On the evening of Sept. 24, 2015, the Moscone Center glows an electric purple that shines down onto the streets of San Francisco.
Over the next two days, the convention center will see 20,000 people come through its doors, pilgrims who have journeyed from all corners to attend the first-ever TwitchCon. Once merely a site devoted to streaming games online, Twitch has bled into the real world. Both company staff and TwitchCon attendees will use words like "family" and "passion" and "relationships" to describe what's happening here.
How did this happen? And does the recently launched YouTube Gaming actually pose a threat? Polygon has chronicled the rise of Twitch itself, but what's astounding about TwitchCon is the strength of the bonds this company has formed with its users. We spoke to some of those users to piece together just how Twitch is now powerful enough to hold its own convention.
Part of the family
A few months ago, Natalie "ZombiUnicorn" Casanova celebrated her three-year anniversary of streaming on Twitch by throwing a 3-year-old's birthday party.
"We had Elmo hats," she recalls, laughing. "It was really funny, but then we got really drunk."
Over the course of those three years, Casanova has made a living splitting her time between her personal Twitch stream, her YouTube channel and occasional sponsored gigs, such as her current spot streaming on Nvidia's Twitch channel. Her streams average between 500 and 1,000 viewers on any given night.
"I don't actually make a living off of Twitch, but it's because I split my time between Twitch and YouTube," Casanova says. "It would be a huge source of income if I focused on it. But I like doing all these things. I like doing everything."
In Casanova's mind, though she splits her time between multiple sites, it's Twitch that allowed her the opportunity to do this in the first place. After about a year of regular streaming on Twitch, she moved to San Francisco and started getting to know Twitch staff members. She began visiting them in their downtown San Francisco office, getting advice from them to help her improve her streams.
"I really love the people that work there"
"I've felt like part of the family," says Casanova. "I really love the people that work there. They're really awesome, and they're really good-hearted people. A lot of people will say that Twitch doesn't care, but no, they just take people and meet them and take them at face value. If they don't feel like you're genuine, then maybe they won't give you special treatment. Not that they give anyone special treatment, but they really value good people."
Casanova says that sense of Twitch being run by "good-hearted people" has not changed, even as the company has gone through a massive transformation. Last year, Amazon bought Twitch for just under a billion dollars. But if anything, Casanova believes this has just led to more opportunities.
"They definitely have been working more with Amazon Games and partners," she says. "They brought me and a few other partners on to do the release of The Witcher 3. We went to the Twitch office and streamed from there with the developers, which was cool. They're doing more stuff like that with more brands through Amazon."
Casanova's only problem with Twitch? The company locks partners into a vague exclusivity clause with contracts.
"All Twitch partners have this unless you specifically make sure it's not in there," Casanova says. "It's just an automatic thing in your contract. You can't stream any live gaming or gaming-related content on any other platform at all. The terms are extremely vague. I personally don't think it's fair."
Casanova was told by Twitch that she could potentially get the exclusivity clause taken out of her contract when she renegotiates it, an option that's only available "within 90 days of my two-year renewal period." She just happens to be in that time frame and will be speaking with Twitch about it in the near future. But so far Twitch hasn't come after her for using other streaming services, such as competitor YouTube Gaming.
The poster boy
Jayson "ManVSGame" Love hasn't been streaming as consistently as he'd like lately. He's stopped posting schedules and just kind of pops on whenever he can. While he admits this isn't the ideal approach to streaming, it hasn't hurt his channel's incredible size and success to any noticeable degree.
"A lot of my personal life is unfortunately getting in the way of professional growth," he says, with a sigh. This is just moments before sheepishly admitting that his streams average between 3,000 and 5,000 viewers, as though that number is lower than it should be.
Love has been streaming for five years now. When he started, he was on Justin.tv, the Twitch progenitor that was not focused on gaming. At the time, he just wanted a way to mess around and play games with friends. Now, it's his living.
"I'm doing better now financially than I ever have in my entire life," Love says. "Call me old-fashioned, but I don't want to share exact numbers of how much money I make. But it's definitely six figures. So, yes, it's enough for me to live very comfortably."
For Love, streaming on Twitch has become a place for him to find consistency and calm in the midst of the aforementioned problems in his personal life. And despite the size of his community, he's able to keep things largely positive by only allowing those who pay a fee to subscribe to his channel to take part in chat.
"At first it was a very controversial decision," says Love. "But a big reason my chat is cool is that I choose to use subscriber-only chat all the time. The paywall is the most fantastic filter for keeping out the worst people. Open Twitch chats in channels of a certain size, like, once you get past 3,000 viewers, it becomes just as bad as YouTube comments."
"I used to feel very paranoid about ruining my relationship with Twitch"
Just last year, Love was extremely critical of Twitch's changes to how it interacts with copyrighted audio. This was prior to Amazon's purchase of the company, at a time when rumors were swirling that YouTube might actually be the one to swoop in and buy Twitch. Despite the criticism, Love says he's never felt any pressure from Twitch to only say anything positive.
"I used to feel very paranoid about ruining my relationship with Twitch," he says. "I feel much more secure now. I know Twitch has my back. It's changed my life for the better in so many ways. I know they appreciate the things I do as well."
Love knows this because Twitch regularly points to him as a poster boy for success on the service. He's had interviews with The Wall Street Journal and NPR set up through Twitch, not to mention hosting jobs at events like E3 and, of course, TwitchCon.
For Love, the biggest change to his use of Twitch over the years has been a personal one. He's had to shift from viewing it as a fun side activity to a job.
"More than ever these days, I feel the strain of trying to balance the fun, entertainment side of what I do with the business side," he says. "That's what Twitch has really become, this very powerful platform for promoting games. At the end of the day, ManVSGame is a company. It's my livelihood. I, of course, want to make the most entertaining broadcast I can. But I also need to make a living."
Early in his career, as things first blew up, Love admits that "making a living" sometimes meant being paid to play certain games on his stream. It was a shady process that made him very uncomfortable. Now, he says, any deals like that are brokered through Twitch directly, and it's required that streamers make it very clear that they're being sponsored.
Love's best sponsorship deal thus far wasn't for a game at all, he says. For a while, he was sponsored by Speed Stick for a segment he called "Don't Sweat It Friday."
"My cast was sponsored by underarm deodorant!" Love yells, grinning. "It was ridiculous. I loved poking fun at that. Other people can do the sponsored game casts, but when it comes to my opinion on games, I want to make sure that my audience knows I'm always being genuine."
The new kid
If Casanova and Love are "veterans" of Twitch, as the latter jokingly calls them, what about newer streamers? Do they feel as much support?
If Haley "TheHaleyBaby" Schmidt is any indication, the answer is yes. Schmidt started her gaming career competing in MLG tournaments for Call of Duty. As she did so, she noticed a lot of her eSports colleagues taking an increasing interest in Twitch.
"Everybody said I should check it out," Schmidt says. "I started looking at it over and over again and decided that I want to do this."
In the year and a half that she's been streaming, Schmidt has shifted from a focus on Call of Duty and competitive gaming to what is known on Twitch as "a variety streamer." This means that she plays a random assortment of games depending on her mood and what's big in the community on any given day. It also means that her number of viewers can vary wildly.
"Sometimes it's as low as 150 viewers," says Schmidt. "Sometimes it gets up to 800 or 900. I probably average 300."
In addition to the daily viewers, Schmidt has hit 81,000 followers, around 700 of whom are paying a monthly subscription to support her. It may not seem like much compared to the numbers Love and Casanova throw around, but Schmidt says it's enough to live off of.
"Twitch is my primary income," she says. "Everybody wants to get bigger, but right now I'm actually really good financially. Usually when you hit 300 or 400 viewers, you can make a living."
As with Love and Casanova, Schmidt praises the support that Twitch as an institution has provided her, even as a new streamer.
"Compared to other people, a year and a half isn't long at all," she says. "I'm like a baby fetus compared to everyone else. But when I come to these events, I meet Twitch staff, and they just make me feel so welcome. They help. They've given me front-page placement, which really helps me to grow."
Problems and solutions
There's an overwhelming uniformity to the positivity felt toward Twitch by those we spoke to in attendance at TwitchCon. Twitch itself seems surprised with the response as well.
"I'm just walking around with goosebumps that we actually pulled this all off," says Matthew DiPietro, Twitch's senior vice president of marketing. He's one of the main people who helped put together TwitchCon behind the scenes. While he's been vocal about the need for a real-world Twitch community meetup for years, he says he's still shocked at how well people have taken to it.
"We've seen broadcasters and fans organizing road trips across the country," DiPietro says. "We've seen people develop friendships and relationships on Twitch over the last few years. Then they show up at TwitchCon just to meet their friends face to face for the first time. It's just crazy."
DiPietro says the general concept of TwitchCon had been discussed by the company "since we launched, really," but 2015 was the right time because Twitch had some major updates to the service to announce. Of particular note for partners is Twitch's upcoming changes to video on demand, which will allow partners to upload edited videos and create a playlist that streams on their channels while they're offline.
Along those lines, every streamer we speak to cites one major problem with Twitch: the need to stream constantly or risk losing your audience.
"I'm here at TwitchCon for a week right now," Casanova says. "When I get back, I'll have lost viewers. After I was gone for PAX, I could barely get 200 viewers, and I was only gone for four or five days."
DiPietro acknowledges this as "a known challenge" at Twitch. The company became aware of it as it started inviting broadcasters to events like PAX and then hearing complaints about follower, subscriber and general viewer numbers dipping.
"We've seen broadcasters and fans organizing road trips across the country"
"It's part of the reason, among many, that we're taking the video on demand initiative seriously," DiPietro says. "Uploads and playlists are shoring up our video on demand service. As a Twitch broadcaster today, being totally live-focused, as successful as people are, you're only one person. You can only broadcast so many hours a day, even if you're a real dynamo."
Twitch is betting on playlists keeping viewers around even when streamers aren't able to do a live show for an extended period of time. Viewers will still be able to watch the playlists synchronized with other people in the chat and have the community experience. And in DiPietro's mind, that community experience is everything that matters to Twitch.
"It gives you a sense of ownership over that moment," he says. "You were a part of it. You were there. You're inside a community that got to experience it."
As for the contract issues that Casanova brought up, DiPietro's response is as vague as the wording of the exclusivity clause.
"We want very close relationships with our partners," he says. "We are investing in them, and we would like them to invest in us and have a very real give-and-take in terms of the value proposition we're both offering. We're taking a friendly stance toward everybody. We don't want to play hardball. Everybody's a gamer. Everybody loves what they're doing."
DiPietro stops short of saying that Twitch would never legally challenge a partnered streamer who decides to switch over to a competitor. That the company maintains that option in its contracts, even if it has no plans to exercise it, may be cause for concern in some.
What about YouTube Gaming?
If there's an elephant in the room at TwitchCon, it's YouTube Gaming, the new game streaming-focused spinoff of YouTube that launched almost exactly a month before. Of the streamers we speak with, only Casanova has done any work on YouTube Gaming, but she says that so far it seems like a very different audience from Twitch.
"For me, YouTube will always be more of an outlet for actually produced video content, like heavily edited stuff," she says. "I like to do longer Let's Play videos of single-player games. That's where I see YouTube Gaming being beneficial for me. When I do that on Twitch, nobody cares about it as much. They would rather see me play Counter-Strike or H1Z1 or something more fast-paced."
"To this day, I don't think I've ever spoken with a human being affiliated with either YouTube or Google"
Casanova plans to continue experimenting with YouTube Gaming, but she says that Twitch will always be her primary focus. Likewise, Love says he has no plans of ever parting ways with his streaming service of choice.
"It would be really difficult for me in particular to leave Twitch," he says. "So much of my success has been on the shoulders of Twitch's success and being a part of all of that from the very beginning."
Love says his biggest problem with YouTube Gaming is that he's never seen a human face behind it — sort of the extreme opposite of TwitchCon, where Twitch staffers up to and including the company's CEO are roaming the floor openly.
"For me to even consider doing something with YouTube Gaming, they'd have to reach out to me like a human being," Love says. "To this day, I don't think I've ever spoken with a human being affiliated with either YouTube or Google. If a person from that company wrote an email to me personally, I would be stunned. 'Whoa, there are human beings at YouTube!'"
And as for Schmidt, even in her shorter amount of time streaming, she's become dedicated to Twitch.
"I bleed purple," she says, smirking. "I've never considered YouTube Gaming. It's good that there's competition, but Twitch all the way, baby."
For its part, Twitch doesn't seem bothered by the new competition. Many people interpreted the announcement of uploading videos to Twitch as the company wanting to compete with YouTube more directly, but DiPietro is adamant that's not true. He also believes the two services don't need to cannibalize each other.
"The industry is large," he says. "I really believe that we are at the very beginning when it comes to not only games and game video, but live real-time social media content. The entire space is going to grow very rapidly. We're just a piece of it."
"I bleed purple"
A piece that 20,000 people care enough about to have journeyed to San Francisco for a weekend, bathing themselves in purple lights, sitting in on panels about how to become more successful streamers, waiting in line to get autographs from the streamers who are already successful. The first TwitchCon was a success in Twitch's eyes, and the company absolutely believes there will be more.
"When, where, who knows?" DiPietro says. "Those are open questions. One thing about Twitch is that there's no shortage of ideas. Will it be in 2016, 2017, 2018, 2025? Who knows?"
He suggests the possibility of TwitchCon Japan or TwitchCon Europe. He's half-joking, but seeing the outpouring of support from the community at the first TwitchCon has given weight to the serious half.
"We're definitely a global community," he says. "One day ..."