Press Play To Start: What Twitch’s monopoly on streaming means for the future of content creators

It feels like classes started just yesterday. But it’s midway through September which means football season is now well underway. 

Now, I won’t say that I understand the game better than some of my fellow sports columnists. I did only learn the rules of the game two years ago when I moved to the United States.

But I’d be lying if I said I don’t love watching football. The fan energy that comes with following USC football is somewhat transferable to the world of esports. Even if you are not aware of the intricacies involved in playing League of Legends, you’d still find yourself overflowing with energy if you stepped into a stadium. 

However, not all areas of professional gaming are equally competitive. By that, I refer to the “streaming wars.” 

Let me explain. While this term has been used often to refer to the competition between all the different television and movie viewing platforms (e.g. Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, etc.…), it has also been used to address the competition between livestreaming companies. While I may have focused solely on Twitch in past columns, there are a lot of other websites offering similar content out there — many which
belong to tech giants. 

Naturally, when companies such as  YouTube and Facebook enter the same market, there will be a “war” for the biggest share, at least on paper.

The reality is no other company comes close to Twitch’s numbers, both in total hours watched and total hours spent streaming. While other services have a monopoly on a specific niche audience (with YouTube gaming being particularly popular among those who watch virtual YouTubers), that “monopoly” rarely constitutes a threat to Twitch’s authority. 

But why should we care?

Well, while all this business talk seems very disconnected from what is actually happening on the platform, the truth is that Twitch’s monopoly harms its content creators.

A recent Washington Post article investigated why some streamers are still leaving the platform. What they found was that since Twitch has “won” the streaming wars, the website has now changed its approach toward exclusivity contracts. The general trend of those modifications seems to be to offer less money than they used to or even stop offering contracts at all. 

That is because streamers now have less leverage to negotiate better terms. Moving to a different service means losing a great deal of your audience in the process. Unless you are a household name and can score a lifelong deal with a competitor, odds are you will want to remain on Twitch. 

This is particularly salient for esports athletes that stream on Twitch. Since most of them are professionals at video games that generate little revenue and target a more niche audience, Twitch is the only place where they can still make money off of their skills (although professionals that play popular games are usually doing fine financially with just their esports contracts). As the platform itself is shifting away into a more casual audience, many people that used to headline tournaments now barely manage to amass a following. 

This leads to esports athletes being stuck between a rock and a hard place as they are forced to either take Twitch’s low offer or risk having to work a 9 to 5 that has nothing to do with the games they fell in love with. 

Not only does this monopoly harm content creators, but it also specifically makes life a lot harder for the very people that made Twitch an interesting platform in the first place. That is why we should care.

If you look at the numbers, you will see that livestreaming exploded in popularity during the pandemic. Many new creators joined the market, offering fresh perspectives and entertainment during a time where many sought some comfort. 

The explosion also helped legitimize livestreaming as a viable professional outlet, with many companies now interested in either supporting or specializing in that form of entertainment. The recent surge in audience and overall investments in esports competitions led to an increase in tournament frequencies. As said in previous columns, many big streamers hosted their own professional events during the pandemic. This not only led to an increase in popularity for the games being showcased but also gave struggling pros an opportunity to demonstrate their hard-earned skills .

If  Twitch continues to offer new creators enough money to survive, it seems apparent everything we have gained in this previous year will simply disappear, and the platform will stagnate once more. While this would help shift the tides and give strength to competitors (eventually solving the monopoly issue), it would still be detrimental to the creators who abandoned the prospect of a career throughout the process. 

And if the driving force behind what made livestreaming so fun during the past year — the myriad of new creators and giving more niche esports pros a place — was to leave, would there even be a reason to keep watching?

Guilherme Guerreiro is a junior writing about esports. His column, “Press Play to Start,” runs every other Wednesday.