How Twitch became a platform for so much more than gaming

A critical analysis of how Twitch evolved from general streaming to gaming to a much greater purpose

A Twitch exhibit featured at a gaming convention in 2013

"Twitch at PAX 2013" by camknows is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

You don’t have to be a gamer yourself to know what Twitch is – in less than 10 years the video livestreaming service has become a major player in the worlds of online gaming and general interest streaming. With Twitch Tracker’s comprehensive statistics database recording 6.5 million monthly streamers in 2020 and over 963 billion minutes watched so far this year, it’s clear that this platform has achieved and maintained immense popularity.

While some could consider online gaming to be a simple hobby not worthy of academic interest, it is important to interrogate the transformative effects of Twitch’s platform on enabling new ways of using the internet to socialise and connect, promote businesses, and even participate in social and political movements.

This critical analysis will begin with some necessary context of Twitch’s background, with a basic explanation of the platform followed by a brief history of its development. An overview of the service’s ownership and business model will then be provided, allowing the situation of its place within an industry ecosystem.

Finally, there will be an investigation of Twitch’s innovative impacts on social relationships, platform moderation and online activism.

Background

What is Twitch?

Twitch is an online video livestreaming platform that has a focus on the gaming community, however it does feature a broader range of topics. Twitch identifies various categories of content:

  • Games
  • Music
  • Talk shows
  • Sports
  • Travel and outdoors
  • Just chatting
  • Food and drink
  • Special events

This Common Sense video provides a succinct overview of what the platform has to offer and how it works.

Social media specialist Michelle Harris argues that Twitch can be considered a social network due to its role in connecting users with their community. The entity is, however, most conventionally understood as a broadcast media platform.

Use of Twitch can be understood as a form of entertainment through Tammy Lin et al.’s (2019, p. 2) three characteristics of game streaming enjoyment:

  1. “The performative nature of the streamer’s gameplay”
  2. “The interactions between streamers and audiences”
  3. “The synchronicity of those interactions”

History 

Twitch was founded in 2011, beginning as a spin-off of general interest streaming platform Justin.tv. It wasn’t until 2014 that gaming became the main focus, with Twitch’s popularity resulting in a complete rebrand to Twitch Interactive and subsequent shut down of Justiv.tv.

Twitch was acquired by Amazon for $970 million later that year as part of the conglomerate’s expansions into video entertainment. The platform’s ongoing rise in popularity over the following years is demonstrated in the following graph.

“Twitch Doubles Over 40 Months” by gamoloco is marked with CC PDM 1.0

Traffic has only continued to increase in recent years, with Business of Apps identifying key statistics of usage in 2020, including 2.8 million unique broadcasters in February and an average of 1.44 million concurrent viewers in March.

This trend has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the surge in both gaming and streaming during lockdown being somewhat sustained, keeping monthly averages of concurrent viewers over 2 million since April.

Regulatory debates surrounding the platform’s current use must be acknowledged as a significant element of Twitch’s recent history, such as US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposed ban on military recruitment via Twitch, which failed the House vote and sparked discussion on the technological literacy of government bodies.

Many issues are also arising around the enforcement of Twitch’s community guidelines, with just one example being a controversy surrounding popular streamer InvaderVie’s shaming of viewers who couldn’t afford to subscribe. Pop culture commentator Philip DeFranco’s reaction video showcases the widespread community backlash to her violation of guidelines, with her emotional manipulation and extortion of viewers being considered hateful conduct.

Business

Ownership + Business Model 

Originally founded by Justin Kan and Emmett Shear, Twitch is now operated by Twitch Interactive, which exists as a subsidiary of Amazon. It is a free service at its most basic level, with the idea that “the notion of sharing adopted by social media companies actively obfuscates the actual commodity relations taking place” (John, 2017 cited in Martin, 2019, p. 97) applying to the Twitch’s sharing-based service.

Business of Apps explains the platform’s economic model, based on various revenue streams for different users:

  • Subscriber revenue
    • Twitch Prime (includes Amazon Prime Video)
    • Twitch Turbo (includes upgrades like ad-free streaming)
  • Twitch Partner/Affiliate revenue
    • Subscription to individual channels (benefits vary dependent on the streamer and the revenue is split 50/50 with Twitch)
    • Partner ad revenue (Partner’s receive a cut)
    • Cheers (digital tipping system with currency that can be purchased or earned watching ads)
  • Advertising revenue

Individuals and businesses can also utilise Twitch to make revenue in indirect ways, such as e-sports sponsorships and influencer marketing. A recent example of how the brands can leverage the platform for profit is beauty influencer Michelle Phan’s League of Legends livestream promoting the launch of her new foundation through in-chat purchase links and commercial breaks, resulting in 278% more units sold in comparison to prior launches.

For further information about how brands fit into Twitch’s business model, Social Media Examiner’s podcast provides an in-depth explanation of what marketers should know.

While it is evidently possible to make profit on Twitch, streaming should be considered as a form of immaterial labour, “referring to activities that do not resemble traditional work but have been effectively commodified” (Woodcock & Johnson, 2019. p. 816) – play has been turned into work through the streamer’s performative actions where they often maintain a persona and create parasocial relationships with spectators.

Taylor (2018) elaborates on the work of transforming private play into a form of public entertainment, highlighting the complexities of experiences created both for one’s own pleasure and their community’s, however this doesn’t negate the ethical questions that arise from unpaid immaterial labour.

Internet Ecology 

Twitch is a clear leader in its industry, recording 2.3 billion hours watched in the fourth quarter of 2019, compared to 0.9 billion for YouTube Gaming and 0.1 million for Microsoft’s Mixer. Mixer aimed to challenge Twitch, making deals with major players such as most-subscribed streamer Ninja, however it has since shut down and partnered with Facebook Gaming.

The subsidiary has acquired several businesses itself, including talent agency Goodgame, game modification platform Curse (which has since been sold on), video indexing platform ClipMine and e-sports analytics service Pursuit (previously a fan engagement platform called Revlo).

Twitch is easily accessible on a range of platforms, including the website, mobile applications and game consoles. As previously mentioned, users also have a variety of modes of accessing and creating content.

Other relevant actors in the industry ecosystem include game developers who may raise issues like copyright, as well as prominent Twitch Partners. Key brands in the industry landscape can be seen in the following internet ecosystem map.

Infographic showing the industry ecosystem of Twitch
A range of actors across Twitch’s internet ecosystem come together to influence how the platform operates locally and internationally.

Transformation + Innovation

Social Relationships

Livestreaming platforms like Twitch capitalise on the inclination to share that John (2016) notes is commonly perceived as an innate part of human behaviour, reflective of a return to the social ways of our childhoods or even ancestors.

While Taylor (2016) suggests that boundaries between content creators and their audiences are being rebuilt through techniques of “audiencing” in e-sports, Twitch’s potential to enable new ways of socialising cannot be ignored.

Wulf et al.’s recent study revealed that the platform “embodies a predominantly socially enjoyable experience and a space to interact with peers having the same interest in an easily joinable community” (2020, p. 341). This satisfaction of the desire for social connection is evidenced through the rise of Twitch support groups to foster community throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

This phenomenon can be seen locally in Australia, with surges in engagement from young and lonely viewers during the pandemic resulting in streamer Paul Licari (or Pestily) hitting his 2020 fundraising goal five months early after raising $1.1 million for Starlight Children’s Foundation.

Regulation 

While some current regulatory debates surrounding Twitch have been previously mentioned, there are more transformative effects of the platform to be considered. For example, a 24-hour let’s play channel in Germany being made to apply for a broadcasting license to continue running demonstrates the unprecedented regulation issues that can arise from the platform.

Copyright is also a prominent issue, with the idea that “the lawlessness of the early internet has been replaced not by legitimate legal processes, but by corporate rule through algorithmic enforcement” (Suzor, 2019, p. 60) presenting unique challenges in the case of a livestreaming platform, where the algorithm must be able to detect breaches as they occur.

The same notion exacerbates concerns around content moderation that arise on other social media platforms hosting gaming communities, such as Reddit. Massanari (2015) suggests that the design and governance of such sites supports the development of toxic masculine technocultures implicitly associated with geek culture, with Ruvalcaba et al.’s (2018) findings demonstrating greater negative feedback and sexual harassment in women’s experiences of e-sports and online gaming.

With Gillespie asserting that “platforms do, and must, moderate the content and activity of users, using some logistics of detection, review and enforcement” (2018, p. 21), it is evident that services like Twitch have needed to innovate their platform moderation methods to protect users from such harassment during livestreams.

Mobilising Change 

The most unexpected of Twitch’s transformative effects that has recently become a lot more apparent is its ability to mobilise social and cultural change, particularly engaging a young demographic that could be otherwise hard to reach.

Beyond expanding from a focus on simply games back to a wider range of topics, Twitch has evolved into a platform for activism. One on level, this is enabled by the platform’s deliberate endeavours, evident in philanthropic acts such as a recent donation to AbleGamers.

However, activism is also arising through the innovative ways that users themselves are appropriating the platform according to their own social and political motivations. For example, progressive political commentator Hasan Piker provided over 80 hours of live US election coverage, having also been joined by Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar during a recent livestream of Among Us, with a highlight from the game posted to Piker’s Instagram page.

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Hasan Piker (@hasandpiker)

Ocasio-Cortez explained her strategy of using Twitch to mobilise young voters in an interview with CNN, highlighting the power of the platform to connect with and engage this audience. While few others have adopted her digital-forward strategy, it’s clear that Twitch is beginning to emerge as a place for political discussion and action, and further activism on the platform should be expected.

Final Thoughts

Overall, Twitch should be viewed as far more than just a site for watching online games – it’s a platform for creating community and fostering unique online relationships, as well as encouraging sociopolitical debate and mobilising action. Challenges in regulating the platform have also been an important aspect of its development, necessitating new ways of ensuring the safety and privacy of users in real time. Through considering Twitch’s history, business model and place within an industry ecosystem, it has become clear that this platform is a uniquely situated internet service that has had transformative effects on the ways people within the gaming community interact online.

Avatar
About Alys Oldham 2 Articles
Alys is a final year Media and Communications student at the University of Sydney majoring in Marketing and Digital Cultures. You can probably guess that she's interested in all things social media and online media production, so ARIN2610 is an exciting opportunity to dive deeper into understanding the transformation of online media landscapes.