How OBS Studio became the open-source backbone of livestreaming

OBS helped make Twitch what it is today — and changed the life of its founder in the process.

OBS Studio logo

OBS counts Facebook, Twitch, and YouTube — as well as hardware manufacturers and chipmakers like Logitech, Nvidia, and AMD — among its sponsors.

Image: OBS Studio

All Hugh Bailey wanted was a bit of a leg up.

Bailey, who also goes by “Jim” online, was spending a lot of time playing StarCraft II. To improve his odds, he was looking for ways to get a bigger version of the minimap, a small section of the game’s interface that gives players an overview of their territory and shows them if enemies are approaching. Bailey’s solution was a program that would take the map, scale up its size, and stream it to another screen.

“It wasn't really a cheat,” Bailey recently told Protocol. “It was more like a helper program.”

It also ended up being a very basic game-streaming app, as Bailey realized when he began researching the space. This was 10 years ago, and livestreaming was still in its infancy.

Twitch was still known as Justin.tv, and the most popular app to stream gameplay online was a paid product. Realizing that there was no open-source alternative, Bailey took it upon himself to build one based on his StarCraft tool. “It seemed like a fun and interesting problem to solve,” he said. “I thought it would just be a cool little niche that I can dig myself into.”

Bailey also hoped that the project, which he named Open Broadcaster Software, could help show off his programming skills, and perhaps even get a job — something he had been struggling with. Then, live video started to take off, and with it the usage of OBS. One thing led to another, and Bailey’s little StarCraft hack not only became his full-time job, but also a key growth engine for the fledgling game-streaming space, helping to turn Twitch into the juggernaut it is today.

“Livestreaming really boomed big-time,” Bailey said, “more than I ever expected.”

From a $50 donation to major corporate sponsorships

OBS officially got its start with a post Bailey authored on the StarCraft subreddit in August 2012, and it quickly attracted both users and open-source contributors. Bailey was happy about the response, but he was ecstatic when one of the program’s early supporters sent him $50 as a token of gratitude. “I can't believe I actually have $50 in my bank account,” he remembered himself thinking. “It was just a shocker to me.”

As livestreaming became more popular, so did Bailey’s app, leading to a rewrite and rebranding to OBS Studio in 2013. As OBS Studio’s popularity grew, so did its backing. The first $50 donation quickly grew into a couple hundred dollars of support from users wanting to give back. “I [thought], oh my God, I can't believe I have all this money,” Bailey said.

By 2014, Twitch accounted for 1.8% of all U.S. internet traffic, putting it ahead of major internet and media services like Amazon, Facebook, and Hulu. The same year, Google approached Twitch with an acquisition offer, only to lose out to a $970 million all-cash bid from Amazon. One year later, Google’s YouTube launched its own dedicated gaming destination. In 2016, Microsoft acquired its own game-focused livestreaming service called Mixer.

Not all of those platforms have survived — Microsoft shut Mixer down after just four years — but Twitch in particular has thrived. The platform streamed more than 21 billion hours in 2021 alone, according to data released by Amazon, and it’s become a major driver of the company’s video advertising business. More than 31 million people visit Twitch every day, and more than 8 million creators go live on the platform every month, according to Amazon. Bailey was hesitant to share too specific usage data for OBS, but he suggested the app has millions of users.

As these internet juggernauts began to grow their livestreaming businesses, more and more of them approached OBS to help the project, ensuring their users had a free option to go live on their platforms. These days, OBS counts Facebook, Twitch, and YouTube — as well as hardware manufacturers and chipmakers like Logitech, Nvidia, and AMD — among its sponsors.

At the same time, Bailey’s project is still taking in close to $4,000 a month in Patreon donations from OBS users. All of this has not only allowed Bailey to dedicate himself to the project full time, but also hire a few contributors as staffers. “It's kind of crazy to me, but it just turned my life around entirely,” he said about the financial support from sponsors and small-time donors alike.

‘It still hasn’t hit him yet.’

Livestreaming got a huge boost during the early days of the COVID pandemic, with Twitch’s concurrent viewer numbers nearly doubling from January to April of 2020. And while much of the service’s programming is still all about gaming, it’s also attracted comedians, DJs, and other creatives who were looking for an online outlet while stay-at-home orders were in effect. Even mainstream media organizations began experimenting with the platform, and Bailey said he heard anecdotally of two major broadcasters using OBS Studio for some of their live video efforts.

“It always takes me as a surprise,” he said. “And my team members are like: ‘It still hasn't hit him yet. He still hasn't realized just how popular it is.’”

The importance of listening to his team has been one of the biggest lessons Bailey has taken away from working on OBS for 10 years. “A lot of open-source projects [have] these monolithic leaderships, [with a] person on top [whose] word is the law,” he said. “For a healthy open-source project, you need to have a good team. You need to have good communication.”

That culture of communication has led the OBS team to implement features that aren’t game-specific, including a virtual camera that can be used in conjunction with teleconferencing apps like Zoom. It also resulted in the OBS team declining an eight-figure acquisition offer a few years back, according to Bailey. “We knew right away that we weren't going to do it,” he said. “They wanted to just make money off of it. And it's just not what we [are] about.”

How a small video game hack became a major life-changer

The OBS team and the extended community of users and supporters also helped Bailey through another business challenge in late 2021, when a company called Streamlabs was using the OBS brand name without permission to commercialize a forked version of OBS Studio. “There was some difficulty in communicating with the company for a very long time,” Bailey said.

After failing to come to an agreement with Streamlabs, OBS went public with its misgivings. The project quickly gained the support of major Twitch streamers, open-source advocates, and even other companies. The backlash grew so intense that Streamlabs eventually backed down and changed the name of its product.

Bailey took to Patreon and recorded a heartfelt thank-you video, telling viewers that the project could not be what it is without its community. Visibly struggling to contain his emotions, he professed: “I love you all so much; you’re all absolutely wonderful people.”

That kind of vulnerability was on display again when Bailey talked to Protocol about his journey from a lone StarCraft player to the leader of a tool that’s powering much of today’s livestreaming. “The project pretty much turned my life around,” he confessed. Not only did collaborating on OBS help Bailey become a better programmer, it also gave him a sense of purpose that he was lacking as a jobless geek without a college degree just 10 years ago.

“I was living with my dad,” Bailey recalled. “I was pretty much a shut-in. I didn't have anything, and was thinking that my life was just going to end up pretty terrible. But, you know, it goes to show that things can change.”


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