Twitching all the way to the bank

By Dan Raile , written on September 29, 2015

From The What Kind of Play Has It Been Desk

Last Friday morning an orderly crush of pilgrims queued in the street around the ramparts of San Francisco’s central subway project tunnel boring, dripping slowly into the glass maw of the Apple Store.

Directed by informative cadres in gray Apple t-shirts, and provided bottled-water throughout hours and even days of holding ground out in the elements, the patient horde was rewarded with a new Gadget.

Blocks away, in the gray Moscone West convention hall, a riot of purple hair dye converged at the registration counter at the first ever, a gathering of those who Twitch. Inside, beyond an expo booth environment brimming with gaming stations, a 5-hour line snaked in wait for Twitch hoodies and shirts in the dark.

Last weekend marked the first official centralized rendezvous of the farflung Twitch tribe. They carpooled over these United States and voyaged from the ends of the earth to meet their digital brethren in consensus reality. All three-hundred and sixty Twitch employees were called on to manage the event.

If you’re over thirty like me, you may not know that Twitch is a web property resembling Youtube, if Youtube smoked a blunt, drank a Monster, and had its DNA edited together with Twitter and the video game industry. It metastasized benignly on the body of “lifestyle streaming platform”, beginning in 201,1 and then devoured its host. It now boasts over 100 million unique viewers and 1.7 million broadcasters each month, averaging an impressively-sticky 106 minutes per visit. And ads for beef jerky, soda (Coke & Pepsi), pizza, batteries, deodorant and Hollywood movies from every major studio.

At TwitchCon, developers of Starcraft II sat on a panel discussing the deep ancestral motivations of the Zerg for making galactic war in the game’s latest expansion pack. Long lines formed in front of podiums where Twitch’s most famous broadcasters gave audience to their assembled fans. Fully-equipped broadcast stations sat available for broadcasters to broadcast from, there were tournaments, panels, classic arcade games, luxuriant bean-bags and legacy tech corporations. Nearly two million global citizens streaming TwitchCon content joined over 20,000 people at Moscone West, a significant portion sporting partly purple or green hair, costumes and beards. Deadma5 made several appearances playing video games at brand booths before headlining the closing TwitchCon party Saturday at the Bill Graham Civic Center Auditorium. Deadmau5 recently began streaming his music live on Twitch.

TwitchCon was a far cry from the temporary occupation of the Moscone Convention Center by the beige brigades of Dreamforce a fortnight earlier, or from the stolid zombie fortitude of the iPhone early-adopters down the street, because playing video games while chilling inspires more organic fanaticism than sales or smartphones, and there is nothing Dave Grohl or Bono can do about that.

This is the mystical, millennial source of Twitch’s organic revenue stream: free-range advertising, heirloom channel subscription, and macrobiotic merchandise. These enticements were enough to induce Amazon to acquire the “social video gaming platform” for $970m, a year ago. Armed with Amazon financial and infrastructure resources, Twitch has embarked on a global scheme to expand its presence, notably in eastern Asia, the jewel of the gaming globe.

“I’m not really comfortable speaking about China, I’ll just say it’s challenging,” said Matt Dipietro, Senior Vice President of Marketing. He said the company has partnerships in Hong Kong and Taiwan, Japan and Korea, and is rolling out local language versions across the east Pacific rim.

The Twitch experience consists of several bandwidth-hogging elements. A livestream of video-game play, inset with that of a player’s webcam, alongside a scrolling chatbox replete in a distinct and rapidly-evolving emoticon vernacular. As David Foster Wallace predicted twenty years ago, some broadcasters have begun to swap out their plain, webcammed faces for animated avatars. Yesterday I watched General Mittenz navigate a new shooter while his martial kitten avatar narrated the carnage and shot the shit with his thousands of viewers, cartoon jaws scissoring in time with his audio feed, eyes blinking. 

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Yesterday, with the Twitch conference wrapped, I visited the company’s headquarters in the Financial District, which now occupies three floors of a startup-infested post-earthquake stone beauty at the corners of Bush and Sansome streets, complete with a daily-rotating, streetside food-truck and ground level independent coffee shop. Predictably, the offices feature a complimentary bar, catering and stocked refrigerators, with meeting rooms named for classic video game IP. Less predictably, some of those meeting rooms have scratch-and-sniff walls.

DiPietro and PR Director, Chase (just Chase) explained the company’s efforts to foster and sustain a positive cultural vibe across the platform’s million-odd channels. The success of these endeavors was evident in the presence on the convention floor of an unusual element in big Moscone gatherings: hugs.

“It’s in our brand interest to blunt the sharper edge-cases of repeated, personal harassment. We step in with our teams of 24/7 moderators. We allow our broadcasters to manage community the way they want on their channels: they can limit chat to subscribers only, or Facebook logged-in users only, and choose from a list of words to ban. Then there are those who like that Wild West atmosphere. It’s interesting seeing Reddit and Twitter dealing with these things in the past year. We’ve been dealing with them all along,” DiPietro said.

“Our community doesn’t suffer fools lightly,” added just Chase.

Twitch also bans certain ultraviolent content, and nudity, and video-game depictions of graphic sexuality, circumscribing the fringes of the community id.

They expanded on what makes Twitch different from this century’s other new entertainment options.

“To be successful as a broadcaster, you have to be pretty humble and ego-less. The Twitch celebrities, and they are celebrities, are very accessible. With VoD’s [recorded videos] you can be anyone you want, but when you are streaming all the time, the true person comes out, and friendly, benevolent people rise to the top,” said just Chase.

“We are part of a much bigger trend that is really foreign to the uninitiated, of media creation and consumption that is realtime and user-generated – though I use that term lightly because many of our broadcasters are professionals. Everyone else is stuck in on-demand, binge-watching habits, but our community is immediate and interactive,” said DiPietro.

In the months ahead, DiPietro said Twitch will focus on building out more one-to-one communications channels, and more tools for game publishers and brands to get “360 degree views” of how their products are doing on the Twitch frontier.

I rounded out my outsider’s sojourn in this unlikely content land with an email exchange with Elspeth Eastman, a 26-year-old videogame voice actor from Indianapolis. Email is to Twitch as smoke-signals are to telephones. Eastman started making money through her broadcasts last October, when she “got partnered.” Twelve-thousand other broadcasters have likewise leveled-up to share the advertising, subscription and merchandising revenues from their channels.

“'I’m broadcasting through Twitch because it's a very tight-knit community. There's a certain joy in experiencing a game firsthand with other people watching and commenting in real time,” she wrote.

“One of my favorite streams was playing Outlast. I'd never finished a horror game before because I'd always been so scared to play them, but with community encouragement, we completed it together. It's become much easier working through fears when people are right there watching with you.”

Sprung from the Y Combinator accelerated, funded by Tim Draper and bought by Jeff Bezos, Twitch is a bizarre and data-heavy web property hosting with an endemic millennial culture which older generations struggle to understand but can’t ignore.

When the robots take over, it might just give us all something to do, apart but together, working through our fears and burning up our spare time.