YouTube Gaming’s Ryan Wyatt on gaming’s explosive progress in 2020

The year is just about over, and perhaps the only things worth celebrating about 2020 are the memories of the hot videos on YouTube Gaming.

This year, fans watched more than 100 billion hours of gaming content on YouTube — about double the previous year. Live gaming streams created more than 10 billion watch time hours on YouTube, and there are now more than 40 million active gaming channels there. More than 80,000 YouTube Gaming content creators have hit 100,000 subscribers. More than 1,000 are at 5 million, and more than 300 have hit 10 million subscribers, according to Ryan Wyatt, head of YouTube Gaming. I interviewed him about the year and what was popular.

YouTube Gaming collected a number of the moments that made gaming so watchable this year, including most viewed games, top creators, top streamers, and more. It’s been a trying year, but these folks who created the videos have played their part in making all of us happier.

Creators like Lazarbeam, Lyna, MortaL, CouRage, TheDonato, and Typical Gamer are streaming exclusively on YouTube. Valkyrae became one of the biggest female live streamers across all platforms since she started streaming exclusively on YouTube.

During the year, YouTube hosted five YouTube Gaming charity tournaments in Mexico, the United States, and Europe to benefit COVID-19 relief efforts. As for the top games of 2020, the winners were Minecraft (210 billion views), Roblox (75 billion views), Garena Free Fire (72 billion views), Grand Theft Auto V (70 billion views), and Fortnite (67 billion views).

The top gaming creators included FGTeeV (U.S.), Jelly (Netherlands), Flamingo (U.S.), Robin Hood Gamer (Brazil), and ItsFunnneh (Canada). In terms of the biggest events, Fortnite and Travis Scott won with Scott’s Astronomical concert inside Fortnite.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Above: Ryan Wyatt is head of YouTube Gaming.

Image Credit: YouTube Gaming

GamesBeat: What’s your high-level view, looking back on the year?

Ryan Wyatt: The gaming watch time stuff is in the report. It’s big. We’ve doubled our viewership in the last two years. 2018 we came out with 50 billion hours of gaming watch time. This year we did 100 billion. The business, and the games industry overall, is seeing insane growth. YouTube Gaming is as well.

10 billion of that was from live streaming. There’s a lot of competition happening in live streaming, which is good. YouTube Gaming is continuing to grow that business and move forward there. We signed streamers this past year. We had a lot of great esports tournaments. We’re seeing big games in mobile come up. It’s a testament to YouTube Gaming being a true global platform when you see games like Garena Free Fire hit the top of that list. Minecraft, after all these years, is still on top. That’s impressive in its own way.

My background is in esports. That always has a special place in my heart. To see what we’ve done on the esports side, where effectively every major esports tournament is now on YouTube, either exclusively or not — I think we’re the best place to watch, because of live DVR and our living room experiences and so forth.

I talk to creators, and some people feel like it’s too late to become a creator and get involved. The numbers we released–around 80,000 gaming creators hit 100,000 subscribers this year. 300 gaming creators hit 10 million subscribers. Two or three years ago, we’d give a diamond play button for 10 million subscribers to a couple of creators each year. Now there were 300 who got one this year. You’re seeing the breadth of how many people are creating. We have 40 million YouTube channels creating gaming videos this year.

GamesBeat: The number of content creators is interesting. More people getting paid to play games, making careers out of this.

Wyatt: It’s great. Seeing different creators coming up in different markets — if you look at some of our biggest live streamers on the platform, they come from Spanish-speaking markets, or Brazil, or India. Big creators, driving some of the biggest viewership for gaming. If you look over the past year, the biggest moments for live streams, the majority of them are happening on YouTube. It speaks to–when creators go live on YouTube, they’re the biggest livestreams outright, far bigger than any other creators on any other platform. And you’re seeing this happen in all different markets, whether it’s Southeast Asia, India, or Latin America. That’s been impressive overall.

You’re right. People are getting paid to play video games, and they’re getting to do it more than ever. The other thing I think is interesting, no matter where these gaming creators are streaming, they’re all YouTube Gaming creators. If you look at Ninja or DrLupo or NICKMERCS, these big Twitch streamers, they’re doing equivalent watch time on their YouTube Gaming channels. They’re big YouTube Gaming creators as well. How we work with everyone is important, making sure the creator ecosystem is healthy and continues to grow.

GamesBeat: Did you see any impact from Microsoft ending its game streaming platform?

Wyatt: I don’t think so. How I think about it — Phil Spencer is one of the best people we have in the industry. I want to work closely with him. Xbox is a great company. Minecraft, the numbers speak for itself. It’s incredibly important. It’ll allow us to partner more closely with Phil and Xbox. I’m looking forward to doing that.

GamesBeat: How much of the audience is international now? It sounds like that’s grown even more this year.

Wyatt: Some of our biggest gaming countries are India and Brazil. In order for us to grow at this rate, the growth needs to happen internationally. It needs to happen in different countries. Different countries play different games in different ways on different devices. It’s why we’re seeing astronomical growth. We’re focused on being a global platform, not a U.S. platform. The viewership in these games is probably the biggest indicator of what’s happening in the international market.

GamesBeat: Was there growth that you’d attribute to the pandemic?

Wyatt: No. We definitely saw, in March/April, when some of the global stay-at-home measures went into place, a pop in viewership. But I think what you see more than anything is this massive shift in people choosing YouTube Gaming and gaming video and their primary form of entertainment.

Do I think the pandemic helped accelerate that? Yeah. It’s a silver lining in an otherwise terrible thing that’s happened globally. I also think that as the pandemic goes away, as we roll out vaccines globally, and as we get back to some semblance of normalcy that we knew pre-2020, that gaming will continue to thrive and grow. I believe that people are choosing, and the numbers support it, YouTube Gaming as their primary way to consume content. People are choosing gaming video as content that they want to watch.

We see the player base globally getting bigger in games. The revenue in games is getting bigger. Video is growing in parallel with that because people want more than just play. They want to be entertained by watching games as well. YouTube is the best platform for serving that. We’re multidimensional. You can watch anything you want from a gaming perspective. You can watch live streams. You can watch esports tournaments. You can watch gaming tips. I’ve been playing Call of Duty competitively again, so I was watching a grenade spots video. You have such diversity in content creation on the platform. That’s what’s happening.

GamesBeat: I do wonder about the notion, when movies come back, when going outside comes back, whether this will lessen. During any period of time this year, when that looked like it might happen, did anything change for you guys? Maybe in June, it seemed like there was some optimism about the numbers were going down.

Wyatt: Here’s the thing to consider. Gaming is so global on YouTube that U.S.-specific behaviors don’t impact the overall gaming watch time numbers. It’s tough to look at U.S.-based market trends. Globally, we can say that in the beginning of stay-at-home measures, we could see a material uptick there. But as markets reacted differently — I don’t think so. If anything, there’s a massive pipeline of content decisions. You look at Hulu and Netflix, all these different platforms where there’s a wide variety and a deep breadth of content. People were just choosing to watch gaming videos.

Even with traditional sports going offline — I do think it led to more gaming video watch time, more esports. But not enough of a material shift. It’s just part of the cultural trend we’re seeing around young people coming online, where there’s not this cliche and stigma around gaming anymore. People realize gaming is for everybody now. There’s a lot of variables coming into play. That’s what is pushing gaming video forward. It’s less about stay-at-home measures and other things that have happened in light of COVID.

GamesBeat: At the 100,000 subscriber number, are those people doing it full time and making a living? Or would the threshold be higher than that?

Wyatt: You can’t really generalize on that. It’s different for each country and each region. What it takes to make it there, where you can quit your job if you will, varies so much from country to country and market to market. Those that are in that 100,000 subscriber threshold, if they aren’t already, they’re well on their way to making the full-time conversion.

If you look at the funnel from 100,000 to 5 million to 10 million, because that funnel is so healthy and because so many more people are uploading and consuming gaming video, I do think that the space of people doing gaming creation full time is going to rise dramatically. The numbers are very much pointing in that direction.

GamesBeat: Do you see much of a war for the talent right now? Events like Ninja going back to Twitch, platforms looking to lock up marquee people?

Wyatt: Not really. I can’t speak for the other platforms, but again, Ninja is already a big YouTube Gaming creator. We don’t have his streaming business, but he’s uploading, and he’s a successful creator on the platform.

I don’t think it’s a surprise that we’ve done a handful of streaming deals. We did those deals because it’s important for us to understand what it takes to be a live streaming creator on the platform, to get feedback and build products for streamers and by streamers. But I don’t think we need to be in a bidding war. I don’t spend too much time thinking about it. Ninja is an important partner to this day, even if he does stream on Twitch. We want to make sure he’s successful on YouTube, and we work closely with him on that.

GamesBeat: Do you feel like you’ve diversified beyond PewDiePie?

Wyatt: PewDiePie, because he’s been a gaming creator in the platform for 10 years now, he has been big, and he continues to be big. But I do believe — when you look at the numbers, that 300 gaming creators hit 10 million subscribers, that speaks volumes about the diversity of where content is coming from, where content is being attributed to. You see people growing quickly.

If you look at Valkyrae, talking about streaming deals — that was someone who was streaming on Twitch to 2,000 or 3,000 average concurrent viewers. She hit 120,000 concurrent viewers the other day. She’s the biggest woman live gaming streamer in the world. She did that in 11 months, 10 months. There’s a bunch of swimming lanes, if you will, for creators to find their niche, find what their business is, and find success.

What’s next for us is interesting. The watch time numbers really are astronomical. Obviously, it’s my job to figure out how to keep growing that. A lot of it is going to be cultural shifts in people watching gaming videos. We’ve already seen it, and we’ll continue to see it happening. I fully expect gaming video to keep growing at the rate that it’s growing. The hardware being launched this year is going to be big. Games are getting better. Games are becoming more accessible to everyone.

Everybody feels more and more open and inclusive about gaming. That’s something we need to focus on as an industry. We want to welcome as many gamers from as many backgrounds, different types of games. There’s more room for the game industry to do better here. As we continue to do that as a collective group, the industry will only get bigger and better. That’s why we need to welcome every single gamer into the fold.

GamesBeat: Did you ever have to wonder if the data centers were going to have the capacity to keep up? Or is that someone else’s department?

Wyatt: It’s definitely someone else’s department, with a much more sophisticated degree than me. But no, I don’t worry about it. That’s what makes YouTube so special. It’s something we focus on. That’s why we’ve been able to expand globally. Our infrastructure — at the Fortnite event we had no issue with our streaming platform on any of these Fortnite events. We have a stable infrastructure. Also, what we can do in cloud gaming, on the server side and with what Stadia is able to do, is a testament to the infrastructure.

If it does crash, that’s a good problem to have. We must be doing something right if that happens. But I don’t expect it ever will.

GamesBeat: Do you see much change in the games that are popular? Things like Among Us and Fall Guys were big hits, but I don’t know whether they came along and changed what people watch.

Wyatt: Among Us is big, and it brought in a new type of game. Fall Guys is kind of still a battle royale. It’s a different kind of battle royale, but at its core, you’re dropping a bunch of people in the game and someone comes out a winner at the end. It wasn’t a concept, but they did it in a unique way. I loved playing Fall Guys. But Among Us brought a different type of game to the front. You see this every once in a while, where Five Nights at Freddy’s and some of these other games find a lot of success on YouTube. Among Us, the fact that it’s sustained its growth is impressive.

Some of the trends I do see — if you look at our top games, MOBAs are still big. League of Legends, Arena of Valor, Mobile Legends: Bang Bang. These are big games. MOBAs and mobile gaming. Battle royale games, still big. Free Fire, PUBG Mobile, Fortnite. And then open world. Minecraft, Grand Theft Auto, Roblox. There are genres and themes that seem to find success on YouTube. And games that are built to iterate and develop on, not just a triple-A release and it’s done.

Games that continue to build onto those experiences, whether they’re releasing DLC or just content updates, we find that they stay fresh, stay top of mind. Minecraft is the best example. That game has never been pushed away from the number one spot since its inception on YouTube. It’s that formula. If you keep delivering fresh, innovative content and iterate on your game, you can find success on the gaming video side.

People watching other people play games, watching the games, that nurtures the experience to go back in and re-engage with these games as well. That’s why I think the relationship between publishers, creators, and platforms is very symbiotic.

GamesBeat: Did you view this as a relatively peaceful year as far as YouTube getting along with its content creators? Sometimes they seem like they’re up in arms.

Wyatt: When you listen to creators, listen to their feedback, set up a time to make these conversations happen, and follow up with action — I don’t think creators ask that much of YouTube. We’re hearing them loud and clear, and we’ll continue to deliver. We have a bunch of great stuff in the can for 2021 that I know our creators will be thrilled about.

Objective number one is keeping creators happy. They supply the content. They’re businesses that operate on our platform. We had a wonderful year with our gaming creators. We’ll carry that into 2021. We have a couple more gifts for them next year. Hopefully they’re excited about that.

GamesBeat: Do you have high hopes for this notion of Stadia enabling creators to jump into games with fans very easily? Is that something you think will reach its potential?

Wyatt: It’s a cool feature. Cloud gaming has a lot of potential long term. When you take a five-year perspective on the games industry, cloud gaming and blurring the line between watching and playing is interesting. It’s just going to take time, for a lot of the reasons we already discussed. I don’t know that it’ll have a marquee year next year. But we have to build these things now.

Building games, building ecosystems of people being able to interact with cloud games, is time consuming. But if you don’t start now, you’re not going to be able to skate to where the puck is going. We release these features now. We’re platform agnostic. We want to work with all the different game hardware, cloud gaming, consoles, and so on. It’s important that we stay on top of it. But we also want to temper expectations. There’s a long road ahead of us in cloud gaming. It’s something we have to build now for the future.

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