THE ESPORTS ISSUE
The week of August 16, 2015

The unlikely father of esports streaming

By Mike Wehner

A couple of weekends ago, more than 4.5 million people sat in front of their computer monitors, smartphones, TVs, and tablets and watched two teams battle for the the biggest prize in the history of esports: more than $6.6 million for the victor. Pricy HD cameras captured all the action from the tournament—called The International—and broadcast it live over the Internet, for free.

With all the slick production values and high-quality video, it’s easy to forget that the streaming spectacle may not have existed at all if not for a cheap webcam that a guy named Justin Kan strapped to a baseball cap on March 19, 2007.

A little less than a year after Amazon purchased Twitch for a cool $970 million, the streaming site has become a phenomenon, a darling of the business media, and a major cultural force. But the biggest esports streaming site on the Web almost never came to be—at least in the way we know it now.

From the moment it started, the website Justin.tv was a one-man show. It was an unfiltered feed of Justin Kan’s life, as seen through a tiny lens strapped to the side of his head. In a culture growing tired of scripted reality TV, it felt raw and real in a way that nothing before it had approached. They called it “lifecasting,” and before 2007 came to a close, a modest team had turned Justin.tv into a platform on which anyone could broadcast their own content.

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An early screenshot of Justin.tv

Soon, Justin.tv’s gaming section began to attract skilled players who wanted to show off what they could do with a controller or keyboard. Broadcasters with patched-together streaming rigs were broadcasting Halo, StarCraft, and Call of Duty matches to dozens, and sometimes hundreds of viewers simultaneously. The content was low resolution, oftentimes no better than 480p, but fans stuck around, and tournament organizers began to take notice.

Twitch.tv was almost Xarth.com.

A business meeting in late 2010 pushed Justin.tv further towards its esports future. “About the end of 2010, the company turned profitable,” Kan said. “We did a ton of hard work to make it profitable, but we were at an impasse. We weren’t growing very much. Actually, we weren’t growing at all. When something’s not growing on the Internet, it’s basically on the brink of declining, precipitously.”

The four founders of Justin.tv—Kan, Kyle Vogt, Michael Seibel, and Emmett Shear—gathered to try to find a way to pivot the stagnant content into something even better. “The only content I really like on Justin.tv is the gaming content,” Kan recalled Shear saying.

At that time, gaming content only accounted for a couple hundred thousand visitors per month, which was about 3 percent of the site’s total traffic. The decision to put substantial weight behind gaming as a vertical wasn’t easy.

“Like Emmett, I was a gamer, so I liked the gaming content,” Kan recalled, but the other half of the team wasn’t sold. “I remember Mike and Kyle were like ‘The gaming content is not a thing, people are not going to do that,’ and to be fair, the biggest gaming video site was GameTrailers, and they had maybe 10 million uniques or something like that.”

Betting that a site could sustain itself solely on gamers playing live was a huge gamble. “There were obviously tournaments and stuff that people would want to watch, but would there be content every day? That was a big question.”

With esports as the only sure draw for a dedicated game streaming site, and no proof that a live gaming site could support its own weight, the team split its efforts. One group focused on a mobile video platform championed by Seibel, which would later be launched as Socialcam, and another pursued video games. They gave themselves six months to see results.

“They were both pretty successful, actually,” Kan said.

“There were obviously tournaments and stuff that people would want to watch, but would there be content every day? That was a big question.”

With Shear and other Justin.tv developers pushing updates to the gaming.justin.tv vertical on a regular basis, it soon became clear that live gaming was most definitely “a thing.” The decision to spin off the gaming section into its own site came shortly thereafter, but not under the name we’re all so familiar with.

Twitch.tv was almost Xarth.com.

“We renamed these things over the process of working on them,” Kan said. “Gaming became Xarth, which is a nickname Emmett thought up, and we got Xarth.com. At the last minute, before we ended up launching it as a separate site in June, we renamed it Twitch.”

It’s hard to imagine Twitch—which is a reference to the fast-paced “twitch” gameplay of many of the site’s most popular titles—reaching its lofty position under a name as strange as Xarth, but that’s nearly what happened. “We were close to using it,” Kan added.

In 2011, Kan and other members of the Twitch team, including Shear, who had taken the helm as CEO of Twitch proper, headed to Sweden. There, DreamHack was showcasing some of the most talented players from around the world, and Twitch was ready to show that it could have a symbiotic relationship with the esports community as a whole.

DreamHack is one of the largest and longest-running gaming and computer festivals, and Twitch pulled out all the stops. A total of 21 streaming channels were set up to showcase matches of StarCraft II, Quake Live, Counter-Strike, and various other titles. A record-setting 1.7 million unique viewers tuned in over the four-day event, and a whopping 6.7 million views rolled into Twitch.

At the time, Twitch was still largely reliant on big events like DreamHack to bring in viewers, but eventually those viewers began to find other things to watch without leaving the site. “Mostly we were getting traffic driven by partners, and maybe some of that traffic would stick around,” Kan said.

“Esports is here to stay.”

Viewers began to make Twitch their new online home. And instead of using Twitch as a tool to watch the esports they were already interested in, they started finding new games and communities that they didn’t necessarily even know were there.

“Today, Twitch is an entertainment destination,” Kan said. “I wouldn’t have watched Ultra Music Festival if I hadn’t just looked at Twitch that day,” he said, referring to an annual outdoor music festival in Miami. (Twitch has recently made a big expansion into live music streaming.) “There are a lot of Hearthstone tournaments where I log in because I just want to watch some Hearthstone, and just go and look.”

Twitch sits comfortably in the top 100 sites in the United States, boasting more than 100 million unique visitors a month. With more viewers and partners comes a larger potential audience for each new esports event that graces the site. Pro players from League of Legends, Counter-Strike, and Hearthstone regularly lead the thousands of live channels in terms of concurrent viewers, and talented competitors can make a good living via the Twitch partner program.

Twitch continues to live and die by esports. And with tournament viewership—and, by extension, advertising reach and sponsorship opportunities—at its highest level ever, esports has benefited greatly from the relationship. Twitch and professional gaming now rely on each other to reach new heights.

As for Kan, he now spends his days as a full-time partner at Y Combinator, which invests in early stage companies like Justin.tv. But he looks back at his time at Justin.tv and Twitch fondly. “All of the success and credit really goes to Emmett and Kevin and Jacob, and the rest of the team at Twitch,” Kan said. “It was pretty fun to be there in the beginning.”

He’s also still a big esports fan. “I use Twitch every day, as a viewer, so it’s really awesome to see this happen from a company that I helped build, and that I use all the time,” he said. “Esports is here to stay.”

Illustration by Max Fleishman