The Dota 2 International Championships took place last week, determining the winner of the grand Aegis of the Immortal trophy and distributing $18.4 million in prize money among the 16 participating teams. Beyond the mythical battles and skirmishes inside the game, the tournament was also an important event in the ongoing contest between YouTube and Twitch. The International 5 (TI5) was streamed live on both services as well as inside the Dota 2 game client itself — though this year, unlike any of the previous ones, I watched almost all of it on YouTube. What’s changed?
Having lost out to Amazon in the pursuit to acquire Twitch last year, Google remained determined to own a dominant live-streaming platform and redoubled its efforts at making YouTube that destination. YouTube had already served up a good number of live music concerts and political debates, but the fight against Twitch was about recruiting gamers: both fans of titles like Dota 2 and the players who streamed their matches online. This is a big and growing business, and it’s a natural extension of YouTube’s dominant position as the main repository of user-generated videos. But YouTube’s first bite at the International cherry wasn’t a happy one: in 2014, it shared the spotlight with Twitch on Valve’s Dota 2pages, however its streams were unreliable, lapsing into regular buffering pauses, and lacked the polish and quality of Twitch’s output.
GOOGLE IS STREAMING MATCHES AT A CRISP 1080P AND 60FPS
In 2015, YouTube’s live streams of The International have been pretty much flawless. 1080p resolution, 60 frames per second, always there when you need them. The gap in quality that existed has now been bridged, and YouTube stands as Twitch’s equal in pure technical terms. But you can’t beat Twitch by just being as good, and the thing that drew me to YouTube this year was the extra functionality on offer from Google’s video service.
On YouTube, I can rewind a live stream to watch anything I might have missed over the previous two hours. This made it possible for me to start watching The International 90 minutes late and still get the full experience of the show. In fact, I would often join the stream late just so I could have a buffer of time, which I would later use to skip past the breaks between matches. YouTube isn’t the only streaming service to feature this sort of built-in DVR, but it is the only one to offer it for TI5.
IF TWITCH IS REGULAR TV, YOUTUBE IS TV WITH A BASIC TIVO BOX ATTACHED TO IT
What I’m getting from YouTube is a sort of hybrid between its own strength of on-demand video and Twitch’s live streaming. If Twitch is regular TV, YouTube is TV with a basic TiVo box attached to it. It helps me make the most of my time by letting me manipulate the time of the stuff I am watching. Especially in the earlier stages of The International, where multiple matches would be going on at the same time, YouTube was a brilliant help in letting me jump between contests without missing out on anything. And the fear of missing out is a big enough problem on the web to have become a recognized acronym: FOMO.
I said above that YouTube and Twitch are now technically equivalent, but the two services are still much more different than they are similar. Twitch has a mass of active and engaged users that YouTube can’t yet rival. That sounds weird to say, given YouTube’s scale, but most people are still unaware of Google’s live-streaming ambitions and do not think of YouTube when they consider where to watch the latest e-sport tournament. At one point during the TI5 Grand Finals, I looked at YouTube’s viewer counter and it was at just over 36,000. Compare that to last year’s peak of more than two million concurrent TI4 viewers, and you get a good idea of how far YouTube has to go.
WE’RE BETTER OFF WITH GOOGLE COMPETING AGAINST, RATHER THAN OWNING, TWITCH
Google faces an uphill struggle in its quest to convince gamers that YouTube is the place to fulfill all their needs. Many of the most prominent game streamers might be reluctant to leave Twitch, and there’s perpetual discontent about YouTube’s monetization model, which forces creators to channel their advertising through YouTube. But then Google also enjoys an advantage, which is that when the live action ends on Twitch, its likeliest archival destination is YouTube. As a fan, I much prefer having just one place where I can watch TI5 live, rewind it if I need to, and then go back to it later with the video replays available on demand. It’s neater.
Twitch isn’t going to shed its crown as the preeminent live streaming platform for gamers anytime soon. Nonetheless, YouTube’s competition is now real and substantive. The more big-time events like The International that Google can get under its belt, the more exposure YouTube’s streaming service will receive. And it won’t be long before its convenience shines through — so either Twitch will have to evolve to match YouTube’s utility or more of us will make the switch to Google’s alternative. Either way, game streaming is likely to get better as a result of this competitive tussle. I used to think that Google buying Twitch would be a really great move, but keeping them apart is turning out to be an even better idea.