How Twitch Hooked 45 Million Viewers To Watch 13 Billion Minutes Of Gaming A Month

By some measures Twitch.tv is already the fourth-highest-trafficked site in the U.S., behind only Google, Apple, and Netflix. Today the company brings its broadcasting service to Microsoft's Xbox One.

You watch as your friend breaks a block, jumps through and over the previously impenetrable wall to reveal a secret room with three pipes.

People have always played games together, as a community. From backgammon to chess to Risk and Monopoly. For a while now—since Mario, at least, but really even for longer—it's been video games. Twitch takes that sharing to the Internet, to allow anyone anywhere to show themselves playing or to watch others play, while chatting and arguing and experiencing a game together.

Today, Twitch is allowing more people than ever to play together by bringing its broadcasting service to Microsoft's Xbox One. By simply speaking the voice command, "Xbox Broadcast," anyone can have a channel on Twitch. This extends what the company did last November, when it launched as part of the controller's "share" button and the software of Sony's new PlayStation 4. Over the past few months, PS4 broadcasters have become 20% of the total broadcasters on the site, fueling much of Twitch's growth.

Inside Twitch.tv OfficesImage: Flickr user DocPop

"When I was a young boy playing playing Pac-Man, it was sitting in a living room with family and friends and playing video games," says Matthew DiPietro, Twitch Interactive's VP of Marketing. "You were watching your friends get to a level you'd never seen before or a boss they'd just beat and you can't wait to get your hands back on the controller."

Twitch allows people to broadcast themselves and to chat by text alongside the video, discussing strategies, asking questions, or just talking smack. These videos are also archived after a broadcast, so others can watch the video later to learn something or simply be entertained.

CEO Emmett Shear says: "We are a place you can come to learn, to be excited, to share experiences with your friends, and to watch the very best in the world."

This home for broadcasters and viewers has grown large over the last year. There are over 1 million people broadcasting and over 45 million watching each month. This adds up to a total of 13 billion minutes watched per month. According to data firm DeepField, Twitch is the fourth-highest traffic site in the U.S. during peak Internet hours, behind only Netflix, Google, and Apple, sharing more data than other video streamers like Hulu and Amazon. As you read this, there are hundreds of thousands of people sharing games with one another.

The Twitch.tv site was launched in June 2011, an offshoot of Justin.tv. For those who don't remember, Justin.tv was a site that sprung up in March 2007 where web developer Justin Kan decided to broadcast his whole life. Soon the site expanded to let others broadcast their own material. Shear was CTO at the time, and a big gamer. He saw an opportunity to get more players sharing on Justin.tv.

"There was already a nascent gaming community," Shear remembers. "While it wasn't that big, it had been growing consistently year after year on the site. I got a team together to try to grow video games. What if we invested in the community?"

Shear approached those streaming video game feeds on other sites and convinced them to come over to Justin.tv. This outreach proved very successful and video game streams grew to become over 40% of the site's traffic. Gaming was crowding out the rest of the site. And so the company launched a second site, Twitch.

"It really helped us focus and it really helped us send a message to all our users that this is something we were really committed to," says Shear.

Broadcast in progress.

In the years since, Twitch's popularity has grown as it serves different segments of the gaming community. In the beginning, viewers watched others play in order learn strategies or out of simple curiosity. But as e-sports grew, holding more tournaments with cash prizes, Twitch made partnerships to be the official broadcasters of such events. Partnerships were also made with gaming conventions and events, to broadcast game announcements and press conferences for the enthusiast market and even broadcast talks and sessions intended for game developers. Other niche groups within the community, such as retro gamers who play games that are decades old or speedrun players who try to finish a game in record times, have found uses to broadcast and archive video. Sharing video live with voiceovers while others can discuss it is a tool that has wide appeal.

At the time Twitch was still confined to computers connected to the Internet. People could watch on their PCs and broadcast PC games fairly easily. But it wasn't as simple for gaming consoles, dedicated machines like PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360, to broadcast. "From a PC you need broadcasting software, you have to know how to use it, you need to know about servers and bitrates and video know-how," DiPietro says, recalling early tech hurdles. "From the old consoles, PS3 and Xbox 360, it was even harder. You would need a $200 piece of hardware called a capture card that gets connected to a PC. You have to be a real MacGyver to broadcast."

Now those many broadcasters are turning to Twitch for something else, too.

The fact that there was this passionate group of gamers willing to jump through hoops to share their console game experiences was a proof of concept for Twitch. Despite not pursuing that category of gamers directly, console gaming emerged as a piece of Twitch's community. And so when that last generation of console began to grow long in the tooth and rumors of new machines began to come out, Twitch began discussing the future with both Microsoft and Sony. Two years later, Twitch is no longer foreign to consoles.

"What we are seeing from the consoles is a rapid increase in users who use Twitch as a social platform who, every time they fire up their PS4, they just turn on Twitch by default," DiPietro says

With so many eyeballs involved, it was only a matter of time before companies began to see Twitch as a way to target gamers.

"If you were to put it on a big arc, on the far left side are individual gamers that are particularly passionate about one game and they like to broadcast," says DiPietro. "On the far right of that arc are big sophisticated organizations like game publishers, like e-sports teams and leagues, and they are using Twitch to help them achieve business goals."

In total, there are over 5,100 partner channels on Twitch, up from 3,386 at the end of 2012.

And having a foothold with people who own consoles is just the beginning. What about the vast number of people who have cell phones?

Last week the company announced it is working on software for developers to add Twitch support so users can broadcast their mobile games on iOS and Android. With more than 10 million installs of the Twitch app, the potential for growth in that segment of players is impressive. Who, after all, wouldn't want to learn others' strategies for Candy Crush Saga?

"I play a lot of games on my phone and I can't wait for them to have Twitch integration," says Shear.

Beyond all of these platforms, Twitch looks to embrace other kinds of content to promote growth. A few weeks ago, one broadcaster started a channel airing a playthrough of the first Pokemon game. The surprise was that he added software that understood what players were saying in the chatroom and utilized it. The game was controlled by group consensus. By the time the playthrough ended 16 days later, over 9 million people had watched, with over 1.1 million participating with their own commands.

TwitchPlaysPokemon Channel on Twitch.tv reached 120,000 live players.

"Seeing another situation in which a very innovative idea came totally organically from the community that is valuable, that's a real potential game-changer," DiPietro says. "It's something we are definitely thinking deeply about and talking to folks in the industry about."

And this is where potential danger lurks.

"The big pitfall is trying to do too many things," Shear notes. "So we try to focus on delivering a core experience that's awesome. The thing I remind myself every day is to keep focused on delivering that to all of our users. They should have a great experience."

[Photo by Susanne Walstrom, Getty Images]

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