Playing for paychecks: The transformative role of Twitch.tv in the digital media and video game ecosystem

Source: https://brand.twitch.tv/

NOTE: Simple extension granted by Harriet on 8/11/2019 (new deadline Sunday 10/11/2019 at 11:59 pm).

 

Introduction

Amazon’s Twitch.tv is a digital entertainment platform for live and recorded video streaming with a focus on video games, video game-related content, and social networking (Fig 1) (Gandolfi, 2016, p. 64; Jie, Cuadrado, Tyson, & Uhlig, 2015, pp. 1, 6; Johnson & Woodcock, 2019a, p. 671). Since its launch in 2011, the platform has had a central role in the convergence of Internet technologies, social internet and community-produced content (Edge, 2013) and has fostered new digitally-literate gaming communities around the world. This essay will give a critical analysis of Twitch.tv, with a focus on the transformative effects of the platform on the video game industry (including live streaming and e-sports), video games, and gamers as social actors. In doing so, the author will evaluate the business model of Twitch and consider how gaming audiences relate to the platform socially, politically and economically. The author contends that Twitch has a central role in the digital media and Internet economy, and that it is democratising the way that digital entertainment is created, consumed, accessed, distributed and integrated online (Johnson & Woodcock, 2019a, pp. 684-685; Johnson & Woodcock, 2019b, p. 5). Much like the modern search engine, Twitch is a “touchstone of digital culture, and a reflection of the culture in which it exists” (Halavais, 2013).

 

Fig 1. Twitch logo. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Twitch_logo.svg

 

What is Twitch.tv?

The role of Twitch in the online video game ecosystem

As a live streaming platform, Twitch makes it possible for anyone with a computer and/or video game console to broadcast themselves playing games (Vid 1) to thousands of potential viewers through a web interface (Jie et al., 2015, p. 1). Twitch is used to stream a variety of gaming content, from casual playthroughs and “speedruns” (a challenge based on completing a video game in the shortest time possible), to live tournaments and e-sports events (Anderson, 2017). More recently, the platform has branched out into non-gaming related content such as ‘IRL’ and ‘Creative’ categories (Twitch.tv, Sep 28, 2018). Despite this, Twitch’s gaming focus remains central; the platform’s most popular live streams are those based on new and old video game titles (Fig 2-4) while major gaming and e-sports events can attract millions of simultaneous viewers (Jie et al., 2015, pp. 1, 5).

Vid 1. Streamer Muaaz explains the process of growing a channel on Twitch. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t8V4_KU0BK0

 

Fig 2. The top 10 games on Twitch. Source: Jie et al., 2015, p. 2

 

Fig 3. Twitch interface displaying the top game categories. Source: Twitch.tv (screenshot)

 

Fig 4. Twitch interface displaying the top live channels. Source: Twitch.tv (screenshot)

 

Audiences: Streamers and viewers

There are two central roles that a Twitch user can have on the platform: ‘streamer’ (a broadcaster who streams their gameplay on a dedicated channel) and ‘viewer’ (anyone who watches a streamer’s video or channel) (Jie et al., 2015, p. 1). Twitch users are identified by two key features; their username – which can be anonymous, unlike Facebook’s ‘Real-ID policy’ (MacKinnon, 2012) – and profile image (avatar). A streamer’s channel serves as the main source of communication and features their live and recent broadcasts, as well as archival uploads. Many streamers incorporate an aural (commentary) and visual (camera) feed of themselves playing a given video game, however this is optional.

Stream chat

One significant feature of Twitch’s interface is the “stream chat” (Fig 5) that allows streamers and users to interact with one other through messages and emotes (Jie et al., 2015, p. 1). The chat box also displays algorithmic notifications, such as ‘weekly top cheerers’ (top contributors), or whenever a user subscribes or sends donations to the streamer. (Anderson, 2017) suggests that this feature of Twitch has a ”humanizing” effect; rather than viewers being reduced to numbers, “the back-and-forth between viewers chatting combined with a streamer’s mentioning of viewer’s usernames during the stream mark it as more of a community event rather than simply a top-down content delivery system”.

Fig 5. The ‘stream chat’ feature of Twitch during a live e-sports tournament. Source: Twitch.tv (screenshot)

 

Historical overview, ownership analysis and business model

Origins: Justin.tv and Amazon

Twitch was founded by Justin Kan in 2011 but has its origins in an earlier streaming service called ‘Justin.tv’ (Vid 2). Launched in 2007, Justin.tv was dedicated to ‘narrowcasting’ Kan’s daily activities and everyday life to online viewers (Burroughs & Rugg, 2014, p. 374; Gerber, 2017, p. 345). Along with YouTube, Justin.tv emerged as an alternative distribution channel to television during a time of changing media consumption patterns; for the first time, live streaming allowed audiences to view an event “as it happens rather than as it fits the day’s programming schedule” (Bruns, 2009, p. 1). In the years leading up to the launch of Twitch, Justin.tv shifted its focus into a number of categories, but it was the Gaming category that “helped launch Twitch.tv into an untapped market of videogame viewership” (Anderson, 2017). Only one month after Twitch.tv launched, the platform had 8 million unique viewers and launched a partner program with 500 initial streamers (ProStreamerHUB, 2018).

A key event in the history of Twitch is the purchasing of the platform by online retailer giant Amazon for close to $1 billion US dollars in 2014 (Johnson & Woodcock, 2019, p. 671). During this time, Twitch accounted for almost 2% of all internet traffic in the US and was averaging 55 million monthly viewers (ProStreamerHUB, 2018). Amazon’s investment in Twitch (which followed a failed attempt by Google) is a testament to the growing business opportunities associated with gaming (a global industry worth over $137 billion in 2018) (Cook, Oct 21, 2014) and the microcelebrity status of Twitch streamers, thus attracting “as many developers from the lucrative games market as it can” (Weinberger, Mar 17, 2016).

Vid 2. The history of Twitch. Source: CNBC (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NBZuw8TSgms)

Business model

The phenomenal success of Twitch as a “real-time spectating environment” (Nawal, Oct 5, 2018) in the online ecosystem rests largely on its business model, which is centred primarily on live streaming and e-sports. Under the ownership of Amazon, Twitch has attained a global rank as the 30th biggest website in the world (Routley, Aug 7, 2019). The platform boasts 2.2 million broadcasters and 15 million viewers daily, with over 560 billion minutes of content viewed in 2018 alone (Iqbal, Feb 27, 2019). The platform is estimated to be worth close to $4 billion US dollars (Nawal, Oct 5, 2018).

Fig 6. Twitch business model. Source: http://hackingrevenue.com/revenue/revenue-spotlight-twitch-tv/

Subscriptions, advertisements, and Affiliate/Partner programs

Twitch’s business model is based on the ‘freemium’ model “used by some Internet businesses and smartphone application developers to give users free basic features of a digital product and access to premium functionality for a subscription fee” (Kumar, 2014). Users have the option to upgrade their free account to ‘Twitch Turbo’ for a fee of $8.99 per month. This allows for a   (Twitch.tv, 2019d). Another separate subscription service is ‘Twitch Prime’, which is included with an Amazon Prime membership ($6.99 per month) and gives users access to “bonus games and exclusive in-game content, a channel subscription every month at no additional cost to be used on any Partner or Affiliate channels, exclusive emotes, and chat badge” (Twitch.tv, 2019c). Twitch also has Affiliate and Partner programs (Vid 3) which are offered to streamers who meet certain requirements in popularity, regularity and quality content (Nawal, Oct 5, 2018). Partners can monetize their content and earn revenue through ads, merchandise (including real and in-game items, as well as game sales) and subscriptions, while also gaining special customization options and partner-only opportunities (Twitch.tv, 2019b). Currently, there are over 27,000 Partners and 150,000 Affiliates on Twitch (Iqbal, Feb 27, 2019).

Vid 3. Streamer Wild4Games explains the Affiliation process on Twitch. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VmgkMIosHwg

 

Transformative impact

The video game industry

The transformative impact of Twitch lies in the platform’s “innovation and disruptive technological change” in the digital media ecosystem, and especially the video game industry (Johnson & Woodcock, 2019b, p. 21); at a time when traditional print media and television are declining (Johnson & Woodcock, 2019a, p. 672), there are “few if any parts of the sector that have remained untouched by its effects” (Johnson & Woodcock, 2019a, p. 672)”. These disruptive changes include the reorganisation of the video game industry (including game developers and publishers, hardware manufacturers, independent creators, as well as fans and enthusiast) (Johnson & Woodcock, 2019a, p. 671), the re-configuration of video games as new multimedia objects that possess unique popularity characteristics (Jie et al., 2015, p. 5), an expanded viewing audience based on participative engagement (Anderson, 2017), and the transformation of ‘play’ (once a private leisure-based activity) into a “protoindustry of social media entertainment” (Cunningham and Craig, 2016, p. 5412 cited in Johnson & Woodcock, 2019a, p. 672).

Spectatorship (live streaming and e-sports)

One major aspect of Twitch is its transformative effect on video game spectatorship, especially live streaming and e-sports. The live streaming of video games differs from casual play in streamers’ “ability to attract audiences” (Anderson, 2017) by broadcasting their gameplay to thousands of potential viewers (Johnson & Woodcock, 2019b, pp. 5-6). One major aspect of live streaming is e-sports (“electronic sports”), which is the high-level, skilled, organised and sponsored playing of video games by professional teams, often in a large arena setting and for specific goal such as a large prize or reward (Jenny et al., 2018, p. 35; Newzoo, 2018; Yee, 14 Mar, 2018; Halliday, 7 Jan, 2019). E-sports events are attended by spectators and fans and hosted by commentators who broadcast the event to thousands, if not millions of fans watching at home. For example, the ELEAGUE Major: Boston 2018 finals for the popular video game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) had a record number of over 1.1 million simultaneous viewers on Twitch alone (Twitch Stats, 2019).

Fig 7. The Intel Extreme Masters e-sports event in Sydney, 2019. Source: IEM (screenshot)

 

Political and regulatory debates

As with any live streaming platform, the main political and regulatory debates concerning Twitch relate to regulation and moderation. While Twitch has its own Community Guidelines and Terms of Service intended to guard against hateful and illegal conduct, these rules have been contested several times over the course of the platform’s existence. Twitch has faced a series of controversies with channels livestreaming content such as pornography, pirated movies and hateful imagery (Fig 8) (K. Webb, Aug 13, 2019), as well as a number of security and privacy concerns. These issues also raise questions about the rights of Twitch users, especially in relation to the “ongoing process of negotiating and contesting the ethical frameworks and principles for the regulation of new digital technologies” (Karppinen, 2017, p. 2). Another ongoing issue on Twitch is the discrimination of users, especially female streamers (Fig 9). The video game industry has traditionally been dominated by men and can thus, at times, reinforce an ‘us versus them’ narrative towards women (Brooking & Singer, 2016). Much like the discussion website Reddit, the Twitch community often “reifies the desires of certain groups (often young, white, cis-gendered, heterosexual males) while ignoring and marginalizing others” (Massanari, 2017, p. 330). Although there are a lot of female streamers on the platform, many of them still face obstacles in the form of repeated harassment and doxing threats, as well as misogynistic and degrading insults (often based on their appearance or self-presentation) by their male counterparts (Anderson, 2017). Dedicated hate communities have emerged around female streamers, with many extending to other sites such as Reddit (e.g. r/livestreamfail). Although Twitch’s Hateful Conduct and Harassment policy states that the platform doesn’t “tolerate conduct that encourages or condones hate or harassment in any way” (Twitch.tv, 2019a), these ongoing issues indicate a need for greater responsibility and accountability, and in particular stricter rules and moderation, by the platform (Alexander, Jun 17, 2018).

Fig 8. Twitch’s reaction to the live streaming of illegal content on its platform. Source: Twitter (@TwitchSupport)

 

Fig 9. Female Twitch streamer maruemon1019. Source: https://www.twitch.tv/maruemon1019

 

Conclusion

The real-time interaction and unique features afforded by Twitch to its users, particularly in live streaming, “has given a newfound intimacy to game spectatorship”. The platform has reorganised online communities around video games and video game culture by allowing users to “share discussion, creative pursuits and enthusiasm for their chosen media” (Johnson & Woodcock, 2019a, p. 681; Johnson & Woodcock, 2019b, p. 6). While the Twitch platform is one of the earliest technological trajectories to significantly impact and transform the video game industry and live streaming, it is evident that its effects will expand years and even decades into the future.

 

Ecology map

Fig 10. Twitch ecosystem map. Source: Dahlia Jovic

 

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