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Head in the game: The emerging entertainment phenomenon known as Twitch

By: Jessica Meszaros

It might look like someone trying to beat a mobile game, a team of professional esports players rushing toward a tournament victory, or a group of entertainers raising money for charity. It also could be a group of long-distance friends bonding on an electronic battlefield after work. 

Or, it might look like a 27-year-old sitting in his bedroom playing video games while earning upwards of $500,000 per month. 

Livestreaming has many faces and many of them are broadcasting themselves on a livestreaming service known as Twitch.tv.

Originally known as Justin.tv, the livestreaming service was acquired by Amazon for $970 million in August 2014 and rebranded as Twitch.tv. According to a November 2017 article on The Motley Fool website, game streaming was expected to generate $4.6 billion in revenue in 2017 … with Twitch far out in front.

Martein Castillo, Twitch-viewer, streamer and gamer describes it as “just another form of entertainment.” 

But while it’s popular – by 2015, Twitch had over 1.5 million broadcasters and over 100 million viewers monthly, according to the Wall Street Journal – it may not be universally understood. 

 Twitch is a livestreaming video platform that hosts a variety of broadcasts, but the site is most well-known for its fast-paced broadcasting of esports tournaments, personal streams of video games, live speedrunning and even gaming talk shows. Twitch broadcasts can be direct-feeds from computers or they can utilize professional-quality cameras and include segments like half-time shows and celebrity interviews. Users and viewers can stream those broadcasts on mobile devices, tablets, computers and other smart technologies.

“For me, it’s essentially become an alternative form of ESPN to see games and get professional gaming updates,” Castillo said. “Twitch has become the best place for that.”

A home for gamers 

With the rising popularity of the internet and gaming technology, more people are plugging in to power down after a busy day.

According to Business Insider, the average Twitch user spends more than 1.5 hours per day watching content.

“Gaming is definitely more mainstream and there’s definitely a larger population of gamers out there right now,” explained Jeff Minnis, CEO of game developer Plazsoft and owner of Jeff Computers in Manchester.

But modern video game enthusiasts don’t have to crowd around arcade machines or share couches to play a match of a favorite game. The new age of interactivity and sites like Twitch allow gamers to stream gameplay live while making new friends and building communities in the process from the comfort of their own home. And, according to Minnis, there’s something for everyone. 

As of 2018, some of the most popular games streamed on Twitch are “League of Legends,” “Fortnite,” “PUBG,” “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” and “Dota 2,” with over 174 million hours of gameplay viewed according to market research company Statista.

Jason Rooks, director of technology and innovation for the Parkway School District, said “I’ve done a very small number of Twitch livestreams myself. I have spent a good amount of personal time viewing Twitch streams and following Twitch events happening in the video game industry. Like a lot of student users, it kind of follows my personal interests. I’m a fan of esports, so I like watching those events on Twitch. I also enjoy watching specific games that I’m interested in and watching, whether it be individuals players playing it or even teams.

“I know my own son will turn to Twitch or other video game streaming services when he wants to know how to figure something out in a video game or he wants to watch a professional, so to speak, address certain aspects of the game. So, it can also act as a learning tool.”

Similarly, Castillo said, “When a friend of mine wants to preview a game I own, I’ll go live on Twitch but, most of the time, I use Twitch to watch major esports events.” 

Really big business

In January 2018, Twitch announced a two-year deal with game developer Blizzard for its esports Overwatch League. In April, it acquired the rights to an 11-game package of Thursday Night Football games in conjunction with the National Football League and Amazon Prime, according to gaming website Polygon.

Twitch streams are broadcast live by both professional and amateur content creators. Some streams also can be viewed via an on-demand format. And, in 2011, Twitch launched a “partner program” that allows popular content producers to share in the advertising revenue generated from their personal streams.

“There’s a whole economy behind it in regard to subscriptions, subscribers, donations and then the whole interactive chat and the interaction with other fans or the person actually streaming the content,” Rooks said. “There’s a lot more depth to it that I think some parents these days are overlooking.”

For example, Twitch users can specifically subscribe to partnered streamers’ channels for $4.99 a month in exchange for perks like unique emoticons and live chatroom privileges. Twitch retains about 50 percent of each subscription, with the remainder going directly to the Twitch partners.

For many viewers, Twitch has become an alternative to classic, educational television. For example, there are Twitch channels that stream live from automotive and mechanics workshops across the country and others that stream marathons of the television program “The Joy of Painting” featuring American painter Bob Ross.

The popularity of livestreaming has led to higher quality standards, Rooks said.

“At the very beginning of Twitch … it was very unorganized,” Rooks said. “You could have just anyone out there streaming, and there’s still a lot of that going on, but now you’ve started to see the stratification of Twitch users.”

Life on the livestream

Professional gamer Richard “Tyler” Blevins [a.k.a “Ninja”] is the most popular streamer on Twitch. As of May 2018, Belvins, 27, had over 10 million followers and was averaging about 80,000 viewers per stream, according to TwitchMetrics. Known for his commentary while playing popular games like “Fortnite,” Belvins also has streamed video games alongside celebrities like Canadian rapper Drake. The combination of skill and celebrity has equaled multi-million-dollar success.

Richard “Kyle” Blevins, a.k.a. Ninja [Twitter photo]

In March 2018, shortly after 600,000 people tuned in to watch Blevins play Fornite with Drake on Twitch, Blevins told CNBC’s “Squawk Alley” that he earns over $500,000 a month.

Blevins’ income is derived from three sources: paid Twitch subscribers, sponsorships, and donations, which fans can choose to send him in tribute.

“You have to be good at the game or you have to have the personality to be watchable,” Castillo explained.

In an interview with CNBC, Blevins said: “I think that I offer a combination of high-tier gameplay that they really can’t get with a lot of other content creators. It’s very difficult to be one of the very best at a video game. I’m very goofy; if you ever watched any of my streams or YouTube videos, I do impressions and stuff like that all the time and just crazy shenanigans. I think the combination of that [game skill and entertainment] is really fun to watch.”

St. Louis-based Twitch partner “Foxe” had 5,409 followers in June and the number is growing. Foxe got into streaming after seeing a Twitch option on her gaming console.

Twitch user Foxe plays “Geometry Dash” live on Twitch.tv

“I started watching and was like, ‘I can totally do this,’ and just jumped in,” Foxe said.

She also manages The St. Louis Community Meetup, Powered by Twitch. The nonprofit organization is aimed at connecting Twitch broadcasters, content creators and development studios in the St. Louis area. The organization, founded in 2016, has over 200 members.

“We hold events two or three times a year where we talk about the right way to brand your streams, and we have other educational panels,” Foxe said. “We also have sponsors that will do giveaways and stuff like that, but we’re also a pretty tight-knit community.”

In addition to streaming video games, Foxe also livestreams music, a passion she’s had since college.

“Performing has been in my blood for a really long time,” Foxe said. “Twitch filled that void I had.”

Twitch also helped Foxe fill another void – a financial one – after she was diagnosed with fibromyxoid sarcoma in 2016.

“When I told my community, they got together and made a GoFundMe [fundraising account] without me knowing and revealed it to me while I was live on Twitch. We were able to raise about $10,000 and that paid for my cancer bills. So, I really believe in giving back to the community,” Foxe said.

That’s exactly what Foxe and other local streamers have done.

In addition to Foxe’s streams benefitting local charities, the Twitch-powered St. Louis group raised upwards of $11,000 for Extra Life Game Day, a 24-hour fundraising and gaming marathon to support Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals.

The St. Louis Community Meetup, Powered by Twitch [Facebook photo]

“I’m proud of the charity work the people in our community do,” Foxe said.

According to Twitch’s official blog, as of 2017, streamers had cumulatively raised over $75 million for charities.

The future of entertainment

The accessibility of Twitch combined with the low to zero cost of some streaming services has helped people and communities across the country come together to socialize, or support charitable causes, despite previous limitations.

“I think the accessibility helps in general because there are so many more people to interact with [globally],” Castillo said. “For instance, a lot of people used to stream or play games in Sweden or France [but] had limited access to North America. With the better internet and other capabilities, they can now co-stream. I think it’s been a positive influence all the way around.”

While livestreaming continues to grow in popularity, the concept can be daunting to those newly exposed to it.

“The question I get is, ‘Why would you want to pay someone to play video games?’” Foxe said about the economic side of Twitch. “Whenever I explain that it’s kind of like YouTube, except that it’s live, people get a better sense of what I do.”

Rooks said an important step for parents whose children may be watching or streaming with Twitch is to be engaged.

“Don’t be afraid to sit down with your child and say, ‘Hey, show me how this video game works’ or, if your child wants to livestream something, say, ‘OK, let’s learn that together,’” Rooks said. “I think that engagement, as a parent, is a huge piece. There tends to be this fear or this apprehension parents have about either getting involved or allowing their children to get involved. They don’t see it as an opportunity to either learn from their child or to learn together with their child, which I think is important.”

Likewise, Foxe said Twitch can be a bonding experience that crosses generations.

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