Twitch.tv is arguably the most popular video game live streaming site on the web today, hosting anything from small streams with less than ten people, to pro-gaming tournaments with thousands of viewers (Hamilton, Garretson & Kerne, 2014). Twitch’s innovative platform that broadcasts to over fifteen million unique visitors every day has no doubt had a transformative effect on the internet we know and changed the way we interact with content and content providers, and build relationships with public figures online. From its humble creation by then-college student Justin Kan in 2011, to being sold to Amazon for almost $US1 billion in the space of three years, Twitch has no doubt carved the path for how to provide an innovative and free broadcasting service to its users, and how to do it well. The immense support it gives to its broadcasters and fans sparks opportunity for users to take their streaming career to the next level through its Partnership Programs. As well as this, the ability for streamers to engage with fans in real-time serves to forge a community based on friendship and mutual shared interests. This essay will carefully analyse the sources of Twitch’s success, how it generates revenue, the experience of the streamers and their viewers, the various actors in its ecology, and just how its innovation has transformed the way we understand and experience the internet, video games, and our relationships. The transformative effect Twitch.tv has had on our internet will no doubt become evident through our critical analysis as we endeavour to understand this unique and innovative platform.
A Brief History of Twitch
Twitch.tv is a popular online video streaming service, where users can watch other creators or stream their own content. In the beginning, Twitch streams were mainly focused on video game play, but in recent years have been introducing new content to stream, such as cooking, tutorials, or simply, real life. Only surpassed by Google, Netflix, and Apple, Twitch draws in nearly 2% of all internet traffic during peak time.
“If justin.tv can succeed, then nobody has an excuse. It was a terrible idea.”
– Justin Kan, Founder of Twitch.tv
Twitch was a spin-off company founded in 2011 by Justin Kan while studying at Yale University, and formerly known as justin.tv since 2005. It began as a video streaming site for users to share footage of their lives, as a take on the “Big Brother” genre. Its beginnings were rough as the requirements to create a streaming setup were “technically complex”, as Kan explains. The site began to grow immensely, with the popularity of video games and video game streaming carrying Twitch forward, now with over 55 million people watching Twitch video game streamers every month. In 2014, Twitch was bought by Amazon for an incredible $US970 million, considering its humble beginnings. It is no secret, then, that the immense success of Twitch comes from the ability to crowd-source content creators to showcase their skills and broadcast their content to mass amounts of people for free (Zhang & Liu, 2015), with the number of viewers grew from 20 million to 45 million in the span of just three years (Chen, Zhang, Wang, & Liu, 2015, as cited by Zhang & Liu, 2015). It has transformed the relationship of the content creator and the viewer, as it so heavily grounded in “building community” (Pelicone & Ahn, 2017, as cited by Browne, 2018, p. 150).
If it’s free to broadcast, then how does Twitch makes its money?
Owned by Amazon since 2014, Twitch allows users to register for free and to broadcast and watch others at no charge. Twitch operates independently as a subsidiary of Amazon, and makes its money through advertising, subscriptions, and partner programs. Various gaming companies and developers advertise through Twitch as video game footage is the majority of the content streamed. There is also a “Turbo” membership offered by Twitch for $US8.99 per month which removes advertisements from the viewing of streams.
They have also introduced Twitch Prime, a take on Amazon Prime, a subscription service where Amazon members get various benefits, such as free games, for a monthly cost. Twitch Prime allows users to connect their Amazon Prime memberships to their Twitch accounts, and can gain bonuses such as loot-boxes for a list of games, and as well as a free subscription to one broadcaster of their choosing each month.
Depending on the traffic of users watching their streams, Twitch broadcasters have the opportunity to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, many relying on Twitch streaming to be their full-time job (Browne, 2018). In order to gain a cut of the advertisement revenue, broadcasters must apply for the Twitch Partner Program, and their success is dependent on how popular they are and how much consistent traffic they bring to the website. Once a broadcaster has met the basic criteria, they will be contacted by Twitch with an invitation to become a Twitch Affiliate. Being an Affiliate with Twitch gives users the chance to become more popular and have a successful career through streaming. Viewers then have the option to ‘Subscribe’ to streamers for a base fee of $US4.99, as well as donate money, and purchase ‘bits’ (a form of currency through Twitch) to give to broadcasters of their choice. Twitch then gets a portion of the subscription money earned. The next step up from a Twitch Affiliate is a Twitch Partner, which verifies a broadcaster with a ‘tick’ icon, for others to see in stream chat boxes. Once a broadcaster becomes an Affiliate or Partner, they are given a number of emotes (emoji icons) for their viewers to use in chat once subscribed. This serves to increase the community feel of streams, as emotes can be used in other streamers chats, sort of viewed as a badge of honour and representation that they are a fan of a particular streamer.
Who’s involved and who keeps it running smoothly?
Twitch.tv, much like YouTube, or other video streaming sites, are open platforms and the difficulty lies in regulating the content on a broad scale. As virtually all of Twitch’s content is provided by content creators and not Twitch themselves, regulating content becomes the responsibility of the individual providing said content. Essentially, an individual streamer will have individual rules in their live streams about what kind of language they allow in the chat boxes by viewers (some channels are family-friendly, and others are very lenient in what they allow to be said). Twitch hosts the platform for content creators to broadcast their content, and therefore, it is their job to maintain a level of regulation on their own platform. They have options available to time people out (which is essentially putting a blocker on their chat box so they cannot write messages for a certain period of time), remove people from the chat temporarily, or ban people from viewing completely. Especially when dealing with large audiences, many streamers opt to enlist a group of ‘Moderators’, typically trusted friends or users, to moderate the chat while the streamer is broadcasting, and removing spam or offensive language, as guided by the streamer.
As video games and the gaming community are now a fundamental part of the global economy (Pellicone, 2016), we must seek to understand the role they play and which actors are responsible for bringing this media into the limelight and into our homes. Twitch.tv’s key actors be broken down into a list of select players that are involved with Twitch’s existence and success.
- Owner: The actor who purchased Twitch and has helped provide it further success – Amazon.
- Users: These actors are crowd-sourced and provide the content for Twitch to host – Live streamers, content creators, viewers.
- Partners: Those actors involved with the promotion and support of Twitch through events and game developing – Bethesda, Blizzard, Ubisoft, Psyonix, IGN, Machinima, GameSpot, Comic Con, Warner Bros.
- Advertisers: Those actors who bring in large revenue for Twitch and its affiliated streamers – typically game developers and other game companies.
- Platforms: The actors who support Twitch’s program and supply a method of delivering its content to the world – Desktop computers, Apple iOS/iPhone, Android, NVIDIA SHIELD, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Chromecast, FireTV.
- Competitors: Those actors who provide a similar service to Twitch and are in competition for views – YouTube, Steam Broadcasting, Major League Gaming (MLG), Azubu.
Innovation through Relationship Building
One of Twitch.tv’s greatest innovations is its unique method of relationship building online through participation, shared experience, and encouraged sense of community. Hamilton, Garretson & Kerne (2014) discovered through their study that there are two core reasons people enjoy watch live streams:
- Individuals relish the “unique content” (p. 1315) of particular streams.
- Being interacted with by the streamer and engaging with the fellow audience is fun and enjoyable.
Furthermore, recent evidence has suggested that many gamers prefer to watch other people play, rather than play the video game themselves (Cheung & Huang, 2011, as cited by Kaytoue, Ailva, Cerf, Meira, & Raïssi, 2012). We must question what is so enticing and exciting about watching someone else play a video game, that it may grant an equal or better experience than playing the game for yourself. This mode of living experiences vicariously through others is one of the key factors of Twitch’s success; experiencing story progression, conflicts, and various instances in the game, as a shared adventure between the player and everyone watching serves to build relationships based off of mutual likeness and group participation. Twitch.tv’s innovative, yet simple, method of “high-fidelity computer graphics and video with low-fidelity text-based communication” (Hamilton, Garretson & Kerne, 2014, p. 1315) fosters a new and unique method of forming relationships between the creator and fans, and greatly encourages participation to create community (Hamilton, Garretson & Kerne, 2014). This new way of viewing and forming relationships online through shared experience has had a transformative effect on our social and cultural experience online, reshaping our understanding of our presence on the internet.
The role of Twitch’s key actors – its advertisers, competing platforms, and partners – all serve to promote Twitch’s success and place it unequivocally as the most popular form of live video streaming. The simple and unique way Twitch.tv undeniably fosters the building of community encourages participation and relationship forming between live streamers and their audience. The shared experience of video games and other media being streamed creates a valid experience where viewers can live vicariously through others, and engage in conversation with the broadcasting host and other audience members. The openness of its platform, while similar to YouTube, greatly champions more earnest and authentic relationships due to the real-time feedback of ‘chat’. Twitch.tv’s evident role in our Internet has transformed the way we converse and engage online, altering our social and cultural reality to one that encourages friendship-building and video games into the limelight.
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