Come on, you know how it is in this fast-moving, unpredictable Age of the Internet: tech giants have all the resources, all the infrastructure, all the data necessary to foresee where the next hot trend might be coming from, yet it’s some small upstart that strikes gold by focusing on something that proved to be more popular than anyone thought possible. That’s what happened, more or less, with Twitch, which emerged as the de-facto platform for video games live-streaming in less than two years (2013–2014) before being acquired by Amazon. The dominant video platform of the world, YouTube, was totally unprepared for all this despite the fact that game clips as video content were clearly gaining traction since 2010. YouTube Gaming was announced as a Twitch alternative and rushed to launch in 2015 but, by then, Twitch had already become practically synonymous to live streaming and the vast community built around it.
Google seems determined to redouble its efforts in challenging Twitch, though, as of late. During the last few months, it has scored two major wins by convincing Tim “TheTatMan” Betar and Ben “DrLupo” Lupo to move their streams (and vast followings) from Twitch to YouTube Gaming. These mirror the choices made by Jack “CouRage” Dunlop and Rachell “Valkyrae” Hofstetter in 2019 and 2020 to do the same. The company has also partnered with Discord, a popular online communication service also on the rise during the last three years, in order to offer free access to YouTube Premium and activate features like “Watch Together” (a function quite useful for sharing virtual online events with others) for its members.
But it’s what YouTube Gaming itself will be offering that’s much more telling: it’s a number of new features that, admittedly, almost reads like a checklist of popular Twitch functions. According to Ryan Wyatt, Global Head of Gaming for Google, the service accommodates or will accommodate Subscriber-only Chat, Clips, Membership Milestone Chats, Live Control Room and Super Thanks after listening to online creators themselves and evaluating their feedback. What’s more, Google intends to differentiate itself from Twitch while directly competing with it by offering alternative content format options like Shorts (clips lasting less than a minute) and multiple monetization options for live or on-demand streaming in 2022 onward.
Tellingly, nowhere in Ryan Wyatt’s official YouTube Gaming post is Google Stadia — Google’s own game streaming service that was supposed to compete with Xbox Cloud Gaming — even mentioned. Not once. Given the fact that during the unveiling of Google Stadia the company had repeatedly underlined the collaborative features and synergies possible between that service and YouTube Gaming, things are not looking good for Stadia. It really is a shame because some of those “live linking” ideas between the two services, such as watching a video clip of a new game on YouTube Gaming and being able to buy and play that game instantly on Stadia, looked promising back then.
Of the three dominant video game live streaming services right now — the other one being Facebook Gaming — YouTube Gaming lags behind Twitch by a considerable, even disheartening, margin: while Google’s service grew to 1.4 billion hours watched since last year, Twitch grew to a staggering 6.3 billion. It’s only natural, then, that Google would like to change that (and fast). The problem is that almost all the aforementioned moves the company is making feel more like playing catch-up than genuinely challenging Twitch.
What Google should probably be doing is not copying Twitch’s features, but hitting it where it hurts: the latter service always had discoverability problems, as well as moderation problems and monetization problems. Those have created a cloud of disappointment and uncertainty over Twitch as of late, despite the high numbers. YouTube Gaming would be better off focusing on becoming a more welcoming platform — helping new or experienced creators do their best work as effortlessly as possible and benefit from it in a meaningful way — rather than just add more features that may be quite useful but will not attract streamers (or their audiences) all by themselves.
The elephant in the room, of course, is none other than Google itself. The search giant is notorious for investing in products and services, only to abandon them — and everyone else who has invested in those along the way — if they do not meet the company’s initial expectations. The “Google Graveyard” is full of such examples. YouTube Gaming may seem like an obvious growth area right now, but there’s no telling what Google will make of it a couple of years down the line (especially if it has already killed off Stadia by then). For the time being all Google can do is put its best foot forward in order to attract more creators, strengthen its position and genuinely present a threat to Twitch with YouTube Gaming. It’s not going to be easy — Microsoft can confirm as much — but if there’s one company that can pull it off, it’s not Facebook. It’s Google.