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Dote Night: Twitch Reflexes

Is Steam Broadcasting taking on Twitch?

Featured post My Dota always looks exactly this swooshy and cool.

Part of a miscellany of serious thoughts, animal gifs, and anecdotage from the realm of MOBAs/hero brawlers/lane-pushers/ARTS/tactical wizard-em-ups. One day Pip might even tell you the story of how she bumped into Na’Vi’s Dendi at a dessert buffet cart.

Yesterday Valve announced the beta for its Steam broadcasting service. It predictably prompted a slew of headlines which instantly put the service in competition with Twitch, another game-focused streaming service.

It might well become a competitor to Twitch at some point but at the moment they’re very different prospects. I thought I’d spend this week’s Dote Night digging into the current situation a little more, not because it’s Dota specific but because Twitch is how I consume the majority of my Dota 2 pro matches so the potential impact is worth keeping an eye on. Should be back to game-focused shenanigans next week!

I should also point out that Twitch is by no means the only broadcasting platform out there but it’s one the majority will, I think, have heard of and which has been repeatedly referenced in these discussions.

Okay, so let’s look at what Steam Broadcasting currently is.

At the moment Valve are billing the service as being very much focused around friends. “Watch friends play, with the click of a button,” read the introduction to the beta. “Want to show off? Invite a friend to watch your game. Friend stuck on a level? Watch and give them live pointers.”

Once you and a friend have signed up to the beta it should just be a matter of clicking the dropdown menu by their name and selecting “watch game”. According to a friend who has been using the service that’s the in-client rule, but if you’re watching via the browser only the broadcaster needs to have opted in.

When someone requested to watch my game it popped up a menu where I could set access to my broadcasts. Privacy options are currently: friends I invite, friends whose request to watch I have approved, people I’m friends with, and “anyone”. Other options in the broadcasting tab let you tinker with the video dimensions, maximum bitrate and chat as well as offering the ability to broadcast your desktop when not in game, use microphone input and show upload stats.

I regret that the muttering was audible

What it’s offering at this point is really the option to view the other person’s screen with a few extra bells and whistles if you fancy. It’s Valve following their “Well, here’s a thing we made, let’s see what happens now we’ve opened it up to you lot” model.

Tinkering about with it this afternoon I had three viewers – two were helping me test what I could and couldn’t broadcast, the other one was Brendan who decided it would be funny to watch. I’m not sure that boy understands humour.

The full FAQ adds that you have to have made a purchase in Steam and not be Community Banned to use the service. You also agree not to be uploading other people’s intellectual property and to abide by a general set of rules which includes not making threats of violence or harassment, not casting NSFW content and not “Soliciting, begging, auctioning, raffling, selling, advertising, referrals.”

The last point is the one I’m interested in here. A lot of the channels on Twitch that I know make money through a number of methods. There’s a partner program which lets channel owners use commercial breaks to generate income or a subscription model which gives the subscriber access to particular things – archives, chat, HD stream – that sort of thing. Twitch also has space on its pages for steamers to put little biographies as well as information about their rig (PC parts from particular manufacturers and so on) and link through to separate donations pages of various flavours. The way it uses OBS and so on to get the content from your PC to Twitch also means you can use overlays, add a webcam and so on.

Why are 191 people watching ability draft? We may never know.

If you’re a streamer looking to make something approximating a living wage there’s absolutely no reason to abandon Twitch for Steam just yet, although obviously you’ll be keeping an eye on developments in case that changes.

To bring this back to Dota, I was talking to Ted ‘PyrionFlax’ Forsyth about the announcement and what it means for him and his fellow streamers. He’s currently in Los Angeles for The Summit 2 LAN finals. The general feeling seemed to be that Steam streaming is curious but currently more for when you want to show something cool or interesting or that’s causing you confusion to a bunch of mates. (After all, Brendan spent whole SECONDS watching me waddle a particularly lovely red panda courier round in cinematic view).

There’s nothing there at the moment which would prompt someone to switch if they’re currently making money elsewhere and have built up a subscriber base but Pyrion echoes my earlier point by saying “Knowing Valve, this is them testing the water for some future project and just seeing what happens” and that “it could become awesome”.

I ask what he would like to see added in order to make the service a viable alternative to Twitch for professional streamers and the main point comes back to advertising – “Make it ad-block proof. Have adverts for the games you are selling ON STEAM and give people either ad money, or a teeny cut of the sale of the game.”

With Dota (and other free-to-play games) that would be less straightforward than a game with a set price point. You’d be more looking to direct people to workshop items or ticket sales for events – that sort of thing. Then again, Valve might also end up setting completely different monetisation options for partners based on the information and tools at their disposal.

Magnifying glass not included in Broadcast service

That’s one way of looking at it, but I’ve also been wondering whether the Twitch comparisons have overshadowed what watching a game means to Valve. A lot of the conversations I’ve seen thus far assume that attracting professional streamers is an end-goal at all. With the potential audience Steam offers (if you’ve set your broadcasts to be watchable by anyone) that’s not an unreasonable prediction but the more I think about it the more I’m wondering whether just having the ability to peek at a friend’s game is of more immediate financial value. For Valve, at least.

In terms of paid-for titles it would let you have a snoop and see whether the game looks fun to play. More importantly it would show whether someone you’re likely familiar with was engaged and finding interesting things to do – a powerful recommendation, that.

In terms of something free-to-play but with a reputation for being obscure and difficult (YES DOTA 2 I AM TALKING ABOUT YOU, STOP SMIRKING) it could make it more accessible, functioning as an easy teaching tool or way to peer in on friends’ games and offer advice (solicited or not) without committing to a coaching role.

GO AWAY DAN I'M LOSING

Obviously there are some downsides to watching other people play Dota. You might become even less likely to try it if, for example, you see the usually mild-mannered lady from work transform into a ragequit-threatening flamer when battling online wizards. But you get where I’m going with all of this.

Essentially, I’d say Steam Broadcasting has the potential to rival Twitch but it’s not doing so at the moment. It could also take a different approach, using small close groups of friends to spread interest in games and to bring players into challenging environments like Dota 2. Or perhaps a hybrid approach. I think that’s more likely. Groups of mates, plus some professional monetisable options which could also be used to funnel people towards item sets or tournaments they might be interested to see.

The thing I’m currently most worried about is remembering to switch it back to “by request only” after a Dota binge for when playing embargoed content. Actually, perhaps I should stick with Twitch for the moment…

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Philippa Warr

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