Since its inception as a video games streaming platform in 2011, Twitch has seen more than 67 billion hours of viewing time. Yes, let’s say it again. 67 billion hours. A number that Twitch happily explains is enough hours for every person on this spinning rock in the solar system to watch over eight hours of video each. But what would those people choose to watch? Cooking? Art? Video games? With more than 2.8 billion hours of gaming livestreams watched on Twitch in 2020 alone, an increase of 75% from the previous year, the platform is still the number one choice for streaming games. Perhaps for some though, there’s still a question of why. Why would someone choose to watch someone else play video games or do a jigsaw? Where does the continued appeal lie?
It’s a question that Erin Wayne, now Twitch’s Senior Director of Community and Creator Marketing, asked a long time before she joined the company. A friend asked her to stream her Minecraft server on Twitch. “I was like ‘that is the stupidest thing. Who would watch somebody else play a video game?’ I was THAT person,” she laughs. “I was someone who had played a lot of MMOs and the Minecraft server I started was faction based, like a World of Warcraft spin-off. Even as somebody who was doing that type of content collaboratively, it [Twitch] was a whole different situation that took it to a whole other level. Now I’m getting this interaction and people are giving me feedback… I’m getting people who are like ‘no no no, go left!’ or ‘hey you missed a thing back there’ which you can’t do just in a server. So it was that connection. I get it now, it’s not just watching somebody play a game – which you can do! I love watching hockey – but it was that watching it plus engaging with it that was ‘OK, this is cool and this is what I love to do.’”
Wayne streams as Aureylian with over 150,000 followers as well as her day job and Twitch is a pivotal part of her life. “Personally, Twitch is a place where I have built so many friendships and relationships. Obviously it’s the place that I work and built a career which is wonderful, but I was a Twitch streamer and a Twitch viewer before I worked for the organisation,” she says. “I met my husband through Twitch, I’ve gone on vacations with people from Twitch… There are lots of things personally for me that really resonate and have been super impactful to me as a person. But I think that also speaks to what Twitch is for many people. Twitch is bred to build communities and form these instant connections with people in real-time around the things that we love.”
It’s this real-time, moment to moment interaction that’s one of the many appeals of Twitch. We matter here and can be clearly seen. Wayne compares the experience to the more passive scrolling and liking of Twitter and Facebook posts. “That’s a very one way, solitary way to consume your content. You might as well be sitting on your couch watching a TV show. The actors aren’t going to hear you. But Twitch is so different in that your regular viewership is typing in chat, being part of the experience, streamers get not only to know who you are, the viewers get to know who you are, and you start forming those friendships,” she explains. “In addition to all the wacky, wonderful content creators and content that you’ll find, it’s really forming those relationships and building those connections to people with that instant thing we have in common, the content, the creator, the thing that we love, that really make it special.”
More than 7 million creators stream on the platform every month, making Twitch a bustling metropolis of different passions and communities. The service cut its teeth on gaming content and has evolved to meet the expectations of its constantly growing community as more people play and more watch. Amongst many technical upgrades over the years – not to mention a complete overhaul of the chat system so that thousands of people could more easily play classic Pokemon together by merely typing – Twitch has seen major changes. Subscription services have launched, viewers can interact with streamers with better emotes, and there are constantly increased moderation capabilities to make streamers feel safer and more in control of their own channels. The concept of streaming to a live audience might have stayed the same but the service itself continues to evolve.
Grimsevers has been streaming on her own channel since 2018 and is now a Twitch Partner. She started streaming for work in the games industry but it became a passion she took home. “I’ve always been interested in Twitch streaming, and first started streaming at my first job in the games industry, and I instantly fell in love with it,” she explains. “I thought I was shy and awkward, but on Twitch I’ve managed to find myself, my personality, and be 100% true to who I am. It sounds cheesy, but I’ve never pretended to be someone I’m not on Twitch, and for that I am forever grateful for it as a platform.”
Twitch’s dedicated focus made it an attractive prospect even with other services available. “I decided to go to Twitch to stream as I’d streamed on YouTube and Facebook for work in the past and I really didn’t find them very user friendly, and in comparison with Twitch they just didn’t seem focused, or properly built for, streaming,” she explains. “And Mixer (RIP) just looked messy and gross to me, so I decided to start my journey off on Twitch. That’s not to say Twitch is perfect, but it was the best of what was out there at the time!” She plays games across a number of genres but The Sims and Skyrim are Grimsevers’ go-to comfort options. “They’re the games where time goes the quickest. Which is both a good thing and a sad thing with Twitch! My streams are so enjoyable for me, I love chatting with my community and hanging out with everyone, but I also love to play games I feel at home in, too”
The Twitch community is sprawling, meaning that it can be a challenging landscape for streamers just starting out or even those who’ve been in the game a lot longer. A year ago, Grimsevers founded a community support team specifically for streamers. “The focus of Strem Frens is on helping each other out with tech support, sharing opportunities, celebrating milestones, sharing tech deals, and lifting each other up,” she explains. “There’s no follow for follow, no expectations, and you can show up when you want, if you want, but there’s never any obligation to go further than just lurking and taking it all in. Charity work is an important part of being on Twitch, and with Strem Frens we have the additional support of a full mod team of streamers, and a massive network of streamers from all walks of life reaching different kinds of audiences. We are able to do so much more for charity as a community full of streamers with their own communities and it’s brilliant to see.”
Twitch might still be synonymous with games but non-gaming content has quadrupled over the last three years with new categories arriving for different interests. Just Chatting, Sport, IRL, Music, and the recently controversial Hot Tub categories have all sprung up on the service over the years. We can watch adorable otters in zoos, cooking, crafting, football teams, NASA, you name it and it’s probably streaming live on Twitch. The demand for this came directly from the community.
“The very first time we really kind of strayed away from gaming and experimented with non-gaming content was with the launch of the Creative category in 2015 because we had people who were on Twitch who were like ‘I love Legend of Zelda. I don’t want to play Legend of Zelda but I have this really cool stained glass piece that I’ve been working on’ or ‘I’ve been working on these Perler beads…,’” explains Erin Wayne. “But the second part of this is that gamers in general are all multifaceted people. Nobody ever just does one thing. I’m a gamer and I love video gaming, I also love to bake, I also love to go kayaking and now I can share who I am, in totality as a multifaceted person, with my community on Twitch.”
If you’re looking for some relaxing viewing away from the terror of something like ghost hunting game Phasmophobia, art streams make the perfect escape. Creators share their analogue or digital works in progress, often with relaxing lo-fi beats as an accompaniment as they work. But stepping up to the microphone doesn’t come without some trepidation. “At first, streaming terrified me. You keep hearing these horror stories about how people behave online and Twitch chat carries a particularly bad rep,” says artist and streamer Jaws. “Luckily for me, the art community is a whole other calibre of calm in terms of chat behavior. Through the years I’ve grown comfortable with the format and I trust that the people who show up to watch me being my weird self, join in because they enjoy the content I put out there. If you hear me singing to myself with my less than pleasant voice, chances are I’m very at peace.”
There’s no getting away from the fact that Twitch’s figures skyrocketed in 2020 as we were no longer able to see people in person but Twitch is a vital source of connection outside of lockdowns. “For me, streaming is a way to defeat isolation and loneliness. My profession can be spent in long periods of solitude, giving me cabin fever and reducing my social skills into grocery shopping levels of interaction,” Jaws explains. “The magic of hitting ‘live’ and seeing regulars pop in to wish me a good day, stay to chat and maybe even share a cup of coffee in spirit. It feels like a workplace and I treasure that. Had it not been for streaming, I’d spent 2020 more or less completely cut off from the world. So thank you to everyone who’s kept me company through these challenging times!”
And if anyone is looking for academic proof of the benefits of Twitch, there are a variety of reasons that we are so happy to plug in. Well, in moderation of course. Dr Natalie Coyle is a researcher from Ireland who specialises specifically in the psychology of video games. “Research shows that when someone watches another person play video games, they’re actually fulfilling several psychological needs,” she explains. “Streamers are often entertaining and funny people, so this delivers something called ‘tension release’ where the viewer gets to relax, unwind and be entertained by another person. There is also an interactive element to websites such as Twitch due to the incorporation of a chatbox, so this helps people to fulfil social needs as they have convenient access to a group of potential new friends. Viewers may tune in to the stream of someone who is very good at a game and learn new tips and tricks, increasing their own chances of doing better next time which makes them feel happier when playing the game.”
Twitch was an especially safe space for our brains as early lockdowns hit, with no one really knowing how to react to quarantines. “Particularly at the beginning with so much confusion and uncertainty, many of us were guilty of ‘doom scrolling’ to try to make sense of these strange new circumstances,” notes Dr Coyle. “Tuning in to our favourite streamer is a great way to take our mind off scary things that we can’t control. Watching a streamer also introduces us to an entirely new way to make friends, whether it’s talking to people in the chat or joining the streamer’s Discord server to talk outside of stream time. Evidence suggests that both the distraction and social element of Twitch helps people cope with challenging circumstances, and that’s exactly what many of us need during such a stressful time.”
After a decade of success, it will be interesting to see where Twitch goes next but the expansion into non-gaming content will definitely continue. “As we’ve seen over the last ten years, if you provide the service, aided and abetted by what we believe are the best tools in the business for broadcasting and consuming live interactive video content, then it will grow organically. People will almost mould what they will out of the clay you give them,” explains Damian Burns, Twitch’s Senior Vice President for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. “And I think that humankind’s ability to create is what we see expressed on Twitch and I think that’s going to continue and it’s going to keep growing. We’re going to see more different permutations of creativity across all of these different categories which makes it so exciting.”
Where sometimes Twitch understands the behaviour of users – a massive spike of interest in chess appeared after the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit for instance – other times, there’s no predicting what’s going to succeed. “Sometimes you can’t see it and suddenly it just seems to explode organically and there’s no paper trail as to why it happened,” Burns says. “And that’s great! It means you’re not necessarily fully in control of the content strategy on the service. It shows, actually, we’re just an enabler and I think we have to be humble around that and have to keep investing in the tools that enable. I think if you tried to be completely proactive around ‘This is what the roadmap for all of the content on Twitch is going to look like’ I think you’d get it very wrong for the next three to five years.”
Burns is particularly excited about the progress of the music category. Especially when it comes to new artists overturning the traditional structure of the industry by streaming their work on Twitch, directly to their audience. “The ability to not only access live content from someone who’s either a well-established musician or one that you’ve discovered on the service, but interact with them and support them. A really good example is Sereda. Sereda hasn’t got a manager, she hasn’t got a record label but she makes almost $5000 a month from the livestreams she does on Twitch, from her fans,” he says. “And I think that just asks the question ‘how will this scale?’ and how will it evolve in terms of the dynamics of interaction with music artists on a service like Twitch? I find that fascinating and one to really watch.”
With viewing figures like those 67 billion hours though, it looks like we already are.
Twitch is viewable from just about everywhere. Louise Blain is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to NME.