The new streaming wars: Tech giants are fighting for top gaming stars

When Jeremy Wang started streaming on Twitch in 2016, he was an unknown twenty-something with a few coding internships under his belt. Almost no one knew his name or what he looked like. The latter, at least, was by design: Wang, now 28, initially wore a mask everywhere — whether playing video games at competitive events or streaming from a closet while visiting his sister in New York.

“For me, it was natural to go on Twitch because the thinking at that time was: ‘this is the place to be if you want to become a famous streamer,'” Wang, better known as Disguised Toast, recalled to CNN Business in a recent interview. After years of streaming on Twitch — including an unmasking stream that drew a lot of attention — he had attracted more than a million followers and become one of the better-known gamers on the platform.

So it came as a shock to many of his fans when Wang announced in late November that he was leaving the platform that brought him fame to work with Facebook Gaming, a relative newcomer in the gaming space. Behind the scenes, however, Toast had been weighing lucrative offers for nearly six months from Amazon’s Twitch, Microsoft’s Mixer and Google’s YouTube, before deciding on Facebook.

Eventually, he turned to his parents for advice. Their initial reaction, he said, was essentially: “Just do whatever makes you happy.'” Then they saw the actual offers he was getting. Wang said they told him, “Wow, that’s a lot of money!” He declined to provide details on the offer.

Disguised Toast is one of a growing number of video game stars getting poached from Twitch, long the undisputed leader in the market, by rival platforms mostly owned by giant tech companies capable of waving around big checkbooks. In addition to Facebook, YouTube and Mixer, there are also a number of Chinese streaming platforms and Caffeine, a well-funded startup launched by former Apple employees.

Each month brings news of more high-profile Twitch departures. In October, Michael “Shroud” Grzesiek left Twitch for Mixer. In November, Soleil “Ewok” Wheeler, a 14-year-old deaf Fortnite streamer, left for Mixer, too. Fortnite star Corinna Kopf departed to Facebook Gaming in December. And at least three more Twitch gamers, including Rachell “Valkyrae” Hofstetter, signed onto YouTube just this month.

“When I told my family the offer YouTube had for me, it was a clear ‘yes,'” Hofstetter told CNN Business. She declined to give details on her offer.

The fight for top gaming talent mirrors the big budget battles for stars in the music and film industries. In every case, large tech platforms are looking to lure in customers and stand out from the pack with big names and exclusive content deals. For Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon, livestreaming is another battlefield for our money and attention. At the moment, people are spending millions of hours online watching others play video games every day. Video gaming content generated $6.5 billion in revenue in 2019, according to SuperData, a Nielsen company that tracks the video game industry.

The gaming defections also highlight the growing challenge that Twitch, which Amazon bought for nearly $1 billion more than five years ago, faces in an increasingly competitive market filled with other tech-backed rivals. These creators have been lured by contracts that can total in the millions or even tens of millions of dollars, according to industry experts. In some cases, streamers may also be motivated by growing dissatisfaction with the way Twitch enforces its content moderation policies, even as they risk losing fan bases that took years to build.

In December 2018, Twitch accounted for 67% of hours watched in the livestreaming gaming market, according to StreamElements. But Twitch’s share of the market declined slightly a year later — to 61% — as YouTube, Facebook Gaming and Mixer start to pick up traction.

Twitch, in many cases, has counter-offered, according to industry sources. But some say it isn’t doing enough. “Twitch hasn’t been that aggressive in defending their position. They haven’t dramatically changed their philosophy.” said Lee Trink, CEO of FaZe Clan, a major esports organization. Trink said Twitch ran “the risk of being complacent” given its dominance in the market. (Twitch declined to discuss its negotiation process.)

While lucrative offers have been making their way around the industry for more than a year, the talent exodus from Twitch appears to have picked up speed in recent months. And it largely started with a single departure.

How the streaming gaming wars kicked off

To call Tyler Blevins popular is an understatement. Blevins, better known as Ninja, is almost synonymous with “Fortnite” and livestreaming. The 28-year-old made close to $10 million in 2018, he previously told CNN Business. He has 14 million Twitch followers, deals with Adidas and Red Bull, and his own book titled “Get Good: My Ultimate Guide to Gaming.” He also appeared on various shows, including on Bon Appétit’s YouTube channel, where he attempted to keep up with a pro chef.

In August, Blevins announced he was leaving Twitch for Mixer, heralding a massive shakeup for the young industry. Mixer, once called Beam, was a start-up acquired by Microsoft in 2016. Despite its strong position in the video console market with Xbox, Microsoft and Mixer have trailed behind Twitch in streaming. But if any gamer can change that, it’s Ninja.

Mixer is paying Ninja between $20 and $30 million for the multi-year deal, according to Justin Warden, CEO of Ader, a marketing and talent management agency that works with Ninja, who said he had direct knowledge of the deal. Microsoft directed CNN Business to Ninja’s agency, Loaded, when asked about the terms of the deal. The agency declined to share numbers.

Warden, whose agency also works with a number of other prominent gamers, and Ryan Morrison, CEO of talent agency Evolved, estimate that streamers with 10,000 concurrent views on Twitch or more can get offers topping $10 million while smaller streamers can get up to $1 million.

“Now the streaming wars have begun. But it took someone to fire the first shot. That was Ninja,” said Devin Nash, chief marketing officer at N3RDFUSION, a talent agency that represents Twitch and YouTube influencers. Now, according to Doron Nir, CEO of StreamElements, a company that publishes quarterly industry reports, “it’s all about the content creators.”

For the tech companies, having big names is a crucial early step to establishing themselves as true gaming destinations. “I want users to feel like when they come into YouTube that we’ve got all the gaming video content that they’re looking for,” said Ryan Wyatt, global head of gaming at YouTube. At Microsoft, just the news of Ninja joining Mixer was enough to raise its profile among gamers and the public.

Each platform has its unique selling points. Facebook has a massive potential audience, with more than 2 billion monthly users — more than 700 million of which are said to “engage with” gaming content on the platform. YouTube already has the largest gaming platform outside of livestreaming, where Twitch is king. And Mixer has easy access to the Xbox community and potentially cloud gaming.

All of these platforms are also owned by tech companies with deep pockets — though some pushed back at the idea that they’re throwing cash at gamers. “We would not categorize our approach as a spending frenzy. It’s quite the opposite,” Leo Olebe, Facebook’s global director of games partnerships, told CNN Business.

However, multiple former Twitch employees, who spoke on condition of anonymity, believe the exodus of talent is due to the big paydays stars like Ninja can get elsewhere. “These guys are keenly aware of their marketability and they also know very well that this window of opportunity is not going to be open forever, so they need to make as much money as they can while they can,” said one former employee.

Industry watchers also point to money as a key factor in the new streaming wars.

“The game is afoot,” said Trink, the CEO of FaZe Clan. “Mixer made a decision. Somebody said, ‘Let’s go in, let’s make real moves, let’s pay people to change the game.'”

Sometimes, even money and a household name aren’t enough for a company to land talent.

Twitch streamer Zizaran said in a stream in December that he was offered $1.2 million by Facebook Gaming. He said on Twitch, “I didn’t want to move because Facebook’s a garbage platform and my streaming career would die out.” He told CNN Business that the offer was made over a year ago and he declined to elaborate further, saying he had lost the original emails.

“We’re proud of what we’re building, but we also know we’re just getting started here. We’ve been following community reactions closely, and, yes, we’re aware of the perception some gamers have towards Facebook,” Olebe said, “Ultimately, we know that in order to win gamers over, words are only going to go so far. It’s critical for Facebook Gaming to prove it by creating real value on the platform.”

Debating when to jump ship from Twitch

For years, Twitch felt like the only game in town. It had the biggest names, the backing of Amazon and dominated the livestreaming market in terms of time spent on site. Even some prominent political figures joined Twitch, including President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

Within the Twitch community, however, discontent has been brewing. Some streamers aren’t happy with the way that Twitch has enforced its community guidelines, arguing that some streamers who demonstrate questionable behavior are still allowed on the platform while others acting similarly will be banned.

“I definitely just aligned more with Facebook’s views,” said Fortnite streamer and Instagram model Corinna Kopf, who left Twitch for Facebook in December, the same month she claimed to have been temporarily banned from Twitch for being underdressed. “I know for sure that Facebook is more consistent when it comes to terms of service, their rules, policies and everything.”

Others, like Melissa Prizzia, a 22-year-old who goes by NuFo on Twitch and has more than 31,000 followers, argued that Twitch could offer better tools to help streamers tackle trolls on the platform. Prizzia said she was harassed on Twitch after publicly announcing she’d broken up with her boyfriend, who is a prominent gamer.

In a statement to CNN Business, Twitch said situations like what happened to Prizzia are “incredibly complex and don’t have straightforward solutions.” The company noted that it’s always implementing changes on the platform and working to fight bad actors. Twitch also said it doubled the size of its moderation team in the last year.

“Over 1.3 million people are on Twitch at any given moment, and we are excited to continue making Twitch the best place to watch and create live entertainment,” the company said in a statement provided to CNN Business.

Despite the buzz surrounding large deals offered by rivals, many Twitch streamers are staying on the platform — at least for now.

Streamers Nick “NickMercs” Kolcheff, Tim the Tatman, Dr. Lupo and Saqib “LIRIK” Zahid have all made announcements that they’re staying. Others have quietly renewed their contracts with Twitch as well.

“I’ve been streaming on Justin TV/Twitch for seven or eight years now, almost as long as it’s existed,” said Kolcheff, 29, from Detroit, Michigan, referring to Twitch’s original name. “I’d love to be able to stay on one platform, almost like staying on the same professional sports team, throughout my career. That’s special to me.”

For Twitch streamers weighing their options, staying comes with the assurance of knowing they already have strong fan communities that will tune into their live streams. And for some, there’s also a question of loyalty.

“I care too much about my community and that quality of stream,” said Jayden Diaz, who streams on Twitch as YourPrincess with more than 100,000 followers. “I care about all the people that are watching. So leaving that would be for money. I would have just sold out my stream, basically.”