Unlike previous Twitch competitors that made waves — like Microsoft’s now-defunct platform Mixer — YouTube is gargantuan, with a total user base of more than 2 billion. Though the total user base of Twitch is unknown it boasts 140 million active users per month. But Twitch is still responsible for 65 percent of live-streaming hours watched, and there’s no guarantee that even YouTube can put a dent in that. (Twitch is owned by Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)
However, as far as YouTube Gaming head Ryan Wyatt is concerned, that’s not even really the goal. YouTube, he explained, is structured differently from Twitch because it allows creators to grow their channels by doing more than just streaming all the time — they can also upload regular videos, stories, shorts and VODs — which means that, as far as he’s concerned, YouTube Gaming is not directly competing with Twitch.
“When you look at live watch time, it is kind of a secondary market from a content consumption standpoint,” Wyatt said. “The vast majority of video consumption is happening on [video on demand] and short form, but live is so intriguing because it’s really interactive. It brings these rich content experiences you can’t ever get in VODs and shorts. That’s why I think it’s important, but I don’t look at it as the reason we’re getting into it is that it’s this hypergrowth, massive business.”
Despite Lupo’s and Betar’s clout, Twitch could afford to let them go. They were good for the brand, but likely not massive cash cows in the traditional sense. On top of that, there are still hundreds of other big streamers on Twitch to whom viewers can migrate. While Betar, especially, has enjoyed enormous success in his move to YouTube — pulling in over 100,000 concurrent viewers in his first stream and gaining nearly 20,000 paid subscribers after just two days — the net impact on Twitch’s overall viewership numbers has been negligible.
However, Lupo and Betar both share similar communities and taste in games that are compatible not just with each other, but with other popular YouTube streamers like Jack “CouRage” Dunlop and Guy “Dr Disrespect” Beahm. Already, the four have collaborated while playing games like “Call of Duty: Warzone,” creating a much more visible flash point than they could have individually and attracting millions of viewers. If Twitch loses more streamers who, together, are greater than the sum of their parts, it could begin to see its own hegemony erode. The questions now are which additional big names will Twitch ultimately let go and how (or even if) that will begin to impact the platform in more visible ways.
But there are other near-term impacts to consider. Lupo and Betar’s moves come at a time when streamers’ confidence in Twitch is at an all-time low. Betar announced his departure on the same day as thousands of streamers were participating in #ADayOffTwitch, a boycott movement started by marginalized streamers fed up with the Twitch-wide epidemic of “hate raids,” in which harassers use bots and dummy accounts to fill streamers’ chats with hateful messages. While streamers protested against Twitch’s relative silence in the face of hate raids, Wyatt spent the day replying to dozens of tweets from streamers and viewers curious about YouTube Gaming’s plans. It was a stark contrast, though admittedly, Twitch and YouTube were dealing with very different situations (Twitch has since sued two users allegedly responsible for orchestrating hate raids). Proponents of hashtags like #ADayOffTwitch have also advocated for diversification of streamers’ income — for streamers to test the waters of other platforms to ensure that they’re at least maximizing their income while dealing with poor treatment. Taken in conjunction, these events resulted in many Twitch streamers wondering if they too should make the leap to YouTube, even if nobody is offering them a multimillion-dollar contract.
Not only are hate raids less of a problem on YouTube, but the platform offers other perks, like a 70-30 default revenue split (in favor of creators) where Twitch starts out at 50-50. Additionally, YouTube is less saturated with live-streamers than Twitch, where the top 1,000 broadcasters account for more than half of all hours watched — leaving a relatively small audience for which millions of other streamers compete. Additionally, Twitch is structured around directories dedicated to specific games and activities, and the visible streamers at the top of those directories tend to be the biggest. Success, in other words, begets future success, and obscurity is nigh impossible to overcome.
YouTube has its own similar but less robust explore page where Wyatt admits there’s “room to improve,” but as far as he’s concerned, it’s not the main draw. Instead, YouTube’s algorithmic recommendation system is what he believes to be the platform’s greatest strength. While he acknowledged that YouTube’s current strategy — cut big deals with top streamers — is “top heavy” in a different way, the recommendation algorithm could serve as an equalizer.
“I actually think a lot of creators find massive success in live-streaming on YouTube because we surface via recommendation,” he said, pointing to the popularity of streaming stars like Rachell “Valkyrae” Hofstetter, who left Twitch for YouTube early last year and ended up growing into one of live-streaming’s biggest names. “They otherwise might not have been found, because if you went to a game page, you’d be more likely to just watch some of the biggest streams.”
But it’s not quite that simple. While big streamers can quickly make a splash on YouTube, smaller streamers tend to find themselves having to start over from something resembling square one — at least initially. Ashley “Ashnichrist” Christenson, a stream coach whose content often focuses on helping other broadcasters achieve success, recently experimented with streaming on YouTube for two months. She said that her typical concurrent viewer count dropped from around 120 on Twitch to about 60 on YouTube.
“I did feel that, streaming over on YouTube, it felt a little disconnected from everybody else," she said. “I think streamers over on Twitch have this idea like, ‘Oh, I’ve got my own community,’ but it’s not so much that you have your own community. It’s more so that you’re like a lightning rod within the overall Twitch community that has some ability to attract other people to you within that space.”
In addition, YouTube still lags behind Twitch when it comes to live-streaming features. This, says Christenson, hurts streamers in more places than simply their pocketbooks. Twitch features like subscription gifting — which allows viewers to buy subscriptions for other viewers in chat — foster community and create excitement. On top of that, margins for smaller streamers can be quite thin; right now, YouTube’s moneymaking suite of features cannot make up the difference created by lost viewership.
YouTube has basic systems like paid subscriptions in place, but it’s still in the process of knitting together the connective fiber that so tightly binds Twitch.
“You see all of these community features, and you see these sub-communities and inside jokes and even the monetization culture that exists with sub gifting," Christenson said. “They’ve built out community culture so well on the platform that, in order for there to be a really solid competitor to Twitch, there’s going to have to be some level of culture.”
Wyatt says additional YouTube live-streaming features are on the way, though he stopped short of specifying exactly what those will be.
“What you see today, from a monetization standpoint, is not even close to where we want to be,” said Wyatt. He also pointed to the recent YouTube launch of Better Twitch TV, a popular third-party extension that allows viewers to see and use Twitch emotes, as something that he hopes will help build out YouTube’s culture and create a scenario that’s the “best of both worlds.”
However, Wyatt noted that YouTube is not seeking to recreate the exact structures and circumstances that produced Twitch’s culture. On a platform as big as YouTube, he doesn’t think it’s possible.
“The idea that you have this kind of global culture and meme culture across 300 million people that are coming and watching gaming every single day doesn’t seem realistic — nor is it necessary," he said. “What I really want YouTube to be is a platform that allows creators to thrive and build their own communities.”
In recent times, Twitch’s culture has also grown increasingly international, with four of the top 10 most-watched streamers heralding from Spain and Brazil. Still, emotes and memes like “PogChamp” and “KEKW” remain recognizable regardless of language. It’s a testament to the unique way Twitch — which started small and focused on specific, then-niche gaming communities — has bottled lightning.
Even with its less streaming-focused approach, YouTube is still undeniably competing for pieces of the pie, if not the whole thing, in streamers, communities and mindshare. It has a long uphill battle ahead of it. Devin Nash, chief marketing officer of a talent agency for content creators, Novo, doesn’t think Twitch will tumble from its throne anytime soon.
“I think Twitch’s greatest asset is that they’ve convinced people live-streaming success stories are more important on Twitch," Nash said. “If you have a YouTube channel and you’re killing it, for some reason the impact of that feels less than somebody with equivalent viewers on Twitch. It’s something I think they’ve managed to do by accident that makes me unsure that the trend in one to two years, short term, will be everybody going to YouTube.”
Nash added, however, that because of YouTube’s recommendation algorithm and overall size, he’s “100 percent convinced” it will be the top live-streaming platform in the next four to five years. Others, like Doron Nir, co-founder of leading tools and services company StreamElements, pointed out that YouTube’s streaming initiative is not just Mixer 2.0.
“For Mixer, their move was not just about talent, but garnering relevance,” Nir said. “Their marquee partnerships ensured they were included in every streaming platform roundup from that day forward even if their viewership numbers never put them in the same league as Twitch and YouTube. In this instance, YouTube is already part of the conversation, but now they are adding to a roster that already boasts impressive talent such as CouRage and Valkyrae, with more rumored to be in the pipeline. Given the size of the gaming community, there was never going to be a point where just one platform ruled them all.”
Christenson isn’t ready to make any declarations quite so sweeping, but she does believe that, during a time in which streaming is increasingly becoming one of many different tools in creators’ toolboxes, other platforms will continue to encroach on Twitch’s turf.
“I believe that as more creators are moving to platforms and making the correct business decisions for themselves, we’re going to start seeing more and more [viewers] who give themselves that moment of pause before opening Twitch and, instead, start to support creators over platforms," she said. “Ultimately, every platform is going to have a live-streaming feature if they don’t already. It’s a trust development tool that every creator needs. It’s not just a Twitch thing.”