Last year, Google flirted with buying Twitch, the live-streaming site for gamers. The romance never took, and Twitch shacked up with Amazon. Today, with its unveiling of a new project called YouTube Gaming, Google turns to a special corner of the broader site that bears a striking resemblance to Twitch. If you can’t buy it, build it (or a reasonable facsimile of it).
At an event in Los Angeles, Ryan Wyatt, the head of gaming for YouTube, said the site was arguably the best one for gaming on the Internet. "But to be honest, not everybody out there sees it that way," he added.
The announcement, which comes days before the E3 gaming convention, is another reminder that we truly are living in a golden age for watching other people play video games. When Xbox and PlayStation released their latest consoles in 2013, each one included the capability to stream gaming sessions live directly onto the Internet. The result has been a boost to an already booming genre that inspires incredible passion among gamers and complete bafflement among most everyone else.
Google describes YouTube Gaming as an app and website dedicated to the gaming culture and community. More than 25,000 games will have dedicated pages on the site, and gaming publishers and YouTube personalities will maintain their own channels. The center of the experience is live streams, which have been the core of Twitch’s success. Google says the service will be available in the U.S. and the U.K. sometime this summer.
Gaming is huge for YouTube. Google says hundreds of millions of gamers watch billions of hours of gaming content through the service each month, and people are spending 75 percent more time watching gaming videos this year than they did last year. PewDiePie, a Swedish gamer whose gaming-related YouTube channel has 37 million followers, is regularly referred to as the most popular person on YouTube. He’s more the leader of a movement than some weird exception. Half of YouTube’s top 100 channels are gaming-related, if you measure by how much time people spend on them. As YouTube prepares a subscription service, some nongaming creators have been quietly pushing it to divvy up revenue based on the number of videos viewed rather than by the amount of time people spend watching videos, since gamers have the unusual tendency to watch videos that can be hours long rather than minutes.
But Twitch breaks the general rule that no one on the Internet can rival YouTube in sheer scale. About 100 million people visit the site each month, and more than 1.5 million people use the site to broadcast their gaming sessions. The site is at least as prominent in gaming culture as YouTube.
Today's announcement isn’t the first sign that Google is playing catch-up. Last month it said it would start letting people stream live video at 60 frames per second, a feature that appeals primarily to gamers because it is necessary to make frenetic gameplay videos seem smooth. YouTube says it will take other steps to improve the streaming experience, such as automatically converting live streams to YouTube video and removing the requirement that live streams be scheduled in advance.
YouTube is also acknowledging that its immense breadth isn’t always an advantage. Twitch is entirely dedicated to gaming, which gives it a cultural identity that can’t be replicated on a website that also hosts cat videos, cooking instructions, and Jimmy Kimmel clips. With YouTube Gaming, Google is signaling to a specific community that it has created a safe space. “When you want something specific, you can search with confidence, knowing that typing ‘call’ will show you ‘Call of Duty’ and not ‘Call Me Maybe,’” writes Alan Joyce, a YouTube product manager, on the company’s blog.
Joseph Evans, an analyst with Enders Research who follows the gaming industry, says YouTube has a lot of ground to make up. “Twitch has such a hold on gamers' minds, it’s going to be hard to respond,” he says. "I don’t think they need it, but long term, as more and more niches leave YouTube, that could be a problem.”
It’s not clear whether Twitch really presents a model for others to use to chip away at YouTube’s dominance. People who make online video sometimes express mixed feelings about YouTube, which drives an incredible amount of traffic but is so large that it’s easy to feel lost. “YouTube is so swamped at this point,” says Mark Murdoch, the chief executive of Mahogany Sessions, a British company that produces live music videos. But attempts to challenge YouTube haven’t led to Twitch-scale outfits for concert videos or cricket enthusiasts.
The closest parallel is probably Vevo, a hub for music videos that is partly owned by Google and relies on YouTube for a lot of its traffic. Twitch could be the exception that proves the rule, because gaming is just so different from everything else, says Paul Verna, an analyst at eMarketer who tracks the digital video market.
“I don’t see that emerging with cooking videos, or exercise, or something like that, because those videos already exist on YouTube,” he says.
(Updates with Ryan Wyatt's remarks.)