Google has reportedly closed a $1bn deal to acquire gaming video streaming site Twitch.
The purchase, first reported in May, would be the biggest by Google since it acquired YouTube in 2006. It would give the search giant access to the rapidly expanding Twitch user base, which currently numbers 45 million monthly users who watch an average of 106 minutes of video a day.
It’s essentially the YouTube for live gaming: people broadcast themselves playing and/or talking about games while other people watch them (either live or via archived footage) while chatting about it.
That ease of use has lead to millions of dedicated users a month logging on and watching hours of video, something Google certainly finds attractive. But it's more than sheer numbers that makes Twitch a useful addition to Google.
YouTube and Twitch are both benefiting from the same trend: people going online to watch other people playing games – an artform that traditional television has usually struggled (in the west, at least) to make compelling viewing.
Gaming channels like PewDiePie, Stampy, The Diamond Minecart, Vanoss Gaming, Yogscast, Sky Does Minecraft and others are hugely popular on YouTube: PewDiePie is the most popular channel on the service with 26.4m subscribers, and nearly 300m video views in April alone.
Gaming is thus one of YouTube's biggest genres alongside music. Buying Twitch would shore up that status, making YouTube the number one platform for e-sports as well as "Let's Play" videos. Oh, and the huge and engaged audience to show ads to is obviously part of the appeal too.
In some ways, Twitch is that classic tech success story: it was in the right place at the right time with a reasonably good platform. The fans did the rest. Set up in 2011 by live-streaming specialist Justin.TV, the service provided a slick method of streaming game footage just as the concept of professional gaming – or esports – was really taking off.
Team games such as League of Legends and Dota 2, as well as first-person shooters like Call of Duty, were beginning to attract vast global audiences, and Twitch provided a way for gamers everywhere to watch and share the excitement of championship events, wherever they were taking place. Last year's League of Legends world final drew 32 million online viewers.
Twitch's appeal to its core audience is that it gets the mood right, it feels like an extension of themselves rather than a large corporate entity, something Google must heed to avoid losing them.
In old media terms, YouTube is a tabloid, Twitch is a hobbyist magazine – and continued success in the digital media age will be about understanding the differences between those two user-bases. Twitch grew super-fast, but the wrong hands could smother it. This isn't an audience that hangs around; it reacts quickly and decisively. The clue is in the name.
Twitch plays Pokemon - a phenomenon
The game streaming site has also played host to some of gaming's biggest live hits like Twitch plays Pokemon, which saw over 100,000 players simultaneously play a game of Nintendo's classic Pokemon attracting 55m views.
“Twitch Plays Pokémon” was half art project and half reality show for the 21st century. The idea was relatively simple. Pokémon Red, the 1996 Game Boy hit that kickstarted the Pokémon franchise, ran on an emulator hooked up to Twitch.
Viewers could enter button commands in the chat window, and they got passed onto the emulator, which entered them in order.
In theory, it harnessed the wisdom of the crowds to find the best way through the game, with playing 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
It didn't quite work out like that with 1,000s of users all trying to control the action, each level taking ages to pass through. But it showed that a new kind of entertainment, essentially a remix of existing technology, could prove very popular indeed.
Google is likely looking to tap into that emerging space with a Twitch purchase, something YouTube has failed to capitalise on.
- Google on the brink of buying Twitch and Mike Bithell on his Bafta award winning game Thomas Was Alone
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