The ‘streaming wars’ between media and tech giants like Netflix, Disney, Apple, and a host of traditional TV broadcasters, have seen huge sums of money spent on licensing shows and films and developing original content, in order to tempt audiences on to these services. But similar battles are taking place between the gaming-focused live streaming platforms, the likes of Twitch, Mixer, YouTube Live, Facebook Gaming and DLive.
Instead of TV and film, these platforms trade in user-generated live streams of content. And rather than spending to license and commission content, these platforms are increasingly battling to sign exclusivity deals with the most popular live streamers.
Poaching popular creators
Perhaps the most notable deal so far was Microsoft-owned platform Mixer’s poaching of Tyler Blevins, better known as ‘Ninja’, from Amazon-owned Twitch. Ninja was Twitch’s most popular streamer at the time Mixer signed him, and is as close to being a mainstream celebrity as any live streamer on the planet. Among his bigger achievements are hosting a live stream on Twitch with rapper Drake, and appearing in the NFL’s own ad in last year’s Super Bowl.
Whilst Mixer hasn’t said exactly how much it paid to sign Ninja to a three year exclusivity contract, Ader, a marketing and talent agency that has worked with the streamer, estimates the figure to be between $20-30 million.
Mixer’s move for Ninja was undoubtedly the most audacious we’ve seen so far, given he was the most popular streamer on the biggest gaming live streaming platform. But his deal is part of a wider trend of talent-poaching.
DLive, a streaming platform which pays its streamers through a cryptocurrency called Lino points, signed a deal with YouTuber ‘PewDiePie’ to exclusively live stream on their platform last year. YouTube meanwhile signed Twitch streamer ‘CouRage’ last November, and followed up last month with the signings of fellow Twitch streamers LazarBeam, Valkyrae and Muselk. YouTube has also negotiated an exclusive streaming deal for esports tournaments run by Activision Blizzard, which owns popular titles like Call of Duty and Overwatch. And Facebook Gaming signed ‘Disguised Toast’, another Twitch streamer, last November.
“If you look at traditional TV, that’s a one-way interaction, but on a live streaming service it’s a two way communication,” said Victor Bengtsson, team director at esports entertainment brand Fnatic. “You can speak to the creator, and it’s an ongoing relationship which develops over time as you interact, and that creates a much stronger bond between creators and their audiences.”
For the platforms, audiences can be monetised in ways beyond advertising. For example, if fans want to pay to subscribe to a streamer’s channel to gain access to certain content, or the ability to more directly communicate with the streamer, the platform can take a cut. And streaming platforms will typically provide other ways for audiences to pay their favourite creators, for example by letting them pay in order to have their message appear within the streamer’s live video feed.
These audiences can also be very valuable to brand advertisers says AJ Damiano, CEO of Twitch influencer marketing company PowerSpike. “Live streaming allows creators to create live and authentic conversations with their audiences,” he said. “So if you’re able to leverage this as a brand or advertiser, you can drive really powerful results for your company, because it’s such a hyper-engaged audience, which is something no other medium is able to bring.”
A risky strategy for building audiences
For many years, building a live streaming platform was extremely difficult from a technical perspective, and so Twitch and Mixer had little competition for their streamers and their audiences. But now it’s become much easier says Damiano, which has fuelled this wave of deals for live streamers.
“These deals are everywhere these days, and I’ve seen some of the smaller platforms offering very large contracts to get a few influencers to jump on,” said Damiano. “It’s very quickly becoming the way that platforms are buying their way in to market share.”
Streaming service DLive’s CEO Charles Wayne told VAN that signing PewDiePie was very effective, with the platform’s audience growing by over two-thirds in the month after he joined the service.
Wayne said he expects these sorts of deals to become increasingly commonplace as platforms compete for the biggest names. “Content is king for live streaming” he said, “and exclusivity is very important for top streamers”.
But it can also be a risky tactic for building out audiences, as there’s no guarantee that signing a big name will deliver long-term results.
“A platform can expect a big influx in the beginning, but then a steady drop off over time unless the platform is serious about supporting that creator’s success or the entire category that creator works in,” said Stu Grubbs, CEO of Lightstream, a company which produces tools and data analysis for live streamers. “In the end, it’s likely they aren’t getting loyal platform users.”
PowerSpike’s Damiano agreed. “When you look down at the numbers, it doesn’t have a significant impact,” he said. “We’ve seen it from Ninja moving over the Mixer, and from other streamers moving over the new platforms too.” According to games and esports analytics company Newzoo, Mixer’s total hours watched actually dropped after they signed Ninja.
Even if a streamer does bring their entire audience over with them, they may not remain popular forever. “There are several risk factors in these deals,” said Lightstreams’s Grubbs. “Will the creator stay consistent, will the creator slip up and do something wrong, will the audience get bored and turn on them?”
Grubbs said that from the streamer’s perspective, these deals can sometimes be a pre-retirement move, securing a big payday before they lose their popularity, or get burnt out themselves.
Is Twitch’s hold unbreakable?
Does this mean Twitch’s lead in live streaming is unassailable? It certainly has a large head start. According to Newzoo data, hours watched on Twitch in Q3 last year reached 2551.4 million, compared to 675.9 million on YouTube Gaming Live and 90.2 million on Mixer.
Lightstream’s Stu Grubbs said he doesn’t expect Twitch to be significantly hurt by poaching of its top streamers. “Twitch has a very strong base of talented creators,” he said. “When one of the top streamers moves on to another platform, someone is ready to step up to that role on their platform.” He added that it’s not necessarily a zero-sum game. With the rate live streaming is growing, platforms don’t necessarily need to topple Twitch in order to be successful.
PowerSpike’s AJ Damiano said Twitch’s network effects will likely be hard to break for competing platforms. Users don’t just follow one or two big creators, they’ll often watch tens, or even hundreds, and are unlikely to stop watching Twitch just because one of their favourite streamers goes elsewhere.
He said however that platforms might find more success trying to corner a specific niche within video game live streaming. “Instead of trying to go after one or two large influencers, it almost makes more sense to go targeted by community,” he said. “So instead of trying to sign the top ten streamers from Twitch, maybe they’d be better off trying to sign the top ten World of Warcraft streamers on Twitch.”
Fnatic’s Victor Bengtsson meanwhile emphasised how signing big individual streamers could potentially have more long term effects, which take a while to come to fruition. “For newer talent trying to make something of themselves, they will look at the platforms which have the most popular content creators,” he said. Young creators wanting to become the next ‘Ninja’ might now head to Mixer rather than Twitch, given that’s where Ninja streams.
We can see evidence of this already happening on Mixer. While total hours watched on the platform fell slightly after Ninja signed up, total hours streamed (i.e, the total volume of content broadcast) shot up from 11.3 million in Q2 last year, to 32.6 million in Q3. And the number of unique channels streaming on Mixer doubled from 1.95 million to 3.9 million in that same period. If Mixer are able to sustain those sort of numbers, their chances of unearthing the next ‘Ninja’ are much higher.