Ten years ago the idea of having a career as a streamer would have been a ludicrous proposition. But YouTubers and Twitch streamers have developed fanbases and profiles on par with some of the biggest celebrities on earth, with millions of viewers and even more millions in their bank account.
But the actual act of streaming, beaming footage from your PC or console to the internet, can be surprisingly tricky. So to help out, here's everything you need to know about streaming.
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How Does Streaming Work?
Streaming is what lets us capture great moments like the one above from the SoCal Regionals a couple of years ago, where we get to preserve the reaction as well as the in-game moments. But it's also the core of what makes things like Twitch Plays possible, and it's also opened the door to a new form of interactive entertainment, something that traditional entertainment can't match.
So, how does it work?
Whether you use a program like XSplit, Razer Cortex the streaming tools in NVIDIA's Shadowplay, or the freeware Open Broadcaster Software suite, the core idea is the same. You pick a source (a full-screen application like a game, a window or windowed application, a capture box, image, monitor, or something else). Your streaming software will then take that image, re-encode it on the fly at the target bitrate and resolution you have selected, and broadcast that content out to the internet.
What Do I Need?
You don't necessarily need the most powerful or eye-catching hardware to stream, but there are a few components you'll want to prioritise if you want to get into the streaming life.
A high-end CPU and good GPU: The CPU is responsible for the majority of work when it comes to streaming. Playing a game and streaming at the same time is already a taxing operation for the CPU, and the higher the resolution you want to stream in, the more work the CPU has to do.
As one of the administrators for Open Broadcaster Software writes, the most popular program for streaming thanks to its tool suite and freeware nature, some CPUs simply aren't cut out for the job:
Dual-core CPUs and AMD APUs are particularly notorious for this. They might be able to get away with a 360p stream at 25 FPS using the ultrafast preset, but it certainly won't look good. That's up to you to decide. If you have a Sandy Bridge i5 or i7 or later, or an AMD 6-core or 8-core or later, then you should be able to come up with a decent-looking stream at reasonable resolutions and frame rates.
To get the best results, you'll want to stick to an Intel i7 CPU or the recently-released Ryzen 7 series octa-core CPUs. Intel has a small advantage in that their CPUs have the Quicksync hardware encoder, and programmers are more familiar with developing software for, and on, Intel hardware, but as long as you have a high-end offering from either company you'll be fine.
Having a good GPU is handy too. Streaming is largely done by the CPU, but the process can impact upon frame rates while you're playing. The better hardware you have, the more headroom you have while gaming - and the better quality vision you'll be broadcasting to your viewers. But you don't need to spend thousands: while the power of your PC matters, it doesn't matter nearly as much as your internet connection.
A webcam and microphone: Having good internet and outputting good visuals doesn't matter if your audience doesn't have a voice, a face and a personality to connect to. To that end, you'll need a webcam and a decent microphone. There are plenty of USB 1080p webcams that can be picked up for around $100 or less if you shop around. Having a good mic is often more important than outputting a 1080p feed of yourself, though. Good mics can be picked up for between $100 and $200, and if you really want to go the full hog you can get a boom mic and shock mount so that viewers aren't bothered (as much) by the sounds of your keyboard and mouse in the background.
A service to stream through: Twitch is the most popular option for streaming games, with the largest audience and the largest potential for reach. YouTube Gaming is another option, however, as well as Azubu and Douyu (China's equivalent of Twitch). Facebook Live is also becoming an option, with Xsplit and NVIDIA's Shadowplay software enabling users to broadcast direct to Facebook.
Really, really good upload speed: The biggest difference you can make to your stream is by increasing the quality of the image you broadcast. But if your internet doesn't have enough bandwidth to send out a crystal clear image, your stunning smile and expensive hardware won't make a lick of difference. Poor upload speeds means the quality of your stream will be lower and it'll be more unstable.
Don't use something like SpeedTest: it won't tell you what bandwidth you'll get to specific servers, only the aggregate of your internet connection. R1CH, one of the programmers behind OBS, created a bandwidth tester specifically for Twitch's ingest servers. You can download it here. (The Sydney server is located under the "Other" region, if you're curious.)
The maximum bitrate you can send out to Twitch is 3000-3500kbps, although only those with fibre connections will be able to maintain uploads that high. For those on high quality ADSL2+ connections, you'll have to stream at 500kbps or less (as you'll want some spare upload for the game/voice chat you're using at the same time).
A wired connection: While it's possible to stream over a wireless connection, you really shouldn't. It adds lag and instability, none of which equate to a good quality stream.
More than one monitor: Multiple monitors means you can have an eye on the game and the comments from viewers while you play, which is part of the fun! It also means you can keep an eye on a preview stream as well, which can be helpful.
A capture card: If you're recording footage from a console, you'll need a capture card (like the Razer Ripsaw, or Elgato HD60S) to capture the footage and transfer it to your PC or laptop. They often come with their own software as well for recording and streaming, although if you'd like to have more control over the process you can simply add them as a video source within XSplit, Open Broadcaster Software, or any other popular streaming program.
How Do I Get Started?
First of all, you'll need an account for the service you're streaming to. I'll only address Twitch in this article for the sake of brevity, although the basic principles apply to all platforms.
Each streaming platform will give you a password, or a stream key, which you then feed into your streaming software. Once you've done that, you'll need to go through and configure all the settings.
In general, you'll want to stick to these bitrates depending on the resolution you want to stream at:
• Recommended bitrate for 1080p: 3000-3500kbps • Recommended bitrate for 720p: 1800-2500kbps • Recommended bitrate for 480p: 900-1200kbps • Recommended bitrate for 360p: 600-800kbps • Recommended bitrate for 240p: Up to 500kbps
Once you've got all the basic settings in, you'll want to get footage of your game going. Once the game of your choice is loaded and ready to go, you'll want to add it as a source to your preferred streaming program. How it appears will depend on the specific software you use, but for OBS (as an example), here's the available options:
Which source you use for your game will depend on the game, and its settings. Generally, any program that uses DirectX, OpenGL or the Vulkan renders can be a candidate for direct capture, or "Game Capture" as it more commonly appears. But sometimes Game Capture won't work, typically when the game is running in windowed, or windowed fullscreen mode.
In those instances, you'll want to use windowed capture or monitor capture. I've found that Monitor Capture is usually the only option for games running DirectX 12, while windowed capture and game capture are better for games using DX11 or OpenGL. Play around with each option and see what works best for your setup.
I'm Streaming! Now What?
Once you've got game footage to appear live on the internet without a hitch, you'll want to start looking into improving the experience of your stream. Overlays are a good way to do that; they add some visual flair and can help serve as an information hub for other viewers. If your channel starts to grow, you'll also want to consider auto-moderation tools to stop your channel from being bombarded by trolls.
Xanbot, Moobot and Nightbot are three of the most popular plugins for Twitch, and have more features than you'll need when getting started. All three have a variety of tools including APIs for various games, like League of Legends and DOTA 2, editor functions, moderation filters, alerts, the ability to add custom graphics, dashboards for analytics and various ways you can keep an eye on your community.
You might also want to look into getting multiple audio streams into your stream. This is a great option if you want people to be able to hear you, the people your playing with, and the game you're playing, but you also want the ability to control the volume of each audio stream. OBS has a good guide on enabling multiple audio tracks, as well as the settings you'll need to make it work.
There's a whole range of other tools that can help, too. You can get plugins that automatically switch scenes so you don't accidentally reveal your passwords and private information to the internet. KapChat will let you display Twitch chat directly into OBS or XSplit, if that's the kind of experience you want.
An archived thread on Reddit has a fantastic list of the bots you can get for your stream, including bots to control your music, bots for distributing information to your audience, bots for running giveaways, moderation-only bots, and more. You'll also want to fill out your Twitch profile as well. The Panels page lets you write a short bio about yourself, what you like to stream, and what viewers can expect from your channel.
What If I Have Problems?
If your Twitch stream isn't stable, or doesn't look right, there are some tools you can use to work out what's wrong. Here's a great analyser (again from OBS coder R1CH) that checks your stream for dropped frames, incorrectly set keyframes, unstable bitrates and more settings that could compromise the experience. Twitch also has a tool called Twitch Inspector which offers similar functionality as well. (OBS will also let you upload logs from recent streams, which can be used to debug issues with streams not on Twitch.)
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