Loaded is the name of a gaming talent agency, but it’s also an apt adjective for the streamers under its management. That’s because Loaded is threatening the Twitch monopoly by inducing competition into video game streaming and pitting tech giants head to head for the biggest gamers in the world. Ninja? Loaded. Shroud? Loaded. CouRage? Loaded. DrLupo, TimTheTatman, Lirik? All Loaded clients.
And those are just the ones that have signed exclusive deals since Tyler “Ninja” Blevins’ widely publicized move to Mixer on August 1st. The rest of the Loaded roster is a who’s who of the most famous faces on Twitch. But how much longer will these names be synonymous with the Amazon-owned streaming platform? “These announcements will continue to happen,” says Loaded founder Brandon Freytag. “We have a whole roster of talent. Naturally we want to continue what we have been doing.”
Back when Freytag founded Loaded in 2016, he never could have predicted his agency would have been at the center of a competition between tech’s largest corporations. “I was certainly going to disrupt the space,” Freytag says. “In the sense that the influencer world is so new and no one knew what was going on. Early on, I knew I was going to disrupt things. What I was going to disrupt, only time would tell.”
For most of this decade Twitch has enjoyed a monopoly on the English-speaking streaming market. Ever since the Ninja deal, that monopoly has been under fire. Microsoft’s Mixer kicked off the competition. Ninja was joined soon after by Michael “Shroud” Grzesiek, a former Counter-Strike pro whose 6.45 million Twitch followers made him the third biggest channel behind Ninja and Fortnite star Turner “Tfue” Tenney. Losing two of the three most followed streamers on the platform made it clear that no channel was off limits. Jack “CouRageJD” Dunlop, a former Call of Duty caster whose voice can be heard on the Fortnite World Cup broadcast, went to YouTube in November.
“We were looking for people that had an established presence on the platform,” says Ryan “Fwiz” Wyatt, global head of gaming for YouTube. “When you look at someone like CouRage, here’s a guy with two million subscribers on YouTube. We see it as investing in one of our big creators on the platform.”
Other streamers outside of the Loaded umbrella also signed new exclusive deals. Cory “King Gothalion” Michael, a popular Destiny streamer, and Soleil “Ewok” Wheeler, a deaf Fortnite player in Faze Clan, both chose Mixer. Jeremy “DisguisedToast” Wang, a famous face in Hearthstone who transitioned into auto-battlers, surprised many by going to Facebook Gaming.
Twitch didn’t waste any time protecting its monopoly. Three more Loaded streamers in Ben “DrLupo” Lupo, Timothy “TimTheTatman” Betar, and Saqib “Lirik” Zahid all signed with Twitch on the same day in December. Throw in two more non-Loaded streamers in Fortnite players Nick “Nickmercs” Kolcheff and Nicholas “Nick Eh 30” Amyoony, and Twitch actually signed more big names to exclusive deals than any other platform. Twitch declined to comment on this story.
Losing any major streamer is a blow to Twitch. But the numbers haven’t reflected the newfound competition — at least not yet. In 2019, Twitch lost just 2 percent of the streaming market share, dropping from 75 percent to 73 percent, according to data provided by StreamElements and Arsenal.gg. YouTube also dropped from 22 percent to 21 percent, while Facebook Gaming and Mixer both climbed from 1 percent to 3 percent. “Competition is good for anything,” Betar says of the rise of other platforms. “It causes companies to push the envelope. If there wasn’t any competition or a driving force then things could get stagnant. It’s a win / win.”
“What the numbers tell us is that while all of the platforms are growing, the newer platforms are gradually taking away market share from the older ones,” adds Doron Nir, the CEO of StreamElements. “Even with big influencer deals, there has yet to be an overnight success in this space, because building a successful streaming platform takes time.”
These platforms are in it for the long haul. Yes, Microsoft having a new Xbox this year likely helped push the company to target Ninja, the former Halo pro. And Google will certainly want streamers using the cloud-based Stadia platform on YouTube. But these platforms had been targeting a challenge to Twitch’s reign for a while. All it took was a big name to pull the trigger.
“There’s just been this perfect convergence of all of these big tech platforms having live gaming streaming,” says Youtube’s Wyatt. “Two years ago, Mixer is barely top of mind right? They’re starting to be a huge success. You see Facebook Gaming really figuring their product out. You look at YouTube, growing the platform, seeing the success of live gaming and wanting to invest in that.”
The battle for top streamers is only beginning, according to Freytag. And his agency has plenty of ammo. How about Jaryd “Summit1g” Lazar, a game-agnostic personality who was top five in hours watched on Twitch in 2019? Or Dennis “Cloakzy” Lepore, one of the most accomplished Fortnite players? Brett “Dakotaz” Hoffman, AnneMunition, Tyler “Skadoodle” Latham, and JonSandman all command big communities in their respective games. There are even journalists (Travis Gafford), broadcast hosts (Eefje “Sjokz” Depoortere) and singers (Jordan Fisher).
Loaded started with Freytag donating $5 to streamers to open up a dialogue. Coming from the e-sports world after spending the last six years at GoodGame — the company that built e-sports organizations Evil Geniuses and Alliance into powerhouses — he saw streamers being taken advantage of by brands, the same way e-sports players were a few years before.
“When I first started Loaded it was about these influencers that were valuable, and they didn’t understand their value,” Freytag says. “Early on there were a lot of situations where brands were making a bunch of money and talent didn’t get anything except a free product.”
So how did Loaded go from sending $5 donations to being the matchmaker between tech giants and the biggest names in gaming? One key moment was the acquisition by Popdog, a new startup from Alex Garfield. Previously the mind behind GoodGame, Garfield left Twitch and immediately brought on Loaded, as well as the e-sports arm of Catalyst Sports & Media and streaming analytics company Noscope. “Popdog just added value to Loaded,” Freytag explains. “[Alex Garfield] brought together great minds who had been in the space for a long time and this company wouldn’t be in the place it is today without him.”
But Garfield’s history with Twitch is complicated. He sold GoodGame, an organization he had been building for 15 years, to Twitch in 2014. Two years later, he quit. “It’s on me for being foolish enough in 2014 to sell my company to somebody who told me that an exit would mean empowerment and not negation, but that doesn’t excuse any of the things that happened subsequently,” Garfield tweeted recently. Garfield declined to comment on this story.
While the trigger for this tweet was a redesign of Evil Geniuses, it’s clear his time with Twitch was far from smooth sailing. Now, as the owner of Loaded, he is mounting the biggest challenge to Twitch’s market share the company has seen since the site was called Justin.tv.
Popdog’s team is filled with ex-Twitch employees. Garfield left Twitch in 2016. Colin DeShong, Popdog’s co-founder and chief creative officer, left in 2017. Nick Allen, Loaded’s SVP of e-sports and partnerships, was the former VP of e-sports at Twitch. Max Wink, Antonio Javier, Marian Rudzynski, Isaiah Schloneger, and Dustin Lakin are all Popdog or Loaded employees who worked at Twitch just a few years ago. Is this an attack on Twitch? Not necessarily. It’s a bunch of former employees breaking up a monopoly of which they saw the inner workings. Plenty of GoodGame employees are still at Twitch, but there is no doubt they are making things difficult for some former co-workers.
In the end, competition was important. Twitch has struggled with moderation features and properly distributing punishments. Remember when Ninja left the platform and somehow porn showed up on his old channel? While Twitch still controls the market share, and a sentimental place in many gamers’ consciousness, newfound competition will force the company to adapt.
“Competition breeds innovation,” says Josh Swartz, the COO of Popdog and one of the “great minds” to whom Freytag alluded. “When the system is a limitless supply of content creators and one demand, one bid market, it’s not a great recipe for innovation and health. It’s great for the monopolistic demand side platform.”
That was the goal Loaded was founded on and the one it still embodies today: streamers are being taken advantage of, let’s make sure they aren’t. In five years, that’s gone from brands leveraging free product for a spokesperson to breaking up a billion-dollar monopoly held by one of the biggest companies in the world.