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A generational shift powered Twitch's transformation into cultural phenomenon

Twitch is a cultural phenomenon, a service that tapped into a generational shift in the way people interact with video games at a time when few realized that shift was happening.

The desire by so many to watch others play video games through live video streams was an untapped demand that propelled Twitch's success and launched it onto mobile platforms and two gaming consoles.

Speaking with Twitch co-founder and COO Kevin Lin earlier this month, he told Polygon that while it was "latent demand" for live streaming that helped Twitch grow so rapidly early on, the continued growth is powered by the service's community.

"I think part of it was latent demand," Lin said. "A lot of the growth though has been the community sort of figuring out what it is that entertains like-minded people in this space."

That boiled down to things like where best to place your webcam, how to interact with viewers on chat and what to do for subscribers.

"As the community has really figured that out and educated each other it's really exploded," Lin said. "There is this huge demographic of folks who play games and are happy to interact with content based on games. They don't have to be actively playing a game to interact with that game."

Lin calls this relatively new way to interact with gaming a cultural phenomenon, something tied to a new generation of gamers and how they engage with the things that matter to them.

While YouTube has its own audience of on-demand video viewers, and even supports streaming, Lin believes that the service isn't really a competitor with Twitch.

"It's different," he said. "YouTube is on-demand, it's more of a solitary experience. For Twitch it's very instantaneous. It's like sitting down on a Monday night to watch football or sitting down to watch the Super Bowl together, it's very conversational, it's incredibly social."

Twitch, Lin said, views YouTube, Valve's recent experiments with streaming and other streaming services as complimentary and even important to the survival of streaming as a whole.

"Where the space is now, in order for it to grow both [Twitch and YouTube] need to grow," he said. "The more people watching gaming content, the more this industry grows as a whole. The more touch points you have, the more ways they can find a stream, the better it is for all of us."

He added that the differences in YouTube and Twitch's content is deeper than looking different.

"The content may look similar, but the emotion behind it is significantly different, the creation of it significantly different."


As content creators have learned to master the art of Twitch streaming, they've helped one another out, teaching each other the best ways to succeed. But Lin said that Twitch understands there is also a role for the company to serve in the process of getting new streamers up to speed.

"Right now there is a lot of community education, so they will coach each other through it, but we’re trying to build a larger education portal," he said.

That portal would eventually walk someone new to Twitch through the basics, the core lessons to give anyone a shot at becoming one of the big streamers on the service, he said.

A lot of those new users will likely be coming from consoles, which have blossomed since streaming has been integrated into the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

"From the ground up, we see console streaming as an on-boarding experience," Lin said.

Being able to stream from consoles has had a significant impact on Twitch, he added.

"It was huge when Sony and Microsoft wanted to build that in directly to the console," he said. "Now it's about 25 to 30 percent of our broadcasts that come from console, before it was significantly smaller. "

The problem with publishers

While competition isn't an issue for Twitch and streaming in today's atmosphere, the owners of those gaming properties can be.

Many game developers and publishers endorse the streams that feature their games or turn a blind eye toward them, but some companies have been trying to establish a more formal relationship with streamers.

For instance, Nintendo established a couple of programs to share revenue with those making money off views that feature the company's content.

In January, Nintendo launched a beta version of a new affiliate program designed to share advertising revenue with YouTube users.

The Nintendo Creators Program, which makes its official debut on May 27, will grant registered users 60 percent of the advertising revenue for videos containing Nintendo IP. The company will offer slightly more to channels fully dedicated to Nintendo content, offering up to 70 percent in ad revenue instead.

The fact that companies like Nintendo are taking notice, and fashioning their own rules for the use of video games in streams could have a huge impact on gameplay videos.

Lin said it was too early to say what sort of impact that might be, though.

"Time will tell," he said. "So far, Nintendo has been a really good partner with us. We worked really closely with them on things like Smash and some other titles. I think they get it, I think they understand why Twitch is an interesting platform for their games. You see even old Nintendo games embraced by the speed running community, retro community, all of the way to games like Smash 4 with huge communities. Their tournaments for Smash 4 are as big as many other eSports games. It's quite impressive."

The key, Lin said, is for Twitch to explain the value Twitch offers to game companies.

"I think [for] game companies in general, it's our job to educate them on what the value of Twitch is, what the value of having a community means for a specific game title," Lin said. "But so far, I think there's a good understanding of it, there's a desire to test it and experiment so we hope that continues."

While Nintendo seems to understand the value of using Twitch as a way to directly market its games, using the service for Nintendo Directs, Smash Bros tournaments and other events, it's still unclear if they understand the value and popularity of Twitch users streaming their games.

In an interview at E3 last year, Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime told Polygon that he didn't fully understand why people watch others play games through services like Twitch.

"We don't think streaming 30 minutes of gameplay by itself is a lot of fun," Fils-Aime said at the time "Your specific question of just purely streaming gameplay, what we've got to think through is, so what's fun about that? From a consumer standpoint, what's fun about it?"

That doesn't really bother Lin.

"I would love for Reggie to get it and appreciate it, personally, but that's OK," Lin said. "I think at the core he understands it's something that's happening. The numbers speak for themselves: millions and millions of people are watching Nintendo games on YouTube and on Twitch and on other platforms, that audience wants that. They want to be able to engage with the game outside of playing the game and that's something that I think people will begin to realize over time: That you're not just building a great game, you're [building] a community and a culture around that game."

Not getting it

Lin suggests that companies that don’t understand Twitch should watch a stream, go to a community event, feel it for themselves.

"You will see how passionate people are," he said. "They should be proud of that, they made a game that transcends it just being a game. That's a pretty remarkable thing, not many games make it that way.

"In fact, a very small percentage actually do. So the fact that IP like Nintendo's and Blizzard's and Riot's is so strong that people want to continually engage in it basically as much as they can, with most of their free time, speaks a lot to those game companies and the powerful things they've built."

From the perspective of game companies, there is some inherent risk in allowing anyone to stream gameplay. But Lin believes the benefits outweigh the risks. He also thinks that stopping community-driven commentary about games is a losing battle, so it's better for a company to embrace it.

"There certainly is a sensitivity, but the fact is if you want to embrace that and you want to get this 'earned' media, you have to take some risks," he said. "You can't control everything.

"I think the message that really comes across to the companies well is to let the community do what they want. There are community sites, there are forums, there are subreddits that pop-up around games that also bear inherent risk, but are you really going to stop all of them? Or will you just embrace that community and interact with it? To me, that's a better solution. Reach out, be there for that community, so you can better understand how to make that game better. I think there is a lot you can learn from communities rather than shun them and push them down."

Twitch seemingly hasn't had the same level of conflict and confusion seen on YouTube and Lin believes that is because Twitch is so proactive about working with companies to adjust them to the ideas.

"It's about education with the game companies," he said. "It is about being there and teaching them about what it is like to be on Twitch. Holding their hands through the process so that they are much more comfortable with it. Letting them know that it's a thing that is going to happen organically whether they try to prevent it or not."

In terms of Nintendo and its latest set of YouTube rules, it's ultimately up to the company to determine, Lin said.

"What would be great for [Nintendo] is to really try to dig in and talk to some of those content creators, understand what it is they're trying to do and why they care so much about their games," he said. "If they go and do that, they'll see that while they won't be able to 'control' the message, they can at least guide it, they can set some boundaries around it.

"Where we are now, where the industry is, it's more taking the time to engage with them and understand them. If you don't do that, you'll never get why it is so valuable to each of those individual communities, why do they care so much about the game?"

Lin said that for many, streaming has become a big part of a company's marketing strategies.

"How do you get all of this earned media?" he said. "How do you create a game that people want to create content around? They're building in spectator modes. They're building in statistics. They're building in easier ways to create content."


While the Twitch streaming service continues to grow, bringing in partners, experimenting with ways to watch, interact and even play, there's one thing they won't do: expand beyond gaming.

Even in the company's recent experiments with music, the tie in remains gaming. Music was added so gamers would have a soundtrack to play music to. And bands are allowed to perform, but Twitch tries to keep it to groups that are into gaming.

"We have a long way to grow," Lin said. "While the platform technology certainly works for many things: Sports, music, you name it, for us, where we started was games, we care very much about games and we think the audience is just getting started.

"We think we have a lot more growth ahead of us."

After all, Lin pointed out, the only reason Twitch exists today is because of its narrow focus on gaming. The service was born out of Justin TV, a streaming service with very broad interest.

"At Justin TV we were doing general content, lots of different content ended up on the site," Lin said. "Twitch was born of a project internally around gaming and we hope to keep that way as long as we can."

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