It’s 10:30 on a Sunday night, and Andy Dinh is sitting at home playing the PC game League of Legends. The 21-year-old from San Jose briefly detaches his fingers from the keyboard to swig from a can of Red Bull. “Oh my god, dude, I think I’m about to die,” he mutters.
He's the only one in the room, but 18,477 people are watching Dinh play. He is streaming his voice and what he sees on his computer monitor via the live video site Twitch. Increasingly becoming the ESPN of videogames, Twitch is the place where gamers go if they want to witness the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. There are 600,000 "broadcasters" streaming their game footage on the site, and Dinh and 4,500* others are enrolled in a partners program, which grants them a cut from ads and subscriptions. And that number is about to grow exponentially: Microsoft announced at their press conference yesterday that the ability to easily stream game footage to Twitch was being incorporated directly into the hardware of the new Xbox One console. That could bring millions of new 'casters to the service.
Twitch will be ubiquitous at the E3 trade show this week. Along with live streaming most of the events, Twitch will be trying to convince developers to take advantage of its updated software development kit to weave Twitch features directly into games. For instance, developers can use new APIs to track what players are doing in the game, pinpointing the most dramatic moments, and condense the video stream into a succinct SportsCenter-style highlights reel after the session is completed.
The company will also be making new ad deals with publishers and manufacturers. Last week, Twitch announced that it would no longer sell its ad inventory via CBS Interactive, relying instead on an internal sales team. The company’s major rival, Machinima, distributes the bulk of its content via YouTube, which means it surrenders a significant percentage of ad revenue to Google.
Twitch began as part of the streaming video platform Justin.tv, and became so popular that it was spun off in May of 2011. Its growth since then has been meteoric. Twitch raised $15 million in Series B funding last September on the strength of its 20 million unique viewers. (That has since climbed to 35 million uniques.)
Twitch's head of Business Development Brooke Van Dusen doesn't shy away from comparing its rise to that of Netflix’s streaming service, launched in 2007. “Last June, Reed Hastings was boasting about how Netflix was streaming a billion hours of video a month for the first time,” says Van Dusen. “We streamed 9 billion minutes of video last month, and we just launched two years ago." Viewing duration is also approaching Netflix levels—average view time on Twitch is 90 minutes a day.
The audience is there to watch players like Dinh, a professional gamer who competes under the moniker Reginald. Fans tune in to his channel on Twitch to study the nuances of his aggressive play style, or to just bask in the glow of a League of Legends superstar. They're firing off a dozen or so comments per second in the accompanying live chat channel. (“Reginal i wanna let you know that i ahve the most respect for you as a player,” gushes commenter paribaca.)
An inset image in the lower right of Dinh’s videostream shows the perspective of a webcam pointed at his face. He grins triumphantly as he polishes off another foe. “Ha! Reginald the Destroyer!” he crows. Next to this inset, a series of corporate logos cycle past: Gunnar gaming eyewear, Kingston HyperX solid state drives, Origin gaming laptops. Dinh makes money off of Twitch—hundreds of thousands of dollars are at stake in premier tournament play. But Twitch represents another important revenue stream for star players like him. In between matches, he hits a key to bring up advertisements. The streaming video window is suddenly filled with a commercial for Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processor, and a banner ad for Snapdragon takes over a portion of the accompanying chat window. (“There are also Snapdragon T-shirts on sale in our team's online store,” Dinh announces.) A message pops up in the chat window informing viewers that they can subscribe to Reginald’s Twitch channel for $4.99 a month, which will block ads and earn them a graphic with Dinh's team logo.
The heavily trafficked partners aren't just esports superstars—there are also speedrunners like Siglemic, who’s constantly trying to best his world record time playing through the 17-year-old game Super Mario 64. There are players who create bizarre things in the sandbox game Minecraft. There are even pundits who debate the latest developments in the game world like cable news talking heads.
*NOTE: Article initially stated that there were 45,000 Twitch partners. There are actually 4,500.