens, streaming itself is likely to long continue.

Why Stream?


While playing a game of Battlefield 4, a friend simply said to me and my teammates, "I'm streaming now guys". An odd thing occurred then. I realised that anyone in the world with a non-restricted internet connection could watch him, while hearing us. I went away and thought about it, looked for the first time in earnest at a few Twitch channels, and tried to work out what was going on. The first obvious thing was that people tend to stream because they really get a kick out of it. For example, here's the bio of Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft streamer, 'P4wnyhof' (pronounced pawnyhoff):

I have been gaming for over a decade now and TCGs [trading card games] were always my favorites. I started streaming Hearthstone on December, 2013 and found out that streaming is my passion and what I love doing in life. Since then I focused on build up one hell of an awesome stream community: the p4wnyhood; a place where you can spend your time hanging out with nice, lovely and just a bit crazy people. Share your good news, your problems or whatever is going on with you, we all are gonna do our best to make you feel part of the family!

Obviously streamers enjoy streaming. And although a poll of one cannot reveal the reasons behind others' desires to do the same, it has to be a base-level reason. Perhaps, as with 'P4wnyhof', streaming provides a chance to - rather than play alone - build a community. Having people watching and chatting to you as you play can only be a bonus. And if you're new to a game, you can garner some useful advice. Sure, some streamers may have a long-term income aim of being a successful, earning streamer. But the genius of streaming, is that you're unlikely to succeed in such a venture unless you're both good/entertaining in play, and in what you say. After all, the world is watching... potentially.

Presentation is a big part of this, and some streamers go to serious lengths to brand themselves. An anecdotal titbit: those also streaming themselves (via a webcam overlay) get more interaction. So there's clearly a core willingness to connect with others on both sides of a stream. Why not? Why not speak to and connect with those who also enjoy the games you're interested in? You might prefer it to watching TV talent shows, for example. It's an option, and millions are currently talking it.

Stereotypes


The profile of the archetypal streamer is virtually impossible to pin down. Largely streamers may span teenage, twenty and thirty-something ages, with the percentage lessening in older age groups. But this generalisation is as close to any sort of verifiable insight as there is. Age definitely isn't a barrier to streaming. In fact, one of the most dramatic recent stories of streaming focuses on a well-regarded streamer definitely not in their twenties or thirties. Someone falsely accused of being a convicted paedophile.

The allegation was made by a YouTuber called 'Keemstar'. A researcher for his show 'Drama Alert' compared two photos and incorrectly identified Runescape streamer 'rsgloryandgold' as one John Phillips. Of course, speaking this allegation to 1.5million subscribers might be considered extremely irresponsible, but Keemstar genuinely believed rigorous checks had taken place. As it transpired, 'rsgloryandgold' wasn't John Phillips at all. He was a sixty-something retired American named Tony Ray. When Twitch streamers watching Keemstar's channel reported an outright denial of the allegation from Mr Ray, Keemstar checked, fired two researchers, and went on to retract and apologise for the allegation. He also removed the offending video.

The attention this all drew, Tony Ray's immediate denial, and his generally being a good guy led to a surge in followers for his Twitch channel. With gamers and Twitch users rallying around, Tony Ray's few thousand followers soon swelled to tens of thousands. Keemstar made clear his intention to apologise in person and 'donate' a four figure amount as a token of apology. This is interesting, because no matter a streamer's age, one thing which unites huge swathes of the streaming community is the accepting of donations. Donations are one of several revenue streams for full-time streamers, and can bring in sizable incomes on their own. A 2015 Daily Dot article, (tinyurl.com/ook3s38) highlights this perfectly. In it a streamer named 'Destiny' revealed he could make around $1,500 a month just from donations. Although Destiny's Twitch follower numbers for the time of the article are unknown, he currently has 150,000.

Yet despite apparently being on social security, rsgloryandgold - 60-odd year old Tony Ray - didn't accept any donations at all. Not from the apologetic Keemstar, nor anyone else. His current Twitch follower count? Over 280,000 (and he has just started accepting donations). Streamers can be anyone, streaming any sort of game they fancy, and not necessarily the slightest bit interested in making money from their endeavours. Although that does seem a given.

Culture Issues?


If streaming is for everyone, then it should provide a welcoming community to anyone looking to stream. But like other forms of entertainment (or should that be social freedoms?) as it begins to spread, it also uncovers worrying trends. Atrociously, some of these are linked to online hate and verbal attacks.

On September 28th of this year, BBC.co.uk posted a story with the title, 'Twitch and YouTube taking misogynistic abuse in gaming seriously'. If the title hints at horrendous online behaviour, the content of the piece lifts the lid. The first line of that story reads: "Female gamers have told Newsbeat they get regular abuse on sites like Twitch and YouTube."

The content of the article is alarming, as is the need for anyone to even have to decry the nastiness therein. But both Twitch and YouTube are committed to fighting against something the Association for UK Interactive Entertainment calls "a society-wide issue". There can be no denying that societies will bring their own values to Twitch, but a mix of gaming and online freedom does seem to produce particularly repugnant examples (see, for example, Gamergate). I've witnessed some despicable comments on Twitch myself, and other indicators while briefly submerged in streaming are worrying. In some quarters there seems to be an acceptance that new female streamers accumulate followers quicker than their male counterparts. This may be true, but females also receive more hate and inappropriate contact.

Having briefly watched a new female streamer a couple of time over a few of days, I witnessed one incident of a follower being blocked for an inappropriate message. Watching multiple male streamers for longer, I saw no similar incidents. This is anecdotal for sure, but Twitter also serves up evidence of unequal treatment of males and females when it comes to streamers. When browsing topical hashtags in an attempt to connect with others, it didn't take long for me to come across a recurring piece of information on the profiles of female streamers. Before even mentioning game preferences, the word "Taken" appeared. That is, I assume, an immediate shutdown of any online proposals, decent or otherwise. And it's telling.

Certainly, as UKIE suggests, such defensiveness may be sadly reflective of societal issues, but my gut tells me that in a gaming arena still depicted as male-dominant - even if it may not be - this particular issue may be multiplied. I should also say that misogyny or sexism aren't the only issues to encounter in streaming. Streamer on streamer hate, the question of 'viewbots' (artificially boosted audiences), trolls and more. All need to be addressed, but none more so than equal treatment of those creating streams.

Where Next?


It seems a shame to end this feature here, but the world of streaming is simply too expansive to cram into four pages. So the question of 'what happens next?' seems fair. Could streaming begin invading our TV channels? It seems unlikely. For one, streaming doesn't actually need to when it's engaging hundreds of millions worldwide. Will every gamer one day be streaming? Plausible; but having briefly shared my dubious skills with the world, I certainly enjoyed the sense of respite in just playing for me. Perhaps streaming is already reaching its peak. But, ah, I'm forgetting. Nobody yet has a book deal.


Other Streaming Services


Twitch and YouTube aren't alone in providing streaming for the masses.

Hotbox.tv - Launched October 2013, six million active monthly users, soon to offer 60FPS, 4K resolution and is HTML5 player ready.

Beam.pro - Launched January 2016, community of over 100,000, acquired by Microsoft in August 2016 and added to the Xbox team.