Will gaming breathe life into live-streaming YouTube?

YouTube rules the realm of on-demand video, but live video still has a tournament of contenders. With a YouTube Gaming hub, Google is juicing up live features -- and that may bring you face-to-face with gameplay streams you never knew existed.

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
Expertise Streaming video, film, television and music; virtual, augmented and mixed reality; deep fakes and synthetic media; content moderation and misinformation online Credentials
  • Three Folio Eddie award wins: 2018 science & technology writing (Cartoon bunnies are hacking your brain), 2021 analysis (Deepfakes' election threat isn't what you'd think) and 2022 culture article (Apple's CODA Takes You Into an Inner World of Sign)
Joan E. Solsman
5 min read

YouTube Gaming gives video game clips and live streams a dedicated corner on Google's massive video site. Manuel Romano/Corbis

If you've never watched a video of somebody chatting, shrieking and cursing as they play a video game, Google may soon prod your first close encounter with this nerd kind.

Google's massive video site YouTube on Wednesday launched a dedicated hub for gaming videos. YouTube Gaming pulls together clips and streams featuring video game play and commentary, and -- in true Google fashion -- makes them easier to find. It also makes live streaming more accessible.

"Most people think of YouTube for video on demand," said Brad Hunstable, the chief executive of Ustream, a live-streaming video company. "Because of this, they will start to think of YouTube for live too."

YouTube reigns the realm of recorded video made by people like you, but when everyday folks want to broadcast what's going on right now, they wander elsewhere. That has allowed an underdog like Twitch, the gaming video website bought by Amazon a year ago for $970 million, to grow into the big boss in an explosion of video games as spectator sport. YouTube Gaming is Google's attempt to snatch away that prize, and, in doing so, it may make live streaming a bigger part of everyone's world.

The people who broadcast on Twitch are a "technology-savvy bunch," said Dan Deeth, who manages the study of Internet traffic trends at researcher and network operator Sandvine. "YouTube popularizes it."

Big leagues

Gaming is already an integral part of YouTube.

Game videos are one of the most popular categories of clips on the site. The most-subscribed channel is a gamer, Felix Kjellberg, known as PewDiePie. Kjellberg built a following anchored on "let's plays," videos that replicate the experience of sitting in a living room watching a friend play a game and distilling the day to only the funny or exciting moments.

His 38.9 million subscribers just about match the population of his home country, Sweden -- multiplied by four.

Thousands of viewers watch a match where video game teams play "Counter Strike" at an arena in Cologne, Germany. Millions watched live streams on Twitch. EPA/Corbis

YouTube has also spurred the rise of walkthroughs, with a gamer following the entire path of a game, and speedruns, in which an entertainer attempts to blast from beginning to end as quickly as possible.

But the gaming videos that attract the most attention, and sometimes the most confusion, are live streams epic in length. Be it a tournament at a stadium full of people or a single personality broadcasting for a 12-hour stretch (and making her living off it), it's an exploding genre where YouTube has second billing to Twitch.

On Sunday, Twitch's audience hit a high-water mark. During two events in the world of professional video game play, Twitch hit 2 million concurrent streams of video. Sandvine, which runs data networks worldwide and researches the activity taking place on them, took a snapshot of what that meant for Internet traffic on one representative network on the East Coast of the US.

Twitch accounted for more than 4 percent of total traffic at its peak. That's a far cry from North America's No. 1 traffic hog Netflix, which routinely gobbles up more than 30 percent of Internet bandwidth. But it beats typical peak traffic to popular streaming service Hulu and HBO Go combined.

"With Twitch, we're seeing a very similar pattern to what you see with live sports, any need-to-see programming," said Sandvine's Deeth. "Clearly there's a market here, and it's growing."

Going live

YouTube has made a name for itself in live video as well. The site stands out for big successes dealing with massive live audiences, like the 8 million concurrent live streams to watch daredevil Felix Baumgartner free-fall jump from the Earth's stratosphere, in an event sponsored by energy drink Red Bull in 2012.

But those accomplishments are linked to flashy, expertly produced events rather than the type of everyday live streaming that is the bread and butter of Twitch's growing popularity. The majority of viewing on Twitch is live.

YouTube introduced live streams for events in 2011 and has progressively unlocked the feature for more uploaders. Wednesday's launch makes live video more accessible for both creators and for viewers.

"When we built YouTube Gaming, we looked at live streaming as a key part," said Alan Joyce, a product manager for the new game-dedicated site and app. Creators with gaming uploads on the site were requesting more tools to go live, he said.

As YouTube focused on gaming, it increased the number of frames every second during a video so the moving picture looks more fluid. It simplified the dashboard for live streaming so creators need not set up a new event for every stream and so they could link to a permanent place where their current live streams can live whenever they're on. YouTube whittled down the lag between a creator's on-camera action and broadcasts so audience interactions could match real time better.

Twitch's 100 million viewers every month watch 106 minutes per person every day on average. Ralph Goldmann/dpa/Corbis

It also refreshed its live chat sidebar to add emoji -- the miniature glyphs of smiley faces and other simple pictures -- and let creators moderate the conversations more with tools like timeouts. Combined, the changes make a live stream on YouTube Gaming feel reminiscent of Twitch.

"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," said Matthew DiPietro, Twitch's senior vice president of marketing. "We've also put years' worth of development into live-streaming tools and features in support of the community."

The No. 1 element that YouTube Gaming adds that is unique from the normal YouTube experience is -- no surprise from the Internet's search giant -- making it easier to find video game content, especially live streams, Joyce said. Every game has its own corner of YouTube Gaming that's easy to find with search, and live streams are congregated in one of the game page's main columns. The YouTube Gaming homepage itself has a tab to show the top-watched live streams at that moment.

That makes it easier to find live streams of game play on a site that hasn't excelled at drawing in that audience before -- and it happens to be part of the third-most-visited site on the Internet.

"If YouTube focuses aggressively on promoting a type of live streaming, they're going to have an impact on the world because they have just such a big audience," said Sam Jacobs, a product executive at Livestream, another live online video company.