It's not exaggerating to say that the rise of live streaming is one of the most powerful factors influencing gaming culture today. This influence is going to be even more strongly felt in the future, as designers are increasingly expected to produce games that appeal to a streaming audience as well as players. In addition, eSports, where pro gamers battle it out in front of a huge international live streaming audience, is set to continue its rise as a highly profitable gaming enterprise in its own right.
Broadcasting for all
Live streaming is perhaps an inevitable consequence of the rollout of reliable, high-speed broadband internet. However, it was the site Twitch.tv that proved that there was a massive potential audience for watching gamers playing in real time. Live streaming means the phenomenon of broadcasting live over the internet. Streaming sites such as Twitch don't just appeal to gamers; any kind of activity can potentially be streamed, as users create their own chat shows, cooking displays or demonstrate skateboard stunts. Live streaming of music concerts is also increasingly popular. However, it's the streaming of people playing video games that has taken off, and it now attracts audiences of millions of viewers at a time worldwide.
To an outsider, the appeal of watching someone play a video game online may be hard to see, but the statistics speak for themselves. As of February 2017, Twitch has nearly 10 million active daily users – roughly equivalent to the combined populations of Birmingham and London. Over 2 million streamers broadcast live each month, creating over 4 billion hours of content in 2015 alone. Half the users spend over 20 hours a week watching live streams, and each user averages 1 hour, 46 minutes daily.
A sense of community
The appeal of watching live streamed games comes down to two words: community and competition. 90% of the most popular live streamed games are multiplayer ones, meaning that viewers become fans, choosing a side and cheering them on. However, knowing that you're part of a huge worldwide audience who can frequently comment and interact has its own appeal, hence the appeal of the game that started the phenomenon, the otherwise simplistic Twitch Plays Pokémon.
Skills and confidence
Viewers also watch in order to get an idea of games that they'd like to play themselves, and to pick up tips and get better before they dive in. This especially applies to casino games such as online poker, which can seem daunting to a newcomer. Live streaming enables viewers to get comfortable with the idea and see how it's done before they decide which is the best live casino site for themselves.
You can all join in
Features such as ChatPlay, where viewers can influence a game with chat commands – for instance, by triggering power-ups or traps – are increasingly popular. Metastreaming, where streamers can overlay game statistics on screen, is another in-demand feature. Increasingly, games studios will be expected to include these features within the games to meet the demand of the streaming community. Games are also becoming more cinematic and playing to an audience in terms of presentation and perspective, while TV sport broadcasting is another increasingly influential model.
The future of gaming
Many games designers now watch Twitch while working in the office, while studios recognise the massive publicity value of live streaming and actively encourage streamers to play their latest games. Community managers are now as important in games companies as designers, while designers are increasingly taking a streaming audience into consideration in terms of graphics and gameplay.
With Microsoft currently integrating its recently acquired Beam streaming technology into Windows 10 and Xbox One, and Amazon's Lumberyard game engine integrating with Twitch (which Amazon now owns), it looks likely that more games will incorporate community features and deep cloud integration as standard. Those that don't embrace streaming and mass communities will struggle.
For older fans, live streaming recalls the days when as kids, they would gather in an amusement arcade to watch a more experienced player at a machine. For younger fans, watching their favourite YouTubers playing games such as Minecraft has replaced Saturday morning cartoons on TV as a communal viewing experience that they talk about at school on Monday morning.
Live streaming has changed the gaming landscape radically, making it more communal and introducing a whole new aspect and audience. It won't replace playing a game for real, but it will influence the way that designers think about gaming, as well as creating a new strata of player-superstars whose connection to their audience is based on their ability to interact with them effectively as much as their skill at the game.