Over 1 million people watched Tyson “TenZ” Ngo, Shahzeb “ShahZaM” Khan and Sentinels defeat Fnatic in the grand final of VCT’s Stage 2 Masters, the first international LAN in the esports’ history. But all those viewers weren’t in one place. The main channel held a couple hundred thousand but the rest were spread over a variety of streams including five English-speaking streamers and a few other popular personalities from around the world.
The practice of allowing streamers to broadcast esports events on their own channels is called co-streaming (or watch parties) and there are arguments both for and against it.
Over the course of the tournament, Michael “shroud” Grzesiek, the biggest channel to receive rights to co-stream, consistently had more viewers than Riot Games’ official broadcast. His VALORANT co-streams consistently had over 100,000 viewers and peaked at just over 300,000 for the final, according to Sullygnome. For context, his non-VALORANT peak viewership over the last 30 days as of this writing was just under 50,000.
At the heart of the co-streaming debate is the question of how many of those viewers are only watching for the co-streamer and wouldn’t be watching the main event itself in the absence of co-streams. It’s impossible to answer with an actual number. It is, however, fair to say that, because the main stream still exists, co-streams won’t lower the overall viewer count, they will just pull people away from the main broadcast.
The five English-speaking streamers who received rights to co-stream Stage 2 Masters are among the biggest channels on Twitch with shroud, Ali “Myth” Kabbani, Imane “Pokimane” Anys, Ludwig Ahgren and Jonas “Average Jonas” Navarsete.
“I was able to host a watch party that was probably the only one biased towards the EU scene,” said Average Jonas on Nerd Street Gamers’ podcast Loosely Scripted. “All the other streamers are in NA, mostly on the West Coast. And, of course, streaming next to Myth, Pokimane, Ludwig and shroud was really cool because they were streamers I have looked up to for so long.”
Average Jonas, an opera singer turned streamer and talented Sova main, is signed to Team Liquid. His co-stream naturally became a place for TL fans, and EU fans at large.
“Watch parties were simply not allowed for European [VALORANT] tournaments,” said Average Jonas. “Watch parties were basically not allowed unless you were an NA streamer. That was a huge problem. I fought for this for a solid eight months. I was like, ‘hey guys, we need to work this out, we need to balance this out, so it’s not just the NA scene being recognized.’”
Eventually, Average Jonas got through to the right people in Riot Europe. Going into Stage 2 Masters, the EU vs. NA rivalry was already a big talking point. After Version1 upset Liquid in the upper bracket, the rivalry only got stronger. The championship came down to the two regions and the competition between the regions was arguably the tournament’s most prominent narrative.
The ability to build a narrative, adding more context to the events on screen beyond just the gameplay, is a crucial component of esports and professional competition at large. The lack of narrative building has also been one of the potential drawbacks associated with co-streaming.
“In terms of esports narrative, I kind of disagree [with MonteCristo],” Average Jonas said. “When we have this whole EU vs. NA thing, then it is really cool to have EU and NA co-streams as well. When you gather the fans of each region in each place, then you build up a fan base around that. I feel like that strengthens the narrative.”
In general, narratives are often carried by casters during events. Usually the pre-show provides the narrative while in-game is focused on play-by-play and explaining the importance of player’s choices. Depending on a viewer’s perspective on what’s important to them, the argument can be made on both sides for whether co-streaming detracts or enhances narrative building in esports.
Beyond the actual broadcast, there’s also the difference in chat to consider. In the large streams, Shroud’s and the official stream, which usually had about 8-10x the viewers of the co-streams, chat moved so quickly copypasta (copying and pasting the same thing over and over) was the only thing that stood out.
Memes are great, and Twitch chat is where many are created, but it’s hard to say that spamming NA=Near Airport or SEN Supremacy is really narrative building. The co-streams, which hovered closer to the 10,000-viewer mark also had some of those same copypastas, but the smaller community allowed for at least some discussion in chat.
“What is building a narrative in the first place?” Average Jonas said. “I think it’s two-way communication. And, I’m not blaming shroud. If you have 270k viewers, there’s no way to really control your chat. But that’s when the concept of different types of entertainment kicks in. When I have 5-10k viewers, and if the chat is moderated, then narratives can develop by talking to chat. Because sometimes the chat actually comes up with something that’s smart to talk about. Co-streams at least give you the option. You’re creating another unique entertainment value that would not happen on the main stream because it isn’t built for that.”
If all the viewers were in one stream, chat would be absolutely flying with memes. Having co-streams with smaller, but still passionate, audiences provides a different option. The majority of viewers still chose the biggest channels, but that doesn’t mean the other co-streams didn’t add value.
The brand argument is also an interesting one. Sponsors make up a massive part of the revenue generated from esports, anything that detracts from the value they receive negatively impacts esports as a whole. So Riot, who works with more major brands than any other esports operator, put some stipulations in place.
“When you have official co-streamers like VALORANT, they tell us to show all the same sponsors and the same ads,” Average Jonas said. “So when we show our analytics, they aren’t actually losing viewership. I don’t think a sponsor cares if the sponsor’s logo is shown on shroud’s stream or on the main VALORANT stream because it’s still exposure for the sponsor.”
Co-streaming is a relatively new phenomenon, at least for the biggest esports events, and other entertainment properties are taking notice including the NBA, one of the biggest sports leagues in the world.
On May 31, the NBA announced a partnership with Alexandre “Gaules” Borba, a popular Brazilian streamer who is second on the platform in hours watched in 2021. Brazilian audiences will get to watch NBA playoff games through one of the biggest influencers the country has. This partnership appears to follow the same co-streaming model where he showcases the brands tied to the NBA (and the league itself) in exchange for the rights to broadcast the games.
Now, this isn’t the exact same as the NBA giving a North American streamer permission to stream. The NBA is targeting the Brazilian audience and using Gaules to do so. Still, basketball, and the NBA by extension, is a popular sport in Brazil already, so this isn’t a case of a league with no traction trying to get something to stick.
It also goes without saying that the NBA has much larger brand partners and bigger deals in place than VALORANT esports. If the NBA’s brand partners are on board with co-streaming to reach new audiences, that’s hard to argue with.
Going forward, expect to see select groups of co-streamers announced for future events. Riot Games already put some caps on co-streaming in the League of Legends Championship Series following a pretty wild Spring Split where any member of the League Partnership Program would have the ability to co-stream. Instead, the developer announced six big personalities who would be able to co-stream. That also gives the developer the ability to stipulate the individual permissions and, quite possibly, even some of what the co-streamer is able to discuss.
With leagues like the NBA getting on board and Riot figuring out best practices on the fly, co-streaming appears to be here to stay. See you at the next watch party.
Lead image credit: Riot Games