2016 was a hell of a year. Donald Trump got elected president. Someone shot a gorilla. But most importantly, Twitch basically became Justin.tv again, making it okay to stream just about anything as long as you can shoehorn it into a category. It’s opened up the broadcasting platform to all manner of creative, programmatic, mechanical and culinary pursuits, and as the number of active broadcasters increases past 2.5 million, technology continues to march ever so slowly forward, improving our tools for creating new and interesting content.
Each of these categories will be divided up into five tiers.
Please Don’t: Means what it says on the tin. There is no logical reason for you to ever do or purchase the thing unless you actively like wasting your own time and money.
I’m Just Getting Started: Something that gets the job done, while perhaps being janky or excessively simple. Okay for beginners or people who don’t want to put a lot of effort in.
I Want To Do Better: Mid-tier broadcasters, people who want things to look and sound good, but price is a concern.
Time To Get Serious: Expert twitch streamers for whom time is money, and who broadcast as a job.
Literal Professional: You’re being paid for your time and equipment to produce live video content for someone else, so it’s worth spending money on.
Honorable Mention / Mobile: Something that you should know about because it’s cool, or because it can be used while you’re out and about.
First up, everyone needs some sort of software to broadcast from. 2016 saw a lot of updates to existing platforms, and a lot of new releases. Pokemon Go is a game that exists, and made people leave their houses, bringing out a whole host of new techniques for broadcasting mobile.
We’ve got a lot of ground to cover so this will be split into several parts.
So let's kick off proceedings with the best programs to get started!
Your streaming package is the most important choice you have as a broadcaster. It determines your toolset, you workflow, and ultimately sets the bar for how good (or bad) the viewer experience is.
It’s also the most frequently-updated, so as a category all of these options are constantly in flux. Just because you tried something six months ago, doesn’t mean you have the slightest clue what it’s like now - so stay informed and up to date.
Please don’t stream directly from your PS4 or Xbox One. I know it sounds like a really good idea - since direct-from-console streaming was added, there was a large increase in the number of people broadcasting. However, there was no equivalent increase in the number of people watching. Most people broadcasting from their consoles simply have literally no-one watching, for a number of reasons.
A) There is no camera, so we don’t know who we’re watching;
B) There’s no second monitor to have chat open on, so they don’t interact with the viewers at all, and;
C) Most people have no mic attached, so they can’t communicate at all. It’s just gameplay footage. Worthless, worthless gameplay footage.
Please don’t stream from a mac, unless you’re using Gameshow. You’ll have to install a series of custom audio routing tools in order to be able to capture sound being played by your computer, and that’s a rabbit hole that’s very difficult to climb back out of. If you do insist on going through it, you’ll need Soundflower and WavTAP at a bare minimum, and possibly a multi-output volume controller. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
I’m Just Getting Started:
Pros: Free, Lots of new features this year, Is not legacy OBS
Cons: Literally everything else
Look, credit where credit’s due - OBS Studio is a huge improvement. Original OBS was janky, spaghetti-code, CPU-heavy garbage. The replacement, OBS Multiplatform, made huge inroads into fixing that, and unifying the codebase with a ground-up rewrite. That has now evolved into OBS Studio, and it’s come a long way.
By far the two most important things are the ability to make changes as a set before sending them live, and the ability to recursively add scenes into other scenes, making it easy to create a ‘scene’ for your twitchalerts^H^H^H^H^HStreamLabs alerts that’s then included in your regular scenes.
It does, however, have its fair share of problems. Time/delay synchronisation, dodgy driver hooks and poor support for high-end equipment make it unsuitable for power users, as well as difficulty backing up settings/scenes and profiling that just straight up doesn’t work. It’s still very impressive for a Free/Open Source project, but not something I’d want to be using if getting paid depended on it.
That said, if you are on OBS or Multiplatform, you should definitely upgrade to OBS Studio. It’s light-years better than it’s previous iterations, and should be considered the starting point for every broadcaster.
I want to do better:
Pros: Lots of features and integrations, very stable, low CPU usage
Cons: Interface sometimes confusing, ongoing subscription $5/mo
I feel about XSplit the way one does about their favorite screwdriver. It’s not something I relish using in a joyful way, but it does its job reliably, and in some circumstances it’s just absolutely the perfect tool.
I can’t stress enough how professional XSplit feels after using OBS Studio. It’s easy to store multiple output destinations, and overall it’s just plainly obvious that it was built with your workflow in mind, rather than just ‘hey we made it work ok lets move on’. You can also package your scene collection for portability and use it on another machine easily.
We do need to discuss one important feature, which is Local Broadcasting. XSplit can present your RTMP stream over HTTP on your local LAN IP. While it may sound unimpressive, this actually unlocks and enabled some really seriously powerful functionality. If you were to install XSplit Personal on ten computers on a LAN, and add each of those ten computers Local Broadcast IPs as an RTMP source on another machine, that machine’s broadcast software would then have the video from all ten machines as sources. Which means that you could, as a hobbyist broadcaster, easily create a live cast of a LAN tournament and switch POV in real-time for anything. Considering that League of Legends spectator clients have a 3 minute delay, this means you can actually have shoutcasters and people in your venue watching it live. You also gain something that spectators in MOBAs don’t have - the ability to see where a player is watching and clicking.
This is a Very Cool Feature and one that I’ve used building all sorts of live broadcast rigs, including some big names, like Twitch Headquarters Esports Room, and the flagship Razer Store in San Francisco.
Anyway, XSplit is really good, is what I’m saying. Seriously consider it as an upgrade from OBS.
Time to get serious:
Pros: Has heritage in professional broadcasting, a lot of great features designed for your workflow
Cons: Some odd behaviours
Make no mistake, Gameshow feels a lot like Telestream’s professional broadcasting software, Wirecast. It should - they share a lot of their core. Cut down to remove the extraneous tools that would truly unlock it to be able to create TV-show quality broadcasts, Gameshow was the first of the home broadcasting tools to allow you to make changes to a scene before sending them live. A lot of the way Gameshow does things just makes sense, but more importantly it allows you to have three separate layers of shots. From a time-spent-screwing-around point of view, this makes creating scenes very easy. Put your alerts overlay on the top layer, put a background on the bottom layer, and have your main video/camera sources in the middle layer. Easy.
Unlike OBS and XSplit, Gameshow isn’t built to do everything; it’s built to do a small number of things really well, and as a regular partnered broadcaster it’s unlikely that those restrictions will exceed your needs. Unlike OBS, it can actually pull in video and audio in a reasonable timeframe, making timing synchronization from multiple sources a breeze. There’s a full audio mixer with a suite of plugins like limiters, multiband EQs etc so you can make almost any mic sound godlike and compensate for suboptimal sound environments.
With Gameshow, everything you want to do is easy, because it’s designed around how you want to do things, and that development attitude makes the life of a full-time broadcaster painless.
Gameshow costs $30 for a perpetual license, and is worth every cent.
Pros: Literally everything
Cons: Some things left out from GS, really expensive
Wirecast does everything Gameshow does, with the extra stuff built in. You can broadcast to any number of locations at once, each with separate encoding settings. Live titler and scoreboarding applications are built in. You can connect to RTMP sources (like the aforementioned XSplit Personal Local Broadcasts) and import them for use in LAN environments, or add your iPhone or Android device running Wirecast Camera as a remote video/audio source. Additionally, Remote Desktop Presenter allows a remote PC to send its screen as a source.
On the roadmap are some very cool tools, including a gaming-focused NDI remote broadcaster that will let you capture display, sound, mic and webcam from another PC in near-realtime, but they’re not quite released yet, so while I can’t necessarily score them in this summary, knowing they’re coming makes a compelling argument for the platform.
Like Gameshow, the configuration and use are straight-forward and painless, except with an additional two layers, creating a maximum of 5. If you can’t get what you want done with Wirecast, either you’re doing something wrong or what you want is stupid. Wirecast has been the broadcast package of choice for me personally at both Twitch HQ Esports and Razer SF.
There are a couple of drawbacks. The gamer-focused features do get added to Gameshow first, and there are still some bugs around advanced audio routing in the audio mixer. But they’re not dealbreakers, and while the $1000 pricetag (yes, you read that right, although there is a $495 license available) may be a bit much for some, if you are making the transition from broadcaster to producer, it might just be worth it.
Pros: Holy mother of god the advanced features
Cons: Confusing to operate
If XSplit Premium were a car, it would be a Toyota Hilux Being Driven By Jeremy Clarkson To The North Pole.
XSplit Premium is very important as it is the first broadcasting package to include NDI input and output. This sentence is in bold because It Is Very Important. While this doesn’t mean a damn thing to the average user, what it means for professionals is that we can now treat the network as a video source like any other HDMI or SDI cable. So the scenario listed above with XSplit Personal gets about 20x better quality with nearly no latency. Think about how powerful this is - you could broadcast from outside on your phone, transmitting the video/audio for encoding on your computer with nearly no latency. You could add remote cameras anywhere in a venue. Being able to treat the network as a video feed is just so damn powerful I’m getting excited in a way it’s not really appropriate to feel about a broadcasting package. The bandwidth requirements are huge so take care when using NDI over wireless, but it’s so easy to set up that setting up a video relay with nginx looks comparatively mountainous.
The full suite of plugins that are both included and available from the store is huge. There’s no reason to need to open anything else - just load XSplit and go.
Automatic scene switching as window focus changes ✓
Twitch/Youtube chat integration ✓
Follower alerts ✓
Integrated plugin store ✓
Audio customization per scene ✓
It’s just a big bag of features.
The criticisms that applied to XSplit Personal still apply here. Yes, it costs money ongoing, and yes, the interface is just plain difficult to find stuff in. Unless you know what you’re looking for, you’ll probably miss things. I found new things while refreshing my memory for this roundup. NDI is still somewhat of a beta feature, you may run into bugs.
But ultimately XSplit has the best network/protocol/plugin support of any package, hands down no contest.
Picking a ‘winner’ isn’t really possible in the professional category. It really comes down to what features you need, and whether you can pay up front.
Honorable Mention / Mobile:
Live:Air Solo for iOS is great for broadcasting from your phone when you don’t have access to a computer. If you’re a broadcaster, you NEED this on your phone with your details plugged in ready to go, so if your computer crashes, your internet goes out, whatever, you can be live again in seconds.
VoiceMeeter Banana. Stupid name, great product. This custom audio router lets you do just about anything with your sound in Windows.