What is interactive live streaming?
Interactive live streaming is an emerging genre of entertainment that encourages real time audience participation as part of the show. It’s a hybrid of live television, social media, and video games. This format has also been described as crowdplay, live 3.0, social TV, participatory streaming, and collective storytelling. In these streams, the audience is given agency and the show is co-created, meaning the broadcasters and audience make it together, live.
“It is a form that plays with the boundary lines between audience and producer,” says T.L Taylor in Watch Me Play: Twitch and The Rise of Game Live Streaming. “Combined with the transformative properties of play, it is a vibrant space of new media development that builds on the history of television.”
In 2015 my Hovercast co-founder Jeff Greco and I first joined this space by helping Wieden+Kennedy create a live stream called The Old Spice Nature Adventure. The ad agency was inspired by Twitch Plays Pokémon (more on this later) and wanted to see what would happen if the audience was given control of a “live action video game”. The idea was to drop a man in the woods for three days with a camera on his back and let the Twitch chat give him commands to control his every move. The audience dictated the story, trolled the actor frequently, and created several recurring inside jokes. During this experience I observed an incredible feedback loop where the collective audience acted as a second writers room to the film crew who either fulfilled or subverted their requests, each to their delight. This opened my eyes to the massive potential for real time collective storytelling.
“For centuries, every agency, company, studio, and writer has relied on the Hero’s Journey as a standard for storytelling. But nonlinear, trans-platform communication has entirely disrupted that model. To rising generations, the standard tropes of classic storytelling have begun to feel slow, obvious, and dated. We yearn for a new, far more dynamic and participative approach…”
The VC firm Betaworks dubs this moment as Live 3.0. Here’s their framework:
“Live 1.0: in which the goal was to broadcast live TV over the Internet. There was no interactivity, and streaming was limited to broadcasters with TV-studio tools.
Live 2.0: democratization arrives in the form of tools to allow anyone to broadcast themselves, and home bandwidth is sufficient to both broadcast, and have an audience watching. Live streaming really takes off when the major social platforms integrated tools to go live.
Live 3.0: We are at the beginning of this era today, and it’s marked by truly interactive experiences. Ones in which the audience can participate beyond likes and comments, and can play an active role in influencing the live experience.”
We’ve heard of the promise of interactive TV before and it hasn’t exactly taken off. After all, interactive TV has been a thing since CBS aired Winky, Dink, and You in 1953. The difference this time has a little to do with advancements in technology (devices in everyone’s pockets, real time API’s, democratized cameras, networked broadcast capabilities, etc) and more to do with the change in audience behavior.
“We’ve had entire generations grow up for whom gaming and its dynamics are now second nature and they expect participatory experiences by default,” says Betaworks’ Peter Rojas.
For the first time in history, there is an audience in Gen Z who has been raised on interactive experiences. They are used to engaging directly with their favorite on-screen personalities via YouTube, Snapchat, Twitch, TikTok, etc. They’ve rejected cable television in favor of live formats and fragmented social platforms. This switch in user behavior suddenly flips the thinking about interactive media from being considered a nice-to-have novelty to something audiences are increasingly demanding.
What interactive live streaming is not
When the word interactive is mentioned in 2019, the follow up question is usually something along the lines of, “Interactive video, so that’s a choose-your-own-adventure video like Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch, right?” So, not exactly…
Bandersnatch is an example of an interactive video. Viewers watch Bandersnatch asynchronously and play its branching narrative with a single player perspective. Interactive live streaming is more as if Bandersnatch was being controlled by thousands of people at once.
interactive video : single player gaming
interactive live streaming : co-op gaming
There’s an immediacy and spontaneity to interactive live streaming that you simply cannot get from non-real time formats. With interactive video if you choose door #1 instead of door #2, you know in the back of your mind that a door #2 version has been shot, edited and exists. It’s there, you just didn’t choose to see it. With interactive live streaming, however, if the audience chooses door #1, nobody ever sees behind door #2. They’ve chosen door #2 in real time and that’s the only direction the show goes in. If you wanted to have an impact, you really had to be there.
For this article, I’m not going to cover interactive video, spatial computing (AR/VR/XR), or immersive theater, although there are several thematic overlaps in all of these next gen mediums. As Matthew Ball says, new forms of storytelling can be characterized by being “interactive, personalized, and immersive.” To put it another way, new media is increasingly becoming more about us and less about them.
I’m also not going to extensively cover game live streaming or esports here. For context, game live streaming typically involves someone broadcasting themselves playing video games, with their webcam on, so the audience can see the player and the game at the same time. These streams are the dominant format of broadcasting on Twitch and the source for the majority of views in the online live stream market. Game streamers occasionally interact verbally with the chat, however the audience is usually not given any agency or control.
Instead, let’s keep the focus on live streams where the audience can truly participate with the show. We’ll go deep on interactive live streaming as a new format, and explore the nascent medium’s past, present, and future.
The History of Interactive Live Streaming
Interactive live streaming is a convergence of many mediums and technologies. The story of this format is rooted in the history of live television, video games, events, performance, spectatorship, webcams, user generated content (UGC), internet broadcasting, platforms, and more. So it should come as no surprise that the first viral moment of this 3rd wave of live was a hybrid of old and new media colliding.
Twitch Plays Pokémon (TPP) became a sensation in 2014 when an anonymous developer set up a stream showing the classic Game Boy game, Pokémon Red. Instead of watching a single gamer play like a typical Twitch stream, the audience could play it together. TPP allowed over a million different users on Twitch to control a single game. Here’s how it worked: concurrent viewers would type in the commands up, down, left, right, A or B in the chat and a bot would move the character on screen. This crowdsourced mechanic was aptly named “anarchy” mode. The audience struggled to make progress as trolls and gamers navigated fluctuating states of cooperation. As you can imagine, this situation had hilarious consequences. For instance, the audience would catch rare Pokémon and then instantly release them back to the wild. One time, they got stuck repeatedly falling off a simple ledge for 8 hours. But after 16 days, they collectively beat the game and the concept of crowdplay was born.
In 2016 Telltale Games released Batman — The Telltale Series, a multiplayer experience, which used crowdplay to allow players to join a single game and contribute votes to determine what happened in the story. This was designed to be played as a local multiplayer experience — in other words, everyone playing was watching the same screen. Theoretically, a packed movie theater could show the game and the whole audience could take part in guiding the narrative. Similarly, CtrlMovie by Kino Industries, is an interactive system for group controlled movies. It’s easy to imagine expanding this style of group play to live streaming in future crowdplay experiences. Another local multiplayer success in this space has been Jackbox Games, creators of games like Drawful, Fibbage, and You Don’t Know Jack. These games often weave user generated content into the gameplay and have play-along features that are perfect for creating entertaining variety streams on Twitch.
By far the most experimental creations in the last five years of interactive live streaming were conducted by the talented team at Super Deluxe lead by Shahruz Shaukat and Cyrus Ghahremani. Super Deluxe’s interactive live streams pushed the limits of how participatory live video could be with out-of-the-box concepts like a choose-your-own-adventure telenovela, a 24 hour freestyle rap prompted by audience suggestions, and “Punch-A-Nazi! LIVE”. Super Deluxe was an incredible celebration of weird internet culture but, sadly, the network was shut down by Turner on October 19th, 2018.
Entirely new kinds of stories are possible when the audience has agency to play along with the show. Some interesting narrative examples of the past few years include Criken’s Ghost Commander, which allowed the audience to control ghosts and haunt live actors; Orbital Redux, a live participatory sci-fi ballet by Steven Calcote; and Artificial by Bernie Su, the first scripted narrative series to debut on Twitch. Artificial gives power to the audience to make decisions about an AI named Sophie. Viewers can participate in Q&A’s with the characters, vote on polls to change Sophie’s preferences, and even submit artwork that appears in the show. With Artificial, Su has pioneered a narrative method where audience members can pay for extra votes in a story choice using Twitch’s currency, Bits.
By far, the feature that has added the most to the medium is the Twitch chat. Chat is an essential part of the live stream experience. It’s a game changer because it provides an outlet to relate, builds community in the channel, and allows the audience to be both passive and active participants in a show. Audience members can have conversations with each other as well as the broadcaster. They can give feedback, participate in Q&A’s, add creative ideas, make jokes, send greetings, cheers, and boos. Chat allows the possibility for audience members to be elevated from viewers to participants.
But for now, chat and video are still pretty separate entities in live streaming. So what are some of the interesting ways that chat can become a larger part of the show?
The best place to search for the answer to that question may be in China. “When it comes to live streaming, China is at another level,” says live streaming expert Peter Yang in A Primer on China’s Live Streaming Market. In China, “IRL streams” dominate the market over game live streaming. IRL streams involve an influencer “host” sitting in front of a webcam chatting about life with their viewers. These streams are monetized through donation and virtual goods systems. Buying expensive virtual gifts is seen as a way to get the attention of a streamer and hypothetically offers a momentary cure for loneliness. Another style of social interactivity featured in the Chinese live stream ecosystem is Bullet Chat (seen above). Bullet Chat displays comments as graphics that float across the screen in real time, allowing UGC to become part of the show itself.
So far, we’ve seen many of the positive and creative ways that broadcasters are leveraging audience involvement, but it’s essential to also address the harmful impacts that participation can have.
“Harassment is a common problem in game live streaming, and affects both variety and esports streaming in devastating and powerful ways” says T.L. Taylor. “Women, people of color, and LGBTQIA streamers — and at times even audience members — are especially subjected to a stream of cruelty that includes hate speech, incessant commentary on one’s looks or behavior, visual abuse via unwanted imagery, and practices that disrupt the channel.”
Toxic chat is a huge issue facing the broadcasters and viewers of this format. The big social platforms are notorious for allowing discriminatory behavior to exist and thrive in their ecosystems because they profit from engagement, good or bad. Hateful participation is a universal problem across the social web and this issue compounds in real time environments with less time to process language, emotions, and effects.
It’s still early days for the interactive live streaming format and now is the time to be thoughtful about how we will enable the audience to interact and how we can influence positive behavior in the chat. Some modest steps to create healthier environments have been made but we have a long way to go. As seen above, Twitch has broadcast settings that help filter certain words from the chat, which can help, however because it’s the Internet, people will find a way around the policing of interactions and free speech.
Recently, a streamer named PaladinAmber went viral by publicly shutting down her trolls with comedic “Breaking News” segments that set boundaries and called out harassment on her channel. Other broadcasters sometimes opt to turn chat off entirely. It will be critical to find safe systems to both moderate and showcase audience participation. In addition to bots like Automod to remove content, I believe that the other best practice will be to promote valuable chats into the shows more often. Instead of hiding from the problem, let’s fix it. Elevating and rewarding positive contributions will encourage better audience behavior and better content.
“Regenerative listening is the equivalent of looking your audience members in their eyes, conveying your shared values and aspirations within the context of your stories, and acknowledging one another as human beings worthy of being heard.” says Jeff Gomez
“Co-Streaming” is another way that interactive live streaming can be more participatory than cable TV, because co-streaming allows multiple broadcasters to stream the same event from their unique POV’s, expanding the reach of the show. For example, with Twitch Rivals, a weekly live streamed esports tournament, the camera’s perspective flips around from gamer to gamer which encourages the audience to click through and watch the personal stream of any gamer they like.
This networked broadcasting concept has incredibly exciting potential for crossover events as well as more personalized commentary where audiences choose which host they’d like to hear during a live event. When multiple streamers team up to broadcast together, the broadcast has the potential for massive crossover appeal. For instance, Drake, Travis Scott, and Ju Ju Smith Schuster joined popular game live streamer Ninja to play Fortnite together, over 600,000 concurrent viewers tuned in at once, marking a truly mainstream moment for video games as well as live streaming.
Interactive Live Streaming Use Cases
HQ Trivia became a breakout hit two years ago with an app that let participants play a live trivia game show and win prizes via mobile. Viewers have always loved playing along with Jeopardy from home and HQ was brilliant for taking this behavior to the next level by including a personal score and a global leaderboard. For a while, HQ was appointment viewing. Despite its lack of cultural staying power, HQ proved that interactive live streaming and game shows are a winning combination.
The immediacy of interactive live streaming can also be a powerful motivator for fitness. Peleton has been successful in selling exercise bikes that combine live streaming with gamified workouts. Participants bike along with a live instructor and compete with the rest of a virtual class on the leaderboard. A personalized screen shows your stats, heart rate monitor, time remaining, and more. Live used to be the next best thing to being there, but with interactivity you can now be a part of the action.
Professional sports are starting to dabble in the world of interactive live streaming as well. During this year’s NBA playoffs, ESPN and Second Spectrum started experimenting with a “Twitch-ified” broadcast called “Full Court Press”. The stream featured on screen commentators on the bottom of the screen as if they were game streamers as well as video game style graphics that tracked the players, revealed shooting percentages and floating emoji’s.
Imagine a near future, where fantasy sports and sports betting blend seamlessly into personalized live broadcasts. Some broadcasters are already taking baby steps towards that idea, such as when FanDuel recently teamed with fuboTV to integrate betting data into sports broadcasts. As fans, we love to cheer for our favorite athletes live and it’s easy to see how new forms of engagement and gameplay will become a larger part of sports spectatorship.
And betting isn’t going to be limited to just sports — for instance, take the Twitch phenomenon Salty Bet. The stream plays 24/7 and hosts fights between different classic characters. But instead of being controlled by gamers, these characters are controlled by two different AI’s using a robot powered fighting engine called MUGEN. On the broadcast we see a mismatch of characters duking it out, such as Ryu, Superman, Shaq, Beavis and of course Butthead. Subscribers can suggest new characters to enter the fighting ring in future fights. Salty Bet viewers wager fake money, to make bets on fake characters, who are controlled by robots. Very 2019.
We’ve barely scratched the surface of the massive potential for this participatory format to influence music. John Mayer hosts his own Instagram Live show, Current Mood with John Mayer, where he answers Q&A’s from his fans. He’s recently begun to broadcast the live stream on the Jumbotron during intermissions of his stadium tour. In the future, fans could help control concert visuals, choose an artist’s next song, or even collaborate with live artist’s in creative ways. We saw hints of this type of vision recently when EDM artist REZZ teamed with WaveXR to create a virtual listening party in VR for her new EP Beyond the Senses. The artist performed wearing body tracking gear, allowing her to become embodied as an avatar in a virtual venue. Audience members with a VR headset could join the concert as a spectator in the crowd, but if you didn’t have a headset you could also interact with the show on Twitch. This is yet another example of how interactive live streaming can be a perfect compliment to other types of activations by expanding the reach and accessibility of an event.
Of course, savvy brands are catching on too. Interactive live streaming has a few things going for it that marketers really love, such as the beefy engagement metrics that come with gamification, rich contextual data, community focused activations, and cross platform compatibility. Add to that the idea this is a new format where viewers don’t have to download a new app or buy expensive new hardware to play from their phone or computer and there’s a lot to be excited about as an advertiser.
Let’s take a look at some examples — to promote The Grand Tour, Amazon Prime Video created an audience controlled game of Battleship, allowing audiences to blow up real cars in the desert. Ad agency Wieden+Kennedy Portland and key contributors such as Matt Sorrell, Ashley Davis-Marshall, Jarrod Higgins, Craig Allen, Evelyn Loomis, Eric Baldwin, and Mike Davidson, have been at the forefront of interactive live streaming on the brand side for a while, with inventive live activations such as Nike Breaking 2, KFC Colonel Sanders Cat Climber, and Old Spice S.Q.U.I.D.
Interactive live streaming presents a great opportunity for brands to connect with young people, by engaging and entertaining them, instead of simply advertising to them. I’ve had the opportunity to see this firsthand as our company has been involved in a handful of branded interactive live streams such as Audi’s Think Faster, a celebrity interview from the passenger seat of a race car, the Old Spice Boardroom, which allowed the audience to troll the brand through interactive improv comedy, and the Old Spice Foam Zone, an obstacle course game show that allowed the audience to manipulate the giant obstacles using real time polls.
“When you start to shift your thinking from cold, empty, data-induced language like “target audience” and shift to replacing it with “community” and “tribe,” then you’ll be closer to engineering a positive feeling into your brand.” says Ogilvy partner, Kai D. Wright
Inviting the audience into the conversation of a show is also a natural fit for talk shows and video podcasts. According to the StreamElements Q2 Report, “The Just Chatting stream category grew by 7.07% on Twitch in Q2 2019 and had 180 million viewership hours. The success of Just Chatting isn’t strange since it’s the only category that has kept growing since we began making our State of the Stream reports.” Live stream chat provides a modern take on the phone-in radio show.
Interactive live streaming will also play an important role in the 2020 election cycle as the format is starting to spread into news and politics. Bernie Sanders now has a Twitch channel that he is using to spread his message, take donations, and engage in Q&A’s with his audience. Last year, Anderson Cooper’s Full Circle introduced an interactive live stream news format to Facebook Watch, where the audience could vote on polls to determine the topics that they wanted to see. Their slogan was “the show was created for you, by you”.
What’s next for interactive live streaming?
By now I hope to have established that interactive live streaming is perhaps the ultimate mashup format of our time. I believe that it deserves a seat at the table with the other promising next gen formats such as AR, VR, mobile-first video, and interactive video. At its best, interactive live streaming combines multiple concepts and blends them together into something only the internet could create.
When creatives successfully leverage the good ideas of the audience, it’s a win-win for both parties. The audience has a stake in the content, they feel empowered knowing they helped shape the story, engagement numbers go way up, and a connection is forged between audience and show. Just imagine the massive potential of two million people playing together and contributing their unique voices to craft a complex story all at the same time.
For producers trying to tap into this exciting, growing market, the concept of participatory real time entertainment raises some questions:
- In a live environment full of toxic behavior, how do we minimize the bad and amplify the good?
- Who gets rewarded for the labor of UGC?
- How do you reach the widest audience, while successfully curating so much participation?
- How can premium entertainment involve the audience in meaningful ways?
- What can be achieved when creators and fans work together on a show?
Real time commentary has the potential to be a powerful interactive tool for storytellers to leverage. For the first time in broadcast history, storytellers can listen to their audience in real time, react, and curate the best content in order to add creativity, comedy, depth, hot takes, spontaneity, and community into their narratives.
In 2019, chat has already become an essential element of live TV. Just look at the spikes in participation on Twitter or Reddit during the NBA trade deadline, Game of Thrones premieres, or a presidential debate. The chat is often more interesting content than the show itself. Over time, the chat experience will move from the second screen and blend into the first.
The chat is often more interesting content than the show itself.
The future of live will undoubtedly involve new types of stories, different input devices, games and formats that haven’t been invented yet, new methods of monetization, real time forms of gambling, virtual goods, shoppable video, cryptocurrencies payments, evolutions of advertising, expanded immersion, increased personalization, and new types of play.
The line between live TV and video games continues to blur. We’re about to witness the transformation of nearly every vertical of live TV.
Are you ready, player 2,000,001?
Eli Stonberg is the CEO of Hovercast, a product that creates interactive live streams on any platform with real time chat curation, audience engagement tools, and dynamic graphic overlays.
Contact me, if you’d like help creating interactive live streams.
Stay tuned for new articles in this series that explore the themes of interactive live streaming, how to make your own interactive live streams, and more.
Thanks to Jeff Greco, Devon Dolan, Zahid Zakaria, and Judy Leeds.