It’s become increasingly clear: Twitch is a huge deal. As of February, the videogame livestream company draws the fourth most internet traffic in the US, beating out the likes of Hulu and Facebook. Largely because of Twitch, gaming livestreams have become an established media channel, but the one area they haven’t yet conquered is mobile.
Up until recently the Twitch experience on phones and tablets was a viewer-only affair. Using the official Twitch app, users could watch live gaming programs, participate in chat streams or use their device as a second screen to monitor their own broadcast or play along with Twitch personalities. In offloading the streaming video to a second screen, users can dedicate their full computer screens and processing power to their game. And troublemakers out there can even use the knowledge of a streamer’s progress to mess with them in the game world, though Twitch’s configurable stream delay settings allow broadcasters to defend themselves from totally opening themselves up to exploitation by cheaters.
Twitch's real aspiration: mobile broadcasting.
As multipurpose as using Twitch as a second-screen experience can be, it still feels like a stopgap on the way to the company’s real aspiration: mobile broadcasting. While phone and tablet broadcasting isn’t built into mobile devices at the system level, it has begun to appear in specific games this year. Gameloft’s Asphalt 8 racing game was the first title to feature integrated Twitch broadcasting on a mobile platform. Asphalt 8, which was updated in March to include Twitch functionality, has already seen significant usage of its broadcasting features, according to Gameloft’s VP of Publishing for the Americas, Baudouin Corman. The developer has seen “more than 1 million streaming sessions activate since the launch of this feature, and is still working to make it more widely adopted,” Corman said. In the game, players can sign into Twitch and broadcast the game to their own channel, including a picture-in-picture shot of themselves as they play, via the phone or tablet’s front-facing camera.
While bringing Twitch broadcasting to mobile devices seems like a no-brainer, it’s a technical challenge that requires some computational heft and a strong, constant internet connection—two assets phones aren’t necessarily known for. “One important thing we worked on was finding the right balance between image quality and bandwidth consumption, while keeping the frame rate of the game at high levels,” Corman said of the integration of Twitch into Asphalt 8. “The CPU and GPU are much more limited on mobile than on PC, so we worked really closely with Twitch to ensure we did not compromise the image quality and rendering of the game.” As for the bandwidth issue, there’s no way to guarantee constant connectivity, especially when on the move, but Gameloft included an option for broadcasters to select an outgoing stream quality to mitigate the problem to a certain degree.
Oddly enough, the greatest barrier to Twitch taking off on mobile might not be technical, but rather the current absence of one singular game that draws a massively intense, esports-like fervor to the platform, like League of Legends did for PC. While a mobile game like Supercell’s Clash of Clans is immensely popular and does command a following on Twitch, the competitive multiplayer is asynchronous, and doesn’t lend itself as well to exciting live commentary or the spectacle of a championship tournament. However, speaking with Twitch’s Director of Community & Education, Marcus “djWHEAT” Graham, he believes it’s only a matter of time until that breakout game arrives. “More than anything, I think supporting our mobile communities and broadcasters and giving them the same appreciation and attention that we give to all of our other communities is really important. Because when that feature title and that mobile competitive boom hits, it’ll have a nice home here on Twitch.”
You don’t have to look far to see the evidence of Twitch’s mobile presence preparing for takeover. The Twitch mobile app has already been installed 12 million times, and the company’s recent integration into the Playstation 4 and Xbox One consoles has given them practice at making their tools accessible to more casual players, a demographic that also comprises a large portion of the mobile gaming audience. Additionally, the Twitch channels of popular broadcasters TouchArcade and TheAdiposeTV predominantly feature mobile games on their shows. All of these signs are pointing in the direction of mobile broadcasting’s momentum, which Twitch seems to be simultaneously blueprinting and facilitating. For Twitch it’s a question of when, not if, the tidal wave of mobile streams will make landfall.