Inside the new world of 24/7 on-demand videogame TV

Steven Bonnell II, AKA Destiny, gets paid to play games. He is extraordinarily good, but he doesn’t win tournaments. He pulls in a six-figure salary, yet he doesn’t need to leave the house. Bonnell is a streamer.

He plays games on camera and invites the world to watch. Viewers tuning in get to see his computer’s-eye view of the game he’s playing; hear his commentary, analysis and jokes; and see his face through a small window in the bottom corner of the frame. And that six-figure salary? Well, he makes his money through the advertisements sold around his streaming.

Bonnell is among the planet’s most prominent streamers, but he’s not a unique case. Around the world, several players are experimenting with livestreaming – trying out new formats, schedules and games – and pulling in tens of millions of viewers in the process. Destiny’s most recent stream headquarters, www.destiny.gg, has more than 41 million channel views on record; his previous channel boasts 36 million. Mike ‘Wickd’ Petersen recently broke the record for the amount of concurrent viewers of a stream, with 137,769 people watching him play League Of Legends at once.

Streaming has intrinsic ties to professional gaming and eSports, and its biggest stars still come from that niche: high-skill gamers playing titles such as League Of Legends or StarCraft II, with thousands watching along at home. But the past few years have seen the practice expand far beyond eSports. The speedrunning community has found its home on services such as Twitch, beating games in record times live on camera. Others tune in to watch engaging and creative hosts such as those behind the Yogscast, who take World Of Warcraft and Minecraft as their main subjects and play in humorous new ways. Still others have dreamt up entertainment specifically for their streams: Video Game Championship Wrestling, for example, uses WWE ’13 to create famous game characters, then forces them to wrestle under AI supervision as thousands watch.

The pace of its technological advances and innovation – coupled with vast viewer figures – has thrust streaming into the frame for developers and publishers, who have even started to incorporate tools for it into their development processes. Blizzard CEO Mike Morhaime identified the rise of livestreaming as the biggest change in gaming in recent years, and his company supported the claim by including streamer-specific functions in StarCraft II: Heart Of The Swarm. Sony’s new tack with PlayStation 4 and its Share button also means a partnership with Ustream.tv. Moves such as these from some of the biggest names in gaming shows that streaming has now punched its way into the mainstream.

Blizzard included streamer-specific functions in StarCraft II: Heart Of The Swarm.

Why did streaming grow so fast, and get so big? To understand how it quietly gained such a monstrous audience and relevance, we need to go back to its birth.

Twitch broadcast manager Justin Ignacio (AKA TheGunrun) is the man responsible for pioneering many of the modern streaming techniques used today, and was there at the beginning. The year was 2007 and Ignacio was passing his time making mods for Command & Conquer. One day, he stumbled upon a show called Epileptic Gaming, created by Marcus ‘djWheat’ Graham. The show aired online every day, attracting a few hundred viewers each episode.

Epileptic Gaming’s choice of provider was the now-defunct Stickam, one of the very first livestreaming websites, which was founded in 2005 with a focus on to-camera webcam streams. But what differentiated the show from conventional YouTube content was that its streams were happening live, and it had an additional hook that caught Ignacio’s attention: “It happened to have its own chat. That [feature] drove me to try to show the world this stuff.”

The seed of what would become today’s videogame livestreaming scene continued to germinate. Sean ‘Day[9]’ Plott, who has come to be recognised as one of the world’s most successful and well-known streaming hosts, remembers the period well. “There were some brutally hacked-together broadcasts in 2007, sending out an audio-only stream to another event that was providing video only, so you could provide a second commentary. But people had to know about the original stream, and know you were doing the audio stream.”

It took two years before Plott would launch his own take on livestreaming. On October 22, 2009, he unveiled a rough show that interspersed footage of StarCraft matches with to-camera analysis. “I originally tried out Livestream.com. I didn’t know what bitrate was, I didn’t consider the implications of framerate, that sort of thing. I just wanted to talk about StarCraft.”

These cobbled-together shows became known as ‘dailies’, referring to the daily livestreaming schedule to which Plott adhered. It wasn’t long before a small community coalesced around his regular streams. He started to draw thousands, then tens of thousands of viewers. “Back then, no one knew the appropriate way to stream, so I’d chat with the audience and find out what they wanted. They wanted regularity of scheduling.”

Plott wasn’t the only pioneer. Ignacio had maintained his interest in Command & Conquer, and had risen to prominence as one of the game’s go-to commentators. “I was one of the first people to start broadcasting in 720p at 30fps. That appealed to my competitive nature: competing about streaming quality in itself.”

Sean ‘Day 9′ Plott.

Command & Conquer provided a decent viewer base for Ignacio, but Plott looks to a clump of games released or updated at the turn of the decade as a major catalyst in streaming’s rise. “StarCraft II, League Of Legends, Diablo III: these games drove a ton of streamers. I should also include Dota 2, and Heroes Of Newerth, which doesn’t get enough credit as an early streaming game.”

It was the first game on Plott’s list that kicked open the gates for Ignacio after he switched focus from C&C. “Back in 2010, I didn’t know eSports could get more than 60 viewers at a time,” he explains. “Then I started casting StarCraft II and getting 2,000, 3,000 concurrent viewers. That actually started making me money, so I could get better computers. At the time, I was going through college, so I wasn’t at all well-off, which forced me to be more creative when it came to streaming. It meant I was able to discover more tools to broadcast and help other people out.”

Both men point to several of their peers as similarly early adopters. Most have a strong connection to eSports, and djWheat’s name in particular emerges repeatedly in our conversations. By the time Plott began his dailies, djWheat had moved on from his Epileptic Gaming show, but maintained both his technical know-how and his onscreen charisma: a combination of skills Plott describes as “so rare”. He put them to use across a range of streams and casts of live events.

Ignacio watched with great interest but lamented the visual quality of the streams. “I’d see people like djWheat or Day[9] streaming, and the feeds were terrible – straight-up awful. I used my contacts at the time to get in touch with those guys and gave them my tech, [and] taught them everything about how to get decent quality.” Quickly, visual quality normalised around a higher benchmark, with players using websites such as Ustream.tv and Justin.tv to broadcast their gaming sessions or shows. Blizzard’s StarCraft II – fresh out of beta in July 2010 – drew by far the most viewers.

It was StarCraft II that Bonnell started streaming. “In the beginning, it was something that I did for fun,” he says. “But I kept up on all the emergent technology. The websites themselves started to evolve from Livestream.com to Ustream.tv to Justin.tv and, eventually, Twitch.”

Bonnell was good at StarCraft II. He won some money at tournaments and attended live events, but he wasn’t on a par with the world’s best – a group of Korean players who lived in dormitory housing and spent ten hours a day on a strict practice regimen. While the traditional model of ‘professional gamer’ won their keep through tournaments and leagues, Bonnell realised that livestreaming offered another way to earn a living. “I realised after my first pay cheque that if I put a bit more time into my stream, I could make more money than I could in a conventional job. After I got my first pay cheque and spent more time with [the stream] next month, I quit my main job and haven’t looked back.”

That previous job was carpet installation and repair, something Bonnell describes as “backbreaking work, as blue collar as you can get”. Soon after quitting his job and starting to stream StarCraft II full time, he topped viewing charts as the one of the most popular streamers in the world. He now receives a six-figure income from his work that means he can maintain his house and look after his young son without leaving his living room.

Steven Bonnell II, AKA Destiny.

Bonnell loves his job, but he stresses its difficulty. “The being entertaining part is a lot harder than people give it credit for,” he says. “Somebody should be able to turn your stream on, have a laugh while watching you, be able to watch you in relatively high quality, and see you interacting with your fans.”

A good streamer, he believes, is one who can precisely identify his market. “It’s like raw capitalism in the streaming business, in that anyone with a good idea can come in and do well. If you fulfil a certain niche that no one else does, I believe it’s possible to get a foothold to grow very popular very quickly. If you’re going to come into streaming, you should always ask, ‘Why is somebody going to watch me over X, Y or Z who are already established?’”

Ignacio agrees that for a streamer, knowing your audience is the most important concern. “The biggest thing is interactivity. Interactivity can exist in many forms: you can talk about a specific thing in chat, or play against the viewers. Because it’s on the Internet, there are these tools like chat, Twitter and Facebook built-in; it was those that got me into streaming in the first place.”

But why do people watch videogame streams at all? Given that players require a small chunk of technical know-how to find them in the first place, and some contextual knowledge to appreciate what they’re being shown, why don’t viewers simply play the games that they’re watching? Ignacio points to two things: “pure skill, and personality”. Plott explains the breakdown of each aspect’s importance in more depth. “I’d almost draw a graph,” he says.“If you want to do a limited amount of streaming, the most important part is the game. If you want to have an audience and regularity, the most important part is the personality.

“A good chunk of streaming is how you interact with the game. You are the protagonist of the story. You really want to have an awesome host, and there’s so many different ways to be awesome. There’s the people who are really ridiculous and really crazy. [Then there are] people I know who are exceptionally talented and try really hard. They don’t even talk that much, but it’s fun to watch them play, because they’re doing difficult things. Or friendly, positive people. That’s the reason I watch ManVsGame. He’s just so pleasant!”

Bonnell condenses the theory. “It’s not so much watching a game as watching a person who happens to be playing a game. Like if Denzel Washington started to stream Halo 3. You might not play Halo 3, but you’d probably watch Denzel Washington play because of who he is. That’s not that uncommon: I have a fanbase who follows me around regardless of the games I play, just because they enjoy watching me play.”

Bonnell can back this up with numbers: he quit playing StarCraft II exclusively in 2012, shifting his focus to League Of Legends when Riot’s game overtook Blizzard’s in regular stream viewership. A good proportion of viewers came over with him, proving that Bonnell has his own fanbase outside of the partisan StarCraft or League Of Legends communities. He now focuses on League Of Legends primarily, but flits between streaming various games, each time able to pull in between 2,000 and 10,000 concurrent viewers.

Bonnell’s priority is now Riot Games’ League Of Legends.

Hyper-competitive games with an eSports bent still draw the most viewers, with Dota 2, StarCraft II and League Of Legends at the top of the pile. But eSports has seen false dawns before, where money and talent entered a pro gaming bubble, only for it to collapse as the games played by top-tier players and the infrastructure that surrounded them were left to flounder. Are today’s streamers worried about job stability?

Bonnell is pragmatic about the future. “Streaming is reliable because the advertising market exists on its own in a solid way, regardless of what happens elsewhere. Things like Google Adsense are always going to exist – that return on investment has been established, regardless of how popular any given game is.”

Perhaps getting to the top in the first place is harder than securing a pay cheque once you’re there. Plott dissects the state of play: “I think it’s a meritocracy in the sense there are no barriers, but it’s an uphill battle in a mathematical sense. There’s an interesting property called being ‘scale free’, which means the bigger you are, the faster you grow. On the Internet, things that are more popular will grow more popular faster. If you search for, say, ‘StarCraft II strategy’ on Twitch, you’ll find me, maybe dApollo, and some others. But maybe some sensational player who’s been online a month and made videos better than all of us might not pop up. It’s not like someone is preventing him, but that is an issue, getting that first foot in the door. But there are ways around that: charity drives, or contacting major tournaments and offering free help.”

Plott emphasises the importance of adaptability for streamers as well. “It doesn’t have the same sort of stability that, like, being a secretary has, but you can evolve with it. Is it sustainable? Yeah, because there’s still tons of ways that it’s being explored. For instance, we were one of the first people on Twitch to have the voluntary subscription. If you want to donate $5 a month, you can. Go ahead, and we’ll give you free stuff, and you’ll get to play games with me. I say, ‘Hey, if you want to support me, just give me money,’ and everyone’s just like, ‘OK, great!’ It doesn’t even fucking make sense, but the right practices just emerge as people try stuff out.”

Livestreaming norms are likely to be hammered out as big names move into the market. Riot has taken streaming under its umbrella, broadcasting matches from its League Of Legends Championship Series on a regular schedule. Blizzard’s approach is more hands-off, as Plott explains: “Blizzard is sitting down and engaging with members of the community and involving them in things. It’s nice from my side. We can say things to a game company like, ‘Hey, is there any chance that this feature could be thrown in there?’ And then, for example, Heart Of The Swarm comes out with a custom UI as requested by streamers.”

The interest isn’t restricted to developers of the world’s biggest eSports games. Publisher Paradox’s The Showdown Effect launched in March 2013 with a full Twitch streaming suite, which means livestreaming your game is as simple as checking a handful of menu options and pressing a button.

The Showdown Effect launched in March 2013 with a full Twitch streaming suite.

And the announcement of PlayStation 4, given its links with both Ustream and game-streaming service Gaikai, has proved that the phenomenon won’t be tied entirely to the PC in future.

Are streamers concerned about publisher influence as big companies move into their sector? Plott, for one, certainly isn’t. “I think it’s great. The only person it could go bad for is the publisher. Let’s say they contacted a guy streaming their game and said, ‘Hey, you’re doing it wrong! Stop doing my IP wrong!’ That person is going to think that publisher is an asshole, and they’ll take their fans and go and play another game. I think every game publisher would agree it’s stupid to put restrictions on people publicising themselves playing your game.”

It seems Plott’s mention of the scale-free model could apply to streaming as a whole. Even if publisher influence is misplaced, streaming’s snowball effect is large enough – and feed production now simple enough – that even existing games will keep it in a state of growth. Ignacio cites examples of Super Mario 64 speedruns securing 10,000 concurrent viewers in 2013, given that streams of a popular competitive game such as Red Alert 3 barely squeaked over 60 in 2007, to prove the point: streaming has exploded in popularity in a short space of time.

These top broadcasters have their own disparate takes on streaming’s prospects for the future. Bonnell sees the emergence of more efficient tech allowing better-quality audio and video; Plott looks to a TV-style segregation of channels making finding a good streamer easier. But for these streamers, and the many thousands who watch and produce streams, it’s no longer a matter of whether or not their practice will take off, but how high it can rise.