Monday, September 9, 2013

Don't Cross the Streams: Explaining the rising popularity of live streaming games

On Saturday, I hosted my first ever Twitch stream and played a few rounds of Team Fortress 2. Although I kept it relatively short, I felt that, all in all, it was a success. Naturally, I have areas which could be improved and would like to thank everyone for the high quality and constructive feedback they have provided. If you missed it, you can watch the whole thing through my Twitch channel or catch the condensed highlight real on YouTube. With this in mind, I thought I would discuss the phenomenon of live gaming streams, why I think it is becoming more popular, and where I think it is headed.

Types of Streaming
The advent of live streaming as gone hand in hand with the availability of reliable high speed internet. A decade ago, only a handful of people had the bandwidth to download quality multimedia at rates sufficient that the content could be watched automatically without it resembling a slide show with frayed audio cables and even fewer had the ability to output at acceptable speeds. Indeed, bandwidth requirements for transmitting and receiving live data have only become available in the past few years at affordable rates for most people. As such, live streaming is still in its infancy. That said, tech savvy gamers have embraced the medium in a myriad of ways and seem ever-poised to push the boundaries of what can be done on the internet. While live streaming has been embraced in non-gaming forms such as news reporting, conferencing, and teaching, today I wish to focus on how it has been employed in gaming.

Let’s Play
Perhaps the most common method of live streaming in gaming, let's plays are essentially a person playing a game while offering commentary. This was the form that my first Twitch stream took. Sometimes a group of players will broadcast together and occasionally one person will take over the commentary job while another drives the game. The content can range from unscripted gameplay to tutorials/hints. In any case, the fundamental notion playing a game with commentary is ubiquitous to let's plays.

Speed Runs
Unlike let's plays, speed runs typically feature a minimum of commentary with focus being placed almost entirely on the action on the screen. As the name implies, the general idea is to complete a game (or section thereof) in an expedient manner. Occasionally the player will have imposed restrictions (i.e. beating the game without picking up a power-up or with only using a particular weapon) to add a bit of flavour.

I have covered this fairly extensively in a few recent posts but this is the backbone of e-sports. The players are often unmiked and generally sequestered so that they cannot see the action (thus avoiding seeing an opponent's strategy) and the commentary is almost exclusively done by a non-player. 

Product Launches/Infomercials
A more recent trend with streaming has been streaming product launches. Generally this entails a few paid hosts playing the game interspersed with developer interviews and trailers. Usually these take place in the hours leading up the game's release in an effort to build hype. These broadcasts are more akin to a television show about games than the other types of streaming.

Why So Popular?
One of the biggest selling points about live streams, especially with let's plays, is that they offer a form of direct interaction between the player and the audience. It is extremely common for the player to be monitoring the chat box and often expected that they will respond to the audience. This sort of connection is virtually unheard of in other mediums. Radio will allow call-ins but then only one person at a time can have their voice heard, television can do live shows but these are typically heavily scripted or aim to keep audience interaction to a restricted portion of the broadcast, and live theater mostly discourages audience participation (even improv shows strictly limit audience participation). Beyond this, some live streaming players encourage the audience to play on the same server/game that they are on and, in essence, become a part of the stream content. I think this appeal is easily relatable (and much more realistic) to anyone who has ever dreamed about playing a round of golf with Tiger Woods or being pulled up on stage at a Justin Beiber concert (if you have dreamed about the latter please seek help, that was a test and you failed).

Beyond interaction, live streams, which are mostly improvisational, provide a bit of a voyeuristic glee in seeing how the player reacts to the game. Natural frustrations and joys are easily conveyed through the live medium which creates an immediate empathetic link with the audience; when something amazing happens in a live game the audience will undoubtedly experience a similar emotional experience to the player through natural reactions to the unexpected. The best streamers are frequently vociferous in emotionally charge moments and allowing their own experience to flow to the audience. While a static video can be highly polished and employ post-processing to convey a message, live streams are, by necessity, raw. I think this raw quality improves accessibility; again, this is something that is seldom replicated in other mediums and helps to explain why live streaming is becoming popular.

The Future
So where are things headed for gaming streams? Well, unfortunately, I think the future is going to be a bit bumpy. Right now, live streaming hasn't quite hit the big time. I take it as a given that the gaming spectator market hasn't reached its zenith; I see no reason to not believe that as gaming grows in popularity so too will live streaming. What this means is that the market will become more and more enticing to businesses and sponsors who see a potential revenue stream embedded in each video. In short, I think this means we will see an increase in infomercial type streaming which, in my opinion, often fails to capture the interaction and unscripted rawness which makes streaming so appealing in the first place. I understand that advertising is an inevitability, but I sincerely hope that some companies will figure out that stiff scripted spokespeople does not make for the best live content. Also of concern is privacy. As streaming provides unprecedented access to performers, I think the potential for abuse and harassment is much higher than other mediums. I will not elaborate but I think most avid stream spectators have seen an instance where a player was unduly harassed in ways that other mediums would not allow (if you really need an example, imagine a potential harasser joining the same game that the player is on with the sole intention of causing grief). A player who's livelihood depends on themselves being available on stream for lengths at a time shouldn't feel that they are going to be harassed every time they go live. All that said, the silver lining here is that I think that their are a plethora of untapped and unimagined ideas just waiting to be exploited once streaming gets bigger.

Ultimately, I do not think it is difficult to understand why streaming is catching on. Increased interaction in a (mostly) unscripted environment allows for an unprecedented connection between players and the audience. For me, I had a blast doing my first one and can't wait to broadcast again next week.