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Inside Arsenal’s Twitch strategy

Tom Hines, Arsenal’s head of media, reveals the Premier League club’s tactics for the Amazon-owned streaming platform and why the Gunners are placing added emphasis on multi-player entertainment.

15 February 2021 Ed Dixon

Twitch may have its roots firmly planted in esports, but its billing as a gaming-centric streaming platform no longer applies.

The Amazon-owned service’s offering upon launch in 2011 appeared a simple one. Users could switch on a webcam and stream themselves playing video games. Yet that approach, which made it a home for multi-player entertainment and live interactive formats, soon drew sport’s attention.

Pre-Covid, the likes of Formula One, the National Football League (NFL) and the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) G League had all turned to Twitch’s co-streaming feature. Now, as the pandemic continues, more leagues and teams are leaning on the platform.

Last July, shortly after Amazon announced it would make four of its Premier League games available for free on Twitch, the service unveiled a dedicated sports content channel, /twitchsports. The launch coincided with Arsenal, as well as Real Madrid, Juventus, and Paris Saint-German, all penning strategic partnerships.

With more than 15 million daily users and an average dwell time of 95 minutes per day, Twitch’s appeal is obvious to European soccer giants. However, it is one thing to eagerly eye a large, passionate userbase. It is entirely another to know how best to utilise what Twitch has to offer within your organisation’s strategic direction.

“There are a few things that come into play when we're looking at whether we're going to launch on a new platform or not,” says Tom Hines, Arsenal’s head of media. “The really compelling thing for me about Twitch is that there's a very distinct user behaviour on there compared to the other social platforms and on our owned and operated platforms as well.

“That dwell time figure in the digital age when everything is supposedly bitesize and snackable and disposable, there's something very compelling and something very different about that user behaviour.”

Hines, who was speaking during the SportsPro OTT Summit in December, also pointed to Twitch’s interactive features as an invitation to put out content distinct from Arsenal’s other accounts. Though it may be tempting, it is not a case of the club cannibalising their different platforms. Truly embracing Twitch’s intricacies into your game plan is crucial. 

Don’t be shy of experimenting

As with any new launch, one can expect teething problems. But trial and error remains a core element of finding out what content sticks on Twitch. In its opening few months on the platform, Arsenal made sure to keep track of what was resonating with fans and, as Hines puts it, “what feels right, what fits the functionality”.

That has included discussion pieces around games and dipping into the archives. For the latter, the Gunners celebrated captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s new contract with a selection of some of his best moments intercut with a discussion on the star striker.

Going forward, the North London club want their Twitch offering to be entirely live and host led, believing that lends itself best to the platform and audience interaction.

Real Madrid have joined Arsenal in signing a strategic partnership with Twitch

“Really, the discussion element, the live element, having it very personality led as well, are very important for us,” says Hines. “So finding the right presenter who understands the tone, but who can kind of tread that line between conversing with the fans and chatting about performance and acknowledge that they're still a voice of the club.”

Ultimately, Arsenal want to be surrounded by those who know Twitch inside out. The club may be an institution, yet they are still a fledgling presence on the platform. For Hines, having people in place who are truly native to Twitch will mean they “can take everything that’s great about the platform for gaming and bring that over into sports content”.

“The formats are going to be unique, the approach that we're taking to it is unique and we're learning as we go along,” he adds. “The more people who can help in terms of the talent and guests that we're using the better.”

Find the balance

Twitch is more partial to a light-hearted, informal tone but that could be as big a problem as it is an opportunity. If Arsenal play it straight then viewers will see a cynical corporate marketing ploy. Have too much irreverence, or too heavy a flirtation with content that looks more like ArsenalFan TV (AFTV), and the club may have queasy partners asking questions.

While Arsenal are no strangers to irate fans – see AFTV – and they have been looking to get more supporters onto their channels, the test lies in finding authentic voices without compromising entertainment, or indeed the club’s guidelines.

“There's no magic formula, there's no process really that protects you,” admits Hines. “It's about trust, it's about finding the right people and, particularly for Twitch, finding someone who is going to actively moderate on there.

“I think that's the big difference for us here. It's not about what we're discussing or how we're discussing it. The big difference is having a live chat function overlaid on top of that.

“Our people who we choose to be in front of camera, they're employees of the club, they're trusted people. We have the opportunity to talk to them about where that line is. You don't have that with the fans and neither should you.

“We just have to set ourselves up from a moderation point of view to make sure the chat is controlled.”

All that speaks to a broader challenge that anyone working in media for a sports team faces; staying true to identity. The proliferation of social media still means Arsenal have to adhere to their values even when sticking emojis on an Instagram story or setting up a fan chat on Twitch.

“For me, it comes down to the expertise and the judgement of the people you have in those teams on the ground making those choices,” says Hines.

“It's our responsibility as the people who are leading that on the club side to empower those people and to make sure that our publishers, guests and presenters are clear as to where the lines are.”

Embrace the unknown

Hines’ career has included stints at England Rugby and BT Sport, where he held a variety of digital content roles, prior to joining Arsenal in 2015. Despite his background, he freely admits Twitch brings an element of the unknown. That is part of the attraction.

“We're genuinely scratching the surface at the moment in terms of the functionality that is available to us and how we're using that interaction with the fans,” he explains. 

“I'm excited that there's a lot of stuff on the platform I don't understand. I can only see opportunity in it.

“I couldn't tell you exactly what that opportunity is at the moment but, absolutely, it's really important for us that what we're doing on the platform is native to the platform. That it’s taking advantage of all the functionality that's there and that we're coming on as Arsenal and creating content and interaction with the fans in a way that they're used to interacting on that site.”

That dwell time figure in the digital age when everything is supposedly bitesize and snackable and disposable, there's something very compelling and different about that user behaviour.

Hines also warns that deviating too much from the Twitch formula will only alienate users, especially as they feel a great deal of ownership towards the platform. Sports teams must bow to Twitch’s audience and their way of thinking, not the other way around.

“There is a risk for us as big established sports companies to stomp on in with our Premier League boots on and do things wrong,” notes Hines. “We'll be listening to the audience and looking at what works and absolutely using all of that native functionality.”

The rights picture is changing

Hines was joined during his session at the OTT Summit by Luca Colombo, digital strategy manager at AC Milan, and Olympique de Marseille’s head of distribution Gui Pellan. Like Arsenal, they both are looking to leverage the Twitch opportunity.

Milan launched their channel towards the end of 2020, while Marseille have already enjoyed success by live streaming preseason matches on the platform last summer. The French club’s 5-1 win over FC Pinzgau – who play in the Austrian third division – drew a peak of 100,000 viewers and a total audience reach of 266,000.

Amazon, as mentioned earlier, took the plunge by putting some of its Premier League games on Twitch. It is obviously better placed to make more of live interactive formats than, say, another UK rights holder like Sky Sports. So while the Comcast-owned broadcaster might not be mulling Twitch broadcasts in the immediate future, Hines reckons co-streaming has opened up “a really interesting space from a rights point of view”.

Arsenal want more of their Twitch content to be live and host led to help with fan interaction

“Because of how rights cycles have traditionally worked, the rights agreements are catching up with distribution,” he says. “If we're saying we're going to be putting Premier League archive footage on Twitch, for example, we're having to navigate with the Premier League and within the existing agreements that didn't necessarily envisage a functionality like co-streaming and how that affects club rights.

“Is co-streaming still covered by club rights when we're not technically pushing that content out on club branded platforms? That, for me, highlights one of the ongoing issues that we're all seeing as digital distribution platforms grow.”

As for Arsenal’s other Twitch content plans, Hines reveals the club’s output will include some gaming “to help bring audiences across to the pure sports stuff”. Helping the Gunners’ cause on this front is their partnership with Japanese video game developer Konami, developer of the Pro Evolution Soccer (PES) series. The real-life action, though, will look to be the star attraction.

“The core of what we're doing will be sports content,” says Hines. “We can more authentically tell our story, we can use the levers that we've got, which is the match footage and the players. 

“We'll be using a little bit of gaming content but trying to resist the temptation of doing too much.” 

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