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WATCH THE THRONE

Amazon has built an unbreakable monopoly in video game streaming

A wall of video monitors with real-time video game play is seen at in an office, next to a wall displaying the Twitch logo.
REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
All hail the king.
  • Nicolás Rivero
By Nicolás Rivero

Tech Reporter based in New York

Published

Twitch is the undisputed king of the video game streaming world. Some of the biggest names in big tech—Microsoft, Google, Facebook—have come for its crown. None have succeeded, and, despite their best efforts, there’s no reason to think any of them will dethrone Twitch any time soon.

Twitch, which is owned by Amazon, broadcasts streams of people playing video games. Anyone can log on and watch endless hours of internet influencers playing titles like Fortnite, League of Legends, and Minecraft. Twitch sells ads, which display around the site and occasionally interrupt streams, and subscriptions, which viewers can buy to gain access to special features in their favorite channels. No part of Twitch’s design is so unique that a rival couldn’t copy it, and indeed, many already have.

But the real secret to its success is the community it fosters. Next to every Twitch stream there’s a chat box, and on popular streams viewers flood the feed with a constant barrage of commentary. The chatter is so essential to the experience of watching a stream that Twitch is effectively a social media platform, built on the connections that viewers form with streamers and each other in its chaotic comment sections. Those relationships have kept viewers on Twitch, even when rival platforms poach its most popular streamers.

Viewers’ loyalty to Twitch creates strong incentives for streamers to stay on the platform, too, because that’s where most of their potential audience and money-making opportunities are concentrated. As a result, Twitch hosts about 90% of all video game streams. If anyone hopes to unseat Twitch, it’ll take something really special: a new, unique, and even more intimate way for audiences and streamers to connect.

Twitch’s first mover advantage

Launched as an independent company in 2011, Twitch became the first go-to video game streaming platform outside China. Over the next few years, it cemented its community of streamers and viewers before any of its current rivals had entered the market. Its brand became synonymous with what was then a niche and geeky identity associated with gaming and streaming.

Amazon’s greatest strategic move was simply buying Twitch in 2014 for $970 million. (Today it’s worth more than 15 times that.) In the years since, Amazon hasn’t messed with Twitch’s success. It has offered a few unique contributions, like launching a special program for Prime members who join Twitch. But more than anything, it has enjoyed the advantages of getting into the business before its rivals.

“They were first,” said Eric Sheridan, an analyst who covers internet and gaming companies for investment bank UBS. “Being first, gaining momentum, gaining scale, and then scale begetting more scale is really the most important element to it.”

Being first, gaining momentum, gaining scale, and then scale begetting more scale is really the most important element to it.

After Amazon’s acquisition, other big tech firms began jostling to get into the field. YouTube parent company Google—which almost bought Twitch before Amazon, but backed off for fear of triggering an antitrust investigation—jumped into the market a year later with the launch of YouTube Gaming. Facebook, fearing that Twitch’s social functions would rival its own, launched Facebook Gaming in 2018. Microsoft was maybe the most aggressive entrant. After launching its own live-stream service called Mixer in 2017, it set off on a splashy campaign to poach Twitch’s top streamers.

It worked, sort of—Microsoft did pry away some of the biggest names in streaming. It lured Ninja and Shroud, the first- and third-most-watched streamers in the world, over to Mixer with exclusive contracts worth as much as $30 million. But it wasn’t enough to get the influencers’ massive audiences to follow them onto the platform. Mixer’s user numbers remained flat until Microsoft pulled the plug in 2020. Ninja and Shroud quickly returned to Twitch.

What makes the Twitch community so strong?

Twitch streamers work hard to cultivate a sense of closeness with their viewers. Even as they’re engrossed in their games, they keep an eye on comments from their audience, answering questions, taking suggestions, laughing at jokes, and responding to viewers by name. The result is a steady, hours-long patter of conversation that is heavily influenced by the live audience.

The streams can feel strangely intimate—something like sitting in a friend’s living room, watching them play a game.

On one recent stream from the couple that runs the channel GirlfriendReviews, the streamers’ mic picked up the distinct crunch of a potato chip. “Cromch,” one user commented. “We love chip crunch,” agreed another user. “What kinda chips?” asked a third. The streamers informed the audience the chips were jalapeño flavored. “Oh man,” said a fourth user, approvingly, “that’s GOAT [greatest of all time] chip right there.”

Twitch builds in mechanisms that reward audiences for their loyalty, allowing them to boost their influence over the stream or simply express gratitude toward their favorite creators. Viewers who pay a subscription fee, which can range from $5 to $25 per month, get access to special emoji reactions that distinguish them in the chat—and it will usually earn them a shoutout from the streamer, too.

You’re trying to pry people loose from a network where all their friends are already on it, to go to one where none of their friends are on it.

Other platforms replicate these dynamics. YouTube and Facebook similarly feature rapid-fire live chats and tools for viewers to pay creators directly. But they don’t have the same scale as Twitch, and it’s hard to convince any individual viewer or streamer to leave the platform where the biggest and most vibrant communities are already concentrated.

Doug Creutz, a Cowen analyst who covers media and entertainment, compared Twitch’s position in video game streaming to Facebook’s position in social networking. In the late 2000s, no single social media site had amassed a critical mass of users—which allowed Facebook to surpass its early rival MySpace. But by the early 2010s, when Google attempted to elbow its way into the market with Google+, Facebook had already grown too big to be challenged.

Short of any major innovations from its competitors, there’s not much to draw users away from Twitch at the moment. “This is not that much different than what we see in other kinds of social media sites where you have one big winner because that’s where everybody goes, and therefore there’s no reason for anyone to go anywhere else,” Creutz said. “You’re trying to pry people loose from a network where all their friends are already on it, to go to one where none of their friends are on it.”

Can any competitor catch Twitch?

If anyone has come close to chasing down Twitch, it’s Google. YouTube firmly controls the market for recorded video game content: Streamers often edit down their hours-long Twitch appearances into shorter YouTube supercuts to give themselves another source of revenue. And in some niches—like mobile gaming—and some markets—like India—YouTube has a greater streaming market share than Twitch. The global viewership gap between the platforms has closed slightly over the past three years.

Even so, surpassing Twitch in overall streaming viewership would be a major challenge. “It’s going to be very hard for anybody to break that stranglehold,” Creutz said. He and Sheridan floated three (unlikely) scenarios in which a rival might unseat Twitch in the next few years.

  1. A hot new app pops up and snatches the “cool” mantle. Sheridan made an analogy to Clubhouse or TikTok. “There’s nothing that’s so unique in the form factor of Clubhouse that you’d necessarily say, ‘Oh that’s going to become the hot new thing,’” he said. But occasionally, the gods of social media smile and a new platform goes viral, attracts buzz, and brings in a self-sustaining wave of users. But the failure of Quibi, Creutz noted, teaches us that you can’t throw enough money at anything to make it cool—it has to happen organically.
  2. Twitch’s moderation problem gets out of hand and drives streamers away. The platform has had well-documented struggles with harassment and inconsistent enforcement of its terms of service. Creutz mused that if there were a major public backlash, it might prompt streamers to flee for a platform they see as more stable. “A single streamer is not enough to determine the success of a platform,” said Luca Chiovato, a market analyst at the games and esports data company Newzoo. But, he noted, “We have not seen what the effects of a streamer exodus from one platform to another would be.”
  3. Trigger-happy antitrust regulators take Twitch to court. US president Joe Biden has signaled he’s serious about hiring aggressive antitrust enforcers, and Twitch does look a lot like another monopolistic Amazon enterprise if only because it dominates the market. Creutz, who argued in a recent report that Twitch’s dominance has hurt the broader esports industry, noted: “That could happen, but that doesn’t seem like a high priority right now. …I’m sure this is kind of far down the list of concerns.”

Whether Twitch’s reign continues or meets an untimely end, the most enduring evidence of its impact will be the template it provided for creating a successful streaming platform. All of its rivals have essentially tried to clone the sense of close connection Twitch has fostered between its creators and audiences. At least in that regard, any successor to the current champion of steaming will likely feel a lot like Twitch.