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an 11-by-5 collage of 55 custom Twitch emotes Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon

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The uneven, remarkable economy of custom Twitch emotes

Artists are making a living creating art for the streaming platform

Twitch chat is flooded with the PogChamp emote — a small, emoji-like image that’s part of a language formed on the Amazon-owned streaming platform.

They’re a way to express words without using words, a way to clearly and concisely communicate in the fast-paced visual chaos of the platform’s chat functionality. Emotes are designed to be easily recognizable, something for your eyes to quickly grab onto as the stream of text rolls by.

There are plenty of different emotes on Twitch, some globally available — emotes like PogChamp, LUL, and Kappa. A global emote is one that’s available to everyone on Twitch, regardless of what channels you subscribe to. They’re often the emotes that are most easily recognizable, like PogChamp’s use to express excitement or Kappa’s use for sarcasm.

Other emotes are stream-specific, an unlockable perk for those who subscribe to a channel. A channel’s custom emotes are often variations of global emotes; former Overwatch streamer-turned-variety act MoonMoon has his own version of PogChamp — a line art drawing of his face in a distinctly Kappa style — specifically for his subscribers.

And he’s not alone. Custom emotes are a way to spread community around Twitch, to make people feel as though they’re in on the joke. They make people feel connected, and that’s one of the reasons they’re at the center of an entire economy that lives on the peripheral of Twitch’s business.

Why there’s a demand for custom art on Twitch

Emotes were once only available to streamers who were part of Twitch’s Partner program. In the past, this was the tier of streamers who could make money from their streams — but that’s changed.

A second tier for Twitch streamers was added in April 2017 as a way for non-partnered streamers to make money on the platform. These affiliate streamers have access to some privileges previously only available to Partners — namely, a subscription button that can unlock emote slots. Affiliates can unlock up to seven emotes depending on their subscribers, while partners can unlock over 50. This created a much larger demand for new emotes.

“Many partners and affiliates create their own emotes, while some outsource the creation, indeed offering opportunities for artists who wish to create for Twitch,” a Twitch spokesperson told Polygon. “As the number of partners and affiliates on Twitch grow, opportunities for emote artists are also expected to grow.”

Ailsa, an artist who goes by Poofy on Twitter and has created art for MoonMoon and others, told Polygon that thousands of artists have benefited from the addition of emote slots for affiliate streamers.

Twitch said there were more than 22,000 affiliate streams in April 2018, after reporting that there were around 27,000 streamers in the Partner program a few months earlier. That number suggests hundreds of thousands of emotes that may be created for the platform, on top of the other kinds of art that fill the space, including things like on-stream overlays, panels, and icons.

artwork of custom Twitch emotes by @Tfa_96
A collection of custom emotes.

“Twitch art has almost become its own genre,” Sylwia, a 19-year-old full-time Twitch artist who goes by Tfa_96 online, told Polygon. “It’s got its own economy. [...] It created business opportunities everywhere. There were more incentives for people to subscribe to smaller creators because they would get something in return, which is emotes. And then there was more incentive for people to look for quality emote artists.”

Emotes are an important part of the community for Twitch streamer and I Need Diverse Games founder Tanya DePass — who has written for Polygon in the past — helping spread her message outward from her stream.

While MoonMoon told Polygon his fans probably don’t subscribe simply for emotes, DePass said that at least some of her streamers do. Supporting her work is still the No. 1 driver for new subscriptions, but viewers are often a big part of the process that goes into deciding which images get the emote treatment for her streams.

“The Genki emote came about due to my cat occasionally chatting at me during streams,” DePass told Polygon. “I asked and got a very enthusiastic yes when [I] asked if people wanted a Genki emote. Folks subbed until the slot was unlocked.”

Her community’s love for her custom emotes has since spun off into a Kickstarter, which was fully funded in just 12 hours, to get her emote art turned into enamel pins. And everyone’s benefiting here: DePass’ community grows larger, and the artist will get part of the revenue.

“The art and emotes are incredibly important to the branding and recognition of the stream,” DePass explained. “So many people associate the ‘Hi’ emote with me and the community, and that’s special for me.”

By using these custom emotes, viewers are able to create their own community-based languages and shorthand that build a sense of intimacy within a group. Each emote may mean something completely different hardcore fans and newcomers to the stream, allowing longtime viewers to feel a sense of connection to their favorite streamers.

Emotes on MoonMoon’s stream quickly become jokes with his viewers. Images like “moon2A” and “moon2S” are used to denote anger or happiness, respectively, despite being simple line drawings of Overwatch’s Widowmaker that are barely recognizable as such unless you’re in on the joke. These emotes are some of the most popular on his channel.

MoonMoon told Polygon he’s commissioning emotes pretty often, typically two or three new emotes for whichever game he’s playing at the time. “It will allow people to engage more in chat,” he said. “They [can] impact as much as you want them to, provided you’re proactive enough.”

The cost, and price, of custom emotes

The prices for custom emotes from freelance artists vary greatly. You can sometimes get emotes for your channel for free if you find someone to volunteer their time and skill (or create them yourself, of course). Sylwia charges around $32 per emote, but other artists charge much more.

MoonMoon said he pays a minimum of $80 for any emote used on his stream. The price for larger art and graphic design scales upward from there, depending on intricacy and scope. Jess Gantz, a 26-year-old full-time Twitch artist who’s been creating art on the platform for four years, told Polygon that her general rate is $50 per emote, with “larger, more complex illustrations like banners, ‘BRB’ screens, ‘starting soon’ screens, and ‘offline’ screens” going for $300 or more.

Demand for custom emote work can vary greatly throughout the year. Twitch streamers usually want to update their stream during the winter months, for instance, whether that’s adding snowy details or Santa hats to their emotes. Emotes are often edited to be spookier near Halloween.

That fluctuating demand and pricing for emotes and other forms of Twitch art can make the job hard, though. Sylwia said she makes several thousand dollars a month from her Twitch art business, but added that it’s an unstable and unreliable income.

“It’s just a difficult thing to live off of because you never know exactly how much you’re going to get,” she said. “It’s not an hourly wage. It depends on how much demand there is that month.”

Navigating burnout is a very real challenge, as well. Twitch artists must figure out pricing that accurately reflects the time they spend on each job, which can sometimes be underestimated by streamers who commission work.

“I frequently have to explain to clients that my rates may be high upfront, but they include as many drafts, edits, and re-draws as needed to gain their satisfaction,” Gantz said. Sometimes a client will love something she’s made after the first draft, and the entire project only takes about a few hours. But there are also jobs where it may take half a week incorporating many notes from the streamer to get a single emote just right.

Sylwia said she struggled to find a healthy work-life balance in the beginning of her full-time work. “When the affiliate program first came out, I would wake up at 7 in the morning ... and I would keep drawing continuously until 2 in the morning,” she said. “It was a really unhealthy cycle that led to a lot of burnout. There’s this weird competitive nature in your head that tells you [that] you should do more.”

She’s since figured out healthier ways to think about work.

“[It] isn’t about earning a certain amount per month,” Sylwia said. “It’s more just spending a certain amount of hours or doing a certain amount of sketches, or finishing a certain amount of emotes in a day. It’s a healthy workflow. That’s really important. It’s easy for not only artists, but anyone who’s self-employed, to get into a habit of [thinking] that if you’re not working, you aren’t doing anything with yourself.”

And then there is the stress that comes from dealing with streamers who don’t understand the value of emotes or why artists are paid for creating them at all.

“A lot of my friends have had to put up with people who weren’t very nice about the pricing of their work,” Sylwia said. “That image you’re paying for is essentially the incentive for people to subscribe to you. That’s what’s going to make you money as well. Art is a luxury and should be priced as one: You are paying for the time it takes to draw the emote, the communication, and the overall expertise of the person.”

Ailsa told me that others’ attitude toward pricing is changing. She currently creates emotes part-time, but is confident she can go full-time if and when she chooses. More streamers are starting to recognize the value that Twitch artists bring to their platform.

“Emotes are a whole category of Twitch that brings the community together in ways you can’t describe, all from a little square emoji,” Ailsa said. “Streamers want a sense of identity and uniqueness so when they look for art, they want something that will make them stand out — something that will make people want to stay in their channel and maybe even subscribe just for those emotes.”

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