YouTube is already a big player in live video. YouTube is already a big player in gaming. As of today, Google is promoting the intersection of the two with YouTube Gaming, a dedicated site and separate app that’s supposed to directly compete with Twitch’s popular streaming platform. YouTube Gaming is a more obviously gaming-focused version of the standard interface; the announcement post billed it as a place where “you can search with confidence, knowing that typing ‘call’ will show you Call of Duty and not ‘Call Me Maybe.'”
In practice, the problem YouTube Gaming needs to solve isn’t separating video games from Carly Rae Jepsen (who has a small but respectable place in its search results, thanks to a Just Dance 4 track and some Minecraft parody songs.) It’s separating the different kinds of gaming content that’s easily available on YouTube. And in that, it succeeds — which might be all it needs to do.
While you’re watching a stream, YouTube Gaming looks more like a Netflix-style video service (or YouTube’s mobile app) than its vanilla counterpart does, though the components are similar: you can see comments on the side, give a streamer a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, and subscribe to their work.
The real difference is organization. It’s possible to look for live content, or gaming content, on YouTube, but narrowing it down from there involves either searching for exact terms, cycling through some broad categories, or clicking randomly. In YouTube Gaming, there’s a list of trending games down one side, and “featured” channels down another. There are landing pages for specific games, dividing their results into categories like pre-recorded “let’s play” videos, popular videos, and live shows. This obviously works best for things that people are actually playing, but you’ll also find pages for obscure 20-year-old adventure games starring Grace Jones, as long as there are videos about them on YouTube.
While the difference between YouTube Gaming and Twitch isn’t all that pronounced on Android, YouTube unsurprisingly looks much slicker (and well-organized) than Twitch on desktop. It also does a fairly good job of culling non-gaming content from its library, even if it’s also possible to pull up, say, ominous political videos about Zbigniew Brzezinski.
But the interface isn’t what will sell most people on YouTube Gaming. If it can poach users from Twitch, it will be through video reliability and, as my colleague Vlad Savov pointed out earlier this month, benefits like being able to “rewind” a stream that you’ve missed the beginning of. It will also, however, have to build the kind of live event following that will keep people coming back. Right now, Twitch’s most popular channel is drawing around 32,000 viewers, while YouTube’s top featured channel has around 11,000 — which probably includes a first-day rush of people just trying out the service, since it’s playing on the front page.
Professional “let’s play” artists like PewDiePie are already an integral part of the YouTube ecosystem. As Vlad said, though, people don’t think of YouTube first and foremost as a live-streaming destination, and until now, there was no equivalent experience to visiting the front page of Twitch and clicking around to see what’s happening right now. If you already know exactly what you want on YouTube, YouTube Gaming is just another wrapper for that. But for anyone else interested in live games, this makes things the service can already do more accessible. And for anyone who’s not interested in games at all, it’s enough to make you wonder if similar rebranding efforts might be coming to Google’s other live-streaming categories.