Have you ever made a commitment to something before you knew whether or not you could actually follow through on it? That was me a few weeks ago when I seized a friend’s invitation to join a gaming marathon to support Extra Life. My job was simple: Play video games during a certain time slot and live-stream it all, interacting with anyone who happens to be watching me. Record video. Broadcast it. Be entertaining. How difficult could it be?
Step One: Record video.
Contrary to what you might think, capturing gaming videos doesn’t have to cost you a cent. If you own a PC, you already own the required hardware. All you need in addition to your PC is a software program capable of capturing, recording, and encoding video. There are a handful of free, open-source options. The most widely used application I know of is Open Broadcaster Software. It’s a program that gives you a virtual canvas of sorts, where you can compose various elements together into one video output. Their newest release, OBS Studio, does have a slight learning curve but becomes more intuitive over time. There is a bit of trial and error involved in finding the best settings for recording, but you can save as many different configuration presets as you like.
Assuming you want to contribute some voice commentary, you’ll need a microphone. I use the mic from my gaming headset, a Sades 810S that cost me less than $20 on a Lightning deal at Amazon.com. It’s not the highest quality item but it is good enough for casual sessions. Any audio sources in addition to the game capture will need to be manually added to your setup in OBS. Helpful tip: use OBS’s built-in audio presets to help to minimize background noise and accidental transmissions.
If you’re the type who wants to superimpose a headshot video of yourself over one corner of the gameplay, you’ll need a webcam. Or do you? No webcam, no problem. Use the Kinoni EpocCam app on your smartphone along with the companion webcam viewer on PC and you’re good to go. In my experience it tends to be a bit picky about starting up – start the desktop application on your PC first, then the app on your phone. Be prepared to repeat this a few times until the two devices see each other. Once they’re connected, you’ll have a window on your PC that shows the live video feed from your phone. This window can be added into your composite layout in OBS Studio for your “talking head” feed. The feed freezes when task switching, so start your game, make sure the feed works, click record and then start playing – but do not task switch away from the game again.
It’s not a perfect solution; I had issues with the feed freezing when task switching between my game and the desktop. After a few cycles of this, I realized there’s a specific sequence needed to keep things functional. Start your game, then switch to the desktop. Make sure the EpocCam Viewer shows a live webcam feed, then click record / stream in OBS and play away. Do not task switch away from the game again, it’ll cause EpocCam to freeze up and the entire process will need to be restarted. It’s kind of a hassle, but it’s free.
Step Two: Broadcast video.
With your video output taken care of, you now need a place for that video feed to be broadcast to the masses. Twitch and YouTube are the major players here. Create an account at either website and you’ll be given a streaming key. This is a unique link that, when plugged into OBS, tells your video feed where to go. Before you rush out and try to share your content with the world, you have to find the answer to one question that will make or break your dreams of live-streaming video games: what’s your upload speed? Perform a speed test of either speedtest.net or speedof.me and take note of the results. Plug that number along with some other information about your computer into the handy OBS Stream Settings Estimator, and see what your recommended settings are. You might be tempted not to trust the results of the estimator. You may see your results and think, “surely my internet connection can do better than that!“. It can’t. Uploading a constant stream of video is very demanding of your internet connection. Respect it. In my case, the OBS estimator told me I might be able to stream at 30 frames-per-second at 480p. Even that was optimistic. What the estimator should have told me was, “Sorry, but streaming video isn’t for people with your kind of internet connection.”
Low upload speed spawns two major issues: Quality of image and timeliness of image. While you will be viewing pristine and crisp gameplay, anyone watching your low-quality stream will be seeing a very different picture. They’ll see compression artifacts and loss of detail, as well as dropped frames or “skipping”. Another odd effect of streaming with a slow upload speed is a delay between the live pictures and what my viewers saw. Though I was connected to others live via voice-chat, the stream they were watching lagged as much as six or seven minutes behind real-time. The end result was disorienting as their comments only applied to gameplay decisions I’d made multiple minutes ago. Part of the appeal of live-streaming is that a host can interact with their audience in real-time. If your stream quality is so low that there’s a time delay, that opportunity is gone.
Step Three: Be entertaining.
The thing that surprised me most about live-streaming gaming videos is just how fun it is! But, it’s also more work than you’d expect. While there’s a wide range out there in the types of gaming videos available, I prefer to watch a host make insightful comments about either the game or their thought-process while playing it. How much narration is required depends largely on what kind of game is being played. Action games lend themselves well to video format because it’s usually very apparent to the viewer what you, the game are doing. There’s enough happening on screen that it’s obvious what you’re reacting to and why you’re making decisions. Slower paced games like Rollercoaster Tycoon, SimGolf, or Company of Heroes, typically require more thinking on the part of the player. It’s not always apparent from gameplay what the host is thinking about a given situation, so it’s up to the host to communicate his thought process to the viewer. A good host can make up for lackluster gameplay, but some games are better watched with the help of editing and condensed length.
Streaming and creating video content is a lot of fun, but it isn’t for everyone. If you don’t possess the capability to create a technically sound stream, you’ll probably cause nothing but frustration for yourself and your viewers. Streaming may not be a good fit if you’re not comfortable talking about your gaming or laughing at yourself. Aside from the three points mentioned above, my only advice is to relax and have fun with it. In my case, I lack the upload speed to make streaming feasible, so I’m going to make videos offline and upload pre-recorded material to my YouTube channel. Stay tuned!
Bonus: Screenshot gallery comparing live stream to direct recordings: