Twitch is getting acquired by the beast that is Amazon. Photo via Flickr user Roja Directa
Amazon is apparently about to shell out a shade under a billion dollars for Twitch, an interactive, YouTube-meets-ESPN platform for video-game streaming. But if Twitch is revolutionizing the gaming industry while ranking fourth in US peak website traffic behind traffic tycoons Netflix, Google, and Apple, many outside the gaming world had never even heard of it until now.
Twitch has created a new breed of internet celebrity: the gamer. It boasts an impressive 55 million unique viewers and 16 billion minutes watched per month, which reportedly ends up offering some of their most popular personalities an opportunity to make upward of $100,000 a year on streaming alone. Twitch bridges the gap between viewer and personality by giving users an opportunity to chat with the streamer instantaneously, an accessibility that promotes a unique intimacy. While the word has yet to spread throughout the mainstream media that video games are no longer the diversion of an underground counterculture, with these stats it's hard to argue that online spectatorship of gaming isn't about to blow up in a major way.
Still, I was initially confused by the fervor surrounding a website where people watch other people play games—especially when some fork over an extra $4.99 to avoid commercials. This hesitation reflects a nationwide resistance. Twitch user Matt Gebhart (a.k.a. Barenakedclown) said, “It is perfectly acceptable to binge-watch Netflix for 12 hours a day to finish the latest season or catch up on a show, but if you tell somebody who isn’t into gaming that you watched somebody play a video game for a few hours, you are treated like a weirdo.”
One of the ways Twitch is changing gaming in the US is through the tight-knit relationship it promotes between viewer and streamer, mostly via the chat box. Each channel has a chat field next to the video, where the streamer can see what their fans are saying about the game and respond second-by-second. I skyped with one of Twitch's most popular streamers, Brian Wyllie (AKA TSM_TheOddOne), to learn more.
Wyllie has more than half a million followers, a total of over 150 million channel views, and a tagline of "Come for the forehead, stay for the rage.” But he’s incredibly grounded and kind (the man is Canadian after all). He understands that his fans are instrumental to his success; explaining, "[Twitch's chat box] is a really great way to interact with your fans, your viewers, because it's basically real time. You can type back to them. It's like a chat room, but they can see you because you're live stream." Twitch has changed gaming into an industry that capitalizes on what makes pretty much every form of entertainment popular: the injection of personality. While Wyllie used to be a professional League of Legends player, he now claims to support himself live streaming on Twitch 62 hours a week. He laughs at my surprise over his long hours. "It pays pretty well,” he says. According to the International Business Times, streamers make $2.50 for every $4.99 subscription monthly—unfortunately, only the channel's owner knows how many subscribers he or she has—and $3 for every 1,000 non-subscribers who watch a three-minute commercial. Wyllie averages 155,964 views a day.
Aside from channels with individual personalities, Twitch also covers live tournaments. Like televised sporting events, these include commentators, player profiles, and monetized, subscription-based viewership. Of course, because this is the internet, you can also can get involved in the lives of the players and teams as well as the intricacies of the game.
"”When you’re watching a pro game of League of Legends and one team makes a good play on another, the chat fills with chants for one team,” Gebhart explained, “It is sort of like being at a football game where everyone is cheering on their favorite team.”
Twitch has also become a resource for anyone who wants to break into the industry. As another Twitch user, Derek Richins (a.k.a. Lessthangood), said, "Twitch has changed my view of gaming by making me realize that there is a future in it and now I really want to be involved in games whether being a personality or making the games.” What was once an activity engaged in by the stereotypically nerdy, socially inept, and unmotivated in their basements when they had free time has now become a massive, incredibly profitable industry.
Although some channels revolve around competitive gaming, skill doesn't always take precedence. Like YouTube, Twitch allows anyone to create and profit off his or her own streaming channel. Some channels explore the worst games out there, and others run for charity. On nearly every type of channel, streamers discuss their personal lives, including relationships with other players, which contributes to the intimacy of the Twitch experience.
“I think American media is all about the football hero, but not all of us can be football heroes,” said Wyllie, who has over a half a million followers.
Trolls are an issue, but the vibe is generally positive, and in popular chats a moderator helps weed out some of the more obnoxious messages. “I really like how a bunch of people can join in on a conversation and share their opinions on what is happening or join together and mass spam or troll a stream,” Richins said. “In fact, a big pleasure of watching Twitch is seeing all of the jokes and trolling that people put in the chat!” Mostly the trolling is benign, but some Twitch celebrities have been victims of the celebrity "Swatting" prank. Four Twitch stars have been swatted between July and August alone, some during their live streams with thousands of people watching.
Outside of the gaming community, few people seemed to know about Twitch until quite recently, but streamers I spoke to just before the Amazon deal went public suspected it was only a matter of time before the thing gained more traction..
“I'm pretty sure gaming will be more mainstream in the future, especially the US,” Wyllie said, while keeping one eye on his competing League of Legends team. “It's more mainstream in some of the Asian countries, like Korea or European countries, like, Sweden—it's more accepted there. Right now, it's getting more mainstream because there are more games on everything, like there's games on smart phones and obviously PCs and consoles, but now it's like everyone can get into it.”
Twitch’s appeal stems from the interactive component, but we all know that popularity based on social media isn’t the best business model. For every billion Mark Zuckerberg makes, there is a once-popular site like MySpace struggling to regain its popularity and reinvent itself. Right now, Twitch seems to have the market pegged—and Amazon’s massive reach won’t hurt—but who knows how long Twitch can maintain its edge? Considering its growing audience and the insane amount of money that could be made (_Forbes _estimates that streamers can make over 300k a year with streaming, sponsorship, and YouTube presence), competitors are likely to emerge and diversify the market. One thing is certain: For the first time in history, a gaming platform is transforming marginal users into a new kind of celebrity.