Wednesday, November 18, 2015

A Content Creator's Perspective on YouTube Gaming

There's no doubt about it. People like watching video-game-related content. Be it pre-recorded videos on YouTube or live streams on Twitch, the popularity of such content has steadily risen over the past few years, and shows no sign of ebbing.

From a content creator's perspective, it used to be a simple equation: Live stream on Twitch and post highlights or more highly-produced, pre-recorded videos on YouTube.

That's pretty much the way things have been for the past five years or more.

Now, in the wake of Amazon's acquisition of Twitch, Google (YouTube) has gotten rather serious about trying to grab a slice of the live streaming pie where gaming-themed content is concerned.

This has led to the creation of YouTube Gaming– a sort-of sub-site to YouTube proper, which sports a radically-different user experience to what folks have come to expect from YouTube up to this point.
 So, is YouTube Gaming the future? Should Twitch be worried? I decided to spend a few days kicking the tires of the YouTube Gaming beta to see for myself.

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly and the Awesome

The following points represent the major (or at least noteworthy) conclusions I've come to regarding YouTube Gaming after using it to live stream for about a week. As it is clearly a product that is intended to directly compete with Twitch's live streaming platform, I will not be shying away from direct comparisons of the two systems.

My findings are as follows:

#1 - 9,000 kb/s streaming is amazing, when it works

The 3,000-3,500 kb/s upload limit on Twitch streams (depending on various circumstances) has long been a source of concern among those streamers striving to produce high-quality 1080p, 60 FPS content on Twitch.

YouTube Gaming comes out swinging with support for 9,000 kb/s video encodes, which look absolutely amazing by comparison to what we've all become accustomed to seeing on Twitch.

There are, however, some problems with 9k streaming. For one, videos generated from streams at said bitrate occasionally contain minor video and audio artifacts that weren't present when the stream was live. I've personally seen brief skipping or stuttering audio and video as well as audio drop-outs of 1-3 seconds at seemingly-random intervals in videos generated by 9k streams.

While rare, these issues were noticeable and were enough to discourage me from using the full 9k bitrate option on a regular basis until they can be completely eliminated.

The good news is that values from 3,500 up to and including 7,000 kb/s produce great, consistent results that easily exceed the quality levels we've all come to expect from Twitch streams.

Without a doubt, this support for higher encoding bit rates is YouTube Gaming's biggest advantage over Twitch in its current form– even if 7-9k encoded streams appear to stretch the system's capabilities a bit past the red line at present.

#2 - OBS is A-OK

Reconfiguring OBS to work with YouTube Gaming is a snap if you already have it set up for streaming on Twitch. Simply change the "Streaming Service" to "YouTube / YouTube Gaming," enter your YouTube Gaming stream key and set your "Max Bitrate (kb/s)" in the "Encoding" section of the OBS settings panel and you should be good to go. Took me less than a minute.

#3 - Everything is awesome until the stream ends

The web-based interface for monitoring and controlling YouTube Gaming streams is pretty solid and compares favorably to what folks have come to expect from the Twitch Dashboard. When your stream goes live, you get almost instant updates on stream health, stream duration, current viewers and access to your chat and stream properties without any need to refresh the page. 

I have to say that I immediately felt comfortable and in control of the streaming process from the interface and appreciated the clear and easy to read indicators for the vital information I just mentioned.

The problem for me occurs once the stream ends and the VoD (Video on Demand) for it is not immediately available on my YouTube or YouTube Gaming channels. There is instead a lengthy "Processing" phase that the video must go through as if it were uploaded from an external source before it is then automatically made public on the channel page. This can take several hours or even days depending on how long the stream was and the encoding bitrate used. As you might imagine, higher bitrate streams take much longer to process, which is another reason why I find myself shying away from the 8-9k bitrates as I use the system more and more.

I can't help but find it ironic that I am easily able to get VoDs and highlights from my Twitch streams onto my YouTube channel faster then I can get VoDs and highlights from YouTube Gaming streams to it. Obviously, this can and should be addressed. 

On a similar note, the time it takes to "Trim" a video using YouTube's video enhancement option to for example cut out the first 10-20 minutes of a stream intro so the VoD/highlight can start with actual gameplay/commentary is absolutely ridiculous and not at all practical from a content-creation standpoint as compared to how those same functions work on Twitch.

On the bright side, YouTube gaming does provide a clever mechanism whereby streams that are stopped then resumed without the stream description being updated are automatically merged into a single video. This is handy when the stream has to be temporally stopped for a streaming software reset or system reboot and prevents you from ending up with several VoDs for the same stream in such cases.


YouTube Gaming is in a bit of an odd place at the moment. On one hand, it has a few key advantages over what Twitch has to offer from a content creation standpoint. Unfortunately, with the exception of the ability to host higher bitrate streams, I don't see anything happening on YouTube Gaming that Twitch couldn't easily duplicate or ideally improve upon with minimal effort.

To me, the big miss with YouTube Gaming is how clunky and time-consuming the process of working with the video generated by a given live stream is. While both systems currently allow viewers to go back to the beginning and watch a stream in progress, on Twitch, the VoDs from my streams are immediately available to watch on my channel even before the stream ends and highlights are similarly immediately available for viewing as soon as I create them. How this is not the case on YouTube/YouTube Gaming is perhaps the biggest problem I have with the whole system in its current form. It simply does not compare favorably or meet my expectations as a content creator who is accustomed to having such features for years now on Twitch.

Having said all that, I like YouTube Gaming. I like it because it's just the sort of competition Twitch needs to keep a fire under its ass– the sort of thing that can and should motivate the company to keep improving and reaching beyond what it's already accomplished.

I also wouldn't be at all surprised to see YouTube Gaming evolve quite a bit over the next year or so to give Twitch a real run for its money. Twitch may be out in front at the moment but the gap isn't quite as wide as I thought it was. After spending a week actually using YouTube Gaming, I can absolutely see a future where I might regularly stream to both services or even prefer it over Twitch if the previously-mentioned issues are resolved.