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E-sports stream, profits flow

 
Ninja can be seen playing A still from a YouTube video of Ninja and Drake's Fortnite Battle Royale. Credit: YouTube
Ninja can be seen playing A still from a YouTube video of Ninja and Drake's Fortnite Battle Royale. Credit: YouTube
Published June 21, 2018

Late on a recent night, more than 600,000 people watched one of the most popular video-game players, Tyler Blevins, engage in Fortnite Battle Royale with a celebrity guest: Drake.

Blevins, 27, streams his near-daily sessions live on Twitch, a website acquired by Amazon in 2014 for $1.1 billion. He makes more than $500,000 a month on the platform thanks to his 250,000 paid subscribers, and some of his sessions can last 12 hours.

Playing under the name Ninja, Blevins is popular not only because of his considerable gaming skills, but because of his draw as a host. Teaming up with Drake, he drew an audience that peaked at roughly 667,000 viewers, a ratings record (since broken) for a non-tournament livestream.

Numbers like that underscore what a huge phenomenon video-game livestreams have become. They are significant enough to draw the interest and money of one of the Tampa Bay area's savviest investors: Jeff Vinik.

Last year, the Tampa Bay Lightning owner invested in aXiomatic, a Los Angeles gaming and esports company that is the majority owner of Team Liquid, whose players compete at a high level across a variety of video games. The team also counts Twitch as one of its partners.

Neither Vinik nor aXiomatic disclosed how much Vinik put into the company, but it was enough for him to become a co-chairman.

"I've watched the growth of the e-sports industry for a number of years and the opportunity to become involved with the impressive group already assembled at aXiomatic is the ideal way for me to make an impact," Vinik said in an announcement of his investment.

The popularity of the March 14 Drake-Ninja summit illustrated how dominant Amazon remains in the game-streaming world, despite intense competition from a roster of tech giants: Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter.

Streamlabs — a San Francisco tech company whose software allows viewers to tip streamers, giving the company insight into an opaque ecosystem — suggests that Amazon's lead may be all but insurmountable. Its data shows that, in the last quarter, the average number of people watching Twitch's streams at any given moment increased to 953,000, up from 788,000. Twitch's archrival, YouTube Gaming, averaged 272,000 concurrent viewers, down from 308,000 in the previous quarter, Streamlabs reported.

YouTube pushed back against the data, but declined to provide numbers of its own. "We have truly gotten bigger every single month in live gaming, and live-gaming viewership is up over two times, year over year," said Ryan Wyatt, a YouTube vice president in charge of gaming content.

Twitch began in 2011 as an offshoot of Justin.tv, a lifecasting site founded by two Yale graduates, Emmett Shear and Justin Kan. They started the platform after they found that viewers were more interested in watching their livecasters play video games than eat or sleep. Big tech companies came courting, and Amazon beat out Google.

In the four years since the sale, video gaming as a spectator sport has gone mainstream, and Twitch has captured the majority of those who want to watch it live. For the dedicated fans, the live, freewheeling sessions on Twitch have the appeal of a major sporting event crossed with a talk show. The interaction between the host and viewers is one key to the site's success.

On Twitch, the player's face, when visible, typically inhabits a small part of the screen, and the world of the video game takes center position. On the right side of the screen, endless comments from the viewers — mostly male, mostly young — appear in a continuous scroll.

Until Twitch came along,
YouTube, a subsidiary of Google, was the main hub for gamers. But its focus was on recorded, edited gaming sessions, which are markedly different in tone from the long-form streams that have riveted Twitch fans. In an effort to win over the live audience, Google created YouTube Gaming a year after Amazon entered the fray.

The hosts on Twitch, some of whom sign up exclusively with the platform in order to gain access to its moneymaking tools, are rewarded for their ability to make a connection with viewers as much as they are for their gaming prowess. Viewers who pay $4.99 a month for a basic subscription — the money is split evenly between the streamers and Twitch — are looking for immediacy and intimacy. While some hosts at YouTube Gaming offer a similar experience, they have struggled to build audiences as large, and as dedicated, as those on Twitch.

Other Twitch competitors include Mixer, a comparatively small service from Microsoft that hopes to capitalize on the success of the company's Xbox gaming console. Twitter has entered the field by bidding aggressively to broadcast e-sports on Twitter Live, while offering its livestream platform, Periscope, as a gathering place for gamers. Facebook has also been scrambling to get in on the growing medium, courting individual gamers and adding the ability to tip streamers on Facebook Live as part of its "gaming creator pilot program." (This month, the company also launched a centralized portal for gaming content called Fb.gg.)

Facebook Live, Periscope and Mixer all grew quickly in the last quarter, according to Streamlabs, but none have approached the scale of Twitch. The number of those watching game streams on Facebook's platform, for instance, increased to 56,000 from 27,500, according to the firm's estimates.

Even with the rise of livestreaming, gamers have continued to do big business posting recorded videos on YouTube's main site, which reports 1.8 billion "logged in" users a month, making it much larger than Twitch, which claims around 100 million monthly viewers. Wyatt, the YouTube executive, noted the full scope of YouTube's gaming content, which includes the videos posted on the main site and the live streams on YouTube Gaming, in comparing it with the Amazon-owned platform.

While YouTube has made millionaires out of the creators of popular videos through its advertising program, Twitch's hosts make money primarily from subscribers and one-off donations or tips. YouTube Gaming has made it possible for viewers to support hosts this way, but paying audiences haven't materialized at the scale they have on Twitch.

As Twitch seems well on its way to becoming synonymous with long-form live video gaming, its competitors may be running out of time to take their shot.

Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report.