A while back my brother told me about how he'd started posting video blogs to YouTube. I looked him up, checked out his profile, pressed play on the first one and I was, well, pretty confused by what I saw. The video was in-game footage of Minecraft - in the video, he was playing Minecraft on screen while talking about gaming and related matters via voice over. I watched for a while, expecting something to happen, but nothing did. He was just playing Minecraft as he talked about stuff.
"What was that about?" I asked him.
"It's what people do."
As it turns out, a lot of people - the website Twitch, which hosts gaming and gaming-related video content, including many variations of people talking while playing through games, is currently the fourth largest source of peak Internet traffic in the US, attracting more than 100 million viewers per month. Equally impressive, almost half of Twitch's user-base spend more than 20 hours per week on Twitch's platform. The success of Twitch has been so great that Amazon bought the network for $970 million last year, investing in the future of interactive gaming and gaming community. Given the numbers, there's no question that watching videos of people playing games is, in fact, what people do. And now Google has decided it wants to join the party.
With E3 2015 fast approaching, Google-owned YouTube this week announced that they are launching their own app and website dedicated purely to gaming. Simply titled YouTube Gaming, the new platform will feature more than 25,000 pages focused on specific games enabling users to subscribe and follow channels related to their favorites, showcasing fan-made videos and gaming content. YouTube's created a more user-friendly upload format for gamers, and videos will stream at YouTube's recently added (for live streams anyway) 60 frames per second rate, perfect for in-game playback.
From YouTube's official announcement:
"Live streams bring the gaming community closer together, so we've put them front-and-center on the YouTube Gaming homepage. And in the coming weeks, we'll launch an improved live experience that makes it simpler to broadcast your gameplay to YouTube. On top of existing features like high frame rate streaming at 60fps, DVR, and automatically converting your stream into a YouTube video, we're redesigning our system so that you no longer need to schedule a live event ahead of time. We're also creating single link you can share for all your streams."
YouTube Gaming will be available this Summer in the US and UK, and rolling out to further regions following that. The move had been rumored for some time, with Twitch's audience growing by the month - so under the more generalized umbrella of the gaming community, what sort of demographics and market is Google trying to tap into via YouTube Gaming?
"All Your Base Are Belong to Us"
According to Twitch, 95% of Twitch users are male, with 76% aged between 18 and 49. Twitch claims to reach 'half of Millennial males in America', with 1m Twitch broadcasters sharing their content on the platform monthly.
That's a very specific demographic group, but cross-match that against economic data and you find that that market is estimated to be spending close to $100b annually by 2017. What's more, Twitch is clearly growing, based on the numbers above and from outside sources like app downloads and Alexa numbers. When you consider, too, the growth of gaming as a sport internationally - pro-gaming is broadcast on TV in several countries, with 32 million tuning-in for a recent League of Legends championship - it's clear that this is a trend that's set for continued growth.
But more than that, capturing gamers has extended benefits, particularly in terms of the evolution of e-commerce, and shopping. Just this week, Facebook-owned Oculus unveiled the new Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, along with details of a new deal with Microsoft to make the device Xbox One compatible. While the first stages of virtual reality will be rooted in gaming culture, the extension of the technology to further applications, like virtual shopping, are largely dependent on the devices being more widely accessible. Partnering with the gaming community could help companies like Oculus - or Google, with their Google Cardboard VR headsets - facilitate wider adoption of virtual reality and increase the parameters of what's possible with the tech, purely through increased adoption. Definitely, if Google's recent announcements at their annual I/O conference are anything to go by, virtual reality will play a big part in their future, and building closer ties with the gaming community is likely to play a significant role in that process.
But then again, from another perspective, it's just as likely that what Google stands to lose is equally, if not more significant, if Twitch continues its rise. At present, around half of YouTube's top 100 channels are dedicated to gaming, bringing millions of viewers to the site every day. The most-watched person on YouTube in 2014 was gamer Felix Kjelberg, who goes by the name "PewDie Die" - his videos alone were viewed 4.1 billion times over the year. Kjelberg currently has 37 million subscribers - if he and other gamers were tempted to shift across to the more gamer-oriented Twitch, the losses for Google would be major, major enough for them to take action and do whatever they can to keep a hold on that market, rather than let Twitch take over.
So will YouTube Gaming pay-off? It's hard to say at this stage, and we'll definitely know more about how YouTube plans to keep gamers on-side after E3 this week, where they'll be showcasing features of the YouTube Gaming experience. What is clear is that gaming is going to become a focus, and the big players will be looking to take it more seriously. While this is great for the wider gaming community, it's also worth noting from a wider online marketing and digital media landscape perspective. Gaming is big business, and where a growing number of people are spending their time. Depending on your target market, it might be worth keeping an eye on this space, as it's likely play a bigger role in future, whether through games directly, or through technology, by extension.