Last night, Variety reported that Google is close to announcing a $1 billion acquisition of Twitch, the most popular game-streaming service. (The Wall Street Journal reported that negotiations are at a much earlier stage.) Twitch allows gamers to live-stream their gameplay, as well as capture and upload footage, so that other members can watch. Pending Federal Trade Commission approval, such a deal, as much of the coverage around this has rightly noted, would unite two of the major players in game streaming — YouTube and Twitch — and give Google further access to a booming new category of viewership. Twitch boasts nearly 50 million monthly viewers.
That’s the view from 20,000 feet. But Twitch is a very new, very weird thing, and most of the acquisition stories hardly pause to ask what happens on the network itself. What, exactly, is being streamed by Twitch users? What is Google really getting for its billion?
Twelve of the 20 most watched Twitch videos ever prominently feature women in various states of undress. Each racy video corresponds to a different Twitch user, each the leader of her own small flesh cult of personality. A typical user page of this kind will feature calls for donation via PayPal and other micropayment sites, as well as Amazon wish lists and “honor rolls” of donors who tithe above a certain threshold. The content, per Twitch’s terms of service, is at most PG-13, and a lot of it doesn’t have anything to do with games, really, at all. The popular user KneeColeslaw, for instance, draws, for hours at a time, MS Paint portraits.
The other eight most watched Twitch videos are all dudes playing League of Legends, the ubiquitous and impenetrable action game that, depending on who you ask, is the most popular game in the world. LoL, its closest competitor (the similar Defense of the Ancients 2), and their more charismatic streamers, dominate Twitch.
Despite the hype surrounding Twitch streaming integration into the new PlayStation 4 and Xbox One consoles, you have to count all the way down to the 37th most popular Twitch channel to find a stream dedicated to a game that is primarily played on console (Dark Souls 2). Game streaming is hugely popular, but the point to keep in mind here is that the games and audiences who stream are still relatively niche. Twitch Plays Pokemon, the crowdsourced playthrough of Nintendo’s iconic role-playing game, attracted a lot of viewers and a lot of attention, but it’s hardly representative of what normally happens on the platform.
So, assuming the Variety report is true, Google is buying, for $1 billion, an audience of people who subsidize the lives of scantily dressed female gamers, and who are highly dedicated to an extremely popular but extremely esoteric form of gaming.