You don’t need a high-end PC, top-of-the-line microphone, or DSLR camera to start streaming. If anything, avoiding those big ticket items if you don’t already have them for now is a wise decision.
Instead of focusing on having the best gear, now is the time to determine if this is a medium you want to pursue. Run a couple of test streams and determine whether you enjoy everything that streaming entails, from managing all of the equipment, to engaging in the chat, to handling all of the stress that comes with going live. If things don’t work out, at least you’re not sitting on thousands of dollars worth of equipment that will simply collect dust.
If you’re looking to get into streaming, here’s a quick guide on the stuff you’ll need right now – and the stuff you can get later!
Get these things now
A good enough internet connection
Before you invest in anything, check your internet connection. Run a test and make note of your upload speed. You’re going to want at least 5MB/s in order to safely stream in 720p. Keep in mind that the other devices on your network will also eat into your upload bandwidth.
If you’re north of that, great! If not, you’re going to have to make concessions to your quality settings in order to get your bitrate lower than your upload speed. This may include streaming at 480p or dropping your bitrate to as low as 1MB/s. Far from ideal, but for the purposes of starting out, it might be enough to test the waters.
Once you get a handle on streaming and decide to push further, consider upgrading your internet plan with an eye on improved upload speed. That said, I understand that options in your area may be limited. At the very least, understand what type of upload speeds you get and tailor your stream around that!
Your existing computer
Any way you slice it, computers that are capable of streaming at the higher end of the quality spectrum aren’t cheap. That said, you don’t need to aim for the highest quality settings to start. Based on my experience of streaming in 2020 with a CPU from 2012, as well as helping others get their streams going with less-than-ideal hardware, you can probably squeeze out some form of stream with the laptop or desktop PC you already have. Unless you only have a Chromebook, at which point this becomes a messier discussion.
The trick here is to revise your settings in OBS or whatever streaming software you use to be low enough for your computer to handle. Instead of 1080p, you might have to drop to 720p or even 480p. Instead of the Twitch maximum bitrate of 6,000, you might have to drop as low as 2,000 or lower for a 720p, 30 frames per second. Maybe even lower.
The other key setting is your CPU Usage Preset. The faster you go, the lighter the load on your PC, though it comes at the cost of image quality. If you find that you’re having issues with the default or recommended settings, lower your resolution, frame rate, bitrate, and CPU Usage Preset until you can stream at a steady frame rate.
You may find that the image quality isn’t where you would ultimately want it to be. That’s okay! By going through this exercise, you develop a better understanding of what you’re working with and what you’ll need to scale up from here.
Another key point of consideration here is whether you plan on streaming games that you’re playing directly on PC. If you don’t already have a dedicated gaming PC, you may not have the horsepower to play Warzone and stream at the same time. That said, you might be able to play a less CPU intensive game, such as Stardew Valley.
You will need broadcasting software in order for the world to see you in action. I always recommend OBS. This free and open source platform is the go-to for many. It’s not that hard to get a basic stream set up while also having an incredibly high ceiling once you get comfortable with the software.
To make the transition a little easier, here’s a guide from Alpha Gaming on how to set up a basic stream in OBS.
If you bought an Elgato capture card, odds are you will start with the streaming software that comes with it. Install it, as you’re going to need it anyway, but I would graduate from this as soon as you can. I find it very clunky to use and very limited in terms of feature set. Play around with it to get a basic understanding of how it works and move onto more robust and user-friendly software.
Again, I strongly recommend OBS. Other alternatives include Streamlabs OBS, which is a fork of mainline OBS with Streamlabs notifications and overlays built-in. Even consider using Twitch Studio, which is specifically-designed with new streamers in mind. Both of these options are free as well. No real need to spend money on streaming software at this juncture. Or ever. More on that later.
Whatever microphone you have handy
The microphone is your single most important piece of equipment in your toolkit. Your voice and the words you say go a long way towards transforming your stream from a dime-a-dozen gameplay feed to something that is distinctly you. Get comfortable with using a mic and speaking into it constantly.
At the highest end, microphones can cost thousands of dollars. Unless your microphone is creating a lot of distortion or a persistent buzzing, start with what you have. It might be the mic built into your laptop. Maybe it’s your gaming headset. Might be the one attached to your webcam. At this point, it’s more important to get a feel for talking while playing.
Regardless of what type of microphone you have, it’s crucial that you set it up properly. Without implementing the right set of filters, noise gates, and compressors, even good mics can sound awful. Use my microphone setup guide to ensure that your mic is sounding as good as it possibly can!
Whatever webcam you have handy
Camera shy? I get it. However, cameras have become a standard on streams because viewers want to see the person behind the controller. And not just because of your undeniable good looks; they want to see your reactions to hype moments, the sincerity in your face when you share a serious story, and all the cool things you’ve decorated your streaming room with. Without a camera, growth is going to be a lot harder and force you to be impeccable on the mic to compensate.
Don’t splurge on a DSLR or mirrorless camera right now. Instead, use what you have. Your on-board webcam in your laptop will suffice in the immediate term. As will any old webcam you happen to have lying around the house.
Another potential option is to use your smartphone as a streaming camera. This option is going to be more processor-intensive, but it allows you to use the camera you already have for cheap or for free. I use the Elgato Screen Link for this, but there are a number of other ways to make this work.
If you don’t have a webcam and the smartphone option doesn’t work for your PC, then hold off on purchasing a camera for now. That said, if you decide to get more serious into streaming, a camera of any sort is one of the first things I’d recommend picking up.
If you have a webcam, get some lights. Any lights.
Lighting is incredibly important if you’re going to use a camera. Even amazing cameras can look terrible without lighting. You don’t necessarily need an expensive Elgato Key Light to start, either. Simply setting up by a window and streaming during the day can work wonders.
If that’s not an option, look for any sort of lamps you have lying around. Heck, you can even DIY your own! Above is a video by Gael Level where he makes a panel light in the style of the Elgato Key Light for only $13! For those just starting out, basically any light is better than nothing by a considerable margin. Your image quality will look better and suffer from fewer frame drops when lit properly. Also, make sure to manually adjust your cameras to work best with your lighting rig!
For aspiring console streamers, a capture card
If you don’t already have one, this is the one major purchase you’ll need to make. A capture card allows you to send your HDMI signal to your PC through USB. I strongly recommend the Elgato Game Capture HD60 S and up, but there are similar products from competitors that can also do the job.
Of late, many cheap video capture options have popped up around sites like Amazon. You might have better luck than me, but I would be wary of those. At the very least, most don’t have built-in HDMI passthrough. That means the only gameplay you can see is through your capture software, which will have some delay. Some games work better than others, but basically any action game is unplayable this way.
Furthermore, quality control on these devices is spotty at best. Above is a GIF of what my output looked like when I bought one of these cheap capture devices. I’ve since returned mine and won’t ever roll the dice on a similar device again. You might get lucky, but I’d rather play it safe and get a quality card from a reputable brand that also provides customer service if things go awry.
Get these things later
Wonder how streamers are able to display alerts on screen when a user follows or subscribes to a channel? These are usually handled by online alert applications. Streamlabs and StreamElements are the most popular services in this space. Pixel Chat has some cool stuff too. All three have a number of free options for alerts, though you can pay extra if you want an extra level of polish.
You don’t need these right away. However, they’re easy to implement once you’ve got all of your scenes set in your broadcasting software. Speaking of which…
There are no shortage of overlays out there to make your stream look more professional. Streamlabs and StreamElements have free and paid options available. There are other sites that sell overlay packages, such as OWN3D and Nerd or Die. If you’ve got an experience in graphic design, you can try to make your own as well! Again, once you’ve got your gameplay feed, camera, microphone, and scenes set up, you can make your stream prettier with an overlay.
Paid Broadcasting Software
Having never used my free trial of XSplit that came with my graphics card, I can’t speak to the specific strengths of the software. However, I do know that XSplit costs money and alternatives such as OBS and Streamlabs do not.
There might be features that XSplit has over the competition, but I really don’t think you need to shell out hundreds of dollars for the XSplit license upfront. The free alternatives such as OBS and Streamlabs OBS are incredibly powerful in their own right. So much so, that many streamers never invest beyond that. At the very least, get comfortable with the free broadcasting software available and revisit the idea of buying something else if you’re not happy.
Generally speaking, the microphone is one of the first things I would look to upgrade. Having said that, I don’t think your first streaming mic has to be a top-of-the-line Shure SM7B with a mixer that’ll run you close to $1,000.
At this juncture, you simply need something that isn’t going to grate on your viewers’ ears due to distortion, buzzing, or a poor mix. Anything better than your standard gamer headset mic should suffice. I started with a Blue Snowball Ice and I still don’t see anything wrong with that as a starting point. Most USB mics in-and-around the price range of that one are likely to work just fine at the start.
DSLR or Mirrorless Camera
The quality gap between a webcam and a DSLR or mirrorless camera is huge. The difference is most apparent when a streamer has that sweet background blur. Between the price of the camera itself, the capture card you’ll need to send a signal through, and the dummy battery to make it run for the duration of a stream, having this style of camera to start is prohibitively expensive.
Again, start with what you have, even if that means not having a camera at all. If you want to buy a camera, I think a webcam just to get you off the ground is totally acceptable. Once you decide to upgrade, you can use that first camera for a second camera angle, giving viewers an even better look at you in your environment.
Elgato Stream Deck or Other Stream Controller
The Elgato Stream Deck is easily my favourite piece of streaming equipment. Having these programmable buttons allows me to easily manage so many functions on stream that would be a nightmare through keyboard hotkeys or managing with a mouse. Almost everything cool on my stream is managed through my Stream Deck, from the frequent camera changes, to my sound board, to the voice changer, and so much more.
At some point, you should absolutely add one to your arsenal. When you’re just starting out, save this for later. It’s not a cheap investment and there are other essentials to pick up first, such as a camera, microphone, or capture card for console gaming.
In the meantime, consider a free or cheap alternative, such as the official Stream Deck app, Touch Portal, or LioranBoard. There are certainly limitations to these, but you can mimic a lot of what the Stream Deck does with just your phone and some free software.
This might seem hypocritical, as I recently just got a gaming chair. You might want it, but you definitely don’t “need” a gaming chair. You will want a good chair that’s comfortable and promotes good posture, but it doesn’t have to have that gamer chair look. If your current chair isn’t comfortable, consider buying a good chair at a lower price than your brand name gaming chair and invest the rest of that money into other equipment that will help improve your content. If your current chair is fine, stick with that! No one will think you’re a better streamer because you have a cool-looking chair.
If you have a desktop PC and your streaming performance is struggling, upgrading your graphics card is a great way to bridge the gap. Part of why I was able to make my aging PC work for so long was because I offloaded a lot of the heavy lifting to my NVIDIA GTX 1060.
But can you get by with what you have without having to invest hundreds in a graphics card? Maybe. By lowering your settings and playing less-intensive games, you might be able to stave off the hardware upgrade just long enough to get a feel for what streaming is like. Should you decide that you want to push further, by all means go for a graphics card!
At this juncture, I would recommend an NVIDIA graphics card from the 1660 range and up. Every graphics card in this range features NVIDIA’s Turing architecture, which takes full advantage of the new NVENC encoder. Together, they’re able to offload the encoding strain on your PC while looking just as good – if not better – than CPU-based x264 encoding. From what I gather, AMD’s graphics cards aren’t at the same level for video encoding just yet.
But what if you’re using a laptop and you can’t just drop in a graphics card to bridge the gap? Again, I would lower my settings and continue to use whatever computer I have for as long as I could. Long after hitting Twitch Affiliate, I continued to stream on my aging PC while squeezing every last ounce of performance from it. If i really wanted to, I probably could have stuck with my old one for longer. The PC wasn’t the thing stunting my growth.
A PC capable enough of streaming or gaming and streaming at the same time is a massive investment. It would be a shame to drop thousands on a PC upfront, only to find out later that you actually hate streaming. Optimize what you have and don’t make the jump for a hefty PC until you’re ready for it.
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