Twitch wants to become the ESPN of game streaming, and they have the plan to make it happen

Twitch wants to become the ESPN of game streaming, and they have the plan to make it happen has been leading the charge in one of the biggest trends to strike gaming in the past few years, the online streaming of live video games. But at the same time, Twitch has big problems, and the company is aware of its own shortcomings. To that end, Twitch is introducing perhaps the biggest expansion of their service in its short two-year life.

The goal is to create a system that will allow anybody to simply press a button and instantly broadcast their game play to whoever wants to watch. No hassles, no equipment, no software, no fuss. Twitch is rolling out an expansion to their development kit that allows game makers to build all-new Twitch functionality directly into their games.

Today at the Microsoft E3 2013 press briefing, this type of functionality was shown off in the console game, Killer Instinct. According to the developers, anyone can simply say “Xbox broadcast” and instantly begin streaming their game via Twitch. In the Killer Instinct example, games could even be quickly edited down and adorned with video skins and commentary before uploading.

Companies like Sega, CCP Games, and Sony Online Entertainment among others have also reportedly already signed on to build these features into Company of Heroes 2, EVE Online, and Planetside 2, respectively. Some games already have Twitch streaming built directly into their interface, but this will expand on that previous program with new tools, and new potential.

That's the heart of Twitch's challenge: It's often too difficult for people to actually get into broadcasting in the first place. It's not a very user-friendly process and it takes dedication to get a stream up and running.

“Even from a PC, you have to have some computer know-how, and from a console it's even more difficult as you've got to get video capture devices,” said Brooke Van Dusen, part of Twitch's Business Development team. He said the service has seen more than 600,000 broadcasters in its two years, but they want a lot more.

“We want broadcasting to be ubiquitous,” he said. “Why can't I go watch my friend immediately? We see it as very natural.”

What if nobody watches?

Even if they allow everybody to broadcast game play at the push of a button, that doesn't solve all of their problems.

“What happens if you broadcast and you have no viewers?” said Van Dusen. “What value does Twitch give you?”

The solution to that quandary is a brand new filing system that will help organize content before it's heaved into the great sea of uncurated content. Right now, when a video is streamed it gets recorded in its entirety and winds up in Twitch's massive library to die a quiet death in obscurity. Most videos are hours long with huge amounts of down time and dead air between the interesting moments of the game.

“No one wants to watch recorded live video,” he said. “They want highlights, not all the content and dead air in between.” He referenced ESPN as the prime example. Lots of people watch live games, and lots of people watch SportsCenter for the highlights the next day, but not so many people watch the entire 3 hour DVR of the game after it has aired.

The ESPN of video games

The new Twitch aims to allow developers to create systems that will automatically organize Twitch videos into smaller chunks of highlights. Or really, anything the developer can imagine. The system can create a series of tags that signal something of importance that needs to be highlighted, say, a double kill or that a specific map is being played.

Van Dusen gave me the example of someone who wants to watch a Masters-level StarCraft 2 player to see what build order they used in a Terran vs. Protoss match on a specific map. If you want to find that type of match in Twitch's backlog today, then you're out of luck.

“Right now, trying to find [specific] content in that mess is frankly impossible,” he said. The new system will allow developers to set up systems to automatically recognize features of the game and tag them accordingly, leading to a much more digestible backlog that is easily searchable.

He gave an example of how the functionality might be implemented to provide an “alert” to users that something exciting was happening. He said the system could be used to send out a message to SC2 viewers that a Mothership (formerly a big, exciting unit that lots of people would want to watch) was in play, and allow them to switch to that game to see what happens.

It's an open toolset and it's up to the developers to decide how to use it. They don't seem to know exactly where all of this is heading, but they've got some great ideas to get it all started. With the new tools, developers could tag actual players that are featured inside a game clip, or the system could immediately upload video of a high score in a racing game to the game's public leaderboard. But Twitch will no longer be a mass of long, boring videos. It will soon be possible, and simple, to plant flags in the content, to say “Hey, look! This is interesting!”

Games like Company of Heroes 2 and Planetside 2 are going to be among the first to step into the uncharted waters, but Twitch says developers are champing at the bit to get this in their games. Considering game streaming barely existed two years ago, it's exciting to think where all of this might be in another two years.