Amazon was never supposed to buy Twitch. Two summers ago, as rumors swirled that the livestreaming video site was set to be acquired, tech bloggers declared that Google was the secret suitor. The pairing made sense — Google owns the world’s biggest video site, YouTube, and Twitch had quickly managed to become the largest livestreaming site in the U.S. by tapping into the burgeoning pastime of watching other people play video games.
But Google ended up backing out, reportedly to avoid antitrust headaches, and Amazon, which owns more random websites than you think, swooped in for the buy. Twitch was a hot property because (1) it had corralled more than 50 million people to watch live, user-generated video online in a single place, and (2) its users were the most sought-after marketing demographic on earth. A website on which 15- to 30-year-old dudes banded together for two weeks to collectively suck at Pokémon was suddenly worth $1 billion.
Two years later, what does Amazon have to show for its second-biggest acquisition (behind Zappos) ever? Twitch has given Amazon an important stake in the world of gaming, which is becoming increasingly appetizing to both tech giants and traditional media companies. But the retailer clearly has aspirations to grow Twitch into a livestreaming juggernaut in additional arenas — hence this week’s announcement that two upcoming pilots for Amazon Instant Video shows, a reboot of The Tick and a comedy starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, will stream for free on the site on August 31. It’s not the first time Twitch has experimented with nongaming content, but growing competition from YouTube and Facebook will make it tougher for the service to successfully chart new waters.
First, the good news for Twitch: It’s managed to keep growing post-acquisition. In 2014, Twitch had 55 million monthly viewers, nearly 7 million daily users, and 1.5 million broadcasters. Today, it has more than 100 million monthly viewers, nearly 10 million daily users, and 1.7 million broadcasters. That’s not quite the breakneck level of growth it had as an independent company, but Twitch no longer owns the market for livestreaming gaming. After failing to acquire Twitch, Google decided to compete with it head-on, launching YouTube Gaming last August as a standalone website and app for video game livestreams and other content. It’s not clear if Google’s gaming portal itself has been a runaway hit — the YouTube Gaming App doesn’t even rank among the top 200 iOS entertainment apps, while Twitch is in the top 20, according to App Annie — but it doesn’t need to take over the world to disrupt Twitch’s growth. Twitch notched 155.5 million desktop video views in the U.S. in August 2015, according to Comscore, but that figure fell to 127.5 million the following month, the first full month YouTube Gaming was available.
At this point it seems unlikely that either service will completely cannibalize the other, as many of the top streamers regularly use both platforms. But Twitch has to find other avenues for growth. Before the upcoming Amazon pilots, Twitch livestreamed portions of both the Democratic and Republican conventions. Last October, the service launched a hub called Twitch Creative to host livestreams broadcast by artists and musicians. Most whimsically, Twitch attracted 5.6 million viewers to a livestreamed marathon of Bob Ross’s serene public television show The Joy of Painting.
But that was before BuzzFeed blew up a watermelon. In just a few months, Facebook Live has become the de facto home for live video, with the social network paying heaps of cash to everyone from The New York Times to Kevin Hart to create live-video content for the platform. It’s not clear how many people are watching live videos, but individual streams have racked up millions of views. On a platform as massive as Facebook, the threshold for attracting a lot of eyeballs is low.
Facebook’s quest to become the catch-all home for livestreaming content was, ironically enough, the aim of Twitch’s predecessor. Justin.tv, launched in 2007, hosted livestreams of everyday users, but ultimately failed to take off — its founders spun the successful gaming vertical off into Twitch. A few years later, thanks to the rise of mobile and the viral velocity built into social media, Facebook has made livestreaming by regular people commonplace. While Twitch is dipping its toe in the water, Facebook has already taken over the entire swimming pool.
That’s not to say that Twitch is in trouble. The platform has a large, loyal fan base and is staking its future on the rising tide of e-sports. In April, Twitch launched an e-sports league that streamed a Counter-Strike tournament exclusively on the platform. But again, there’s fierce competition. Major League Gaming, a competing e-sports outfit now owned by Activision Blizzard, has its own slate of tournaments airing this year. And guess where they’re streaming? Facebook.