The Decline of YouTube Gaming

Along with Modern Warfare 2 began the growth of the ‘network’ in YouTube terms.  Networks, with the most prominent being Machinima, would act similarly to TV networks.  Channels would be asked to affiliate with a network (becoming a ‘Partner’ as it is known), who would typically post some of their affiliates’ content on their own channels and act as a hub for gaming videos.  Youtubers would typically provide perhaps a video a week to the network, in the hope of attracting viewers because of the greater reach these network channels had.  On the business side, affiliating with a network meant that all of your videos would be monetised with adverts (something that wasn’t usually available until you had a certain level of viewership).  The network would take all the revenue for these adverts, but would pay Youtubers a quarterly fee based on their overall contribution to the network’s advertising revenue.  Networks would also act as a ‘union’ of sorts in dealing with the powers-that-be at YouTube, in case of copyright sanctions for when music is used without permission or embargoes on games are broken, for example.  For those making videos, YouTube began to be more than just a hobby.  Some quite their real-life jobs in the pursuit of their own YouTube career.

One of the most amazing phenomenon in recent gaming history is undoubtedly Minecraft.  The indie game that has now sold, as of last Friday, 13 million legitimate copies (and many more free Beta or pirated copies).  This game’s success is partially off the back of the game’s adoption by the burgeoning YouTube gaming community.  One of the foremost gaming commentators of the day, SeaNanners, posted his first Minecraft video on the 25th of August 2010 and over 40,000 people viewed it within the first week.  From there, Minecraft exploded onto the gaming scene, with many people copying the style of SeaNanners by showing their full adventures within the game.  This “Let’s Play” style of game video also blew up from this point in time.

Naturally, people saw the new-found success of gaming on YouTube, in particular the growth in network related income, and wanted to emulate their favourite channels themselves.  Hundreds of new channels sprung up during 2010.  Success wasn’t guaranteed for these new Youtubers.  As with any market, there is a saturation point.  Only the channels that offered something different, one example that springs to mind is WoodysGamertag, who offered his advice on how to improve as an “unexceptional” Call of Duty player, had any of the growth that the earlier channels had.  Overall, quality was diluted.  The communities that built up around traditional channels became less intimate, and in an attempt to please a wider audience, some channels became more generic.

Since those days, the scene of gaming on YouTube has been in decline in the eyes of many.  No new games have produced nearly as much of a ‘gold rush’ as Minecraft in the three years since.  Subscriber bases have either grown at a slower rate, or even began to dwindle.  For the Call of Duty commentators, this can be blamed in part because of the growing indifference of gamers to the series.  Youtubers have begun to diversify their content, posting playthroughs of single-player games with their unique commentary styles; either alongside or instead of multiplayer games, to attempt to reverse the slump.  But the levels of success have been mixed.

More seriously, over the last two or three years, and more intensely in the last few weeks, YouTube has begun to take a much harder line with the YouTube gaming community when it comes to ad revenues.  Before, gamers would either retain all of their own ad revenue or receive some of it as part of being affiliated with one of the YouTube networks.  Recent policy shifts have meant that this is becoming much more difficult for Youtubers to do.  In the last few weeks, YouTube’s new “content ID match” software means that any video that contains similar audio-visual content to another will be flagged as copyright.  This means that the first creator of a video using a game (or whoever the automated system believes to be the first creator) will have the power either to monetise the other person’s video for their own gain, block the video outright or leave it be.  In today’s community, YouTube gaming videos are about money, not for the love of doing it – so chances are that when these “Copyright Notices” appear, that the video is going to be taken down.

Obviously this is a massive issue, as Youtubers cannot claim to own games’ content.  They could claim ‘fair use’ or ‘derivative work’ in many other arenas, but YouTube have taken steps earlier this year to explicitly state in their terms of use that these claims are invalid.  Another dangerous flaw in YouTube’s system is its’ reliance on automation.  A detailed look at the “Copyright Notices” of one Youtuber, Xcalizorz, shows that many of the disputes on his videos come not from a publisher, or gaming video channel, but mysterious networks ELLO movies and Scale Lab, which have absolutely nothing to do with the audio-visual content of Xcalizorz’s videos.  YouTube’s attempt at giving power to video game/music publishers has catastrophically backfired and leveraged the positions of irrelevant channels unfairly.

Even the original poster of video game content, by YouTube’s system’s reckoning, is not immune from YouTube’s new system.  If you are deemed to be using content that is found elsewhere, it is stated that you must have express permission from the game publisher to upload footage of the games.  Publishers take widely varying stances on the use of their games’ footage.  Before, when the market was smaller, publishers paid less attention to the YouTube scene – and generally those that did saw it as free advertising for their games.  Although as money began to enter the equation, publishers’ have a more keen interest in YouTube.  The recent furore over the “Content Match” system has brought some responses from developers in favour of Youtubers, but their support can’t be assured in future.  With the increasing amounts of money involved, publishers see it as a new revenue stream being created from their content – and naturally feel that others should not be benefiting, even derivatively, from it.  So some developers are either cutting the stream off outright or diverting it into their own pockets.

Some Youtubers are now beginning to suggest moving their operations to other, more game-video-friendly websites – such as the live streaming site Twitch, instead of trying, and failing, to co-operate with YouTube and their owners Google.

Another recent development in the YouTube gaming scene, but still unclear at the moment, is that the PS4 and Xbox One have the ability to record game footage natively without the need for capture cards.  It would be reasonable to assume that it will further dilute the quality of the genre, with pithy clips from a multitude of channels being much more prevalent than properly commentated videos, but whether it will affect the viewership of regular channels remains to be seen.

With the proliferation of the internet, sharing feats of wonder in video games was always going to happen.  YouTube, as the largest video hosting website in the world, was a natural home for that.  But if YouTube are making that home less hospitable, and that home is becoming too crowded, perhaps gaming will move away from YouTube for good.

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