A typical Twitch stream, with a user playing Dota 2, one of the most popular spectator games. Image: Screenshot
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Amazon's new acquisition is a billion-dollar site where people watch each other play games

The most exciting spectator sport in the world is gaming, and Amazon just grabbed the biggest broadcaster.

The latest big-money tech acquisition is likely to split people into two camps: those with an opinion of whether Twitch is worth the $970m that Amazon has paid for it, and those who don't know what Twitch is. Unlike most buys like this, the target in question has something of a limbo-like fame. Twitch is one of those things that is both extremely popular and yet of meagre reputation outside of its fanbase, like the NFL in countries that aren't the United States, or Nascar in US states outside of the Bible Belt.

Comparing Twitch to sports does make sense, though. The basic gist of Twitch is that it's a website that lets people stream their screens as they play video games, and lets other people watch as they do. The players can also appear within their videos as they want (giving a running commentary while playing is common), and audiences can talk to each other with chatrooms, but that's really the basic mechanic. It is extremely similar to YouTube in parts, with popular players attracting audiences of thousands, or even millions, on their channels.

Whether this sounds ludicrous or not will largely correlate with your age (the kids love it, and it's available on the Playstation 4 and XBox One consoles as well as PCs), or your involvement in the larger world of gaming. For those unaware, spectator gaming is on course to match some of the more popular spectator sports, and Twitch is the undisputed king of the field - the Sky Sports of gaming, if you will. It has 55m unique monthly users watching any of its one million players, and in one month alone Twitch users on average watch a combined 15 billion minutes of live or recorded gameplay. Twitch is three years old, and is roughly half the size YouTube was when that site was three years old. And, to simplify somewhat, Twitch is a success in spite of the existence of YouTube for the same reason Instagram is a success in spite of the existence of Facebook. There is little that Twitch does that YouTube doesn't, but it dispenses with the things that it doesn't need to do for the community which uses it.

The most popular games on Twitch, like multiplayer arena-battler Dota 2, are featured in tournaments which boast viewing figures that rival the biggest shows on television - a recent Dota 2 tournament, The International, boasted a prize fund of more than $10m, and was broadcast on actual TV sports broadcaster ESPN to viewing figures which "exceeded expectations across the board". Some Twitchers have enough paid subscribers to their channels that they can quit their day jobs and live on the proceeds from their gaming.

For months now Google has been courting Twitch, even going so far as to reportedly make a bid of $1bn. Yet Twitch chose Amazon (and, notably, a slightly smaller offer - albeit entirely in cash). Why? The likely reason is YouTube - after all, Google already owns the world's biggest video streaming site, and Twitch would likely have always stood as a backup or sub-site by comparison.

Conversely, Amazon's doggedly trying to get into video streaming and game distribution. Amazon Instant Video is morphing from a pay-by-title rental service into something more like Netflix, and the company has started producing its own games and TV titles. Amazon also, crucially, doesn't have its own YouTube competitor - Twitch goes a long way to filling that role - while also providing the experience and infrastructure to handle the site's rapid growth, which is reportedly beyond the ability of the current team. At peak times, Twitch generates more bandwidth than sites like Facebook; only Netflix, Google and Apple are bigger, bandwidth-wise.

It's unlikely we'll see Twitch become more like YouTube - it has no need to, after all - but Amazon will want to exploit all those watching eyeballs. YouTube currently generates $1.96bn in ad revenues for Google, and Twitch is likely to be able to match a reasonable fraction of that.

All this, for a site whose biggest mainstream success so far was when a user set up a camera to detect how his goldfish was swimming and used that to play Pokemon:

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times