In early August, after months of speculation, Argentine football star Lionel Messi did the unthinkable: He ended a nearly two-decade-stint with FC Barcelona, announcing that he would be joining Paris Saint-Germain. Legendary football broadcasters eagerly awaited what they felt was owed to them — the first, exclusive interview with one of the greatest footballers of all time, where they would ask him thorny questions about loyalty and betrayal.
Perhaps the only thing more shocking than Messi’s departure, then, was who he granted that esteemed interview to: an esports streamer named Ibai Llanos. A portly Spaniard with a thick beard, the 26-year-old Ibai seemed like an unusual choice, the streamer’s unbuttoned denim shirt contrasting with the footballer’s perfectly tailored suit and coiffed hair.
Messi seemed to understand the shifting nature of sports economics, though: Ibai is one of the most popular figures in any language on the live video streaming platform Twitch, known primarily for his exuberant broadcasts of games such as League of Legends and Among Us. Ibai even scored an invitation to Messi’s intimate farewell dinner at the footballer’s Barcelona home, joining such luminaries as the Argentine striker Sergio “Kun” Agüero and Shakira.
The interview marked a watershed moment for the rise of streamers, branching out from the world of video games. It may have only been a few short minutes, and Messi may have granted the old guard interviews soon after, but Ibai has long since eaten their lunch. Especially in Messi’s home country of Argentina, streamers like Ibai do not constitute an evolution of sports broadcasting, but something else entirely. They represent a new kind of fandom.
Argentina may seem an unlikely place for an Ibai fanbase. A famously proud country, it is near impossible for a Spaniard, with a Castilian accent, to gain a foothold in the land of Rioplatense.
Some of Ibai’s success can be attributed to his close access to Argentine heroes such as Agüero and Messi. Agüero is a streamer himself, having joined Twitch during the pandemic, playing games such as FIFA and Among Us and frequently broadcasting side-by-side with Ibai. For one of the world’s top athletes to link up with Ibai, a hero in his own online pitch, just goes to show his appeal across platforms and audiences.
Ibai does not only interview players and game with them — he also livestreams football games and other sporting events, offering his commentary over the video. It’s an entirely different way of watching sports; more like hanging out with an extra gregarious friend than hearing a normal broadcaster offer their technical analysis.
Carlos Rodríguez is the founder of G2, one of the leading esports organizations in the world. Rodríguez invited Ibai to become an exclusive content creator with the organization. During a one-year stint with the team, ending in January 2021, Ibai’s Twitch following rose from around 300,000 to almost 5 million.
“He [is] light years better than anything in Spain,” Rodríguez told Rest of World. “It goes to show: the traditional sports world is too centered in their own ways — they don’t progress or adapt.”
In May, Ibai achieved the second-most concurrent viewers in Twitch history when 1.5 million people watched his stream of a boxing event. During the peak minute of its broadcast, more than 640,000 people tuned in to Ibai’s Twitch stream of the Copa América final in July, featuring Argentina and Brazil (which was not accessible to Argentines without using a VPN).
By Rodriguez’s estimate, 80% of people tuning in wouldn’t have watched the Copa América otherwise — they were just there for Ibai. He turned the Copa América into even more of a spectacle than it already was, hosting it with FC Barcelona star Gerard Piqué at a Spanish amusement park, with special guests stopping by like the legendary Brazilian striker Ronaldo and other well-known Twitch creators.
Streaming is growing across Latin America. According to data provided to Rest of World by the streaming analytics company Stream Hatchet, the majority of Ibai’s viewership is still in Spain, but that number is slipping. Latin America went from representing just 13% of his viewership at the beginning of 2020 to 27% in mid-2021.
“What Ibai does is great, because he’s achieving something traditional journalism can’t do: He brings out intimacy from the protagonists,” said Ignacio Cruz, a 28-year-old Argentine sports journalist. “I don’t remember many interviews between Messi and journalists, but Ibai managed to have a mano a mano talk with him on livestream.”
The interview took place a few days after Messi’s farewell dinner, on August 11, when Paris Saint-Germain officially presented Messi as its newest player. After confirming that this was in fact Messi’s first time on Twitch, Ibai asked the important question: “You know they’ve been making fun of me about your dinner, right?”
“Why?” asked Messi.
“Because they say I ate all the food,” replied Ibai.
The giants of football broadcasting were not pleased. “I don’t understand anything. Period,” tweeted Juanma Castaño, the Spanish presenter, the day of Ibai’s interview.
An Argentine football announcer, Gustavo López, had long had it out for Ibai, once declaring on his radio program, “I’m a boludo (dumbass) if Ibai can sit at home doing nothing and get 6 million followers. Now they call him número uno? I quit.” (He did not quit, although Ibai did poke fun at him during his broadcast.)
In Argentina, the emergence of streamers adds to an already tumultuous landscape and a complicated history of sports licensing. In 2016, then-President Mauricio Macri initiated a crisis when he axed Fútbol para Todos, a state program that broadcast football matches for free. Corporate broadcasters regained their power over transmission after having lost it seven years prior.
Online platforms such as Twitch and YouTube quickly came to represent the first new challenge to the traditional media companies. In 2018, for example, Facebook bought the South America rights through 2022 for the Copa Libertadores tournament, with 27 matches a year streamed exclusively online.
It would seem only natural, then, that Ibai embodied a new form of sports viewing for young Argentine football fanatics. Indeed, when FC Barcelona star Gerard Piqué acquired the rights to France’s Ligue 1 and let Ibai livestream Messi’s first game — but only in Spain — Argentines took to Twitter to voice their displeasure about being boxed out. “Can’t watch Ibai’s stream of Messi’s PSG debut,” wrote Laura Potenza, a 29-year-old from Córdoba, on Twitter. “Goddammit.”
Laura is not even a football diehard. In fact, she barely cares at all about the sport. A self-declared feminist, she sees traditional sports coverage as too macho. Still, she heard all the hype about Messi leaving Barcelona and wanted to see what the fuss was about. She decided to check out Ibai and was immediately enamored. “He seems very approachable,” she told Rest of World. “You can tell that Ibai does it with passion, that he loves the sport and commentating.”
For her, he represents the future. “Traditional sports broadcasting is anachronistic.”
This is where Ibai’s genius lies, and where Twitch streaming separates itself from traditional broadcasting. Through their charisma alone, streamers create a sense of community. Ibai’s most-viewed category by a huge factor isn’t a game, but “just chatting,” where streamers talk and interact with their viewers.
To Eduard Montserrat, the co-founder and CEO of Stream Hatchet, the problem with traditional sports broadcasting is that it is too rigid — streamers have the freedom to be looser, and to create inside jokes and a shared language. “A lot of viewers see the creators and streamers as their friends,” he said. “It’s not the same as a TV presenter.”
Montserrat believes that streaming offers a level of interaction that can’t be matched by traditional media. Especially with younger generations spending their days on phones and computers, loading Twitch or YouTube is often more accessible than turning on a television. It’s not only less complicated, but offers a more holistic experience.
“Executives and decision-makers in traditional media are unable to truly understand the seismic nature of the shift that is happening around them,” Joost van Dreunen, an academic and entrepreneur focusing on video games, told Rest of World. “Traditional sports media needs to better accommodate the behaviors and interests of younger audiences, or risk losing ad dollars in the years to come.”
Part of Ibai’s charm comes from, not exactly a place of humility, but more a sense that he’s just happy to be along for the ride. He stumbled into millions of viewers streaming esports games, then after broadcasting about football, happened to find himself at Messi’s house having dinner with Shakira. Now, he’s changing the face of sports fandom for a new generation.
“He’s not executing any master plan,” said Montserrat, the gaming analytics guru. “He’s just being Ibai.”