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Tuesday, December 5, 2023

An Esports Exodus to YouTube Reshapes the Livestream Wars

Today, YouTube announced that it will exclusively stream three behemoth esports leagues—the Call of Duty League, the Overwatch League, and Hearthstone Esports, all controlled by Activision Blizzard—that had lived primarily on the game streaming platform Twitch. News of the defections rattled the esports world, especially as it came mere hours before the Call of Duty League’s inaugural match.

Twitch had held exclusive Overwatch League streaming rights since 2018, when it signed a reported $90 million deal. YouTube’s partnership spans several years as well; Google Cloud will also host Activision Blizzard’s entire library of games.

In an interview with WIRED, head of YouTube Gaming Ryan Wyatt said that Google, which owns YouTube, and Activision have been in talks over esports media rights since last year. “It’s a long time coming,” he said. (Wyatt himself used to be a commentator for competitive Call of Duty.)

It’s the latest in a series of high-profile YouTube gaming poaches. Over the past several months, YouTube has plucked Twitch mainstays like Jack "CouRage" Dunlop, who boasted an average of more than 9,000 live viewers per stream. Just last week, YouTube announced exclusive deals with three gaming giants, Rachell "Valkyrae" Hofstetter, Elliott "Muselk" Watkins, and Lannan "LazarBeam" Eacott. Nabbing Activision’s esports as well will be an enormous boon for the growing YouTube live gaming platform, which currently accounts for about 28 percent of livestreamed hours, to Twitch’s 61 percent, according to stream platform analytics firm StreamElements. (At the end of the last season, Overwatch League games were averaging about 40,000 live viewers on Twitch, while top streamer Jaryd “Summit1g” Lazar might average about 28,000, according to Twitch data tracker SullyGnome.)

“It's our mission to deliver high-quality competitive entertainment that our fans can follow globally, live or on-demand, and to celebrate our players as the superstars that they are,” said Activision Blizzard Esports CEO Pete Vlastelica in a press release today. “This partnership will help us deliver on that promise at new levels, by combining our passionate communities of fans and players with YouTube's powerful content platform and exciting history of supporting next-generation entertainment.”

While Wyatt declined to comment on the financial terms of the deal, he does say he doesn’t believe the transition to YouTube will impact the leagues’ viewership. He cites the success of the 2019 League of Legends World Championships on YouTube, where, Wyatt says, the platform had more peak concurrent viewers than anywhere else. Wyatt adds that Call of Duty has always been hugely successful on the platform. “We have 200 million logged-in users watching gaming content every single day on YouTube,” says Wyatt.

StreamElements CEO Doron Nir agreed in a roundabout way: “Esports tournaments have two types of viewership: Live and VOD post game. Since most of VOD happens on YouTube already, I expect the move to YouTube for live viewership will have no negative impact on the views. If YouTube promotes it properly, it might even get more viewership.”

Google also gets the benefit of hosting Activision Blizzard’s massive infrastructure on its cloud, a significant win as the company continues to try to both compete with Amazon Web Services and demonstrate its gaming chops after Google Stadia’s rocky start.

The news caught participants in the Call of Duty Twitch chat by surprise. Several expressed shock and confusion; after viewers filed into YouTube’s Call of Duty League chat, fans spammed “L,” meaning “loss.” Twitch did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment by press time.

One widespread complaint—on top of having to navigate to another website—about YouTube’s streaming platform is that it’s not as developed as Twitch’s, especially as pertains to chat. Over the years, Twitch chat has cultivated its own culture, including its own particular memes, emotes, and chants. Inklings of it persist on YouTube, but the platform doesn’t have the history. Said one commenter on the competitive Call of Duty subreddit, echoing others, “Twitch chat was probably the funniest thing about watching CoD events, WTF 🙁 no more TriHard or PogChamps on insane clutches, that’s kinda lame ngl. As someone who doesn’t play CoD anymore, only a viewer, I really enjoyed the toxic aspect the twitch chat brought it made the stream more enjoyable.”

Twitch also offered in-game skins and prizes for esports fans who integrated their online game presences with their Twitch accounts. Wyatt shared that, in the future, it’s “very much on our roadmap” for them to offer rewards for Call of Duty and Overwatch League viewers.

As the Call of Duty League’s inaugural weekend kicks off, it remains to be seen whether YouTube will match Twitch’s viewership numbers. As the first game kicks off, about 70,000 viewers are watching live—a respectable number, at least for now.

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