For most people, watching a live broadcast of a competitive game will mean watching the NHL or NBA playoffs this spring, but for a growing niche of video game fans it means watching a livestream of Magic Online, League of Legends, or Grand Theft Auto V – and they’ll all be using Twitch.tv to do it.
Twitch Interactive Inc. is a livestreaming video site that was born out of retired live streaming site Justin TV. After it became apparent that video games were by far the most popular content on the site, which had a wider focus across many categories, Twitch was born. In August 2014, it was acquired by Amazon for $970 million. Today, it’s posting viewership numbers that any television broadcaster would envy – 100 million unique viewers per month are watching more than 10,000 partner channels on Twitch. Last year, it hit its record simultaneous viewer record at more than 1 million.
All of that leads to some good advertising opportunities. Many recognizable brands are jumping on board the livestreaming phenomenon. Red Bull is one example, with its sponsored broadcast of a professional Dota 2 competition featured on Twitch’s home page Friday. Part of the appeal for advertisers, according to Matt Fisher, video playback engineer at Twitch, is the ability to use the Flash-based video playback delivery to build interactivity into to ads. Fisher, a Toronto native that made the move to San Francisco to work at Twitch, spoke at FITC Toronto on April 15.
“The interactivity levels when you compare it to a typical 30-second advertisement that runs on television is very different,” he says. “The easiest way to understand it is when you’re playing an ad, you’re running an application.”
That allows advertisers to present areas of the video screen a user can click – to interact with the content, or leap off to an external site, perhaps. Or they can embed some tracking of user behaviour for measurement purposes. It’s a unique value proposition that Twitch can put forward to advertisers that most other broadcasters can’t.
Except there’s one problem with that proposition – the technology that’s going to set the standard for the future of livestreaming will take away that interactivity. Flash, an ageing format, is already unsupported by the two major mobile platforms in Android and iOS, and desktop standards are also leaving it behind as browsers become updated. As an engineer, Fisher wouldn’t be sad to part with Flash.
“The user takes a huge overhead in using Flash. We can play back the video with other methods that have far less impact on our end user,” he says. “As much as we want to get away from Flash, if we were to try and get away from it today, we’d take a hit on ad playback, and the whole advertising team would probably be a bit upset with me.”
Why Twitch even uses Flash as a playback method in the first place is complicated, but related to that nature of video game streaming. Since Twitch’s broadcasters are streaming from a variety of different platforms – Playstation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC, etc. – they needed to choose a video format that was compatible with those. But the format that works well with those doesn’t play nice on desktop playback, hence the need to contain it in Flash.
“It seems convoluted, but it works very well,” Fisher says.
But Fisher is reading the tea leaves and he sees where online video playback is going in the future. It’s called Media Source Extensions (MSE), a standard that’s being edited by a team that includes developers from Google, Microsoft, and Netflix. Youtube, the king of online video, is already using it to play back a portion of its video. While the format will mean a better experience for end users, it’s flat – there’s no room for interactivity.
“I personally hope that advertisers will start understanding the future of this content, the importance of it, the value of it, and work in an eco-system that works for everybody,” Fisher says.
Plus, if Twitch is going to continue to recruit top engineers to work on its site, working with Flash doesn’t hold much allure.
“To get qualified people to work on the video playback solution, you want to be doing something that’s new and exciting and cutting edge, and not maintaining an old gremlin in the closet,” he says.
Though caring for a gremlin that lives in a closet does sound like something that you’d see broadcast on Twitch.