If you have children between the ages of 10 and 18, chances are you’ve found yourself wondering what this new “Twitch” game is all about. After all, the youngsters are always going on about the cool things they found on Twitch, their favorite Twitch personalities, and maybe even setting up a Twitch channel of their own.
But for us technological Luddites out there who hail from the analog age, deciphering the ins and outs of this new trend called Twitch streaming can be quite the chore. If you’re like me, the concept of playing video games competitively is probably limited to shooting for the new high score on Pac-Man. Or maybe defeating your brother in a quick round of Mortal Kombat. Perhaps you prefer rescuing Princess Toadstool from Bowser in record time. In any case, the video games of old were viewed simply as entertainment outlets, a way to kill some time in between your favorite TV shows.
Today, however, the advent of Twitch has spawned an entirely new industry known as eSports. Within the world of eSports, video game players square off against one another in epic matches, all while an audience anxiously watches every move. Players can compete individually, or cooperatively as members of an eSports team, but the goal remains the same across the board – vanquish your opponent and achieve victory.
The idea of sitting in the stands to catch another person playing video games – competitively or otherwise – might seem like watching paint dry, and that’s where Twitch comes in. But before we take a deep dive into the world of eSports streaming, let’s start with a crash course on the basics – beginning with what Twitch is and how it works.
At its core, Twitch is simply a website designed to connect live streamers to viewers. You’ll learn more about the origins of Twitch in the next section, but for now, just think of the platform as a portal linking your computer to another.
When you fire up Twitch, the first thing to do is select the channel you’d like to view. From there, you’ll see your screen filled with running real-time footage broadcast from another person’s computer – a process known as “live streaming.”
You can watch folks live stream practically anything on Twitch, but the platform’s immense popularity is derived largely from competitive eSports players. Let’s say your favorite game at the moment happens to be “Fortnite,” the extremely popular multiplayer game that is currently taking the world by storm. In Fortnite’s standard Battle Royale mode, players drop into a world alongside 99 other competitors armed with nothing but a basic pickaxe.
From there, your task is to navigate the sprawling map in search of resources – health, tools, equipment, and most importantly, weapons. The objective of Fortnite is twofold. First, you need to stock up on as much guns and ammunition as you can find. And secondly, you’re trying to survive long enough to become the last player standing out of the original 100. The map area shrinks, slowly but surely, to force players into one another’s view. You can either hide out and wait, or actively hunt for your prey, but in either case the goal is survival above all else.
But let’s say you’re not the best Fortnite player out there. You might make it to the middle stages of the Battle Royal safe and sound, but when the endgame approaches, you’re always a sitting duck for the more skilled and experienced players. Eventually, getting “merked” – a slang term for killed in the game – over and over again loses its appeal, and you stop playing your favorite game altogether.
When you’re not very proficient at playing a game for yourself, but you’re still fascinated by the game itself and the folks who make it look easy, Twitch becomes an invaluable resource.
Just pull up a Twitch channel featuring an expert Fortnite player you won’t have to search for long – and you can watch them hunt and hide through your own screen. Every move they make is live streamed directly through the channel to viewers at home. Over time, you might learn a few tricks of the trade to improve your own play, or maybe you’ll realize your more of a “fan” than a player anyway.
However you choose to approach Twitch though, this connection between yourself and other players lies at the heart of the medium. While a Twitch streamer is playing, they’ll be narrating the action, explaining why they’re selecting a particular object or moving into a new area of the map. And when you have a question for them, a convenient chat box allows for one-on-one communication.
Just imagine a world where you could watch Lebron James and the Lakers face off against Steph Curry and the Warriors, all while peppering the best basketball players on the planet with questions. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of connecting on a personal level with somebody you admire, and for eSports enthusiasts, Twitch makes that easier than ever before.
Twitch streamers earn a living by generating subscriptions to their channel, along with donations straight from satisfied viewers. This model incentivizes streamers to connect with their audience on a genuine level, and its quite common to see the most revered Twitch personalities give a shout out to their regular viewers, most of whom they’ll know by name.
You’ll find many reasons why people enjoy tuning into an eSports stream on Twitch. Some are looking to improve their own skills, as in our Fortnite example above. Others are avid fans of a particular player or team. Still others see Twitch as merely the latest extension of TV and movies, only with an interactive component built in to connect stars with the audience.
In the end though, Twitch streaming can be boiled down one simple concept – access. When you’re absorbed in a quality eSports stream, you get a glimpse into how the best video game players in the world talk, act, and live.
The genesis of Twitch can be sourced to an innovative idea shared by Emmett Shear and Justin Kan, two pals who graduated from Yale University in 2006.
Around that time, Shear and Kan came up with an idea seemingly built for the internet age – broadcasting every moment of a person’s life via the internet. Kan signed up for the strange duty, donning a hat with a built-in camera designed to capture his every waking moment. The footage was streamed live in real time to their Justin.tv website, where viewers could tune in to see exactly what Kan was up to at all times.
It didn’t take long for viewers at home to tire of Kan’s live streamed diary, and traffic to Justin.tv soon waned. But just when Shear and Kan thought their concept had cratered, fans of the channel began pestering them with a question that would wind up changing the world – how can I stream my own life?
By 2011, this question had been answered in the form of Twitch, a new platform Shear and Kan co-founded by expanding the old Justin.TV model. Rather than tuning in to watch Kan, users had the option to broadcast their own experiences through their computer or smartphone camera.
And while many Twitch users in those early days live streamed anything of note – shopping at the Farmer’s Market or strolling through Central Park – Shear and Kan soon realized that video game players were flocking to the site in droves.
Whether they played Fortnite, similar battle-style shooters like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Counter Strike: Global Offensive, or more laid back games like the strategy card game Hearthstone, these initial Twitch streamers instantly realized what the new platform could accomplish.
Rather than sitting alone in a dark room trying to level up or beat the boss, these video game aficionados were now connected to dozens – and eventually hundreds, and then thousands – of like-minded souls. When they accomplished a particularly impressive sniper shot in Fortnite, or drew the perfect card for a comeback win in Hearthstone, their chat boxes lit up with excited congratulations from fans.
Suddenly, their hobby had blossomed from the largely solitary experience known as video gaming into the entirely new industry of eSports.
In an interview with the New York Times -the outlet’s prestige should clue you in on just how big eSports streaming has become – Shear described how Twitch surpassed Justin.tv to become the de facto source for live streamed entertainment:
“Every channel is its own micro-community, where everyone gets to know each other over their shared interests.
(Gaming) became the tail that wagged the dog. It ended up taking over our whole company.
It became clear that (gaming) was its own beast.”
Brian Blau – who works as a technology analyst for Gartner Research – told the Times that Twitch succeeds because it accentuates static viewing with the core components of social media:
“I think Twitch was born out of a simple need to share game experiences.
Twitch connects gamers together with social-like features, and that creates a community.”
Indeed, tuning into a Twitch stream is a communal experience to be shared with others. You might not know the people watching along with you, but when a funny comment appears in the chat box, maybe you’ll follow the commenter’s own channel to see what they’re all about. And when the streamer makes a spectacular move onscreen, the rapid-fire chat texts and emojis are akin to a spontaneous round of applause.
And unlike other social media sources, Twitch serves viewers in real time. A Facebook post from two weeks ago might be interesting, but you can hardly engage with material the poster has likely forgot about by now.But through Twitch, it only takes a second or two to tell your favorite streamer “appreciate the tip for navigating Level 3” or “nice shooting there, never thought you’d get him from that far out.”
And when that streamer looks up from the screen – seemingly making eye contact with you and you alone – to say “thanks, I appreciate you tuning in,” the idea of social media takes on entirely new dimensions. You might be wondering why video game fanatics would spend so much time watching others play, rather than firing up the game for themselves.
That’s a fair question, but Twitch spokesman “Chase” – like most streamers on the site, he uses a one-word handle – put it perfectly in an interview with the New Yorker:
“That’s like saying to a chef, ‘Why are you watching the Food Network? Shouldn’t you be in the kitchen, cooking?’
Or to an athlete, ‘Why are you watching ESPN? Shouldn’t you be out shooting hoops?’
No. People enjoy watching others who are good at what they do.
We’re essentially a social network for the gaming age.” (Quote)
In 2018, the top Twitch streamers are essentially celebrities within the eSports world.
They have devoted fans, a carefully cultivated image, and superior talent which allows them to make the difficult look like a cakewalk. And just like the hottest Hollywood stars, these streamers have no problem attracting hundreds of thousands around the globe to follow their every move.
If you’re not convinced, just take a look at the table below, which shows the top-10 most viewed* eSports streams on Twitch over the last week using data compiled by the eSports Observer website:
*CCVS = Concurrent Viewership, or the number of viewers actively tuning in to a live stream at any given time
Top-10 Most Viewed eSports Streams (September 3 – September 9)
As you can see, eSports streaming on Twitch has come along way from its cottage industry origins of 2011.
Seven years of explosive growth later, and top streamer Tyler “Ninja” Blevins can count an average of 82,590 concurrent viewers for his popular Fortnite party sessions. At their peak, “Ninja” streams will have over 312,000 concurrent viewers watching his every maneuver, which equates to 4.3 million hours of combined viewership.
But all it takes to understand where those enormous numbers came from is the right-most column, which displays the total number of hours a streamer puts in per week. The man known as “Ninja” topped out at just over 50 hours, but somebody using the handle “Summit1G” managed to stream for an astounding 70 hours.
You usually hear about high-powered lawyers working 70-hour weeks, not video game pros, but the technology behind Twitch levels the playing field.
Armed with a decent gaming computer setup, anybody can create their own eSports channel. And as Shear explained to the New York Times, the widespread adoption of broadband internet brought an entire generation aboard the Twitch train:
“This couldn’t have existed five years before we launched it. You needed high-resolution video. You needed broadband Internet, which just wasn’t there.
(Today), Internet access is just getting cheaper and cheaper, faster and faster.
Mobile is going up, adoption of every new generation of gaming console is going up, and there’s more money being spent on PC gaming than ever before. Gaming, as a whole, is growing.”
Playing video games for a living may seem like a fun and easy way to spend the workday.
But for the best Twitch streamers, the guys and gals listed above who pioneered the eSports movement, gaming is a skilled profession that takes hard work and dedication.
Anthony Kongphan was once an aspiring Twitch pro struggling to move up the site’s coveted viewership rankings. Hungry to carve out his own niche amongst the hordes of avid games, Kongphan used to host marathon streaming sessions – some of which spanned several days without stopping.
Here’s how he described the endurance gambit used to get followers subscribing to his channel while speaking to the New Yorker:
“I will never do it again, but I streamed once for sixty-three and a half hours straight.
I just wake up, eat, work out, and then stream.” (Quote)
The same New Yorker interview caught up with Bria Leigh, a young woman whose grueling stream schedule even led to health concerns:
“My doctor told me I was going to die if I kept doing it like this. You spend ten hours a day in the chair.
And you don’t even want to get up to use the bathroom, because you’re afraid you’ll lose viewers.”
This extreme dedication to their craft may sound unappealing to non-gamers, but when you consider how the concept of “work ethic” has been lionized within professional sports, 70-hour work weeks don’t seem so strange.
Streamers trying to build their own brand like Kongphan and Leigh have done need to use every tool at their disposal to get eyes on their channel. That may mean perfecting a particular game, or playing a blend of the day’s most popular titles. Others engage their viewers with a constant stream of conversation, using banter to bond with fans.
In each case, however, the job of an eSports streamer is to make lasting connections with strangers they’ll rarely ever meet in person.
The first thing first time Twitch users tend to notice is the chat box, a window on the righthand side of the screen where viewers can communicate with one another – and their favorite gamer.
These chat sessions are typically lively affairs, with viewers recounting exceptional plays or offering praise for their heroes. And the best part is, the streamers can respond in real time, shouting out their most avid fans, exploring new areas of the game on command, or answering questions about anything that comes up.
The most popular streamers out there possess an uncanny knack for forming personal connections – much like the guy at your office who always seems to ask about your family or remember your birthday. In the Twitch-verse though, streamers try to remember their regular viewers’ handle, when they first subscribed to the channel, and any donations that come their way.
Cecilia D’Anastasio – a gaming journalist who writes about Twitch streaming for Kotaku – told the New Yorker why these digital relationships matter:
“If you asked a hundred viewers why they watch their favorite streamer, what they’re all going to tell you is, ‘I feel like I could be their friend.’”
Michael Blight – a communications professor at DePaul University who specializes in the dynamics of internet-based relationships – followed up in the same interview by explaining that viewers consider their favorite streamers to be friends:
“People were almost sheepish about revealing this, but they’d say, ‘I know I’m just one of his thousands of fans, but I really do feel like he understands me.’
They come to feel like this person is a part of them.”
Video games have come a long way from the arcades of old, with Twitch streams forming a virtual reality of sorts. Once a viewer logs into their favorite eSports channel, they can become entirely immersed in a game – all without picking up a controller. And as for the streamers themselves, Twitch has enabled professional gamers to move out of the shadows, joining athletes, musicians, and other celebrities among those rewarded for their exceptional skill at a given craft.
All of that occurred over the course of just seven years too, so the next decade is sure to bring inconceivable advancements within the realm of Twitch eSports streaming.
Save my name, email, and website in this browser for the next time I comment.