Twitch: “A touchstone of digital culture, and a reflection of the culture in which it exists”
– Halavais, 2013
Twitch is a digital entertainment and live streaming platform with a significant influence on the notion of internet broadcasting and the viewing of video game content. Throughout its time on the internet, Twitch has continued to grow, coming to be a fundamental forerunner for live streaming platforms, an instrumental tool in the gaming industry (Ask, Spilker & Hansen, 2019) and, an ever growing influence in the global media ecosystem. This essay will thus explore Twitch’s business model with a focus on the social, political and economic facets of the platform in relation to its audience. The essay will furthermore analyse how the autonomous adaptations of Twitch has led to its established, transformative effect on the ways in which games and entertainment are played and spectated, retrieved, produced, disseminated and consumed within the digital ecosystem. Moreover, this essay will assert the influence of Twitch in the many facets of the gaming industry such as production, marketing and reviewing (Johnson & Woodcock, 2019a, pp. 684-685; Johnson & Woodcock, 2019b, pp. 5).
The history of Twitch
Twitch was first founded by Justin Kan under the name Justin.tv as a start up in 2005. Justin.tv was established through the idea of a “Big Brother-Style” platform wherein users could stream their lives. In an interview with Business Insider, Kan elucidates the varied responses that Justin.tv received. Initial reactions to the site were averse to the idea of a reality show concept, however people were ultimately intrigued by how this platform could be used to create their individual video streaming content (Cook, 2014). In lieu of these reactions, Justin.tv re-established its model and thus users were able to create their own video streaming content.
Thus, in 2008 Justin.tv allowed for a form of audio-visual interaction amongst broadcaster and spectator that was asymmetrical yet synchronous (Mark Andrejevic, 2008, pp. 39). Although not the first of its kind, Justin.tv soon gained popularity amongst other competitors due to its cheaper price point for users, which made streaming live for an hour cost less than a cent. Thus, this made the notion of ad supported live streaming a viable business model (Partin, 2019). Due to apprehensions regarding the hosting of pirated content (Bruns, 2009), as well as the platform’s rising popularity amongst users, Justin.tv changed the emphasis of its content – most notably to a focus on gaming. Thus in 2011, Justin.tv rebranded to Twitch. The focus on gaming content allowed for Twitch to assert its position as a new means of media consumption and spectatorship, allowing audiences to experience content in ‘real-time’ (Bruns, 2009, pp. 1).
A testament to Twitch’s rising growth, and influence in the live-streaming and digital entertainment community, was its purchase by Amazon in 2014 for 980 million dollars (Johnson & Woodcock, 2019, pp. 671). This furthermore asserts Twitch and gaming as a viable business model within the global media ecosystem.
Twitch’s business model
Twitch’s business model feeds on the appeal generated through real-time spectatorship, video-gaming personalities and eSports (Nawal, 2018). Twitch offers registration-free access to the platform’s baseline features, allowing for zero-cost broadcasting, viewing and chatting features. Additional features and premium content are also for available for subscription fees or through donations and ‘bits’.
These include: Twitch Turbo which is an upgraded version of a user’s free Twitch account under a cost of $8.99 each month and Twitch Prime for $6.99 per month, a feature included with the purchase of an Amazon Prime Membership. As such, Twitch functions under what Kumar terms a “freemium model” (Kumar, 2014).
Viewers however, are not obliged to monthly subscriptions and are able to purchase ‘bits’, a form of online Twitch currency (that may be purchased at any time under no subscription), with a starting price of $2.99 for 95 bits. Similar to bits, is the ‘tip’ function wherein viewers can make a one-time donation through a link provided by the streamer. Each of these features allow for viewers to support their favourite streamers and as such builds a sense of community connectivity.
For streamers, Twitch offers an Affiliate program as well as a Partner program. Each of these are only offered to streamers who meet certain requirement pertaining to the frequency of broadcasting, amount of viewers per broadcast and the number of followers. Presently, the number of Affiliates and Partners on Twitch are 150 000 and 27 000 respectively (Iqbal, 2019). The difference in benefits gained through an Affiliate program compared to that of a Partner program are vast, with a Partner program allowing for greater monetisation opportunities in ad revenue, subscription, and customisation abilities (Twitch.tv, 2019b).
eSports and company sponsorships/partnerships
Twitch’s impact on the notion of video game spectatorship is evident through its relationship with electronic sports (eSports). Twitch has been a host for many significant eSports competitions and speed-playing contests, which are sponsored events comprised of professional teams of gamers. These events pose similarities to regular sports events, as they are often held in large arenas, attended by masses of spectators who are fans of specific teams, have commentators and hosts, and are broadcasted online for those viewers at home (Consalvo, 2017). Twitch and eSports are also sponsored by companies such as the PC hardware brand Alienware, who offer contestants prizes and merchandise.
In the past Twitch has also partnered with companies such as Alienware and SteelSeries in order to offer a 5 student gamers a scholarship worth $10 000, in an effort to broaden the influence and market for eSports (Voakes, 2012).
The impact of Twitch on the notion of live streaming, gaming and spectatorship is evidenced by its popularity accounting for 15 million plus daily viewers and 140 million unique monthly viewers. Further elaborating its significance, Twitch has been recognised as the foremost platform for live streaming in countries such as America, Europe and Asia (Pires and Simon, 2015; Taylor, 2018).
Issues of politics and regulation
Due to the nature of Twitch as a live streaming and thus surveillance platform, it has encountered a number of political and regulatory issues such as moderation, illegal conduct, copyright, game reviewing, hate speech and confidentiality concerns. In order to combat these concerns, Twitch asserts the adherence of its Community Guidelines and Terms of Service, however there have been a plethora of cases wherein these guidelines are ignored.
The practice of reviewing on Twitch likewise offers political concerns. Large game publishers have implemented ‘black lists’ pertaining to individuals they consider unfit to review their game, instead providing other streamers with free copies in order to receive positive reviews (Sterling, 2016). This in turn means that ratings are positively skewed regardless of the game’s legitimate quality. As such this is unfair for those developers of smaller titles who are unable to, or choose not to, employ this same practice.
The labour of visibility concerns is mediated by Twitch’s political economy and elucidates the notion of social hierarchy on the platform. Whilst twitch allows for free communication between audience and streaming, comments on more popular channels limits the visibility of a viewer’s message. As such, in order to gain recognition, viewers are often required to use monetary means and is therefore an essential form of Twitch’s monetisation model.
Of the controversies Twitch has encountered, one involved pornography wherein featured ‘Fortnite-themed’ sexual imagery involving characters of the popular game. The pornography was recommended on a popular channel that garnered more than 20 000 live viewers. In lieu of this, Twitch postponed the ‘recommended channel function’ with Twitch CEO Emmet Shear apologising for the mishap (Webb, 2019).
There have likewise been instances of privacy breaching where the popular online game Town of Salem was hacked, leading to the retrieval of at least 7.8 million user passwords. As many users of this online shared passwords across accounts with Twitch, this meant that those same accounts were also breached on Twitch (Whittaker, 2019). Such instances as these lead to a number of concerns about the methods of negotiating the rights of Twitch users and the “ethical frameworks and principles for the regulation of new digital technologies” (Karppinen, 2017, p. 2).
Another prominent issue faced by users of Twitch is the female streamers, who are subjected to continual scrutiny by viewers and other streamers, and often face derogatory, sexual and objectifying commentary. Scholars such as Massanari (2017, pp. 300) assert that issues such as this highlight how communities on Twitch repeatedly conceptualise the requirements of particular groups of interest and in turn ignore and marginalise other groups. As such, this raises concerns of moderation, regulation and accountability on part of both users of Twitch as well as the platform itself (Alexander, Jun 17, 2018).
A transformative effect
In the continued decline of print media and linear television, Twitch represents a media phenomenon in the shift from linear television spectatorship to “time-shifting and on-demand streaming of archived content” (Dhoest and Simons, 2016; Van Esler, 2016; Lotz, 2017, 2014) and a phenomenon in which is inclusive of all individuals who choose to broadcast content (Pires & Simon, 2015: 225). Furthermore, Twitch has established a form of spectatorship that is innovative in its form of broadcasting production, consumption and expansion as a “protoindustry of social media entertainment” (Cunningham & Craig, 2016: 5412).
Twitch and live streaming has developed a fundamental role in the contemporary political, social and economic ecosystem of gaming and spectatorship:
- The affordance of new economic possibilities
- Informing consumer choice
- Bring visibility to new, unknown, niche and older game titles
- Shift in the production of gaming
Twitch’s participatory interaction between broadcaster and viewer is largely a factor that characterizes it from other competitors of online streaming platforms such as Youtube and Mixer (Gandolfi, 2016). Bruns furthermore asserts that there is ‘no current mainstream “interactive television” system… able to deliver a similar transmedia experience’ (Bruns, 2009).
As such the phenomenon of Twitch and its transformative effects can be attributed to those individuals known as “streamers” as well as their audiences. Streamers of Twitch participate in a notion described as ‘playbor’ (Kücklich, 2005). This notion encompasses components of what Terranova terms ‘free labour’ (2004), wherein labour is considered more an act of play rather than work, however still constitutes the acquisition of financial gain. Twitch’s element of self-regulation and content modification through ‘modding’, has likewise led to the adjustment of video game consumption. As such, these factors have enabled users of Twitch with innovative career options and professions, as well as means of monetisation. This is transformative as many of those experiences these innovative changes originate from “demographics that traditionally struggle to find opportunities in the digital economy” (Johnson, 2018).
Due to this, Twitch established a platform in which “communities of practice” (Burroughs and Rama, 2015:3), emerge, gather, socialize and participate. Twitch thus highlights the notion that streaming has transcended itself as a medium purely for entertainment, rather evolving into a platform wherein houses the “largest gaming community in history” (Churchill and Xu, 2016, pp. 223).
Moreover, Twitch has transformed notions of production in the gaming industry substantiated by the rise of investment and labour prices associated with mainstream and ‘AAA’ game development (Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter, 2009:4). ‘Power asymmetries’ have thus emerged due to the amplified significance of digital storefronts and the mediators of product placements (Toivonen and Sotamaa, 2010), leading to cost demands in the market. Due to these demands, many forerunning companies, such as Ubisoft, have altered their business models. Likewise, developers of independent games apply the use of crowdfunding in order to gain visibility and traction, that of which is afforded by the promotive features of Twitch.
The impacts of this are evidenced by both the growth of Twitch and game spectatorship. This is conveyed through the success and popularity of events such as eSports, as well as the success of games such as Rocket League, which became the 5th most watched game as opposed to its original place of 165th, and thus resulted in sales of over 5 million (George, 2015). Twitch’s ability to bring visibility to various new games in such quick succession reveals the platform’s innovative marketing strategy. As such, this furthermore elucidates the significance and transformative effects of Twitch in the way games are played, spectated, produced, disseminated and consumed within the digital ecosystem.
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