Polygon’s latest series, The Masterpieces of Streaming, looks at the new batch of classics that have emerged from an evolving era of entertainment.
Since Twitch was founded in 2011, it has popularized DIY live entertainment. At first, the platform was designed for livestreaming games; it gave anyone with a decent enough computer the ability to broadcast themselves playing video games, along with unique features like a live chat feed that allowed for audience interaction. The platform has since grown to include concerts, live political commentary, and chat shows. Almost anything can be on Twitch — but it has to happen live.
Although competing video platforms like YouTube have also added the possibility for people to stream live, Twitch exists solely to prop up real-time entertainment. Content creators can save video recordings of their streams online, but they can’t upload edited videos. So, what makes for a masterpiece of Twitch? It relies on preparation; it can’t be edited like a feature film or even a Vine. And often, the audience is involved as well, to make it truly special.
A masterpiece of Twitch doesn’t necessarily display a really cool or “poggers” play so much as a memorable moment that a collective viewership shared. This list catalogues the online events that helped break Twitch even further into the mainstream, or helped shape Twitch itself.
A community comes together to beat a Pokémon game (February 12, 2014)
With the debut of Twitch Plays Pokémon in 2014, the platform became one giant communal game. Here’s how it worked: A bot designed for Twitch played Pokémon Red, with its actions controlled completely by viewers who would type commands in the live chat. If someone wrote the word “up” in the Twitch chat, the character in the livestream game would move up. Except as many as 8,000 viewers would be flooding chat with commands simultaneously, and the character on screen would respond to each one in order. The result was anarchy, but over time, order emerged from the chaos, and the community beat the game in about one month’s time.
The steam helped showcase Twitch’s potential to provide unique forms of entertainment. Twitch’s head of studio productions Marcus “djWHEAT” Graham described it this way: “[Twitch Plays Pokémon] proved that the medium of Twitch was (and still is) ripe for innovation, and that there are new and excited ways to create interactive content that has never been done before.”
Ninja grows into a fully-fledged star (March 15, 2018)
In 2018, Twitch was already a well-known platform. In 2014, Amazon had acquired the streaming service, and the platform became known for its cadre of popular content creators. In the late 2010s, as an up-and-coming game called Fortnite started to find an audience, Twitch also found its true first star: Tyler “Ninja” Blevins.
Leading up to his breakout moment, Blevins wasn’t exactly unknown. In early 2018, he gained roughly 50,000 subscribers in a single month and would regularly have hundreds of thousands of viewers tuning into each of his streams. In March 2018, when hip-hop artist Drake joined his stream to play Fortnite, Blevins became a bonafide icon. At its peak, Blevins’ stream with Drake had over 635,000 concurrent viewers, breaking Twitch records.
Having someone like Drake on a stream didn’t just bring in a ton of eyes; it showed that Twitch stars can be famous in their own right. It elevated Blevins to a place that no other Twitch streamer had occupied up to that point. Since the stream, Blevins has gotten book deals, appeared in a Super Bowl ad, and made an estimated $17 million dollars in 2019. Although Blevins left Twitch at one point to stream exclusively on Mixer, he returned in 2020 after signing a deal rumored to be valued at $30 million by Forbes. The Drake stream represented an early high point in both Blevins’ career and Twitch’s history.
PaladinAmber shuts down the haters (July 23, 2019)
While Twitch helps break down some barriers between its stars and audiences by providing a live chat for viewers to send questions, it’s still not a reciprocal relationship. Oftentimes, viewers feel like they know or are friends with a streamer, even when the streamer doesn’t know their fan. Amber “Paladin Amber” Wahdam became popular by shutting out trolls and overly-familiar viewers in hilarious ways. When streaming, she uses multiple cameras and overlays to brush off rude viewers with comedy and grace.
She employs a running bit where she sets up her stream to be like an old-school infomercial that’s trying to sell you something for $19.95. For example, if someone asks, “how much for a hug?” she responds by seamlessly transitioning into using an overlay that makes it look like she’s narrating a commercial. “You wanna know how much it’s gonna be for a hug? That’s right, you guessed it, it’s going to be nineteen ninety-fuck off. Nobody touch me. I don’t want to be touched.” As she delivers these lines, the camera angle switches and captures her clapback from multiple angles and zoom settings. The clips and her commitment to the bit are a fun way to use Twitch production, while also reminding viewers of boundaries when interacting with their favorite streamer.
Mr. ChanChan dazzles us with the kneecopter (July 9, 2020)
Anything can happen with live entertainment. And no other event better captures the thrill and surprise that can come with watching someone live on Twitch better than Mr. ChanChan doing the “kneecopter.”
It all started when Fortnite streamer Edgey hosted Mr. ChanChan after a stream. Mr. ChanChan, who usually streamed Lego builds, was more than thrilled to see the new viewers sent by Edgey. So much so that Mr. ChanChan erupted into a full-on dance routine set to the pop song “Caramella Girls” by Caramelldansen.
The spontaneous performance was electric. He thrilled viewers live by kneecoptering — a dance move where you shift weight from your feet to your knees to smoothly glide across the floor — throughout his living room and flapping his hands on his head to do the signature bunny ear move to the song. The bright and cheery song coupled with Mr. ChanChan’s smile was bright enough to light up the entire room, and the Twitch chat where those lucky enough to see the performance unroll live spammed chat with flame emotes.
Twitch becomes a vehicle for political change (October 20, 2020)
UPDATE: AOC gets Imposter in her first time playing Among Us on Twitch. She gets voted out by everyone except Ilhan Omar. AOC says “She’s my ride or die!” pic.twitter.com/afOaBl7bGV— Def Noodles (@defnoodles) October 21, 2020
As Twitch has continued to grow and extend its influence among young people, politicians have also seized on the opportunity to use the platform as a way to reach new audiences. As part of a get-out-the-vote effort, U.S. House Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) streamed the hit murder mystery game Among Us to the tune of 435,000 viewers on Twitch.
The event quickly grew to include a who’s-who of notable streamers. Ocasio-Cortez was joined by the likes of Imane “Pokimane” Anys, Rachell “Valkyrae” Hofstetter, and Corpse Husband. While murdering and scheming on the spaceship inside the game, Ocasio-Cortez bantered with the others and touched on important political topics, like healthcare access. The stream didn’t just endear Ocasio-Cortez to its viewers, it also created a blueprint for how politicians can stay relevant. As Polygon wrote at the time, Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitch stream showed that a “modern, tech-savvy politician attracts not just supporters, but fandom.”
The 31-day-long slumber party (March 14, 2021)
The rule was simple for Ludwig Ahgren’s Twitch sub-athon: For each subscription he got, he would extend the length of his stream by 10 seconds. At the start, he didn’t think he would be streaming for all that long — maybe one or two days tops, since streaming for a single day could take as many as 8,640 subscriptions. You can imagine the streamers’ surprise when, day after day, the subscriptions kept coming in. The stunt eventually led him to steam continuously for 31 days, breaking the record for highest number of Twitch subscribers previously set by Blevins.
The record-breaking stream helped popularize lesser-known ways of streaming on Twitch as well. As he streamed day and night, Ludwig introduced his viewers to the concept of “sleep streams” during which people would just tune in to watch him snooze into the night. At one point, he had roughly 65,400 live viewers tune in just to watch him lay in his red racecar bed.
The event also felt like a much-needed balm during the pandemic. It seemed intimate and real, showing viewers a snapshot of Ludwig’s day-to-day life. But it also provided the collective feeling that comes with thousands of people tuning in, spamming chat with Ludwig-themed emotes made out of his face. There was a weighty sense that the people who’d tuned in had been present for some sort of giant, shared moment, and it just happened to be that Ludwig was the center of it all.
A “perfect” Mario run (April 7, 2021)
Speedrunning has long been a staple of Twitch. It not only allows people to document the rare feats of streamers, but it gives those doing run after run a place to hang out online as they play for months and sometimes years, perfecting their play in a single game. And while there are plenty of remarkable record-breaking speedruns out there, one stands out: the current world record for Super Mario Bros. for the NES.
The mere idea of a 4:54 Super Mario Bros. appeared to be a pipe dream. Theoretically, the 4:54 run was possible; a YouTuber had broken it down frame by frame to show how it could be done. The only problem was that no one was sure if a human could do it. The run didn’t just require the perfect placement of Mario within a pixel’s distance; it also required a speedrunner to make use of a glitch that required Mario to be placed in a specific spot at the ending flagpole. It makes the run intricately difficult, and one of hardest in the speedrunning community. However, Niftski pulled it off in 2021, making him successful in completing one of the hardest runs in speedrunning history.