Interview: The Big Broadcast - TwitchTV, eSports, and Making it Big as an Online Gamer

Pictured: Emmett Shear (l), Marcus "djWheat" Graham (r)

Recently, game streaming site TwitchTV hit a fairly substantial milestone: after a little under a year since its debut (it made its bow online last June) it now reaches 15 million gamers monthly. That's a lot of people coming to the site each month to watch other gamers play. According to TwitchTV CEO and co-founder Emmett Shear, that represents an increase of users of 13% month over month with the average viewer watching the site for about an hour per day. For Shear, he sees the audience increasingly using the site like TV; “That’s a shift in how people consume media that I think is really interesting.”

On the other end of things, there's eSports commentator Marcus "djWHEAT" Graham, who sees the broadcasting service as a means for some gamers looking to go pro at their hobby to make a career out of the burgeoning streaming industry. When I asked about how a gamer can make a name for him or herself in eSports, Graham said “If you’re a pro, it’s pretty simple: you can go to these tournaments and make a name for yourself by playing. But I think that what Twitch is doing is offering an accelerated way to get their name out there.” He likens it to the early 90’s trend of skaters making videos, rising to prominence based on their stunts, style, and personality. “Imagine if that process of getting a skate tape to me doesn’t take eight months, and suddenly a person’s watching on a stream as you play right there.”

What it's all about

And that's essentially the purpose that TwitchTV serves: bringing gamers looking to make money from what they love most together with gaming fans interested in speed runs, classic games, and competitive games. Shear tells me in our chat by phone that sharing a video game experience is something everyone grew up doing from their couch and that Twitch TV is a natural extension of that. He breaks up the still young history of video gaming into the single-player era, followed by a period of controller-swapping offline gaming, then to the more recent multiplayer era with advances in connectivity, finally to what he dubs the spectator era. With that in mind, Shear hopes to place his site as "the ESPN of gaming."

When I asked what the audience makeup was like for TwitchTV, Graham described it as made up mostly of PC gamers with some console gamers mixed in, console standouts like Halo 3 doing well thanks to Major League Gaming, with titles like Call of Duty and Gears of War splintering the console communities. Graham doesn't see that console split as a permanent thing: with TwitchTV, he says more gamers are coming on and watching someone play CoD regardless of platform. “We’re starting to see these communities come together and not so much segregate themselves, and this is therefore helping the competition grow.” I asked Graham to elaborate on how streaming through TwitchTV has evolved with the ubiquity of console gaming versus PC gaming. Graham says that “85% to 90% of the paid-out competitive space is made up of PC games,” although the fighting game scene has skewed this number a bit. He says the lack of a cohesive console audience stems from the natural console splits: something like Call of Duty’s base will be split by some users preferring the PS3 while others prefer the 360. “We’re seeing these broken down a little bit because the communities are getting involved with each other through things like Twitch.”

Who's watching it?

As for the overall makeup of the TwitchTV audience, Shear said that it typically matched the trends for the general gaming audience, skewing younger than average in the coveted 18-35 demographic, “predominantly” male (he said the number wasn’t at 100%). When it comes to making the site more inclusive, and Shear says that this is dependent on a couple of different factors: first is familiarity. “No one’s watching jai-alai if they don’t play jai-alai,” he jokes. At the same time, the size of the gaming audience has expanded, and whether it’s Angry Birds or Mad World, people are playing games. Shear describes everyone in the current era as some kind of video gamer. With that in mind, he says that Twitch TV is looking to build the tools to allow gamers of different types to broadcast their preferred type of game.

Both Shear and Graham admit that it's important that TwitchTV expand its audience beyond its rather narrow demographic, but without speaking specifically to say, bringing in more female gamers, their goal is to increase the kinds of games people come to see. Graham says that TwitchTV is trying to help console communities grow, for instance, by promoting them and cross-promoting the games within them. He says that gamers love to explore and it’s in this way that TwitchTV exposes users to new communities. He cites a gamer watching a WoW stream, but seeing that there’s a CoD stream with 2,000 users, they'll click and check that out. This means content like Minecraft streams popping up, along with retro gaming, speed runs, etc. Graham tells me “There was a guy the other day who was like, ‘I just found my old Myst CD, and I’m going to play it.’ He went through the install process and went through this—what—17-year-old game.”

Going pro, or how to make money playing games on the Internet

Graham says his pro-gaming story begins with Quake II and Quake III, with modest purses for competitive gamers to win pre-2000 (somewhere around a few hundred dollars versus the hundreds of thousands today). From there, he took a circuitous path back to competitive gaming after day jobs in IT. This was about 8-10 years of toil, working to keep his passion for gaming alive out of pocket. At the beginning of the decade, he started providing commentary for games, which led to international travel to events, hosting events, and various online events. “At the time, I was mostly broadcasting online, which was mostly audio, and eventually when Twitch came around, we started using video.” He says this move was a low-cost shift that allowed them to broadcast more content.

Shear says that the key to TwitchTV's success has been bringing in the best gamers, and the key to attracting them has been through delivering an attractive interactive experience on the site, such as its chat function that allows users to communicate with the broadcaster live. He cites hundreds of thousands of broadcasters, some of them able to make a living through the site through their streams; for Shear, this is particularly important to attracting potential broadcasters, allowing TwitchTV to get more content, but also permitting those for whom gaming is their passion to do it professionally.

But it's not as simple as just jumping on TwitchTV with your speed run of Devil May Cry and expecting the money to roll in. Graham says that the successful broadcasters and eSports personalities have to put in the work with social networking and adding a little personality to what they do. TwitchTV offers tools to notify a broadcaster's followers to know when new content is on the way, and the launch of their recent iPhone and Android app has allowed the same broadcasters to keep the updates up-to-date on the regular. Graham says in this way, some users have created their own little ecosystems around earlier iterations of popular franchises, like Tiger Woods—targeted communities that center on a specific set of features in one game.

What's next?

Shear says TwitchTV's goal is to move from being just a web platform for e-sports to being on consoles and other platforms where gamers go to get their gaming content. “Every platform where people watch video, we want to be there.” Their team is looking at broadcasting gaming events like PAX East and E3 going forward, providing insights into both conventions. As for immediate plans to bring Twitch TV to PS3’s and 360’s, Shear says that while they can’t talk too much about their future plans, they are looking at how users spend their time on consoles, but that overall, they “want to be part of that experience.” We might hear more about this later in the year, maybe even around E3 next month. For Graham, he looks at the future in more prosaic terms, hoping for the day when they can brag about having half a million viewers at any given time. More generally for eSports, he'd like to see an entire stadium of fans cheering around the broadcast of an eSports event.

You can check out TwitchTV on its site.

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