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‘It’s about mirroring what we’ve done in gaming’: Twitch’s plan to change how fans watch live sports

Initially launched as a video game streaming service, Twitch is starting to influence the way sports are being watched. Strategic partnerships manager Farhan Ahmed explains how the Amazon-owned platform is applying the interactive elements of a live gaming stream to NFL and NBA G League broadcasts, and outlines the role sport will play in its growth.

22 November 2019 Sam Carp

When Twitch set out its stall in 2011 as a platform that essentially allowed its users to switch on a webcam and stream themselves playing video games, few would have expected that it might later have a big say in how live sports will be watched in the future. But, then again, neither did those at the company.

Indeed, when Twitch was launched just under a decade ago as a spin-off from general interest streaming platform Justin.tv, the company’s co-founder and now chief executive Emmett Shear described the project as “a site made by esports fans, for esports fans”, making no mention of competitive gaming’s traditional counterpart.

However, Shear also noted that gaming was just the start of what Twitch had set out to build. Now, equipped with an army of more than 15 million daily active users, the company is branching out into live sports.

“When we started in 2011, Twitch was purely a gaming service,” recalls Farhan Ahmed, Twitch’s strategic partnerships manager. “Recently, what we’ve found is what’s successful within gaming – we call it multi-player experience, this idea that our creators and our community can create shared, live interactive experiences with each other – works in content spheres outside of gaming.

“We’ve seen success outside of gaming and we’ve done surveys of our audience, and it was clear that people watching gaming content were also interested in watching sports, so there was a clear overlap there. We’re a service and we enable our creators, so I think it’s also important that we realised that there was a demand for this type of content. From there it’s about how we build out this content ecosystem into something that mirrors what we’ve done in gaming.”

Twitch founder Emmett Shear described gaming as “just the start” when the platform launched in 2011

What Twitch has done in gaming to date is impressive. The company regularly boasts of its global community, with 500,000 users streaming live on the platform every day and more than one million users watching them at any one time. At the time of writing, 579 billion minutes of video content have been watched on the service in 2019 alone, which so far has produced an average 3.7 million monthly streamers. Twitch, as they say, has become a thing.

And it is a thing that is starting to get noticed by major sports rights holders. That started in December 2017, when Twitch struck a deal with the National Basketball Association (NBA) to stream the NBA G League development competition. Since then, it has added coverage of Major League Soccer’s (MLS) Generation Adidas Cup to its offering, and recently parted ways with an undisclosed rights fee to secure an exclusive streaming partnership with the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL). Formula One trialled the platform in certain markets for the first time during October's Mexican Grand Prix, shortly after a global tie-up was announced with Australia's National Basketball League (NBL)

But it is not only through live sport that Twitch has started to catch people’s attention. Its streamers have become some of the most recognisable celebrities among young people, and have helped propel the platform into the mainstream through crossover gaming stunts with popular athletes. Tyler ‘Ninja’ Blevins, for example, who in 2018 made US$10 million from playing video games before swapping Twitch for Microsoft-owned streaming platform Mixer earlier this year, has roped in thousands of viewers from playing Fortnite with the likes of National Football League (NFL) star Juju Smith-Schuster and England soccer captain Harry Kane.

What we’ve found is what’s successful within gaming works in content spheres outside of gaming.

Clearly, then, there are various different nodes to Twitch’s offering and, more specifically, what it can offer sports. Owned by internet giant Amazon, which itself is starting to make its first strides into live sport, Twitch, it would be fair to say, is not yet being mentioned in the same breath as the likes of DAZN, Facebook and Google. What is clear from the deals Twitch has done so far is that it is not yet going to be bidding huge sums for premium sports rights, but Ahmed explains that the company is still in “an experimental phase”.

“I think it depends on what the rights holder and what that company wants to do,” he adds. “With sports it’s a very complex landscape. Rights are valued at quite a significant high cost, so we do have to be careful with that. Twitch monetises off the content that it brings to our service, so are we also going to be able to monetise in a way that’s sustainable for us to work on these deals?

“Also, because sport is fairly new [for Twitch] and it requires things like geo-blocking, for example, [there are] certain demands on our product which for gaming and user-generated content hasn’t necessarily been something that we’ve been required to do. We’re still understanding the demands of what’s needed to carry sports.”

Beyond sports and gaming content, though, Twitch allows its creators to stream themselves doing just about anything, and its audience can watch it all for free. That model has garnered a diverse community with a vast array of interests, and one that naturally skews younger. According to widely cited data published on SimilarWeb, more than half – 55 per cent – of the platform’s audience is between the age of 18 and 34.

That demographic – containing the much-coveted millennials and Generation Zs – is one that both sports organisations and broadcasters are finding increasingly elusive, which might help to explain why Amazon was so keen to stream its National Football League (NFL) Thursday night games on Twitch from the 2018 season. That move also reportedly saw the tech company’s average minute audience (AMA) over the opening seven weeks of the campaign increase by 47 per cent compared to 2017, with a game in November between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Carolina Panthers being streamed a combined 2.2 million times on Amazon Prime and Twitch.

“When we talk about interaction, I think it’s also partly about the Twitch community as a whole,” says Ahmed, speaking to SportsPro at Twitch’s London office. “It’s easy to speak about community, but Twitch has its own language, it has its own emote system, it has its own memes. There’s a very endemic culture within Twitch which is mainly born out of gaming but seems to be expanding more and more outside of that.

With sports it’s a very complex landscape. Rights are valued at quite a significant high cost, so we do have to be careful with that.

“It is very unique and the demographic is very young. There’s clear opportunity in engaging with this type of audience, and also I think our community, because there are actually creators who come to our service, and they can monetise off it. That’s unique to Twitch, the idea that people can put out content and it’s all free to watch, and yet they’re still able to make a living through the community that are watching.”

What is perhaps most interesting about Twitch is not necessarily the fact that young people are watching live sports on the platform, but how they are watching it. While broadcasters are continuing to search for ways to bring their viewers closer to the action, interactivity is something that was built into Twitch from the outset. Ahmed explains that the toolset for streaming video games and sports on the platform is the same, but that there are certain interactive features that the latter can benefit from and increase engagement around the live broadcast.

Formula One trialled Twitch during the recent Mexican Grand Prix

The first of those is a straightforward chat function, similar to what one would get on live YouTube and Facebook streams, which enables users to share their thoughts about a game as the action unfolds with the thousands of others that are tuning in. What is more unique to Twitch, though, is its ability to tailor certain broadcast solutions to specific sports.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver, for example, said in March that he expects the league’s games to look “dramatically different” in five years’ time, adding that one of the reasons the organisation was streaming its G League on Twitch rather than via a traditional outlet is because of “the novel way those games are being broadcast”.

Twitch’s partnership with the competition allows individual creators on the platform to co-stream live G League games to their own communities and with their own original commentary. This enables Twitch’s streamers to provide their unique perspectives on every play, allows viewers to choose who they want to direct the action, and also affords the league wider exposure.

It’s easy to speak about community, but Twitch has its own language, it has its own emote system, it has its own memes. There’s a very endemic culture within Twitch which is mainly born out of gaming but seems to be expanding more and more outside of that.

“What we really like about what the NBA has done is that they’ve embraced two of the products that we see as fundamental to making sports different on Twitch,” says Ahmed, whose own role involves heading up new verticals at the company, which encompasses everything outside of gaming. “That has been co-streaming, and it’s open co-streaming as well, so it means anyone who wants to can take the feed and stream it to their community, which is great because it is a completely new way of watching sport.

“It’s almost like having a Twitch personality presenting it to their audience; they understand Twitch, so they can speak the language, and that’s difficult in itself, just understanding the nuance there. Also, it goes to their audience, so they’re not necessarily having to build an audience from scratch; there’s also people there watching their content anyway.”

The second product the NBA has utilised, Ahmed continues, is Extensions, which are interactive overlays and panels that integrate real-time data to “create extra ways for audiences to interact on top of the gaming content”.

The NBA G League Extensions allow viewers to access both team and player stats at the click of a button. In addition, they can earn loyalty points by choosing to ‘boost’ specific players they think will perform well in a specific game. At the start of each quarter, meanwhile, viewers can participate in a poll to predict which team will end the period with more points or blocks. Participants are also able to vote for the Twitch MVP during every match, who is then interviewed on the court after the game.

“Generally speaking, we find that a lot of the tools that we built for gaming and esports have significant overlap,” Ahmed says. “It’s part of what we’ve done with the NBA G League: interactive stats and polls the audience can use to engage with that content. It exists within gaming and esports, but it’s certainly something that sports content can benefit from and add extra engagement to.

“A lot of sports have access to data, and I think the ability to either pull it into an API [application programming interface] to have it put out into an Extension definitely makes it easier for that type of Extension to be built.

I think in terms of the future, we want to – if the creator demand and the audience demand is there – be building something out that does have the biggest sports.

“There’s plenty of other ways that you can use Extensions to engage with an audience, so I think certainly there’s an easy win for sports that have data rich information easy to hand that they can then navigate and create into an Extension. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that other sports couldn’t create this extra interactivity – it might just require a little bit more creative thinking to what it’s going to be.”

Such has been the success of Twitch’s relationship with the NBA that the two recently furthered their collaboration. In August, the two parties moved to make the platform the exclusive live streaming partner of USA Basketball in the run-up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. That deal, which also includes the option to co-stream events, is very much in keeping with the lower-tier, smaller package deals that Twitch has signed up to this point.

Naturally, though, as more rights holders familiarise themselves with Twitch and the different viewing experiences it can offer, Ahmed expects more sports will want to have their content showcased on the platform.

“If you can work with partners who see and want to embrace how content looks on Twitch, then I think those are going to be the best kind of partnerships,” he points out. “It takes time to both integrate yourself in the marketplace, and also a lot of people don’t know who Twitch are yet, so it’s not like they’re necessarily saying: ‘Let’s experiment with Twitch and sports content.’

The NFL's Thursday Night Football games are another regular on Twitch

“A lot of it still, for us, is actually explaining what Twitch is and showing that we’re not just a gaming service anymore. So these things take time; I think potentially in a few years we want to continue to work with partners who have leaned in and it works really well with, but the idea is definitely to expand that.”

Ahmed reveals that part of that expansion will be in Europe, where Twitch has two sports deals “potentially lined up”, and where it has also had to double the size of its London office to support that growth. In the US, meanwhile, major league rights packages are not up for renewal for several years, meaning Twitch can continue to work with smaller-scale leagues and competitions to evaluate how its users are interacting with live sports before taking the plunge on any larger investments

 Ahmed, though, does little to mask the scale of Twitch’s long-term ambitions.

“I think part of the inevitability of when you’re starting out within sports is the rights landscape is so complicated,” he says. “It’s taking us quite a lot of time researching it and understanding what’s potentially available, what’s potentially going to work on our service.

“In the short-term, I think that in this period of experimentation it makes sense for us to be working with people who want to experiment. I think in terms of the future, we want to – if the creator demand and the audience demand is there – be building something out that does have the biggest sports.”

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