At their core, “sub wars” are a really simple phenomenon. Two streamers take members choose five members of their subscriber base of a certain skill level, then pit them against each other. The streamers will not only broadcast the game, but they will also commentate, as well.

This satisfies a number of soft requirements that make for a good stream:

  • The streamers’ personalities are on display, and they are invested due to the personal pride of “their” team winning.
  • League of Legends is being played, period.
  • There is a specific amount of hype during each game being played. Not every viewer likes watching one-sided matches, “routine” practice, or games that are simply boring.

For the streamers that regularly take place in sub wars (Chaox, Imaqtpie, Trick2G, Dyrus, Aphromoo), their personalities work well with the commentary of players who are less skilled than them. Players who might not normally get a spotlight for their play can be celebrated (or reviled) for the plays that they make; depending on the stream, the commentary tone can be positive or negative, and most viewers know what they’re getting into when they watch.

In the name of entertainment, this seems like a pretty winning formula. However, delving a little deeper, Sub Wars represent a new marketing and revenue model that provides a streamer with a valuable way to market themselves and provide validation to those who are spending money all with less effort than playing the game themselves.

Farming Efficiently

The simplest thing to notice about the Sub Wars model is that it’s exclusive: you can only be considered for the competition if you’re a subscriber of the channel that you’re representing. This provides a quick and easy hook where previous ones have failed: many people look at the $4.99 subscription fee and wonder how much they’ll actually “use” it, but when the prospect of playing a game to be commentated on by pros arises, it suddenly becomes a lot less daunting.

The prospect of possibly playing in multiple games intensifies this, as does the possibility of popularity within their peers; seeing common names pop up in chat is one thing, but with 30,000 other people to compete with, it is hard to get noticed. Subscribing (for chats in subscriber-only mode) helps this, but Sub Wars pairs that down even further.

Now that includes chat notifications of subscribers signing up, the scales of an argument in a potential subscriber’s mind is constantly being tipped in the favor of investing. Every time someone is added to the pool, the potential competitors for a spot in the game is enlarged, and the argument quickly becomes “if not now, when?”

It’s also important to remember that even if the player is not chosen for a game, the subscription is still there for at least a month: these are players that may continue to invest, and never would have if they didn’t have the incentive.

Switching From Passive to Active

An age-old problem of the streaming model is that the viewer base can be difficult to engage. If someone is kicking money towards a streamer, it can be assumed that they want to watch the person, but if there aren’t enough special occasions or benefits to tuning in, someone may reconsider to a free, ad-supported experience.

Sub Wars fix this problem by not only giving fans something to do when tuning in, but forces a more organized structure (in order to accommodate the second streamer). This changes the experience from “Hey, going to be going on to stream a couple of games!” to “Stream Wars with X at 2PM EDT.” Players prepare to watch, working their schedules in order to participate.

This also has the added benefit of mobilizing both subscriber bases; the streamers will often both stream at the same time, but the crossover traffic – or crossover subscriptions – make the partnership potentially profitable for both parties.

The Marketing Snowball

The most important thing to realize about Sub Wars is that both players have the benefit of a significantly different workload than when they were playing themselves. Both parties are free to commentate on the match, crack wise, interact with the other person and generally focus more on being actively entertaining.

While high-profile streamers have shared voice communications and played Ranked Queue with each other before, Sub Wars brings more of the positives with less negatives. It lets them talk without presenting difficulties in having the camera on both players, and removes potential differences in skill. Since each players’ subscribers are from the same divisions, it doesn’t matter if a LCS player has a war with a popular streamer: their in-game talent is not a factor.

It’s also interesting to note that with a steady stream of subscribers to fill games, streamers are further monetizing those who are already paying. Players are enabling the player to make more money in potential subscribers and ad dollars for the possibility of an extremely small spotlight.

To borrow a League of Legends term, this starts a snowball: subscribers bring in more subscribers. At this point, though, it’s hard to tell how many are aware of this, or if they even care.

Potential Hazards, and Wrap-Up

There are a few things that need to be taken into account before a streamer decides to take part in Sub/Stream Wars:

  • The barriers to starting are significant. Besides the base level of viewership to become a Twitch partner (to enable subscriptions), there needs to be subscribers in enough divisions to make the possibility of being chosen alluring. Subscription wars benefit those with already-large viewer bases, rather than mid-to-low communities.
  • The streamer must have a base notoriety for commentary or an interesting personality, and the ability to partner with other interesting personalities.
  • The streamer must be able to “break in”. As noted above, the five “pioneers” of Subscription Wars (Chaox, Imaqtpie, Trick2G, Dyrus, Aphromoo) have an established network that work well together. While they don’t have a patent on the activity, it is quickly becoming associated with the group. Trailblazers will always have the advantage in establishing the concept and executing it.
  • The streamer must be able to maintain a good viewership while partnering with another, instead of merely being secondary to the broadcast. Without enough incentives to bring viewers over to their side, they lose a lot of the marketing snowball.
  • Not everyone enjoys watching these matches. Streamers must still invest in their core product: the streamer playing League of Legends to an audience.

For all we know, Subscription Wars may be a passing fad or bubble, rather than a mainstay of streaming culture. For now, it represents a perfect storm – accidental or not – of the things that viewers enjoy; the people watching win, advertisers and win and the streamers win by having a source of income which is easy to invest in.

Good for business, and for now, good for League as a whole.

Matt Demers is a 24 year old writer who hopes to make a living out of his passions. He writes about gaming, League of Legends, comic books and other nerdy things. You can follow him on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. If you’d like to read or watch more in-depth eSports coverage, consider donating to help with associated costs.