Video Game Streaming and Esports: Building a Live Platform
As live streaming video booms across market verticals, the gaming and esports segment is experiencing some of the most rapid growth. Live video on these platforms involves streamers broadcasting their gameplay, while viewers talk to the streamer and one another in a chat window. We call these types of experiences interactive live streaming.
Gaming and esports audiences are a unique breed. They have no problem sitting in front of a screen for eight solid hours while interacting with content, according to Donny Neufuss, director of digital engagement at esports vertical market leader Production Resource Group (PRG): a production company that serves esports, TV, theater and corporate-events clients.
But why are these viewers so engaged? What started with a few people going online to broadcast their gaming very quickly evolved to a space where, for many, live streaming is now second nature. The sophisticated gameplay, community interaction and personality of the broadcaster all work in varying parts to make this more engaging and compelling than any other form of content online.
If you want to learn more about creating live-streaming products and services for gaming and esports, you’ve come to the right place. In this post, we’ll explore how people are using these apps and services, and what you should consider if you’re building technology or environments for users in this segment.
Video Game Streaming Creates New Entertainment Categories
One of the biggest online communities of live-streaming gamers is Twitch, which boasts:
- 355 billion minutes watched in 2017.
- 15 million daily active users.
- 2+ million unique broadcasters per month.
This is influencer-based social video at its best. Anyone can set up an account to start broadcasting, and the best streamers have viewers who come back day after day, spending an average of two hours online per viewer watching and interacting with live streams.
Twitch streamers are well-versed in what it takes to manage the technical side of broadcasting, as well as to keep an audience deeply engaged for hours on end. They are leading the industry in user-interaction and monetization opportunities, so we talked to some prominent Twitch broadcasters to identify the most important market trends: easy, redundant content capture; the ability to monetize streaming; and real-time interactivity.
Hook Me Up: Three Approaches to Content Capture
Let’s start with how Twitch broadcasters get content to viewers. Making content capture easy and redundant is everyone’s goal. There are a number of solutions by which streamers can achieve this, including:
Gaming’s Virtual Control Room: Zak Eubank is CEO of HyperRPG, a premium live-streaming media company that primarily streams to Twitch. They have five full-time employees and broadcast mainly tabletop content, as well as events for related companies in the space.
After several years of troubleshooting, HyperRPG settled on a custom solution that shoots with Blackmagic Studio Cameras and Magewell capture cards. To allow multiple participants in a game, content is shot in multiple locations; the signals are taken in as an RTMP feed and combined as a single stream in Wirecast.
“We run about 40 hours a week of content on Twitch with multi-camera setups, and around 60 private contractor actors,” says Eubank.
Broadcast Capture With Supplemental Content: Meghan Kaylee is an on-camera host for GameStop TV and is a Twitch broadcaster (@MegKaylee). She uses OBS Studio for broadcast capture, which gives her the ability to show her gameplay as well as other discrete content on her computer, such as web pages or social media content.
Twitch broadcaster Tobin’s equipment list
This content may also include Twitch Extensions: 200+ third-party extensions now available through the platform, which give broadcasters the ability to integrate overlays and panels for enhanced viewer interactivity into their live stream. Extensions can show in-depth stats on screen; create viewer polls; display graphical overlays to show game stats; give viewers avatars; and more.
“I don’t use too many of them, because I feel some of them can be a little bit much or a little distracting,” says Kaylee. She adds that they don’t integrate very easily into OBS, but that the ability to place interactivity directly into her stream is something she’d like to see in the future. “There’s no way to do it directly in OBS, which I think would be something really cool to see from a streaming software.”
Popular Twitch Extension Stream Legends
Esports Broadcast Center: Twitch also broadcasts esports competitions: global gaming events where the top 1 percent (or even the top .0001 percent) of gamers face off against one another to win prizes and sponsorships. These professional gamers have split-second skills that enable them to think and play at a level far surpassing the average player.
“Our broadcast center is the same type of broadcast center you would have for television. The only difference is that we don’t always have a truck outside,” says PRG’s Neufuss. “Believe it or not, we are pushing an RTMP stream over OBS.” They may also stream to Restream.io, Switchboard.live or to their clients’ content delivery network (CDN) provider, he says, adding that “the actual machine sending it out is, for the most part, a beefy PC.”
“The most important [part] of any esports [event] is the live broadcast, because the live broadcast is where all the eyeballs are, and that’s where the majority of the sponsorship dollars are coming from,” Neufuss explains. While the arena event is important, they place less focus on it than on the online broadcast, where millions of people are watching.
“When in doubt, we’re always hard-lined,” says Neufuss. “We feel good if we have two fiber lines from two separate ISPs with at least a gigabyte connection.”
Show Me the Money: Monetizing Video Game Streaming
“People donate money to streamers to support them so they can continue to stream,” says Neufuss. The ability to get paid for gaming is the ultimate goal, and some broadcasters make a full-time income from their broadcasting.
Streamers such as Kaylee and HyperRPG do a combination of corporate work (a “day job”) and Twitch streaming. Twitch offers various subscription tiers for broadcasters; on the viewer’s side, while they are able to watch content without a subscription, Twitch also allows viewers to voluntarily subscribe and fund the streamers they’re watching. In addition to viewer-funded subscriptions, broadcasters make part of their income from tips: crowdsourced micro-transactions, handed out much like you would tip your barista or waiter.
While some monetization features are developed and run by Twitch itself, a whole range of additional services have been enabled by the aforementioned Twitch Extensions. One company leading the charge developing these Extensions is Streamlabs. Like the PayPal of the gaming industry, Streamlabs provides tools that enable viewers to give donations directly to streamers.
“People use our tools … [to] help them engage better with their fans, [and to] grow and monetize their channels,” says Antonio Hicks, director of marketing and communications at Streamlabs. The company reported that tipping volume is up 33 percent from Q4 2017, with $34.85 million going to support streamers.
There are also third-party tools to help broadcasters run charitable-donation programs for causes of their choosing. Kaylee says hosting charity events draws more viewers to her stream, while enabling her audience to support a worthwhile cause. She uses one of these tools, Tiltify, to host her events.
“They have an overlay that [appears onscreen and] keeps track of how much you raise. You can have alerts that go off when people donate,” Kaylee says. She raised $11,300 for Toys for Tots this past Christmas, and routinely hosts events for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which helps youth battling childhood cancer.
Kaylee hosting her Toys for Tots charity drive
“Our mission was to enable live streamers an easy and efficient way to raise money for charity,” says Daniel Bong, community manager at Tiltify and Twitch streamer iKasperr. Tiltify is now available on Twitch, Facebook, YouTube, Smashcast, Mixer and MLG gaming platforms. “I think we’re approaching 100 different charities right now, and we keep adding more.”
Enabling Interactive Conversations
In many gaming channels, online chat is a personal conversation between the broadcaster and viewers. Kaylee says her channel is very community-driven.
“It’s all about us talking to each other: them talking to each other; them talking to me. That interaction is the thing I love most on Twitch,” Kaylee observes. In busy gaming channels or esports competitions, the viewer chat is like the roar of the crowds. This split-second communication is a blur scrolling by at a breakneck pace—and keeping up with conversations requires the same kind of split-second response as gameplay itself.
Enabling this degree of user engagement is an important consideration for developers of gaming and esports platforms. Many users of these platforms go online to “hang out” with other viewers and to interact with their favorite streamers.
“The big difference between Twitch and Netflix is that Twitch is interactive,” says Seth Sivak, CEO of game developer Proletariat, which created Streamlegends: one of the top 10 Twitch Extensions, installed in over 30,000 Twitch channels. Using Streamlegends, players can work together with other members to beat games.
Screenshot from Stream Legends, one of the top Twitch Extensions
According to Sivak, users keep coming back to these platforms because they want to spend time with their community, which is built around a certain broadcaster and/or game they all identify with.
“Typically, those broadcasters are really high-level players; they’re really good, so you can pick up some amount of skills through osmosis,” Sivak adds. “The things we try to build are really focused on the idea that viewers want to do more together than just chat. They are mostly there because they want to be interactive, but just [being in] a chat room is not that interactive.”
As an example of this, HyperRPG has its own developer devoted to ensuring viewers have a voice on-screen.
“We’ve built a bunch of custom web apps that we bring into Wirecast … that give us live on-screen notifications interacting with the Twitch API, says Eubank. “If you’re watching our show, there’d be a link in the chat room, like [for example], go to tencandles.straylogic.com,” he says. “Whatever you do on that site [in the way of viewer interactions] will then … show up on-screen in the show.”
HyperRPG’s custom app that integrates third-party sites into Twitch streams
Video Game Streaming Meets MMO Games
The early 2000s saw the rise of the massively multiplayer online (MMO) game, with titles such as EverQuest and World of WarCraft as well as first-person shooter games for PC and consoles (e.g., Quake and Halo). This trend has continued to rise with this year’s big winner, the game Fortnite, which has already surpassed 8.3 million hours streamed. Fortnite’s most popular player, Ninja, even played with hip-hop star Drake, and hit 628,000 concurrent Twitch viewers on March 14, 2018.
“Now instead of four on four or five on five, there are 100 players battling against each other. So the network infrastructure to support something like that is significant,” says Neufuss. “That is something where it can’t go down. This is a live tournament, [so] you have to be able to support that.”
This environment is similar to the futuristic virtual playing field described in Ernest Cline’s popular book “Ready Player One.” But to make these massive gameplay experiences a reality, the biggest consideration for streaming services is scalability, as platforms must be able to support more and more people concurrently viewing, interacting and broadcasting.
This simultaneous growth in contribution and viewing requires platforms to perform seamlessly, with little buffering. Gaming networks need to be able to scale on demand, deliver a high-quality experience and still provide real-time interactivity—not only within the gameplay, but between other players. Accomplishing this requires intelligent load-balancing for popular games or viral streamers, as well as predictable computing resources for peak viewing times. It also demands redundancy to ensure that if streams do fail, there is another server available for failover.
As the gaming and esports segment has evolved, it has created a huge new market of potential consumers for streaming products and services. Today’s gamers may be focused on being the last person standing—but game developers and service providers must focus on creating the tools gamers need to build thriving user-generated media empires.
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