history of streaming
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A brief history of streaming

6 min read
AGNIESZKA ZABŁOTNA

The video game streaming market is on the rise, and the upward trend shows no sign of slowing down. According to projections, it will reach a staggering value of 149.34 billion dollars by 2026. It’s a good time to turn the clock back a bit and examine how we got to this point. The history of streaming is a lot more interesting topic than one would think. Although it’s a relatively new technology, it has already gone through many changes. Let’s have a brief look at how the streaming landscape evolved over the years!

Streaming definition

Streaming is a broad term, as right now we can stream most, if not all media content. However, it was not always like that. The term "Streaming" was used in the early 1990s as a better description for video on demand and later live video on IP networks. What we consider as “streaming” nowadays was first known as broadcasting.

The streaming definition is “multimedia that is constantly received by and presented to an end-user while being delivered by a provider”. Streaming is more a delivery method of the medium, rather than the medium itself. With that in mind, historically radio and television are the main streaming vehicles, but the fast adoption of broadband internet connection made the Internet and streaming apps protagonists of the streaming world.

Live streaming, by definition, is the delivery of content via the Internet, in real-time, be it on your smart TV, computer, tablet or smartphone.

Therefore, to briefly present the history of streaming, we have to walk through the history of music streaming (or broadcasting), passing by video streaming, till the recent history of video game streaming, which is possibly the most popular form of live streaming nowadays.

1880s-1980s - the beginning of streaming history

In 1881, Théâtrophone, a telephonic distribution system, enabled subscribers to listen to theatre and opera performances over telephone lines. Through the 20th century, radio and television became widely available and popular, and became the main source of entertainment for many around the world. Streaming, back at that time, was better known as broadcasting.

1990s and early 2000s - the shy beginning of Internet streaming

During the late 1990s, users started to have increased access to computer networks and, consequently, to the Internet. The early 2000s started a revolution by allowing users to have access to increased network bandwidth, meaning a faster and more reliable internet connection. These technological advances facilitated the streaming of audio and video content to computer users.

2005-2011 – the modern history of streaming starts

It all started with video streaming through applications such as Windows Media Player and DivX. Then, in 2005, YouTube launched and changed the game, allowing streaming right in the Internet browser, without any outside tools. It’s the most popular video hosting platform to this day.

Although it has many competitors, YouTube’s position seems mostly unthreatened. Its main selling point was how easy it is to use, which allows even complete amateurs to share their videos (funny events, vlogs, video game gameplays and much more) online. Some of the most popular gaming channels in YouTube’s early years included Lewis & Simon, Machinima and SeaNanners.

Netflix, another video streaming giant, initially made its name in the video-tape rental business. Its landmark online platform for streaming movies and TV shows was launched in 2007, and in the years since many similar services emerged, such as Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, HBO Max, Disney+ and more.

As for the history of modern music streaming, the first examples include SoundCloud, Bandcamp and MySpace Music. Spotify and TIDAL, which rule the music streaming world right now, arrived on the scene a bit later. The former became available in the US in 2011 (before that, it was only launched in parts of Europe) and the latter debuted in 2014.

Growing popularity (and number) of streaming services in those years can be attributed to an increased number of households having access to faster Internet connections. Although they still were very low compared to today’s standards, which also meant low quality of audio and video, at the time it was groundbreaking.

2011-2014 – the birth and rise of Twitch

It’s hard to imagine the Internet without Twitch right now, as it’s a crucial element of the history of video game streaming. Funnily enough, its founders started their journey in streaming services with something entirely different.

Their earlier project, which they launched in 2007, Justin.tv, was more of a general-interest streaming platform, where the users mostly documented their everyday lives. Twitch was a spin-off of Justin.tv, focused primarily on gaming.

Such service was a natural progression from Let’s Plays and other non-live video game content, which was very popular on YouTube. It fulfilled a similar role, as it allowed the viewers to see the game without having to buy it or play it themselves. Therefore, it was the perfect kind of entertainment for video game enthusiasts lacking free time or money.

There was, however, an added bonus to live streaming, which Let’s Plays didn’t have. Live streams make it possible to react in real-time to streamer’s decisions, give them advice, interact with them and influence their gameplay, which leads to increased audience engagement and immersion.

Twitch was launched in June 2011. It didn’t take long for the platform to take the world by storm. In just a few short years, the number of its concurrent viewers rose sharply – in September 2012 it averaged about 77 thousand, a year later more than 200 thousand, and in 2014 nearly 400 thousand.

The most popular games on Twitch in that period included Counter Strike: Global Offensive, League of Legends, World of Warcraft and Minecraft. It’s worth noting that they still are some of the most frequently streamed games on the platform even now, all those years later.

Streaming was not only a way to unwind or a hobby, but for many people, it became a side or even main source of income. Not long after the launch, Twitch introduced its Partner Program, which allowed the streamers to earn money through advertisements shown during their streams. In the years since, the platform also added its own currency (the so-called Bits), as well as an Affiliate Program.

2015-2020 – alternative platforms appear, but streaming is still dominated by Twitch

Twitch’s success drew interest from other tech giants, especially since it didn’t have any strong competitors. Therefore, a new rival could potentially take away a big slice of its market share.

YouTube launched its answer to Twitch, YouTube Gaming, in 2015. Three years later, it was integrated with the main YouTube service for easier access. Meanwhile, Twitch only continued to grow. As of October 2020, YouTube Gaming had 5.5% market share in the video game streaming industry to Twitch’s 91.1%.

Mixer, a video game streaming platform acquired by Microsoft in 2016, seemed like it was gearing up for a serious rivalry with Twitch. In a bombshell move, it signed a multimillion-dollar exclusivity deal with Ninja, one of the most popular streamers in the world.

However, it shut down just four years after its inception, in 2020. Its partners were directed to another Twitch rival, Facebook Gaming, but a lot of them, including Ninja, chose to return to Twitch.

Facebook Gaming is a relatively young service, as it began operating in 2018. Currently, it’s not serious competition for Twitch, as it only had 3.4% market share in October 2020. Only time can tell what will happen in the next chapter of live streaming history.

2020 - currently – the golden age of streaming

As mentioned before, the video game streaming market only continues to grow (along with other types of streaming). Popular streamers can be celebrities on par with actors, musicians or professional athletes, and many of them earn millions of dollars through contracts with streaming platforms, sponsorship deals and donations from followers.

Twitch became a platform not only for video game streaming (although it’s still its main forte), but also for more general-interest content. It’s also used for streaming e-sports and traditional sports competitions, TV shows and even political events.

In March 2020 it had about 1,6 million average concurrent viewers – in every month since then, it hasn’t gone below 2 million. At one point, even a few members of the United States House of Representatives were using the platform, live streaming such video games as Among Us and Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

Streaming history shows us that users appreciate having immediate access to various forms of digital entertainment, which is now possible thanks to the improved availability of fast Internet connections all over the world. We are in the golden age of streaming and it’s not hard to see why.

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