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Streaming's dark underbelly couldn't stall its meteoric rise in 2015

Gamers tuned in in unprecedented numbers to watch each other play games this year

Editor's Note: This is one in a series of year-end content to be published daily leading up to Christmas that includes analysis, opinion and insights into the biggest news and trends of 2015.

In January of this year, the world's biggest videogame streaming network, Twitch, announced a remarkable milestone - it had exceeded 100 million viewers per month, more than double its viewership of twelve months previously. Over 1.5 million people were choosing to live-stream their gameplay each month. It was an announcement that made Amazon's $970 million acquisition of Twitch in mid-2014 look like a fantastic bargain - and undoubtedly inspired loud sighs from the Google executives who reportedly walked away from the deal over antitrust concerns. For a little short of a billion dollars, Amazon has bought itself a ride on a wave that almost nobody saw coming; it turns out that despite years of fervent belief that the whole appeal of videogames rests upon their interactivity, a great many of us really do prefer to watch.

Twitch hitting the 100 million figure in January set the tone for a year in which videogame streaming has, to the bafflement of many, been an extraordinarily important part of the market. The success of streaming is down, in part, to its diversity; you can trace an evolutionary line from the live online broadcasts of top eSports tournaments to today's Twitch streaming, but they owe as much if not more to the sophisticated Let's Play formats that have become a mainstay of YouTube and which introduce audiences to an extraordinary variety of games and genres. Indeed, the borderline between streaming and more straightforward video content is a hazy one; popular YouTubers do live streaming events, which are then archived as YouTube videos; popular streamers put their best bits up for posterity. Streaming is a culture unto itself in some regards, but it exists in symbiosis with the broader world of online video.

"It's a testament to the rapid growth and enormous importance ascribed to videogame streaming throughout 2015 that it is now a key battleground between two of the biggest internet companies in the world"

What's the draw of streaming? What leads it to pull in such enormous audiences? For eSports streaming, it's understandable; there's a level of skill on display which most fans will never achieve, and the people and teams playing are stars within the context of the game's fandom. The drive to watch is exactly the same as with any professional sporting event, and it's no coincidence that companies who are involving themselves deeply with eSports streaming are head-hunting sports executives to head up their efforts - including former ESPN CEO Steve Bornstein, who'll head up Activision Blizzard's recently announced eSports network. eSports is a big deal in the world of streaming; competitive titles like League of Legends, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and DOTA 2 top the Twitch charts for the most-streamed games, though many of those streams are broadcast by ordinary players rather than professionals or eSports stars.

Beyond eSports, though, the broader appeal of streaming seems to come down to something else that's no less familiar to executives from the world of traditional TV; personality. Ultimately, the majority of people seem to choose to watch specific streamers or YouTubers, not specific games - they tune in to watch personalities they enjoy playing, reacting to and commenting upon whatever game they happen to be playing right now. The successful streamers and YouTubers are effusive, interesting and likeable - terms you'd have to be no less than churlish to deny to the undisputed king of the bunch, PewDiePie, at least if you can get past the deliberately exaggerated and shrill reactions he puts on, with something of a knowing nod and a wink, in his videos. PewDiePie has 40 million subscribers and made over €11 million last year. It's all about personality; many of the games he plays are little-known titles, although an appearance on his channel (or on that of other major YouTubers and streamers such as the Yogscast) can seriously boost the fortunes of any game.

Denied the chance to acquire Twitch, Google didn't give up on the gaming market; in August, YouTube launched its own streaming service for games, and PewDiePie is the face of its new YouTube Red initiative, which seeks to create an ad-free subscription service for the best and most-watched video content. Twitch, in response, has created a feature which allows its streamers to put pre-recorded content on their Twitch pages, a direct thrust at YouTube's key functionality. It's a testament to the rapid growth and enormous importance ascribed to videogame streaming throughout 2015 that it is now a key battleground between two of the biggest internet companies in the world, with Amazon and Google each determined to carve out a stake in the future of this sector.

It's not all corporate clashing, though; game streaming has also delivered plenty of culturally interesting moments throughout the year, from the laudable efforts of many popular streamers to raise money for charity through streaming "marathons" (Forbes reckons that PewDiePie alone raised over $1 million for charitable causes this year) through to fascinating efforts to crowd-source the completion of games in the "Twitch Plays" series that started last year with Twitch Plays Pokemon, which allowed every viewer (121,000 people at the peak of the first play-through) to input commands to the game, essentially turning it into a huge social experiment in co-operation.

Somewhat extraordinarily, the community-driven play-through of the notoriously hard Dark Souls actually succeeded in 2015, downing the game's final boss in 43 days after a staggering 904 deaths ("staggering" in that I'm pretty sure that's better than the number of times I died in the game, and I didn't have a hundred thousand people pressing random buttons on my controller all the way through). An effort by Twitch to expand into different kinds of content by streaming the classic US painting shows The Joy Of Painting, hosted by Bob Ross, on the service was also a remarkable success - attracting 5.6 million viewers who tuned in to watch together and turning the genial Ross into an unlikely icon of game streaming culture.

Unfortunately, not all of the cultural milestones in game streaming in 2015 were quite so positive. It won't surprise anyone, I'd imagine, to find that women who get involved in game streaming report being on the receiving end of some pretty vile abuse, and streaming has on occasion been on the front line of the grotesque culture war that's sputtered on throughout the year between those who ardently defend their right to send death threats or graphic descriptions of rape to women whenever they damned well please, and the rest of the human race. Where things take an even darker turn is when game streamers - men and women alike - accidentally let enough hints about their real-life identity or location slip out. At the start of February, Twitch made national headlines for all the wrong reasons when armed police raided the family home of Joshua "Koopatroopa787" Peters, who had been playing Runescape on Twitch. Over 60,000 viewers watched as Peters' house, where his mother and younger brother were at the time, was raided by police who had received a hoax call warning them of a violent situation at the address.

"Like every other threat to the good old-fashioned written word, streaming isn't the doomsday some wordsmiths fear; but in 2016 it'll be harder than ever to ignore the influence and importance of this side of the gaming media"

This kind of hoax, known as "swatting" after the SWAT armed teams often deployed to potential hostage or similar situations in the USA, became an epidemic in 2015 - with Peters' traumatic experience being only the first of many incidents that made headlines throughout the year. Swatting is deployed by online trolls against everything from opponents in online debates (the "doxxing" techniques used by GamerGate against their critics were often aimed, ultimately, at trying to "swat" an individual's address) to people who beat them in online games. For the most viciously sociopathic trolls on the spectrum, Twitch streamers are a target of choice - a successful swatting of a Twitch streamer allows their tormentor to watch their reaction to their home being stormed by armed police in real-time. The most unfortunate targets of this kind of action have been swatted multiple times; the police are almost powerless to prevent themselves being used as a weapon by trolls, as they have a legal responsibility to take such calls seriously, even after being hoaxed in the past.

It's almost inevitable that this kind of incident will end, eventually, in someone getting killed - sending heavily-armed police into people's homes under the belief that there's a bomb, a hostage situation or a deranged killer inside isn't a low-risk activity - and precisely that risk, the thrill of skating so close to the edge, is probably a big motivation for the twisted little psychopaths who do this sort of thing in the first place.

It's not entirely clear what, if anything, Twitch can do to protect the people streaming on its service. Swatting is a potentially deadly escalation of ages-old tactics of annoyance and harassment like ordering unwanted delivery food to someone's address; as long as you have access to their address and the ability to fake a call, swatting is remarkably, terrifyingly easy to pull off. This behaviour isn't limited to Twitch and the company would no doubt point out that it's a broader malaise that's found in toxic corners of online communities across the Internet - but it's undoubtedly something that's become increasingly closely associated with game streaming throughout 2015, and how Twitch, the police and streamers themselves deal with this threat is going to be a huge question through 2016.

Swatting and harassment in general is the dark underbelly of game streaming; but it appears not to be slowing the meteoric rise of the cultural phenomenon. The ability to stream gameplay footage live is a key feature of new consoles; new games often include features deliberately designed to encourage people to stream them, showing that publishers and developers are very clear on the new importance of this medium as well. The rapid rise of streaming is viewed with suspicion by some quarters of the more traditional games media, who perhaps see it as a threat to their livelihoods - but others have recognised that what streaming really tells the media is that there's a huge audience for diverse kinds of gaming content. In some cases (former Destructoid and Escapist writer Jim Sterling, and UK-based games website VideoGamer being good examples) traditional writers and media outlets have responded to the rise of streaming with creative, entertaining approaches to video content that embrace the personality-led nature of the medium.

Like every other threat to the good old-fashioned written word, streaming isn't the doomsday some wordsmiths fear; but in 2016 it'll be harder than ever to ignore the influence and importance of this side of the gaming media. The unexpected thrill of passively watching other people play games isn't just fuelling a fad; it may actually be fuelling a vital pillar of the games business of the future.

Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.