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The future of live-streaming, for better or worse, depends on Twitch

Amrita Khalid

When most people think of Twitch, the Amazon-owned live-streaming platform, they think of video games.

In just five years, the platform has morphed into one of the most popular sites in the world to watch other people play video games. Millions of Twitch users tune in every day to watch their favorite streamers’ live broadcasts, forming the same para-social relationships you see with YouTube stars.

Which is why it may be surprising to learn that over the past year, Twitch’s growth has largely been due to non-gamers. Since it was first created in Sept. 2018, a catch-all bucket for streams that don’t involve gaming known as Just Chatting has grown four times as fast as Twitch itself, according a report from StreamElements. And for the past two weeks, Just Chatting topped both League of Legends and Fortnite to become the most popular category on Twitch, according to Esports Observer.

Twitch has been working to recruit more non-gamers and new streamers to its community. The platform today (Nov.12) rolled out Twitch Studio, an app designed to help novice streamers set up their own streams, in open beta. “If new streamers want to go live and share their passions with the world, they should be able to do so with our full support,” said Twitch’s blog post on the release.

But if Twitch wants to keep a bigger audience, it will need to get a better handle on one of the knottiest issues in the digital world: online harassment.

Rising competition

Originally created as a general interest live video site called Justin.tv in 2007, the platform became a hit with the online gaming community. In 2014, Justin.tv rebranded as Twitch Interactive, with the intent of dominating the relatively new video game streaming space. “Given our total focus on serving the gaming community it makes sense to reposition it as our primary brand, said CEO Emmett Shear at the time.

Now, in 2019, Twitch appears to be returning to its general interest origins. Any cultural shift at Twitch is notable, since the future of Twitch will more or less be the future of streaming. Twitch made up 75.6% of the live-streaming market in the third quarter of 2019.

Some argue Amazon, Google (which owns YouTube Gaming), and Microsoft (which owns Mixer) appear to be in a three-way battle to dominate the streaming market. But it’s a battle that Twitch is easily winning. Last year, Twitch users watched 9.36 billion hours of content on the site. Its average viewership has often met or surpassed that of ESPN and cable news networks.

But there’s some indication that this astronomical growth may be slowing. Twitch experienced its first decline in hours watched in the second quarter of 2019, and the downward trend continued in this year’s third quarter. It’s unclear how much of this is due to the growth of Twitch’s rivals YouTube Gaming and Mixer. The latter two platforms also experienced their slowest growth in the third quarter, which is typically the slowest of the year, according to StreamElements.

This fall, high-profile Twitch streamers like Ninja, Shroud, and others switched their platform of choice to Mixer. CouRage, who has more than 2.1 million followers on Twitch, made the move to YouTube Gaming. More of Twitch’s top-ranking streaming talent are expected to jump ship in the following months. But so far, the moves haven’t made much of an impact on Twitch’s viewership numbers.

“Generally, game streams on Twitch are still growing. Big titles—such as League of Legends, Fortnite, and Counterstrike:Global Offensive—have enjoyed stable viewership on the platform and still boast its most-watched content. This has remained the case, despite competitors like Mixer, Facebook, and YouTube looking to gain market share in the game-streaming business,” wrote Jurre Pannekeet, a senior market analyst at Newzoo, in an email to Quartz.

Rather than abandoning one platform for another, esports consultant Rod Breslau thinks it’s more likely that audiences will view streams across a variety of different platforms. “I mean, we’re talking about Gen Z kids today who are on their phones, and 18 different apps. They’ll be fine opening up Mixer, Twitch, and a YouTube live stream,” said Breslau. He added, “But at the same time, Twitch is so overwhelmingly in the lead, that no one is going to be catching up with them any time soon.”

A natural evolution

A shift to non-gaming channels has less to do with a dip in gaming’s popularity than it does streamers’ desire to interact in new and fulfilling ways.

In many cases, you’ll see popular gaming streamers switch to a Just Chatting stream in order to engage with their community. For some streamers, who owe their careers to playing Overwatch or World of Warcraft for millions of fans, it may just be time for something new.

“A lot of people’s tastes change, especially when you’re a creator or an artist. And those streamers either don’t like to play games as much, or maybe their main game isn’t as alive as it used to be or has as many people playing,” Breslau told Quartz.

Popular gamers are also using Just Chatting to offer up a diverse mix of content that isn’t pure gameplay. Shows centered around cooking, or doing art, or any other “IRL” activity are already popular on Asia-first live-stream platforms.

But most of the non-gaming content on Twitch doesn’t appear to be of people cooking, or doing art, or doing music. Categories like “Food and Drink” and “Makers and Crafters” all had under 2,000 viewers on a Monday afternoon. The “Sports and Fitness” category had 12 viewers.

Instead, the preferred activity for streamers who don’t game appears to be talking. While the other non-gaming channels appear to be largely dormant, the Just Chatting category is a sea of faces bedecked with headphones. Many streamers will hold conversations with their followers for hours, greeting them by name and responding to comments one by one. And for some, that’s where the troubles are.

Who gets to live-stream?

Just Chatting has served as a portal for non-gamers, many of who are women, to participate in Twitch. But its growth has posed problems of its own. The more toxic elements of online gaming culture, the verbal abuse, misogyny, and racism, still thrive on Twitch.

Twitch is still dominated by the young, mostly white men who make up the majority of the Western video game audience. Back in October, a mass shooter in Germany streamed his rampage on Twitch for a full 30 minutes before it was removed. The platform this summer filed a federal lawsuit against 100 users who flooded the site’s game streams with offensive content, including a video of the March 2019 Christchurch mosque attack, hardcore pornography, copyrighted movies and television shows, and racist and misogynistic videos.

Both streamers and followers have been banned for racist and sexist language. In an interview with Kotaku, Hearthstone player Terrence Miller described getting bombarded with racist emotes and comments on Twitch Chat. At TwitchCon this year in San Diego, more than a dozen women streamers told NBC News that harassment was their biggest challenge on Twitch.

“I mean, definitely a big part of the problem is the community, and the gaming community in general always talking shit to women, always calling them thots, or e-girls, or whores, or whatever it is. That whole culture, of dudes being pissed at women, is definitely on Twitch,” said Breslau.

The social gaming community of Twitch, which allows anyone in the world to interact with streamers as they play their favorite games, is one of the most unique aspects of the platform. But in the case of Just Chatting, where it may be just one streamer sitting in front of their computer, no game in sight, tasked with entertaining hordes of anonymous viewers, the situation can get ugly. “Because you’re not playing the game as much, you’re really just talking to your chat all the time. So you take all those toxic elements, and you put them in a direct chat, and you can see what happens when there’s like 1,000 dudes talking shit to like a female streamer,” said Breslau.

Not everyone has a bad experience, however. In an interview with Quartz, Joy Stique, a drag queen streamer and moderator, says she still sees “more love and positivity” than toxicity on Twitch. “Being an LGBTQIA+ streamer, you automatically attract a lot more trolls than one is used to, and adding the elements of streaming under the ‘LGBTQIA+’ tag, and being in drag attracts trolls even more because they think we’re easy targets,” said Stique.

Chris, a makeup streamer from the east coast of the US who goes by the Twitch name Seekaysee, emphasized that she loves Twitch in an interview with Quartz. The 20-something painstakingly uses her face and body as a canvas to recreate vintage comic book and video game characters, such as those from the Mortal Kombat universe. She says that the ability to interact with viewers while creating her art has been “an amazing experience.”

Still, part of the realities of being a woman online, especially in the male dominated ecosystem of Twitch, is dealing with trolls. “There are multiple occasions where I have been harassed because people think I do what I do for the viewers, and not for the art of it. Also, I have been told that body art has no place on the platform because it isn’t gaming. Even if I’m doing looks that are related to the video game characters,” Chris said.

Challenges aside, Twitch has made a serious effort this year to expand beyond its core audience. The company this fall launched a new advertising campaign, “You’re Already One of Us,” along with a platform redesign aimed at recruiting new followers. It began experimenting with “Watch Parties,” allowing Twitch partners and affiliates to stream Amazon Prime Video series like The Boys and Jack Ryan to their viewers. This spring, moderators will be granted more tools and users who are banned will be able to view a video clip of the offending action.

“I think we’re looking for a broader range of people, and I think we’re looking to get the message out that this is a thing that is welcoming to everyone,” Shear, Twitch’s CEO told The Verge.

The all-inclusive message is echoed throughout the company. “I think one of the really great things that we’re starting to see… is that gamers are truly not just gamers. Gamers are really multifaceted people. Which means that they also love to cook, and they also love to do art, and they also love to make music, and also love to dabble in other things as their hobbies, especially people who are full-time gamers that are doing full-time content,” said Erin Wayne, head of Community Marketing at Twitch, in an interview with Quartz.

But to get that bigger range of people to hang out on Twitch might mean the company has to make them feel safer. Chris noted that there have been times where Twitch has been slow or non-responsive to harassment reports she has filed. “With Twitch rapidly growing, it’s probably very difficult for them to keep up with their current moderation tools. I do feel like this area is something they need to focus on more to ensure a safe space for both streamers and viewers.”

“Whether Twitch will be the native platform for [non-gaming] content remains to be seen. Twitch has its roots in gaming, so—naturally—most viewers come to the platform for gaming content. However, non-gaming categories have lived and grown on Twitch for several years, all without hindering growth in its gaming categories,” wrote Newszoo’s Pannekeet in a message to Quartz.

As more non-gamers come to Twitch, it’s likely that the platform will have to make some changes to make sure that they thrive.

 

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