As Liverpool soccer player Roberto Firmino clutched out the only goal of the club’s December 21 FIFA Club World Cup match before a live audience of over 45,000, at least twice as many fans were tuned in somewhere better suited to FIFA 20, the video game: the streaming platform Twitch.
While the game roiled on, three of the top 10 livestreams listed in Twitch’s directory were simulcasts of the FIFA Club World Cup match—with 14,000, 33,000, and 53,000 viewers respectively. The usual Twitch suspects filled out the rest of the list: a couple of Fortnite streams, a Counter-Strike: Global Offensive tournament and, a little cutely, a livestream of FIFA 20. The pirated sports streams were live for hours and hours.
The parade of copyright violations wasn’t a Club World Cup anomaly. Twitch has been and remains home to illicit sports broadcasts; a late December boxing match attracted over 86,000 viewers—some of whom spammed ACII genitalia in chat—and a mid-January soccer match drew over 70,000 over three livestreams. Although Twitch often stomps them out mid-match, plenty of livestreams posted by throwaway accounts with innocuous names like “Untitled” slip through the cracks and garner tens of thousands of viewers.
Pirated live sports broadcasts have prompted hand-wringing from both government and private companies for over 15 years. At a stern 2009 hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, Texas representative Lamar Smith noted the dramatic increase in the unauthorized distribution of live sports programming. “Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free,” he asked. “Why pay the sporting event when you can watch it online for free?”
A senior vice president of Twitch’s predecessor, Justin.tv, testified back then that the company used special filtering software that matched live streams with copyrighted content and removed offending feeds. Virginia representative Bob Goodlatte contended that, compared to a platform like YouTube, the speed and simultaneity of livestreaming presents a slew of challenges when it comes to taking down, say, a pirated UFC stream before the damage is done. That was over 10 years ago.
As the value of sports media rights has climbed to over $20 billion, copyright holders have more incentive than ever to guard their treasure. Yet piracy persists, in part because it’s so burdensome for copyright holders to catch it. Stream aggregation site FirstRow Sports lays out a buffet of illicit livestreams for games ranging from ice hockey to basketball and attracts over 300,000 daily visitors, according to data from web analytics firm SimilarWeb. In January 2019 alone, sports fans accessed sports piracy sites 362.7 million times, according to data from digital piracy research firm Muso. On Discord, anonymous benefactors distribute links to soccer livestreams like handfuls of pigeon feed at the park. Once a stream is taken down, another immediately manifests. It’s like 40 games of Whac-A-Mole simultaneously taking place in 40 adjacent arcades.
Increasingly, those links lead to Twitch, whose credentials as a mainstream platform make it a relatively safe option—especially after Reddit shut down the popular soccer piracy subreddit r/soccerstreams. “The older days of streams (5+ years ago) was [sic] littered with ads and viruses,” says a soccer stream Discord moderator who goes by Tom. “even though it is considered illegal, I see it being the same as watching porn and being under 18.” He adds that some of the hairier-looking piracy sites are still more popular, offer higher-quality streams, and have live chats that utilize Twitch chats’ code.
The same subscription fatigue that’s fueled the resurgence in pirating streamed television and movies appears to have hit sports, as well. “Whenever a game isn’t on the biggest channels that I have under my subscriptions, Twitch seems to be the place to go to,” says sports reporter Luis Paez-Pumar. Paez-Pumar says he has access to NBC, Fox, ESPN and BeIN, yet once a week, he’ll catch a game of soccer on Twitch. “It’s not the ideal viewing experience, but sometimes there are no options besides subscribing to a billion premium things.”