Every time I passed by the Kappa Theatre at TwitchCon, there was a massive show happening.
At one point it's a live event from VideoGame Championship Wrestling, a series that uses the create-a-wrestler feature in the WWE games to make likenesses of personalities from fiction and reality and put them in a story just as silly and convoluted as real wrestling. Then it's the H1Z1 Invitational, a high-stakes tournament centered around a popular PC zombie apocalypse game.
Amazingly, a presentation featuring Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst discussing how he got into Twitch streaming doesn't make it into the Kappa Theatre. Durst might be a celebrity, but he's not quite a Twitch Celebrity yet.
Twitch is one of the most highly-trafficked sites on the planet, where millions tune in daily to watch other people play games live. And to the 20,000 fans who gathered recently at Moscone Center in San Francisco for the first ever TwitchCon, Durst is just another streamer. Anyone on the site is free to stream themselves playing games, but if you want to ascend to the status of Twitch celebrity, you're going to need more than just a once-successful music career.
One panel late on Saturday, the second and final day of the event, featured several streamers who have "made it" giving advice to fans on how they can turn their stream into a moneymaking venture, and perhaps even a full time job.
"Making it" on Twitch means getting "partnered," an exclusive contract with Twitch to receive revenues from your streaming activities. A Twitch partnership is the dream for many Twitch streamers, as it means more promotion and visibility on the service, but meeting the criteria for a partnership is a significant mountain to climb. You need to stream very regularly and to maintain a healthy viewer count average, and there are numerous unspoken factors that could influence a decision either way. It's the barrier that separates "streaming for fun" from "streaming as a job."
"I'd worked for almost a year to get it."
"I've been streaming for about a year and a half now," a well-known streamer named HayliNic, who has almost 48,000 followers, told me. "It's a great combination of everything I want to do in my life." She had initially majored in journalism, which she eventually realized wasn't her calling in life. "I was in my junior year of college when I found Twitch," Nic said. "It was kind of unbelievable that people could make money playing video games."
A friend suggested she make the jump from watching to streaming, which she did with the popular first-person shooter Counter-Strike. After meeting with several other streamers at the PAX South gaming convention, she began to take game streaming more seriously.
"I applied for partnership a couple of times, but I got denied," she explained.
Yet, her channel was going strong, thanks in part to getting linked from a few big-name streamers.
"I thought I was a shoe-in, because I was averaging over 500 consecutive viewers," Nic added. "I applied, and they said, 'We want to see how you do without any help.'" She needed at least 100 consecutive viewers on her own, and said she reapplied about two weeks later. At which point, the person who handles Twitch partnerships entered her chat. "In the middle of my stream, he sent me the confirmation," Nic remembered. "I'd worked for almost a year to get it."
Twitch's director of partnerships John Howell told Motherboard that the company gets well over 1,000 applications for partnerships a week, and that while viewership counts, it's not the deciding factor.
"Interacting with your audience is the ultimate way to drive engagement and continued growth on Twitch," Howell said in an email. "If a broadcaster is focused on creating a healthy community, we'll work closely with him/her to make sure they get to where they need to be. Our community tends to rally behind broadcasters who are authentic, personable and entertaining. As a result, this type of personality is common among many of our top broadcasters."
Howell said Twitch doesn't comment on contract specifics out of respect to streamers, but said that there's a fair revenue share in place.
TigerWriter, a scruffy, tattooed streamer with a trademark beard and a jovial attitude, described a similar, long and hard road to partnership. He worked as a taxi dispatcher in Denver when he started gaming and streaming to fill the downtime.
"I streamed for eleven hours a night because I had eleven-hour shifts," he explained. "I'd just answer the phone when necessary, then get back to streaming. Eventually I was getting over 70 viewers every night." He got partnered in January, and then in February got a spotlight, which landed him on the front page of Twitch for a week. He said he's now sitting at over 40,000 followers.
"It's my full-time job now. I'm streaming six hours a night, five nights a week. I still don't know exactly what I did to get over 10-20 viewers a night, though. Maybe the beard was one of the factors for my growth," he mused, smiling. "Twitch isn't my endgame, but right now, it's my 'quite a few years of my life' game."
Of course, livestreaming also has an ugly side. Spamming, trolling, harassing insults, and folks generally being jerks in chat aren't uncommon, and if a channel's chat is not well moderated, it can get ugly. Many of the more popular streamers restrict chat to paid channel subscribers, or enlist numerous mods to help them keep things under control. But even that doesn't always keep the most determined trolls from slipping through the cracks.
Swatting, the dangerous practice of calling the police with a fake threat in order to get a SWAT team to forcefully invade a target's home, is a particularly visible problem on Twitch because attackers can watch their targets being swatted in real time, during their stream. It's become such a well-known practice that local governments are now cracking down hard on people who pull the cruel stunt.
"There was a guy who targeted female streamers, and he tried to SWAT me," Nic explained. "It was a very scary experience, something I never wish to relive. Luckily, he was stupid. He spammed my chat with my address and said police would be coming. My attitude was that I wasn't going to let a random troll come in and kick me off my stream."
So she called 911 and warned the police about what was happening. Within about two minutes the harasser had called them. The threat of swatting comes with the territory, Nic told me. "But I hope it will change over time."
When TwitchCon was first announced, there was a bit of dread among those who use the site frequently: What if the show's attendance consisted entirely of the sort of obnoxious trolls who were known to spend hours a day trying to rile up Twitch livestreamers? Fortunately, it seemed like the exact opposite was true. The attitude at TwitchCon was incredibly positive.
To many, these players are like celebrities, but celebrities who are both accessible via the chat feature that's attached to every stream, and who viewers feel they have something in common with. Fans travelled to TwitchCon from all over the globe in order to meet the pros. The trolls stayed under their bridges, for now.
She held onto a drawing—an elaborate grayscale portrait that a fan drew and gave to her.
Getting partnered was a big step for all of these streamers, but the tight-knit community aspect of Twitch persists long after one finally scores that prized partnership. Many streamers don't see other channels as competition as much as they see them as part of an extended Twitch family.
"You can find any community, any type of person you want on Twitch," Tiger pointed out. "You can find a place to fit in with… [I]t's one of the most positive things I've ever been a part of in my life. I've always been an entertainer, but I haven't always been OK with completely being myself. That's what Twitch has brought out of me, and people—for some reason—like it."
Many popular streamers will go out of their way to promote other, smaller streams. Sometimes they'll invite other players to join them as they game; other times they'll look for small channels to "raid" by directing viewers there after their broadcasts have ended. A "hosting" feature, which allows a Twitch channel to temporarily show content from another channel, has been a huge boon in helping smaller streams get attention.
It works, too. Nic credits one of Twitch's top streamers, Omgitsfirefoxx, with helping her get her channel off the ground. "Getting exposure from people who are already successful is a blessing in this industry," she said.
This camaraderie was on full display at TwitchCon. As Omgitsfirefoxx spoke with me, she held onto a drawing—an elaborate grayscale portrait that a fan drew and gave to her on the show floor. At the panels I attended, I saw numerous teenaged girls and boys in the audience, eagerly taking in what the presenters had to say.
"I was a musician for ten years trying my hardest," said TigerWriter. "I've been doing this less than a year, and I'm doing really well. It still doesn't make any sense." He told me 20 people waited to meet him earlier that morning after he was done on the TwitchCon stream. "I was just sitting there like, 'Is this real? Do these people actually want to meet me?'"
With additional reporting by Emanuel Maiberg.