Amazon’s Twitch, Microsoft’s Mixer, and Google’s YouTube are all in the middle of individual creator wars, placing million-dollar bets on the biggest gaming streamers in the space. Now, YouTube is trying to corner another market in the space: e-sports.
YouTube announced late on Friday that three different e-sports organizations — the Call of Duty League, the Overwatch League, and competitive Hearthstone — will stream matches exclusively on its platform. All three leagues, which collectively belong to video game publisher Activision Blizzard, primarily streamed on Twitch up until now. Neither YouTube’s head of gaming, Ryan Wyatt, nor Activision Blizzard commented on the specifics of the deal, but Wyatt noted in an interview with Wired that talks began in 2019.
These aren’t small leagues. The Overwatch League boasted 313,000 global viewers on average per minute in 2019, which is an 18 percent increase from the 2018 regular season, according to Nielsen. More than 55,000 of those viewers were based in the United States alone, the analytics firm found. While the Call of Duty League is brand-new, its predecessor, the Call of Duty World League, also saw high numbers, with 2.7 million hours total watched on Twitch, according to The Esports Observer. The CWL’s world championship averaged around 66,000 concurrent viewers, the Observer noted, peaking at 182,000. The numbers are impressive, and they present YouTube with a lucrative opportunity in the ongoing platform wars that are fighting for exclusive rights to the biggest streamers and franchises in the industry.
The company is no stranger to betting on talent. YouTube signed exclusive deals with big-name creators like Jack “CouRage” Dunlop, Rachell “Valkyrae” Hofstetter, Elliott “Muselk” Watkins, and Lannan “LazarBeam” Eacott. Each streamer brings in thousands of live viewers whenever they stream but also boasts millions of views from highlight compilations that are uploaded as VODs to YouTube. For a long while, YouTube’s had the core advantage of being the only platform that boasts a popular VOD section (how most people use YouTube) while also growing its live-streaming component.
Now, YouTube is trying to corner the marketplace by bringing in swaths of people via big e-sports leagues instead of relying on a few handfuls of popular streamers. Using professional leagues to drive viewership growth isn’t a new concept; YouTube is just enacting the same strategy traditional broadcasters have used in fights over rights to mainstream sports for decades. The only difference is that YouTube is hoping e-sports continues to grow at the rate it’s going and bring in more casual viewers through the platform’s much bigger VOD audience in the process.
Twitch may have led the way for e-sports viewing in the past, but YouTube is positioned to be a powerhouse for the various leagues. StreamElements CEO Doron Nir noted in a statement to The Verge that “e-sports events are often responsible for the biggest audiences with the two most watched channels on Twitch in 2019 being Riot Games and Overwatch League.” All three of the major platforms saw increases in the amount of time people sent watching live streams, with YouTube growing from 293 million viewers in Q4 of 2018 to 334 million in Q4 of 2019. By 2021, research firm Newzoo predicts e-sports will have an audience of 557 million people, with many more being casual enthusiasts than diehard fans.
“E-sports tournaments have two types of viewership: Llve and VOD post game,” Nir told Wired. “Since most of VOD happens on YouTube already, I expect the move to YouTube for live viewership will have no negative impact on the views. If YouTube promotes it properly, it might even get more viewership.”
Think of it like taking two bites out of the same apple. YouTube can reap the benefits of bringing in millions of viewers via its league broadcasts and keep those viewers around through VOD compilations and other types of videos. There are multiple games in all three leagues that take place year-round, plus big tournaments that draw in even more casual viewers. E-sports provides a consistency in viewership that YouTube needs while trying to beef up its streaming strategy, and it also brings more viewers to the platform overall. The company already boasts more than 2 billion monthly logged-in users, with 500 hours of content uploaded daily. Gaming is a big part of that world. Having e-sports become a routine facet of the site for viewers can help those metrics grow.
Competitive gaming also offers scheduled, consistent programming, which is something that traditional broadcasters have fought over for decades with mainstream sports. Rights to broadcast games from the NFL, MLB, NHL, and NBA can go for hundreds of millions of dollars. Most of the major broadcasters — ESPN, ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox — head to the bidding table to secure the rights. Now, companies like Amazon and sports streaming platforms like DAZN are pulling up to those conversations, too.
YouTube wants to be the new home of e-sports, a title that’s belonged to Twitch up until now. But broadcasting e-sports is different from facilitating a home for fans. YouTube doesn’t have the same community elements that Twitch does. Twitch and various gaming communities built a new language around emotes, used Twitch Chat to turn the experience entirely interactive, and even earned bonus gifts from companies like Activision Blizzard and Twitch just for tuning in, including exclusive skins.
It’s unclear if YouTube will take over exclusive drops or whether the company will use the league broadcasts to promote Google’s cloud-based gaming service, Stadia. The Verge has reached out to YouTube for more information. What is clear, however, is that YouTube is making its biggest effort yet to become a live-streaming home for viewers and players.
The gap between Twitch and YouTube is pretty big. At one point on Sunday evening, the League of Legends Championship Series saw 95,000 viewers on YouTube and more than 150,000 on Twitch. At the same time, the Call of Duty League saw 59,000 viewers on YouTube. There’s still a gap between Twitch and YouTube, but it’s clear YouTube is planting its flag in the ground in its latest battle against Twitch for streaming dominance.