Yesterday, Google announced plans for a new game-streaming service called Stadia. Besides the logo, the controller, and a single game — Doom Eternal — the announcement left us with more questions than answers. Primary in my mind has been the query of why Google needs to be in the gaming business at all. Isn’t it enough to dominate web search, ads, and browsers, smartphone operating systems, and maps? What part of our lives does Google not want to know about? And then it dawned on me that we might be looking at it from the wrong perspective: what if Stadia isn’t a case of Google aggressively entering a new business sphere, but rather a defensive one to protect its existing kingdom?
YouTube has a practical monopoly on user-generated video online. It’s the birthplace of creative communities, the workplace for many, and the landing spot for a huge array of gaming-related videos. Lest we forget, YouTube’s most popular personality, PewDiePie, got his start by filming himself playing games. Everything from replays of competitive e-sport matches to complete play-throughs of narrative-driven games, game reviews, and curated anthologies of funny moments in games make their way onto YouTube. That’s the status quo, Google is the king. Amazon’s Twitch rules the live-streaming arena, but YouTube is ultimately the place where the vast majority of gaming-related video ends up.
My thinking is that Google’s Stadia project is motivated, to a greater or lesser degree, by the desire to maintain its predominance as the home of gaming video. As of right now, Google gets more than 200 million logged-in daily active users watching gaming content. That’s 200 million pairs of eyes to present ads to every day. In 2018, YouTube accumulated more than 50 billion watched hours of gaming content. “Gaming has always been the backbone of YouTube since the platform was first founded,” notes YouTube’s gaming director Ryan Wyatt.
From a gamer’s perspective, YouTube is the lever that Google will lean on to stir interest in its nascent game-streaming platform, but from Google’s point of view, the new game-streaming platform (hugely ambitious as it may be) is a necessary measure to keep YouTube where it is today.
Taking a long-term view on things, a significant proportion of gaming will head to the cloud, whether through Microsoft, Sony, Amazon, Nvidia, or Valve’s efforts. And when that transition happens, it’s logical to expect some disruption to the way people share their in-game clips and the sorts of clips they choose to share. Google’s competitors are well positioned to capitalize on this, as Microsoft and Sony have built sharing features into their consoles and it’s easy to imagine they’ll cut YouTube out of the equation when they each have a full cloud gaming platform. At the very least, the popular and currently lucrative YouTube sub-genre of no-commentary game play-throughs is likely to be transformed when just about anyone with a few spare hours of time is able to do it.
It’s telling that when Google wanted to show someone excited for Stadia it brought out a YouTuber, MatPat. His time on stage was spent talking about how Stadia builds a greater connection and interaction between YouTube creators and their audience, with games as the backdrop, which is exactly how I think Google views the entire project. Gaming is a conduit or a vehicle, drawing you to YouTube as the important destination. Now, I’m not dismissing the obvious motivation of wanting to be in early on an exciting new development in tech and gaming, but my impression is that YouTube is the overriding priority for Google.
Yes, it’s cute that Google printed the Konami code on the underside of its Stadia controller, but look at the unique buttons the company has put on the top: one is for Google Assistant and the other is for screen capture. Those are your Google priorities printed in crisp white iconography atop a smooth black surface. The capture button is there to make sharing to YouTube as effortless and frictionless as possible, while the Assistant’s inclusion is there to help gamers stuck on a level find guides or tips on YouTube without having to leave their gaming session.
Many of the answers to “why is Google doing this?” boil down to a version of “because Google is one of the few companies that can.” Google already has the cloud infrastructure that few — maybe none outside of Amazon’s AWS and Microsoft’s Azure — can match. CEO Sundar Pichai summarized it neatly during the Stadia announcement: “Our custom server hardware and data centers can bring more computing to more people on planet Earth than anyone else.” Data centers, server farms, and high-bandwidth fiber optic connections plugging them into the internet are what Google’s entire empire is built upon. And then Google has the experience of running multiple billion-user cloud services reliably, plus the ability to spam them all with news of its planned gaming revolution.
If you want to be especially circumspect about Google’s motivations, you can also envision a world where a majority of gaming video suggestions on YouTube start to point to Stadia, in a mutually reinforcing cycle of sending users back and forth between Google services.
I have yet to hear Google offer any argument that convinces me it cares about gaming, per se. Stadia could be about podcasting, cookery shows, Bob Ross-style oil painting classes — whatever — and its presentation would have gone more or less the same way. Again, Google announced one game for its big gaming service announcement. One game and a few dozen ways in which Stadia ties in to YouTube, Chrome (which will be the only supported browser, at least to begin with), Chromecasts, Chromebooks, Android devices, and the rest of Google’s ecosystem. This event, scant on details and specifics though it may have been, was Google flexing its muscle as a leader in cloud technology and connectivity.
The reason I see Stadia as a defensive move for YouTube has to do with the companies that Google is going up against. Amazon and Microsoft are undoubtedly looking at the same incomprehensible viewing stats as Google is — Twitch came close to a billion hours watched in January 2019 alone. And they will consider their future cloud gaming platforms in both definitions of “game streaming”: how the game is delivered to the user being one, but also how the user can broadcast their game out to the rest of the world. There can never be another YouTube, but that doesn’t mean that developments in one of YouTube’s key sources of content can’t take away from its business and popularity. One analogy that keeps surfacing to my mind is that of Facebook and its acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp, neither of which threatened Facebook’s basic business model, but both of which took users outside of Facebook’s realm.
Google has shown itself willing to use YouTube as a cudgel against its competitors. Firstly, with Microsoft, Google actively blocked the development of a YouTube app on Windows Phone, helping to sink that platform in an effort to protect its own Android OS from competition. Then, in a dispute with Amazon, Google yanked YouTube access from the Echo Show before allowing it again a short while later. Putting two acts of hostility and two ambitious and well-resourced rivals together equals, to my mind, likely competition for YouTube with whatever cloud gaming offerings Amazon and Microsoft produce.
When Google was merely a search company, it built the Chrome web browser so as to escape Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Then Google went on to create Android and Chrome OS so as to not be limited by operating systems under other companies’ control. The same thing is happening with YouTube and Stadia. The future of cloud gaming is approaching, and instead of trying to play nice with its leaders, Google is choosing to become a leader itself. Because the YouTube moneymaking beast must be fed.