YouTube opens up Twitch-style subscriptions to more creators

YouTube is expanding Sponsorships, its relatively new service that lets viewers pay creators a monthly subscription fee in exchange for exclusive perks. The program, which existed only in beta prior to today, will now be available to any channel in the YouTube Gaming mobile app, a Twitch competitor that encourages gaming personalities to live-stream their play sessions and post edited recordings of gameplay footage. Sponsorships will also be available for non-gaming channels across all of YouTube in a limited beta testing phase starting today.

YouTube says Sponsorships will replace the rarely used paid channels feature the company launched all the way back in 2013. “This service offered monthly subscriptions for some channels, but with less than 1 percent of creators using it today, it never achieved popularity with creators or users,” Barbara Macdonald, a YouTube product manager, wrote in a blog post.

While YouTube was one of the first platforms to implement a user-focused monthly subscription service, it was really Twitch, with its Partner Program, and the indie funding site Patreon that popularized the idea for the broader gaming and internet culture community. Nearly since their inception, those sites have allowed users to pay a monthly fee to creators, either to help fund specific projects or to help live streamers continue producing.

Twitch’s Partner Program, first introduced in 2011, unlocks privileges for subscribers including special emoticons and access to live chat, and YouTube’s Sponsorships program is very similar. YouTube allows Sponsorships participants to create a digital storefront with emojis and badges for subscribers to access so long as they pay the channel owner $4.99 a month, which has also been Twitch’s baseline subscription price point for years. (Twitch recently increased the monthly maximum users can donate to streamers, from $4.99 to a $9.99 tier and a $24.99 tier.)

To access Sponsorships today, YouTube says you must have a “gaming” channel. The requirements for meeting that designation are not entirely clear, but it likely involves streaming games to an audience of a certain minimum size, and at a frequency that meets YouTube’s threshold requirements. You must also be over 18 years old, have more than 1,000 total subscribers, and have enabled live streaming, as well as meeting the requirements to remain monetized. YouTube can remove monetization from a channel if it violates YouTube’s terms of service regarding copyrighted content, offensive imagery, and so on.

Eventually, it appears that YouTube hopes to expand Sponsorships to its entire platform. Currently, many prominent channel owners use Patreon to fund the creation of pre-recorded and edited videos, while live steamers on Twitch tend to rely on ad revenue splits and subscription fees, of which Twitch takes a 50 percent cut in most cases. If your YouTube channel is large enough, with millions of subscribers, you can rely solely on advertising through the company’s own Partner Program, or the more lucrative Google Preferred program that matches the most popular channels with the most lucrative advertising campaigns. But only a small percentage of YouTube creators can make a living that way.

Now, it looks like YouTube is trying to bring all of these different funding methods and video creation strategies onto a single platform, combining the patronage elements of Twitch and Patreon with the existing advertising benefits YouTube enjoys today. It’s also trying to do so across all video types, using YouTube Gaming as a direct Twitch competitor while allowing experimentation with the funding features that work best for live-streaming games to see if they can work across genres.

It’s unclear if Sponsorships will take off, or cut into Twitch or Patreon in any meaningful way. It’s also unclear if any of this will tie into the company’s existing YouTube Red subscription service, which already helps support professional channel owners with revenue and audience development. But with YouTube’s massive reach, it’s conceivable that Sponsorships could help it chip away at its fast-growing rivals, especially in the video verticals that don’t involve gaming.

Because while YouTube Gaming may not have the popularity to compete with Twitch in that sphere, its main service owns the market for countless other video genres. Twitch understands this too, and the company has been tirelessly working to expand its own streaming service beyond gaming and into live music, television, film, and performance art