Twitch: Engagement is the Name of the Game
DO YOU WANT TO PLAY A GAME?
A couple weeks ago a news story probably didn’t break into your bubble, but it showcased a significant indicator of generational sea change in media consumption and messaging.
Two United States congress(wo)men played a video game. It was a pretty big hit.
In an effort to engage the youngest generation of voters in the United States (not coincidentally the least likely to participate in the political process), Representatives Alexandria Ocasia-Cortez and Ilhan Omar joined some of Twitch’s most popular content creators to play a video game called Among Us (imagine a 10-player game of Clue on a spaceship that’s falling apart while the murderer is still walking around killing people). First time streamer Ocasia-Cortez brought in 439,000 peak viewers and broke into the top 20 biggest streams in Twitch history (current record sits at 667,000).
But this isn’t a story about politics, it’s about a platform.
Launched in 2007 as Justin.tv, the site looked to follow on the heels of Youtube’s success (launched in 2005, acquired by Google in 2006) as the live broadcaster’s alternative.
Much like YouTube, content creators set up personal “channels” to stream content to viewers around the world. Early on the site experimented with a variety of content categories across genres of interest, but by 2011 gaming had become so popular a new site was created, and Twitch was born (named as a nod to the reflex speed of top gamers). In 2014 Justin.tv and Twitch were rolled under the banner company of Twitch Interactive and later that year bought out as a subsidiary of Amazon.com.
BUT WHAT IS TWITCH:
It really depends on who you ask and how much time you have to hear the answer. On the most fundamental level- Twitch is a live video streaming service, catering mostly to video gamers. On the surface it’s hard to understand- why would anyone watch another person play a video game, when you could… just play a video game? But ask any one of Twitch’s 15 million daily active users and you’re likely to hear the words “community”, “interaction”, and “engagement”. It turns out those intangibles are at the heart of the site’s appeal. A streamer can feel like an old friend sitting next to you on the couch or a celebrity in the next room, and a viewer’s ability to interact with their favorite streamers via a channel chat, custom emoticons (called emotes), and even site/channel specific language and memes make entertainment a two way street.
Once a bastion of “dudes in their basement playing games”, Twitch has grown to support a myriad special interest categories including sports, music, fine art, talk shows, cooking, health and fitness, politics, chatting, and even Karaoke. The site now boasts a 35 percent female user base (along with it’s #6 most popular content creator, Pokimane who has over 6 million subscribers to her channel. Twitch has made it core to their identity to promote inclusivity and raise awareness of intolerance throughout its community (although not always without controversy.
Their base is growing out just as fast as it’s growing up.
GROWING POPULARITY & ENTER COVID
Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last 20 years, you’re aware that gaming has gone from a nerdy, niche hobby to near ubiquitous adoption among the millennial generation and younger. The fracturing of mainstream media since the dawn of the internet has been well documented and gaming’s meteoric growth in the entertainment market has certainly helped that trend.
But the rise of gaming is just one side of this coin, as the ever divergent content landscape owes much of it’s diversification to the “Influencer”. More than ever, people are turning away from the old guards of Media and finding their interests and opinions shaped by the leaders of their preferred online communities. Thanks to the proliferation of gigabyte broadband speeds on both desktop and mobile devices and our “24/7, always-connected'' reality, content creation has become democratized, giving influencers new avenues to find an audience. Twitch (and streaming in general) is the marriage of these budding trends, and given Amazon’s pedigree, seemingly infinite expansion, and opportunity to evolve. Encouraging micro-communities to find their niche and flourish is proving to be the next big wave in mass media.
The numbers are impressive but difficult to comprehend without context. Millions of viewers spread across tens of thousands of streamers with billions of minutes watched is hard to follow. Ranked 17th among top sites in the US (metrics based on daily visitors, traffic, search, and links), Twitch ranks higher than icons ESPN, CNN, and Apple.com. There’s no shortage of articles dating back through the better part of the last decade proclaiming Twitch a major up-and-comer from both a user base and a marketing tool. Yet despite being the largest player in the category, Twitch is hardly a household name. Can the global pandemic change that?
In a world increasingly isolated from in-person interactions, it’s no surprise that Twitch has seen massive growth. When nearly every professional sports league in the world was on hiatus, esports continued to play on as scheduled. Performance artists are giving concerts from their studios. While gyms across the country closed their doors, Twitch trainers broadcast workout routines from their living rooms. Weekly happy hour groups migrated from bars to… running away from murderers on a SpaceShip. A mass migration from the real world to the digital world isn’t for everyone right now, but Twitch gives us a glimpse of where things are heading, and how our relationships with content are evolving.