A Medium for Creatives, or a Tool for Rent: Should Streamers Acquire Licenses for Games?


In the gaming world, 2020 will inevitably go down as a strong year. Long-awaited titles have dropped, just as new consoles have stepped into the ring and turned up the heat in the competition between major gaming brands, and the gamers themselves. As the year begins its final descent, and the much-anticipated release of the Xbox Series X and the PlayStation 5 draw enticingly close, millions of gamers across the world are taking their side for what is billed to be a ‘new era’ for 2021.

The year, however, has not been without its fair share of controversies – rivalries, friction, and, in some instances, a lack of cooperation between dominant entities has led to plenty of tense moments for the gaming world. The as-of-yet unresolved conflict between Apple and Epic Games, for instance, is fresh in all our minds, with many of us suffering the consequences of their estrangement.

For the live game streaming communities, yet another occurrence that will be sure to stand out is Alex Hutchinson’s assertion that streamers should be legally obliged to pay licensing fees in order to stream titles – and, in the top tier, earn six figures a month playing for live audiences.

Whether you agree wholeheartedly or not, the fact remains that this is not an inconceivable notion. Video games have enjoyed a far more casual existence among users than, say, movies or music – both of which are closely observed on YouTube, for instance.

It is, however, a jarring notion for the gaming communities. But, if we cannot make money by broadcasting movies live on the web, what is it that makes video games different, and subject to a far more collaborative relationship between streamers and developers?

Not All Games Are Created Equal…

Not all that long ago – just a few decades – gaming was far more consistent: basic platformers and shoot ‘em up games like Space Invaders set a tone for the industry that appealed to a large, though limited, group of people.

Now, that initial niche has been relegated to the history books, and each year sees a massive line-up of new titles – all of which offer something different to the player and, in the world of Twitch and YouTube, to the viewer, too.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is a prime example of a game that can be played ad infinitum – the matches are highly-addictive randomized sandboxes that require the player to hone their skills and develop through regular gameplay. Viewers might watch the stream in order to improve their own gameplay, and doing so will not incur spoilers.

At the other end of the scale, take the critically acclaimed 2017 title What Remains of Edith Finch. This is a highly plot-driven title – much more akin to an interactive movie. While some players may choose to revisit the title, it is, arguably, far less likely to facilitate replays than a game based on chance and gamer development. As a result, a viewer can experience the entirety of the game’s plot – its main selling point – without ever paying for the title.

Essentially, the industry is filled with titles for which a vital component of gameplay is lost through streaming. Spoilers will impact a developer’s ability to sell titles to varying degrees, and while it is impossible to know to what extent streaming has influenced individual game sales, it is not outlandish to assume that it has likely hampered sales for some titles.

…But Neither are the Streamers

Streamers are content creators – there are those who do it professionally, and there are those who do it for fun. A lucky few make millions each and every year, while the overwhelming majority make nothing at all.

Imposing a licensing fee on titles would prove to be incredibly complex. If this was done across the board, as it is with copyrighted music, then small-scale content creators would suffer the most; if this was limited to those making money from streams, then emerging creators – those still making negligible ‘pocket money’ from their hobby – would bear the brunt.

Alex Hutchinson’s belief that streamers are ‘a business like any other’ represents an incredibly limited view on a large and diverse community. Streaming is a lucrative opportunity for a small few’ for the overwhelming majority, it is an opportunity to use video games as a creative medium for little to no financial benefit.

At the End of the Day, Who Benefits the Most from Streaming?

There is no denying that developers hold it in their power to legally enforce a licensing fee on any title they want, but the implications for doing so are pretty severe.

For many developers, the fact remains that streaming holds the potential to give their game sales a significant boost. Unlike movies, the vast majority of games can only be enjoyed properly through ownership; we can experience elements second hand, but this will rarely come close to the enjoyment garnered through live gameplay.

The fact remains that some are able to grow rich through titles that require a poultry $60-$70 investment. Concurrent to that fact, however, is the point that their ability to make millions does not necessarily hamper the developers’ abilities to sell the same volume of titles, if not more.

It is not controversial to suggest that streaming is one of many keys to unlock the industry. The creative power of developers is complemented by the creative power of streamers, and only continues to fuel an indomitable industry. While some grow rich from streaming, the greatest