Watching the players play: Twitch caters to new kind of net viewer
A Twitch broadcast is pictured in this screen grab.
Joshua Freeman, CP24.com
Published Monday, January 19, 2015 8:50PM EST
It’s about 4 p.m. in the afternoon and I’m watching a spunky 20-year-old woman in Edinburgh play World of Warcraft in her pyjamas.
I’m not alone. There are 172 other people watching Djari (her username), seeing every move she makes in the game, as well as seeing and hearing her reactions via webcam.
Yes, I’m at work. But more importantly, she is too.
Welcome to Twitch, a site that allows users to watch others play video games while talking to them and interacting with other viewers at the same time.
Describing itself as “the world's leading video platform and community for gamers,” Twitch has become a feature embedded in new gaming consoles and has steadily climbed the rankings to become one of the 200 most trafficked sites on the Internet.
The service grew out of online streaming site Justin.tv and eventually became the biggest part of the site, with some 60 million monthly users.
In September, online retailer Amazon bought the site for a cool $970 million with an eye to expanding its audience.
While familiar to most avid gamers, there’s a bit of a learning curve for the uninitiated.
Holding my hand (virtually) is Chase (he goes by just Chase), the communications director for Twitch.
After signing me up for a quick account, he introduces me to @djari328 (her real name is Sophia White) and her roomful of viewers.
“Welcome @JoshinToronto,” she beams as she continues to tackle orcs. Viewers following along in the chat window on the right of the screen also respond with friendly greetings after Chase identifies me as a reporter.
With my neck holding Chase on the phone on one ear, another ear awkwardly wearing half a headset so I can listen to White speak, and my hands asking the questions, my first query is easy: “How do you respond to people while playing?”
Some of her viewers chime in with friendly jabs that ‘she doesn’t.’
White herself concedes it’s tricky.
“With much difficulty,” she says with a laugh, her hands still on the game. “It’s not the easiest thing in the world to do.
“When I’m playing a game and streaming at the same time, I’m so bad. It’s really difficult to focus on both things. But when you’ve been doing it for a quite a while it gets a bit easier.”
That said, she would never dream of just playing.
“My favourite part of broadcasting is talking to everyone. We (White and her friend Jonas, who broadcasts alongside her) have met some really awesome people through streaming,” White says.
Chase adds that while many of the site’s top broadcasters are high-level gamers that people enjoy watching for their gaming prowess, others are gamers of average skill with big personalities.
A social experience
That leads to another point he’s eager to clear up. Gamers who go online to watch others play, Chase says, are not weird loners who sit glued to computer screens in their basements.
“I would say that is not true – gamers are inherently social by nature,” Chase says. “We’ve debunked the whole ‘alone in the basement theory.’”
Gaming, he argues, has always been a social experience.
“In the days of Atari, it was one person playing and the rest of the family watching,” he says. “In the arcade scene, it was one guy playing Donkey Kong and a bunch of other guys watching.”
Twitch, Chase says, is simply an extension of that same phenomenon made possible through the advent of broadband Internet. He says it’s in our DNA to be social while playing games, describing Twitch as “Twitter with video games.”
“You have to understand the face of gamers is not what pop culture portrays,” Chase says.
He points to internal research at Twitch that shows gamers are more social, family oriented, successful and optimistic than non-gamers.
“Gamers more likely to be playing games with friends and families than by themselves,” he says.
And those with the skills might also be better paid.
Twitch has about 1.5 million users who broadcast their gaming through the site, Chase says. Of those, some 10,000 are “partners,” broadcasters who are popular and engaging enough so that the site actually pays them to broadcast.
White is a partner, but she says she doesn’t think of it as a job. She already has one of those – she works part time in a real-life video game store. She says broadcasting on Twitch is something she would do without getting paid.
“I’ve had so many people who have said to me ‘Sophia – you’ve pulled me through some really tough times in my life.’ There’s something so lovely in that,” she says.
One of her viewers chimes in that her stream “is like a shelter in the rain.”
Others clearly agree. As we chat, she declares that her stream has just gotten its 18,000th follower.
“That’s quite a milestone,” White says, promising to send a random follower a present in the mail to mark the occasion if they send her their address.
Speaking privately via Skype, White concedes her following grew much faster than she anticipated.
While it’s taken a lot of work and consistency, she acknowledges that in part, it may be due to her gender in a field traditionally dominated by young men.
Chase says Twitch has a “diverse audience,” but he acknowledges that the main demographic is males aged 18 to 35.
That means female broadcasters can sometimes present as something of a novelty to the Twitch audience.
However there’s a flip side.
White says there are a lot of users who will follow female broadcasters for their looks, but pigeonhole them.
“It’s a lot easier to gain followers, but harder to gain respect,” White says. “I think that’s the general consensus on it.”
She says it’s not uncommon for women on Twitch to receive rude comments from male users who expect them to act sexy or deriding them as just being in it for the money.
Despite the insults from trolls, White says there are a number of high-level, competitive female gamers on the site. And while most of her followers are males, she says there’s a growing audience of teenaged girls who are seeking out community around gaming as well.
She takes the insults in her stride and chalks much of the chirping up to jealousy, noting that it takes hard work to build up a following.
“It doesn’t bother me because none of the things they ever say are true,” she says.
She’s also adamant that she’s on Twitch because she enjoys it (she says her earnings from the site wouldn’t be enough to get by on alone), not simply to make money.
Audiences want to participate, not just watch
While White might not think of broadcasting on Twitch as a job, there are others who most certainly do.
According to Chase, there are “many” broadcasters – he won’t disclose how many – who make six figures a year through the site.
They enjoy a share of revenue through advertising, paid subscriptions to their broadcasts (paid subscribers shell out $4.99 for access to extra privileges and goodies on the site) and merchandise.
Savvy entrepreneurs with likeable personal brands or skills are also cashing in on other sites.
Toronto gamer Evan Fong is a case in point. The 22 year old recently made the list as having one of the top 25 most-subscribed-to channels on YouTube. His channel, VanossGaming, features videos of him and his friends cracking jokes and chatting while playing popular video games.
In a recent interview with The Canadian Press, Fong said people are drawn to his channel because they “really like the authentic type of content from regular people just playing games because they can relate to that.”
That sort of authenticity, as well as the promise of a broadcast that caters to one’s niche interests, appears to carry more weight with younger audiences whose media consumption habits are shifting.
“You talk to the streamer – they involve themselves with you. It’s more of a community than just some situation where you’re just watching something,” White says. “It’s so, so different.”
And unlike traditional media, White says Twitch users get to feel like they’re interacting with ‘a genuine person’ who has genuine feelings and is being honest.
“There is a kind of personal aspect to that,” she says.
She adds that she would much rather go on Twitch than watch traditional TV or pick something out on a streaming service like Netflix.
“Twitch is so different from all of those things,” White says. “On TV you always know what you’re getting. Twitch is always different and if you don’t like something, there are a million other channels you will like. If you want to see Pokémon or dancing and singing, there are channels for that.”
And if that’s still not enough, services like Twitch are expanding their offerings. The site streams e-sporting events, gaming conferences and documentaries. Just last week, the company announced that it will start streaming a limited library of songs and will allow users to stream original music.
The main challenge for broadcasters now?
“Telling my parents what I was doing was a really awkward situation,” White says. “It took really several long conversations.”
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