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Opinion | What traditional sports could (and should) learn from Twitch

Robert Zitzmann, chief executive of Jung von Matt SPORTS, and Carl Kuhn, the creative agency’s head of esports and gaming, explain how sports rights holders and brands should be approaching the community-oriented cultural phenomenon that is Twitch.

18 October 2021 Robert Zitzmann and Carl Kuhn
Twitch: How sports rights holders and brands should be approaching the

In recent years, development in sports has been digitally driven, from media innovation to fan engagement and sponsorship. Most recently, this has meant an addiction to anything that contains the buzzwords of data, over-the-top (OTT) or content.

And while everyone tries to answer the same questions, those answers have sadly often been very uniform. Barely any player – from media and sponsors to rights holders – has developed an individual handwriting in their field. Take the social content game, for example, where Bleacher Report stepped onto the pitch with their own brand of visual storytelling, excellence in real-time content and their ability to create moments that matter. What felt like a revolution at the time quickly led to a copy-and-paste party across the entire sports industry. Whilst some may have increased their engagement figures, barely anyone has evolved their very own type of content.

But the next new frontier is on the horizon and many players in sport have identified esports as a new ‘cool kid’. In equal turns loved, feared and hated, the field has been identified as a chance for growth in two main ways. First off, by adding gaming related sponsorship inventory and content to rights holders’ portfolios to engage with a new – and younger – target audience. And, more recently, as a channel to communicate traditional offerings to a new generation, especially via its cornerstone platform, Twitch.

While the next Bleacher Report has yet to emerge, a new battle for buzz has already begun.

Twitch is the true definition of what our industry calls OTT.

The Elevator Twitch: A digital campfire for the next gen’s live content needs

First off, Twitch is much more than a simple live platform for gaming content, as often reported. Since its origins in ‘merely’ giving live gaming content a home, it has come a Twitch on: What traditional sports can – and should – learn from the world’s leading OTT platform long way, multiplying content streams hourly, from music to entertainment shows all the way to traditional sports formats. There are many reasons for the rapid growth and success of Twitch, and most of them tie back to what sets it apart from other platforms.

Starting off with its community: the Twitch audience is young and well-educated. It is digital-born and tech savvy. But these are just basic demographic factors. What sets them apart is their hunger for meaningful interaction and their understanding of their own role as an audience, which goes way beyond passive viewership.

As much as they are there for the content itself, people watch streamers on Twitch because they want to be part of the ‘wave’ in chat and have their questions answered by their idols. And it’s not just by their time and attention that they are the architects of their own ecosystem: by subscribing to certain streamers or donating to them, viewers directly enable their favourite content creators to dedicate more time – and feel a very different sense of ownership and belonging within their community as a result.

So in the most basic of terms, a lot of the success of Twitch and on Twitch happens when offering fans the opportunity to truly be part of a community and take an active role in it.

With LaLiga Casters, Twitch content creators offer an alternative commentary to top-flight Spanish soccer matches

Internet killed the TV star: When sport fails to understand its fans – and fan engagement

This goes a long way to explaining the failure of many traditional offerings on Twitch thus far. Many take their TV product and simply re-broadcast it on Twitch. No interaction, no fan engagement, no true live component whatsoever. And that one-size fits-all approach is a big mistake since it fails to recognise gaming and its adjacent platforms as a counter-culture.

People aren’t on Twitch because they couldn’t find football on their TV, they are on Twitch because they did find football on their TV and wanted something more. Keeping this in mind and getting to know this new platform is thus vital in order for rights holders to create better products and experiences for younger audiences – inside and outside of Twitch.

So it makes sense that some of the greatest players in traditional sports have started experimenting. The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), National Basketball Association (NBA), National Hockey League (NHL) and Major League Baseball (MLB) have all ramped up their own channels, where many of them re-broadcast old matches as a ‘watch along party’, meaning that fans can make use of the social features whilst watching matches together.

In 2020, the Premier League broadcasted four matches live on Twitch, but with limited functionalities. So far, so ordinary. La Liga was more daring in creating the regular format ‘LaLiga Casters’. Here, Twitch content creators offer an alternative commentary and their reaction to matches. This offered the younger audience a new access point, yet didn’t include the feed of the original match due to media rights limitations.

That aside, the format reached 4.8 million watchers over its first nine matches. This comes as little surprise as similar formats have already been hugely successful in esports, where tournaments like the Valorant Champions Tour have started securing the support of Twitch influencers like first-person shooter legend “Shroud” to co-stream their events. In that instance, the tournament offered both the official broadcast and the talent’s take on it, bridging both worlds and providing new fans with a point of access as well as the social toolkit to let them co-create.

Influencers like first-person shooter legend “Shroud” are major part of the Twitch platform

A particularly exciting outlook into a future of that toolkit is Fan Controlled Football. This format by the indoor professional American football league, which is directly crafted for Twitch and the gaming network Venn, includes features that let fans influence matchday line-ups, in-game power-ups as well as letting them vote on which plays to call. For this format, everything is Twitch-first.

But it’s not just about rights holders. This approach also enables associated brands and sponsors to activate their existing engagements in sports and esports closer to fans, like McDonald’s did for its gaming engagement with ‘Serve the Streamer’. The brand partnered with famous streaming collective PietSmiet and let them gift subscriptions to smaller streamers in their name, thus making use of the credibility and audience of their new friends whilst being firmly in the driver’s seat as an eyelevel enabler.

The results were hugely positive and linked entertainment with a CSR approach to thanking smaller streamers that otherwise might not be able to build a sizeable community. The special strength of this type of activity was that it could not take place anywhere else but on Twitch. Not only was it community tailored and bubble-friendly, but it was also inspired by the culture of the platform.

A best case for brands on Twitch: McDonald’s ‘Sub Bomb Delivery’ on Twitch created by Jung von Matt SPORTS

The land of the free: Twitch is the test lab for a new era of brand and culture marketing

But this kind of freedom in interactive activation that Twitch offers is not just an inspiration for a new communication and content culture. Its apt use will also become a requirement for brand marketing success beyond the platform as well.

Twitch is the true definition of what our industry calls OTT. And for all those busy planning their own media platforms, it’s the benchmark of what OTT can actually do for brands and businesses – and their communities. So for rights owners, media and sponsors in sports, Twitch is not only a must-do play to seed new playgrounds for new fans, it’s also a unique shot to evolve their understanding of the young, the digital, the creators, the streamers and content consumers of the future while there is still time.

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