No Shortcuts in the Streamer Wars
DisguisedToast leaves Facebook for Twitch.tv, then returns in a shocking plot twist. Ludwig Ahgren leaves Twitch.tv for YouTube, along with a bunch of other high-profile creators like Valkyrae, TimTheTatman, and others. Even after Mixer’s demise as an independent platform, the ongoing war for market share among streamer platforms still resembles a free agency draft gone wild, with platforms snatching up major talent the moment they sense weaknesses in their respective rivals.
Whether that scramble for specific influencers makes actual sense and impact for their platforms, however, is highly disputable. The relationship between influencer popularity and platform growth is not nearly as straightforward as it may seem.
The Mixer fiasco is probably as strong an indicator as any that a new streaming platform can’t simply buy out the biggest influencers of the current moment and expect immediate success. Tyler “Ninja” Blevin’s high-profile switch to the former Microsoft-operated platform was a stunning shot across the bow against then-and-current frontrunner Twitch.tv… and it barely made a dent. Once the single-most popular streamer across any platform, Ninja’s audience shrank 33% with his move to Mixer, and has never recovered to the same levels.
The same holds true for just about everybody else in the status quo. DrLupo went from 4.4 million followers on Twitch.tv (Oct 2020) to 1.8 million YouTube subscribers (Dec 2021), and experienced a similar dropoff in average livestream viewership — from 10 thousand per stream to 4.6 thousand. Meanwhile, TimTheTatman went from 7 million Twitch.tv followers to 4.24 million on YouTube, though the overall strength of his livestream audience has pretty much regenerated, with 36k per stream before his departure from Twitch, versus his end-of-year YouTube audience at 35k.
Of course, there are some exceptions to the trend. Streamer Valkyrae, for instance, successfully grew her audience of roughly one million Twitch.tv followers to a hearty 3.59 million YouTube subscribers, going from a 2.4k average viewership to 16.5 thousand. But a story like hers is very much in the minority — the general rule is that the most popular streamer on that platform is still secondary to the ecosystem that platform provides. In Twitch’s case, the ecosystem is on the back-end — Amazon’s purchase of the platform back in 2017 expands its cloud capabilities to include industry-leading livestreaming technologies that it then sells access to anybody that needs its Interactive Video Services functions, while also using Twitch itself as an onboarding ramp for Amazon Prime.
That ecosystem is hard for its competitors to duplicate. Even just the Twitch-level interactivity suites alone — the emojis, the subscription models, the programs and categorization methods that allow for so much user-side retention — is something that their peers are coming in late on.
Granted, it may be a mere matter of time before they’re fullying caught up.
What is dead may never die, but get absorbed by bigger and more ambitious corporate entities. Mixer as a discrete platform may be gone, but its suite of technologies was absorbed into the Facebook empire mid-2020.
Now, as of late 2021, Facebook’s officially overtaken YouTube as the second-largest streaming platform in the industry. In the three-way race between Twitch, Facebook, and YouTube, Statistica’s 2021 report has their respective hours watched at respectively 5.79 billion hours, 1.29 billion, and 1.13 billion.
While some of this might have been based on their influencer pool, much of Facebook’s success is structural in nature. Their suite of content creation and community engagement tools is arguably the best of the entire field, with everything from algorithmically driven discoverability to directly supported collaborative features like the Live With co-broadcasting function — all to take advantage of the social media platform’s dominant position and captive international audience. And the fact that streamers are financially incentivized to take advantage of it all merely underlines its merit.
Much like Twitch.tv, Facebook’s fundamental advantage is at the community engagement level — one that the acquisition of Mixer’s set of gameified interactivity tools only further strengthens and enforces. And it’s one that YouTube structurally lacks — for now.
No competitor is satisfied with second place, much less an increasing gap in third, and to YouTube’s credit, their slate of promised 2022 improvements should do a lot to bring them closer to parity with their streaming rivals. Much of it should be intimately familiar to Twitch community members and creators — gifted subscriptions, and Live Redirect functions that are basically identical to Twitch.tv raids, goes a long ways towards creating social and creator networks that amplify exposure to individual creators while supporting communities that aren’t wholly tied to any individual talent. And improved discoverability tools, whether algorithmically driven like Facebook’s model or through Twitch.tv’s exhaustive categorization system, is naturally welcomed at all levels of content creation, whether multimillion subscriber celebrity or day-one newbie stammering their way through their introductions.
YouTube also has inherent advantages to work off — nobody else is offering similar VOD storage and access, and they’re inherently in a better state than Twitch.tv for Tiktok-style short-form content delivery via their mobile app and the development of multi-pipeline funneling structures towards creators.
While they will still be playing catchup to Twitch.tv and Facebook — there is no established timeline for when all of this will be implemented in 2022 — YouTube is gigantic enough unto itself that the delay shouldn’t be lethal.
But that probably means any top creator not actively negotiating with YouTube for a slot on their roster will soon see that window close. The value they bring, after all, is secondary to having internally cultivated talent grow into profitable size for effectively free.
The current contract wars, then, are the interim act for the next stage of the war for eyeballs. The weapons they will bring to bear will be significantly more sophisticated than the crude purchase of well-known names.