If you’ve heard of esports, you might also be familiar with “sports,” a spinoff of esports that people somehow play without computers. Twitch, which made its name on esports, has recently become very interested in these un-electronic sports and seems to really hope they’ll catch on.
It began in July of last year, when Twitch launched a dedicated sports category alongside content partnerships with four major soccer clubs. But even before that, inertia was already on Twitch’s side, with stars from sports like baseball, basketball, football, F1 Racing, wrestling, and MMA broadcasting video games and other activities on the livestreaming platform—some of them attracting large audiences, especially during the pandemic. Twitch has also dabbled in airing sports broadcasts over the years, sans a dedicated category, and players have participated in Twitch-hosted events like the Streamer Bowl, an annual Fortnite tournament featuring big names from the worlds of both football and gaming.
Twitch, which has continually sought to expand its horizons beyond video games—for example, by courting musicians despite an ongoing DMCA fiasco largely centered around music—announced last week that it’s running a “sports accelerator program” for streamers who specialize in “sports talk” streams and podcasts. Twitch also announced a partnership with NBC for an Olympics channel that will broadcast highlights, athlete interviews, and gaming-themed side events—though not actual live sports. Meanwhile, parent company Amazon has been trying to strong arm its way into sports, partnering with multiple soccer leagues and recently announcing its biggest move yet: a $10 billion deal to broadcast select NFL games via Amazon Prime.
Twitch’s approach might sound scattershot, but it does appear to be paying off. According to a new report from streaming tools and services provider StreamElements, Twitch’s sports category has grown exponentially in the last year, going from just over 1 million hours watched by the collective, emote-spamming viewer mass in July 2020 to over 10 million in April 2021. That’s a lot of growth—perhaps owed in part to the fact that more traditional communal sports-watching experiences were ravaged by a global pandemic, and fans found that talk shows, live chat, and watch-alongs filled the void. However, this still puts sports well outside Twitch’s top categories. For reference, Twitch’s tenth most-watched category in April was Apex Legends, with 46 million hours.
It seems unlikely that Twitch will become a sports juggernaut, at least in the traditional sense. Television networks have an iron grip on live sports. To wit, Amazon’s NFL deal is the first of its size for a tech company, while all other similarly-sized deals went to TV networks. NFL games remain massively popular on traditional television, eating up top ten slots like they’re candy. Television networks will not part easily with deals that increasingly represent their lifeblood, and which they can also bundle with their own digital offerings. Sports leagues, meanwhile, aren’t in any hurry to lose the bulk of their viewership on an all-digital gamble.
Tackling that kind of legacied establishment head-on is inadvisable, which is why Twitch’s more supplemental approach actually makes a decent deal of sense. If Amazon can’t establish another one of its (in)famous monopolies in the world of live sports, its increasingly mainstream livestreaming platform can at least gobble up the many different digital ecosystems around live sports. It’s by no means a fool-proof plan—last year, for example, the WWE controversially cracked down on performers’ Twitch accounts—but Twitch seems to have its eye on a number of different prizes. Will any of the resulting output be as good as watching cars play soccer? No. But some people want to watch regular people who are not cars play soccer, and so esports and “sports” will learn to coexist on Twitch, probably much more happily than on television.