Streaming isn't just about showing off. It's about fostering a sense of community around shared interests, whether it's slaying dragons in Skyrim or competing in fast-paced campaigns in games like Overwatch. Streaming services like Twitch attract up to 15 million viewers daily in search of exciting online gaming tournaments, playthroughs, and even solo sessions, where folks can come together and chat about virtually anything.
Whether you're interested in joining the ranks of the top-tier broadcasters, or you're looking to hang out online with a few close friends, setting up a live stream is easy enough for anyone to do. Follow along with the instructions ahead to learn how to stream games.
The Fundamentals of Streaming
Are you looking to join a community of people who love playing the same game? Looking for feedback on your in-game strategies to become a better player? Or perhaps you're hoping for some fame and a bit of fortune? Whatever the reason you want to start streaming, services like Twitch welcome it, because your drive is what keeps online streaming bustling and active.
Just be sure to communicate with your followers, however small the number may be, about when you're planning to stream. Sticking to a schedule is an essential part of building an audience or keeping your friends engaged, and the best way of fostering that is with a bit of consistency. Choosing a specific time of day and day of the week also helps viewers know when to plan to tune in and hang out. Best of all, you can explicitly relay all of this in your profile, though it's up to you to hold yourself accountable.
In addition to frequency, think about what type of streamer you'd like to be. Are you mostly silent, playing through the objectives of a game and making a few comments here and there? Streaming enables you to do that, precisely as you would at home with friends on the couch. Or is your specialty acting out strange-but-poignant dialogue with the non-playable characters in your favorite MMO? Streaming exists to evoke that kind of creativity, and there's certainly someone who would find it worth watching.
If you're looking to join the ranks of legions of competitive gamers, services like Twitch offer directories you can peruse to see what people like to play. You can use the directory to do a quick search for your favorite game to gain some insight on what people like to watch featuring that title.
What You Need to Start Streaming
You don’t have to put together a massive rig for streaming as long as your current hardware meets the minimum requirements, nor do you need to buy any software. Here’s what you’ll need:
Most games are optimized to work around a four-core CPU, and it takes about two cores for streaming, so for best results, a machine running an Intel® Core™ i7 processor or better with at least 8GB of RAM in tow is sufficient for playing games and streaming at the same time. If you're hoping for less impact on your gaming performance, an Intel® Core™ i9 processor makes for an even smoother experience.
If you're finding after several streaming sessions that your hardware could use a little updating, there are budget-friendly options for pre-built rigs that are ready-made for streaming and gaming at the same time. Alternatively, you could also go for a dual PC setup that allows you to game and stream simultaneously.
If you'd rather take your gaming abilities with you on the go, or you don't have much room to dedicate to a monitor, a case, and accompanying peripherals, there are also a variety of gaming laptops available that can do the job.
Alternatively, if you feel like you’ve already built your perfect rig and would prefer to have all of its resources put toward your gaming experience, you can either build a separate PC or purchase a mini PC with all the right components. Companies like Shuttle, Simply NUC, and Acer have synced up with Intel and streaming software maker Streamlabs to produce properly-specced machines that can handle all the heavy work of streaming, including capturing and encoding video for the web. Just don’t forget the second monitor and another set of peripherals.
Before you install any streaming software, you'll want to take a second to find out your internet connection speed. The easiest way to do this is to use a speed test service like the aptly named Speedtest.net, which will provide you with a number for upload and download speeds. Once you've run the test, you'll want to base your frame rate and resolution settings based on those numbers. Grab the "Mbps" number and convert it to "Kbps" to cross-reference it with a resource like Twitch handy conversion chart. These sorts of charts will also guide you towards the type of streaming your setup supports, and whether you’ll be streaming fast-paced action or a static turn-based game, as the former requires a higher bitrate. Consider setting a buffer of around 500 kbps to spare, since you'll need that minimum just to log on.
Don’t worry if you don’t get the numbers right the first time. You'll be able to optimize the settings each time you stream. You may even decide to change the parameters based on the kind of game you're playing. For instance, a first-person shooter moves faster than an online card game like Hearthstone, so you might want to increase your bitrate to handle the changing scenes while reducing the resolution from something like 1920x1080 to 1609x900.
Next, you’ll need to download a streaming suite. For first-timers, Open Broadcast Software (OBS) is both easy to navigate and equipped with helpful features, such as a live video studio that lets you choose from preset transitions (or you can load your own) and customizable Scenes, which allow you to set your own presets for streaming different types of content. You can also import settings from other streaming apps if you’d rather start somewhere else.
OBS comes with a helpful option that can improve the quality of your stream by leveraging the power of your CPU. It’s fairly easy to set up. In the settings panel, under Output, select Advanced settings from the Output mode dropdown menu. From there, use a resource from your streaming service, like Twitch's encoding guidelines, to fill out as many options as you can place. Then, select an option from the CPU Usage Preset dropdown menu. The options vary from ultrafast to very slow. Ultrafast will render the stream with minimal computer power, resulting in a lower-quality stream, while very slow requires more computing power but will stream higher-quality gameplay. Again, don’t worry too much about which option you choose, as these settings can be tuned with each streaming session. If you’re operating on minimum hardware settings and you’re hoping for a higher preset option, try using the Intel® Quick Sync Video encoding option, available in the Recording tab on the same Output settings page. This will help reduce strain on your system by freeing up any available resources for streaming. However, if you don't see it offered in the dropdown menu under the Encoder option, then it isn’t available for your hardware.
OBS isn't the only streaming suite available. Plenty of streamers also like Streamlabs OBS (SLOBS) because of its easier onboarding process and access to features like pop-up alerts, which OBS doesn't offer natively (though there is a workaround). Conversely, SLOBS doesn't have a studio mode like OBS. Another streaming app, Bebo, doesn’t offer as many features as either OBS or SLOBS and is limited to streaming to Twitch. But because it has lower system hardware requirements, it's also popular among first-timers.
If you’re serious about building an online audience, you’ll want an external webcam like the Logitech* HD Pro Webcam C920, a consistently popular choice, or the Razer* Kiyo, which has a ring light built into it to illuminate your face. Even if you're on a laptop, you might consider an external camera, as integrated webcams often don't run at a very high frame rate and will appear choppy on your stream. If what you’re aiming toward is broadcasting a premium stream accompanied by a crisp video, look towards a premium camera like the Logitech* 4K Pro Webcam, which supports high-definition 4K streaming, or a DSLR like the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. Lighting makes a difference here, too, as it helps both web cameras and DSLRs alike to stay focused on your face.
To connect with your viewers, you’ll also need good audio input for crystal clear communication. Many streamers tend to invest in studio-quality microphones worthy of marathon podcasting sessions, like the Blue Yeti or the lower-priced Razer Seiren X. There are also a host of stellar gaming headsets available with integrated microphones, including the Antlion ModMic 5, a modular headset, and the Astro A40 TR, which comes with its own mixer that plugs into your PC and helps filter audio. All of these microphones pick up sound in slightly different ways; the stand-up mics, for instance, are best used if you’re stationed at the desk, while an integrated mic on a gaming headset might be a better choice for the animated gamer.
Setting Up Your Stream
Once you've figured out what to stream and grabbed all the ingredients needed to get it done, it's time to sign up for a streaming account.
In your browser, navigate to the service you want to stream on, whether it be Twitch or YouTube. Sign up for an account. When you enter a username, be sure to choose something that represents you and the content you're streaming, as this will be a part of your link.
Fill out the rest of the information the service needs from you, like your email and date of birth, and submit. Most streaming services will ask you about your favorite games once you're registered in an attempt to figure out what you like to watch and what you might end up streaming.
After you're signed up and categorized, it's time to set up your profile. Sites like Twitch allow you to customize your page so that folks know what you're about before they decide to tune in to your stream. Twitch, for example, will enable you to use markdown and custom images to turn your profile into a landing page of sorts. Even if you don't opt to customize your profile page fully, consider using it to relay relevant information to viewers, like when they should tune in and where they can follow you when you're not streaming.
Linking a Service for Streaming
After you feel settled into your new account, it's time to prepare for streaming. Services like Twitch require what's called a "stream key" to be activated before you can go live. It's usually hiding in the settings of your streaming account; on Twitch it's under Channel settings. For YouTube streaming, it's under the Encoder Setup options. If you're using another service, a quick search for "stream key" and the name of what you're using should help lead the way.
If you're using OBS for streaming, head to the Settings panel to plug in your stream key. Select the "Stream" category, and at the top of the page, ensure that the service you're streaming through is selected, and that the server settings are at “Auto.” (Some services will also let you choose your server by region from the dropdown menu). Paste your stream key into the appropriate field—OBS will offer suggested streaming settings based on your setup, which you can have automatically implemented. Then, click "Apply" in the bottom right corner to save your changes.
If you chose the automatic server settings option, you don't have to worry too much about adjusting your bitrate settings. But if you want to check on them, select the Output option on the left of the settings panel. Experienced streamers also have the advantage of an Advanced mode, which features tweaks for things like separate audio tracks, buffering, and more. Once you've applied your changes, back out of the settings panel to go to the main page.
Setting Up Live Streaming
If you've gotten this far, there is excellent news: You're mere steps away from streaming. Now that the stream key is plugged into a desktop app and your streaming profile appears occupied to the rest of the public, prepare to go live by closing your streaming app and then launching your game on your PC.
If you’re using OBS, launch it up again, then go to Sources in the bottom left area of the app and tap the "+" button. Choose what should be displayed in the blank scene that takes up most of the page. If your game is loaded in the background, you'll be able to set up the "Game Capture" option to stream that particular window. Choose it as your source, and then a dialog window will pop up with additional options.
In the dialog window, next to the first entry labeled “Mode,” select the option to "Capture specific window” so that it’s set for that specific title. Then, next to Window, select the name of the game you're playing. Don't worry about the rest of the options after that—you can hit "OK" to head back to the main page. Note that when you fire up OBS to stream a different game, you’ll have to change the capture configuration so that it points to the new title.
Next, make sure OBS is using the right microphone for capturing audio. In the middle bottom panel, under “Mixer,” click on the gear icon next to Mic/Aux or right-click on the option and then select Properties. Another window will pop up with the option to choose your audio device. Click on the dropdown menu to select an external microphone, then click OK when you’re done. Be sure to also adjust the volume of your desktop’s audio so that the music and sound effects of what you have on screen aren’t taking over your dialogue.
If you've elected to have a webcam view while you're streaming, select the "+" button under Sources again, then select the option to add a Video Capture device. Like in the first option where you set up the Game Capture mode, you'll see options pop up for the camera. If you see a live preview in the same window, it's a success, and you can press "OK" to return to the main screen. You'll see the webcam feed populate over the existing scene preview on the main OBS screen, and can move it around the area and resize it as you see fit. If you can’t see the preview, make sure the eye icon next to the option isn’t exed out. It’s a friendly way not to hog your viewers’ resources.
Sources are laid out like layers in the scene preview, and you can move them up and down depending on where you’d like them displayed. You can also manually resize the resolution of each source in the scene preview to accommodate for different aspects ratios and frame rates. Later on, you can add more sources to overlay on top of game windows, such as video files, images, and browser windows, by using the same steps above. Just remember: The more content you tack on, the more strain on your stream.
If the scene preview window looks like a sample of something you’d tune into, press the button labeled “Start Streaming” to kick off the show. Your game screen and webcam will start streaming live. There are only a few seconds of delay between what you’re doing and when the public sees it, so there’s not much room for error. Try not to overthink it, however. It’s easier said than done, but after a few dozen solo streaming sessions, you’ll find yourself becoming more comfortable each time.
When you’re finished streaming, switch from your game window to OBS and press “Stop Streaming” on the options panel on the right. Note that OBS does not save a video of your session, though some streaming services, like Twitch, will hold on to your recordings for a limited amount of time.
A Few Helpful Tips for Troubleshooting
The nice thing about choosing OBS is that the development team behind the app has already put together a hearty list of how to troubleshoot common problems, such as buffering. There are even helpful user diagrams that outline what is happening for the not-so-tech-inclined.
But if you don't want to get into the thick of it, here are a few things to keep in mind: If you're finding that you're having bandwidth issues while streaming, try calling on the power of your CPU to help with streaming by using the directions mentioned earlier in the setup process. If you find you’re still dropping frames, try streaming at a lower frame rate, like 30-frames-per-second. You don’t have to upload gameplay at the maximum recommended settings—if anything, scaling back a bit will afford enough bandwidth to stream your game. If that still isn’t cutting it, consider upgrading your hardware entirely—remember, an Intel® Core™ i7 processor or better is required, at minimum, for streaming games through most platforms . You can also try streaming with two computers.
If you're finding that you're enjoying the camaraderie from your online streaming community, you may consider going all-in by upgrading your equipment to a more high-performing kit. Then, after you build your new rig, you can use this same set of instructions to set up your better, faster machine for streaming all over again.