Twitch’s interactivity proves popular with traditional sports during shutdown

  • Platform was already stepping up work in traditional sports, providing alternate coverage for the likes of the NFL
  • Interactivity providing crucial fan engagement tool during sport’s shutdown
  • Twitch’s traditionally esports-oriented audience helps rights-holders reach new demographics

Amazon-owned streaming service Twitch built its reputation as a home for esports and video gaming communities, but its prominence as a platform for traditional sports is growing as it looks to widen its remit.

The expansion began in 2018, when Amazon Prime acquired rights to show the NFL’s Thursday Night Football, and chose to use Twitch to distribute an alternate stream, with content creators on the platform invited to provide their own commentary and to interact with the audience directly during the games via the service’s live chat functionality. A deal to show multiple weekly NBA G League games in the same way quickly followed.

The drive to expand has stepped up since, with added urgency since Google’s YouTube Gaming set its sights on Twitch’s esports crown. In the past few weeks alone, Twitch has secured deals with Brazil’s National Basketball League, the US’s National Women’s Soccer League, and Spanish football giants Real Madrid.

Engagement in lockdown

While the strategy long pre-dates sport’s current shutdown due to the global Covid-19 pandemic, recent events have conspired to make Twitch’s central conceit – real-time live interactivity between a content creator and their audience – a highly desirable hook.

“It comes at an opportune time for them as a platform”, says Charlie Beall, consulting partner at digital agency Seven League, which works with Twitch. “Twitch has for some time been exploring how it develops into traditional sports. It’s known as a gaming and esports platform, but they don’t think of themselves as exclusively about those things – they think of themselves as a live streaming platform where interactivity is the key part of the experience. Right now, they’re seeing a massive influx of enquiries from clubs in particular.

John Legend live streams a performance from his home during Twitch’s Streamaid benefit concert

“What clubs are now understanding is that if you utilise the platform capability of Twitch – not just as a place to view esports content but actually to do live programming with people in multiple locations, involving your fanbase – it can offer far greater engagement than just putting a video on Twitter and inviting them to watch. The analogy is that if the business world is now really understanding the capabilities of Zoom and Google Hangouts, then sport is only just realising the potential of tools like Twitch.”

For sports rights-holders, the appeal is clear. Twitch’s reported average user age is 21, while its users are said to spend an average of up to two hours a day consuming content on the platform. This is a young and highly engaged audience, and Twitch itself has a proven track record of transitioning that audience from esports to other types of content, often using gaming as a gateway. The most popular Thursday Night Football game last season – the Baltimore Ravens clash with the New York Jets – notched 1.2 million video views, with the 10 featured weekly fixtures attracting a cumulative audience of 10.8 million, growth of 34 per cent on the previous year.

Crucially, what Twitch calls “co-streaming and reaction content” – that is, content generated by the platform’s “creators” – made up 50 per cent of NFL-related video consumed on the service, demonstrating a desire for community-created content among Twitch users.

Eric Brunner, head of sport partnerships at Twitch

Eric Brunner, head of sports partnerships at Twitch, tells SportBusiness that the wider strategy “is to look at how our products are set up and how our services can enable the development of interactive communities”, whatever field they might be in. While the tools Twitch offers were developed for streaming video games, they are applicable across a much wider range of live streams.

“Gaming may be that first step for a lot of people, which is great and we encourage that,” he says. “But we did a big campaign over the weekend called Streamaid, showcasing a bunch of different types of content – we had musical acts, we had some athletes that were doing workouts, we had athletes and gamers playing video games, all from their own homes. It was a fantastic opportunity firstly to just give something back to our audience while they’re in lockdown, but also as a showcase for the range of content the platform can host.

“It’s educational for our users and for our creators, too. It shows them that gaming can be their first step in, but it’s actually much bigger than that. You have the ability for athletes to be involved, for historical content – any kind of live experience that benefits from interaction. That’s the really fun part, that it provides that social validation to your fans and your community, and that’s something that’s especially important now but remains something valuable in the long-term as well.

“I’ve seen a lot of content where you get fans reacting saying, “this is so cool, I can’t believe they’re actually saying ‘hello’. Just having an athlete directly engaging with fans can go such a long way. It’s a different mentality and a different way of thinking about content, it’s not something that most will have done previously.”

In the current moment, with esports among the few industries capable of operating at anything like normalcy, Brunner says Twitch is having frequent conversations with its partners from traditional sports about how it can support them and help them create digital content when sport remains shut down.

“Of course we ask what our partners’ goals are, why they want to be on Twitch in the first place, so we can help to figure out the best strategy for them” he says. “Some smaller rights-holders have been able to take advantage of the shut down through smart deployment of archive and other content.

“The NWSL, for instance, have really seized the opportunity to develop and grow their community during the downtime by replaying historical matches and getting people who played in them to talk about it and answer questions from fans.

“Twitch can be very big, it can be top-down, or it can be about the community creating content and moderating itself. It fits a lot of different buckets, it’s a really fun sandbox. There are a lot of different angles for creators to explore until everything gets back to normal, and hopefully then they can take some of those learnings forward.”

Crossover success

It’s not just about traditional sports utilising an esports platform as a home for their regular content. The overlap between the two is crucial to getting the most from a platform like Twitch, whose audience remains skewed toward gamers and whose demographic is considerably younger than even other digital channels.

“It’s an ability to really showcase other forms of content with their communities, so you can actually combine gaming and non-gaming and really have a crossover effect to have more content to share with your community and really develop that community,” says Brunner.

“Obviously athletes play video games in their downtime, a good majority of them do, and so they’re coming on and they’re finding ways to interact and develop their own communities as well, some clubs are finding ways to tap into that and use their players’ personalities to build audiences.”

Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois plays Borussia Dormund defender Mats Hummels in a game of NBA 2K on Twitch.

Real Madrid’s entry to the platform, for instance, was preceded by its winger Marco Asensio winning the first LaLiga-sanctioned FIFA tournament for professional footballers, believed to have been watched by hundreds of thousands live on Twitch. In the longer term, Beall believes the depth of that crossover will go even further.

“Clubs getting involved can maintain that esports core of what Twitch is about as well,” says Beall. “At the moment that’s often been around FIFA, but over time it will be around more endemic esports titles, because as popular as FIFA is, it has its limitations as well. I expect we’ll see that crossover with athletes playing more typical esports titles and building engagement that way.”

That points to another key reason why traditional sporting rights-holders are increasingly seeing Twitch as an essential cornerstone of their digital strategies. The NFL, for instance has long been looking to find ways to address an ageing core demographic, having struggled to acquire new audiences in the way it once did. Twitch, with it’s in-built audience of content-hungry Gen-Zers, offers some kind of a solution, though Brunner stresses the importance of getting a content strategy right, rather than just assuming that being on the platform will attract eyeballs.

“It’s obviously a benefit to the platform and something that we do provide with our service,” he says. “But our offering is unique and it’s important to remember that at the heart of it is community and interactivity and engagement. So for people coming on board, that’s what we really encourage them to do, is to talk directly to their audience and build that community.”

At present, Brunner says that monetisation has been low on clubs’ and rights-holders’ list of priorities when getting started with Twitch. “We do have products within our service that can help with that,” he says. “There are clear routes to making it profitable and to monetising your channel. But a big part of the point is that there’s no gate to getting on to Twitch. It’s free to use and it’s free to view. So at the moment we’re just encouraging teams to develop and grow their communities, providing a place to interact with audiences. Come on in, get your feet wet, play around with different types of content, and then when you’re comfortable, then we can evaluate the monetisation angle.”

In the long-run, Twitch’s continued expansion feels inevitable. At a time when rights-holders are seeking new ways of distributing their content and are desperate to win over a younger audience whose consumption demands are significantly different to previous generations, Twitch offers solutions to multiple problems.

“The central idea of Twitch is it’s meant to be fun and it’s meant to be additive,” says Brunner. “It’s also an organic experience so that those who have a passion and an excitement, they get to share that with their community and then it also helps that partner reach new eyeballs and new demographics.”

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