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(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

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Your 15 Minutes of Game

With streaming sites like YouTube and Twitch now serving as popular hubs for professional gamers, both game developers and the platforms themselves are struggling to forge new rules

This week, The Ringer explores how the "on demand" model has changed the way we consume TV, film, food, products, and, well, almost everything. Consumers have both adjusted to the streaming era and dictated how businesses operate in its wake. Our On-Demand Week stories grapple with how this shift came to be — and what it means for the future of tech, culture, and how we access both. Find all the stories here.

It’s a game. You’re the player. Naturally, you’re the star. In Persona 5, you’re a metaphysical burglar who targets opponents, invades their subconscious, and reforms their disordered souls. The spoilers begin here.

In April, the game’s developer, Atlus — owned by Sega — threatened (in all caps!) a crackdown on streaming channels following the best-selling debut of the game on PS4 in North America. Atlus planned to ban all streaming and screenshots of the game’s events past a certain in-game calendar date, citing an interest in helping players avoid story spoilers. Angry gamers complained to Atlus or chose not to stream the game at all. In the press, critics argued that Atlus had drastically underestimated the importance of streaming to contemporary video game culture. As much as Persona 5 is a singular entertainment product represented by a $60 price tag and a title screen, it’s also a 100-hour role-playing game that naturally gets people talking online, trading strategies, swapping memes, and sharing reactions to a game’s dynamics and story. Contrary to nerd archetypes, video games are a social experience. Streaming is gameplay. Streaming is criticism. Streaming is part of the fun.

Ultimately, Atlus walked back its language and apologized for antagonizing streamers. While Atlus maintained its request that players not stream endgame footage of Persona 5 (including any story events that take place after the in-game date of November 19), the company accepted that fans of Persona 5 would get their hands on the game one way or another. Streamers gonna stream.

Video game streaming has really taken off only in the past few years as various consumer-grade technical innovations have caught up with one another. Home recording equipment is cheap and decent. High speed internet is widespread. Modern gaming consoles easily connect to the web.

For many players, gaming is an online experience, whether they’re purchasing digital titles from the PlayStation Network or watching another player livestream their experience with the same title via YouTube or Twitch. In August 2014, Amazon bought Twitch — a video streaming service that launched in 2011 and quickly became a hub for user-generated gaming content — for $970 million. Amazon has since sought to grow Twitch’s annual revenue past $1 billion on the strength of ads, premium subscription fees, and corporate sponsorships of popular streaming personalities, and with a reputation expanded beyond just gaming to include other arts and lifestyle vlogging.

Between YouTube Gaming and Twitch, video game streaming is a crazed ecosystem full of odd personalities with uncertain fortunes. Video games have always given rise to lively fan communities, but video game culture has never looked, sounded, and felt as much like ESPN as it does now, with loud color commentary and professional sports announcing on proper tournament console competition sets. (As popular Twitch streamer Matthew Beardsley, a.k.a. Probly_ovr_9000, put it to CNBC last year, "Streaming video games for a living is no less of a real job than that of someone who broadcasts sporting events, WWE wrestling matches, or even reports on news.")

And it’s not just publishers who have found themselves on the wrong side of streamers and their audiences. Streaming platforms themselves face similar challenges in adapting to gaming’s streaming ecosystem. Last week, streamers were up in arms about "demonetization" — the process by which YouTube pulls ad support from videos that the company deems "not advertiser-friendly." Gamers who’d planned to stream the forthcoming Call of Duty title, WWII, noted that YouTube was demonetizing videos related to the game due to its violent content. Lately, gaming communities are especially sensitive to any perceived censorship on YouTube’s part since the company distanced itself from its biggest star, games vlogger PewDiePie, after The Wall Street Journal revealed his role in producing a series of videos that included anti-Semitic jokes. But the users affected by YouTube’s creeping demonetization aren’t all neo-Nazis or shock jocks. They include your friendly neighborhood Call of Duty streamer who just wants to give a play-by-play of their killstreaks for posterity.

Video games are bringing people together in strange, new ways (at least new for gamers). And as much as the most popular YouTube and Twitch gaming personalities bill their streams as entertainment, it’s also an important tool for indie developers to find an audience for their games. Occasionally, the developers, the streamers, and the platforms clash, such as they have over Persona 5 and Call of Duty. But they often work in concert.

Patrick Scarborough works in "gameplay communications," a role that’s existed in some form or fashion since Nintendo launched its Nintendo Power magazine in the late-1980s, but never as intensively as it does now. "I think a lot of the people who grew up reading Nintendo Power are now entering the games industry," he says. Scarborough is a game designer himself, and he also spent the past couple of years working as a developer popularly associated with the League of Legends community. Scarborough is a gamer’s gamer. Where developers of yore were largely obscure figures, Scarborough is one with a generation of developers who have cultivated a niche by enthusiastically engaging with players in game, in forums, on camera, and on Twitter. "That’s not a one-way ticket to being popular," Scarborough says, "but the gaming community wanted more of that sort of engagement. You can get a lot of the value that you would have gotten out of a forum with these new kinds of things."

Short of playing a game yourself, there’s all sorts of streaming you could watch, and for all sorts of reasons. There’s the common "Let’s Play" format, where a player will simply sit and play through a game — sometimes for hundreds of hours split across several episodes — while providing commentary on their experience. (PewDiePie being the most famous Let’s Play–er of all.) There’s walkthroughs, where the streamer is a bit more focused and economical; a player might watch a walkthrough to help them get through bits of a game where they’re stuck or unsure. There’s speedruns, a competitive genre where players master a game’s mechanics and exploit its design in order to complete it in record time; you might watch speedruns just for the fun of seeing someone bend a video game’s physics to awesome extremes. On a much larger competitive scale, there’s e-sports — a half-billion-dollar industry that began with the advent of video game streaming. In March, Twitter announced plans to stream 1,500 live hours of e-sports content, including competitions as well as half-hour highlight segments produced by the ESL Gaming Network.

In 2009, L.A.-based video game publisher Riot Games released the online multiplayer real-time strategy game League of Legends, which has become the focus of an annual e-sports tournament with one of the biggest prize pools — $5 million, largely crowdfunded, at last year’s tournament — in the world. Riot says 100 million active users play League of Legends monthly, and the game inspires countless prolific streamers to this day. Patrick Miller, a writer and full-time designer who works for Riot, describes streaming with the intention of cultivating a substantial fan base as a pretty intensive commitment. "Livestreaming requires the creator to maintain a consistent, frequent schedule in order to maximize their potential reach," Miller says. "You have to be compelling enough to persuade your potential audience member to watch you right now instead of whenever they want." That’s including the time that streamers spend playing video games, but not limited to those workmanlike shifts. In recent months, Twitch has promoted a greater variety of artistic and lifestyle streaming to compete with Facebook Live. ("Twitch Creative does not come at the expense of all the awesome gaming channels and events that are supported," the company stresses in its website FAQ.)

Scarborough recently launched a streaming project in which he’ll play 50 games that he missed out on playing while he was making and marketing games at Riot. Scarborough streams via Twitch, and he’s currently playing Nioh, a popular samurai RPG that Team Ninja released in February. One of Scarborough’s latest Nioh streams has clocked nearly 27,000 views since he uploaded it Friday. While online video hosting expands any given user’s potential reach beyond just their living room, or even just a convention hall, Scarborough says backseat gaming "isn’t actually a new thing. It’s just being done somewhere else. I’m opening up my living room to all of these people to watch me play the game. But I can think of a ton of games that I’d play alongside a friend who’d maybe never pick up the controller."

Mega-popular streamers also might introduce players to the occasional indie title that they might never have discovered otherwise.

Robert Yang makes "gay sex games." I wouldn’t describe them as pornography, though they’re sexy indeed. Three years ago, Yang made Hurt Me Plenty, a brief simulator where two characters negotiate sexual boundaries together in a bedroom. There’s spanking. There’s a tutorial that stresses consent. Play may end anytime and for any reason.

Twitch has a history of pulling his games, citing their sexual elements as a violation of the website’s content standards. Yang describes himself as "one of the most-banned developers on Twitch." On YouTube, Yang fares better: You can find several channels — some of them popular, some of them not — where streamers narrate playthroughs with goofy and scandalized commentary that largely displaces Yang’s tone and intent. Yang says this sort of commentary makes his gay sex games look "boring." "I just don’t like the personas that rise to the top of the YouTube and Twitch hierarchies," he says.

There’s definitely an archetype. At least among the upper echelons of streaming traffic, YouTube viewers seem to err on the side of outlandish, supercute commentary that may or may not suit the tone of whatever game it is they’re playing. Triple-A games — made and marketed with multimillion-dollar budgets — still dominate the conversation, and their commercial success has very little to do with how popular streamers choose to frame and exploit their assets.

But many indie game designers live under the thumb of outsize YouTube personalities, who may eclipse even popular designers by millions of followers and whose ability to break an indie title to a large audience far exceeds whatever share of retail consumption they might dampen by streaming all 100 gameplay hours of Persona 5. "I rely so heavily on streaming, and then I get so much traffic, but then I don’t see any real monetary benefit from that," Yang says. "I end up getting instrumentalized as this content mill for YouTubers to exploit for material. I’m aware that the vast majority of streamers don’t make any money off this. But it does piss me off when PewDiePie or someone like that plays my game for two minutes, just reading my text on screen, and then they make more money off it than I do."

Now that YouTube, under pressure from advertisers, is scaling back popular streamers’ on-site influence, however, the recently established equilibrium is once again shifting. Tensions among streamers, platforms, and game publishers echo those in many other niche online communities: Powerful companies have far more resources at their disposal, but the streamers have the spotlight.

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