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Friday, June 21, 2024

Success on Twitch No Longer Comes on Twitch

For video game streamers, Twitch's appeal looms large. Grind hard, the maxim goes, and you'll accrue enough followers to make "Twitch streamer" your full-time job. You may even become a celebrity, get a cameo in Free Guy. The reality is different. Burnout is inseparable from the platform’s identity. Streamers toil for the approval of audience and algorithm. Even Pokimane, one of the site’s famous faces, has had to take extended time off. Smaller streamers burn out too, anonymously: only an extraordinary few earn enough to make a living. Of the 6 million people who create content on the platform, more than 90 percent stream to fewer than six viewers; 25 percent of the top 10,000 highest-paid streamers make less than minimum wage.

This state of affairs has sapped many streamers of good will. This week, Twitch will provoke more frustration when it removes “hosting,” a feature that lets streamers embed another channel’s live broadcast on their own page. Add to that Twitch president Dan Clancy’s announcement last month that the company would start giving streamers a lower revenue split in 2023 and you have a lot of creators wondering if success on Twitch is even worth it—or possible at all.

The revenue split is particularly painful. Under the new terms, top streamers on a 70/30 revenue split will see that split reduced to 50/50 after their first $100,000 in subscription revenue. Twitch’s deals already ranked worst among game streaming sites—some streamers have abandoned the site for platforms like YouTube—and the change to the 70/30 rate compounds this shoddy deal. “The top 500 creators will earn 29 percent less revenue per subscriber after reaching $100,000 earned in a year,” tweeted Devin Nash, a streamer and marketing agency cofounder, calculating the plunge.

The logic here is populist, but it’s missing the redistribution: Twitch has acknowledged that some streamers were doing better than others; now begins the era where everyone gets the same bad deal, justified in part because Twitch costs a lot to run. (It’s worth noting that Twitch is owned by Amazon, which runs AWS, which hosts Twitch; blaming hosting costs has left streamers perplexed.) Removal of the hosting feature feels like Twitch making the summit harder to ascend; the reduced revenue split is just another reason not to try.

Many streamers worked out a long time ago that streaming alone—the actual day-to-day of creating content on the service—is simply not enough to attract a following. Unlike gaming, where grinding, no matter how laborious, should lead to progress, grinding on Twitch does not bring equivalent reward. Many participants engage in a ten-thousand-hours culture that is basically Sisyphean. You’ll never reach the hallowed lands of Twitch partnership (and with that, the promise of better tools and a potentially stable income), without knowing this: You grow your Twitch audience on platforms other than Twitch.

Success hasn't improved this struggle. The platform grew significantly during the pandemic; total hours watched went from 9 billion in 2019 to 24 billion in 2021. Its seepage into the public consciousness as a place where you can do more than game, like put on cooking shows, or talk about politics or Johnny Depp, highlights how integral Twitch’s interactive model has become, particularly as a replacement for or alternative to terrestrial television or scripted entertainment. But as the audience has grown, so has the number of channels. Even with viewers watching multiple streams, there isn't enough community to go around.

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Streaming is precarious labor, explains Jamie Woodcock, a senior lecturer at the University of Essex. In 2017, he coauthored a paper examining the tensions inherent in turning it into a livelihood. Even five years ago it was already evident that Twitch’s user base was a pyramid, one where only a lucky few yielded all the money and attention at the top. Yet the pinnacle still seduces many to take an idealized gamble. “The chance that you could make money playing video games,” he says. “I mean, it looks a lot more appealing than clocking in at a hospitality job and getting tips taken by the boss, then having to work overtime. Right?”

Twitch’s decision to focus on live content drives grind culture, Nash explains over Discord. Unlike on YouTube, streamers are only valuable to Twitch when they’re live. They thus spend an absurd amount of time on the website, and this hustle trickles down. Nash posted a video on the topic in 2020, responding to a Reddit post that rallied streamers to keep on grinding and drop friends who told them to chill. This misconception is still widespread, yet, anecdotally, he says, streamers are cottoning on to the ploy. (Some have threatened to pull out of TwitchCon or strike).

“I think for smaller broadcasters and medium-sized broadcasters, things have changed in the last two months,” Nash says. “They are starting to consider multi-streaming and alternative platform options, and they're starting to realize that this old story they've been told about discovery on Twitch is not really true.”

Some streamers have known this for a while, like Shawn Gilhuly, a Twitch partner with more than 44,000 followers. There are no Twitch-only streamers who grind their way to the top, he explains. Unless you’re famous in real life, or get blessed by the Twitch gods—like being placed on the dashboard, like he was during Pride month—you need connections to a large creator’s community, or you need to diversify on other platforms. He was able to build a bit of a following through raids—sending viewers to another streamer’s channel—but, more importantly, he did it by going live on TikTok for 15 to 30 minutes and then inviting people to Twitch.

“Without TikTok, I would never have grown just on Twitch. Point blank, period,” Gilhuly says. Irritation about hosting’s removal derives from this struggle: It was generally accepted that being hosted on another's channel led to more viewers and a shot at a spot on Twitch's front page. With discovery on the platform so difficult, the removal feels like, at the very least, a misguided priority for the company.

Aki Mikan (orangeisborange), whose channel is smaller at about 1,441 followers, explains over Discord that though Twitch remains “a decent platform, building an audience has grown increasingly difficult. Small creators are still led to believe they can find success through daily streaming, she says, and people keep to themselves more and are less inclined to help others. Her own growth comes from Twitter and TikTok, as well her esports team, Grand Scheme Gaming (GSG). “Twitter’s engagement mentality, and TikTok’s posting trends, help several creators get seen,” she says. “I can’t say the same with Twitch. I’d say that twice or three times the effort is required on Twitch [compared] to Twitter or TikTok.”

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What can Twitch do to right the ship? A malaise has settled over the platform, claims Mark Johnson, a digital culture lecturer at the University of Sydney and Woodcock’s coauthor. “This is a very new sort of ‘period’ for Twitch as a platform, as it’s gone from a long period of fairly rapid change and generally huge user positivity increasingly into a period of really very little change and growing discontent,” he says. Even Gilhuly, who feels as though he’s treated well as a Twitch partner, saw the revenue split news and thought “Oh no, what’s next to come?”

Twitch just announced a bevy of improvements to raiding, which some streamers argue has made hosting redundant, and a spokesperson told WIRED over email that they will continue to launch features to help streamers gain more followers, citing shoutouts, channel switcher, and customizable tags.

“As more streamers have come to Twitch, many of them tell us that it’s gotten more competitive to grow viewers,” says Twitch spokesperson Samantha Faught. “Improving discovery to enable streamers to grow their communities is one of our top priorities as a company.” Twitch adds that partners can now livestream on other services and platforms “to give them the flexibility to further build their brands and bring new viewers into their communities on Twitch.”

Streamers are full of bigger ideas, from scaling back ads to focusing on smaller creators. Mikan suggests putting the “recommended smaller communities” section front-and-center. “If it were up to me, I think Twitch should have an event that puts smaller streamers on the front page, or have an event that shows their appreciation for affiliate and non-affiliate creators,” she writes.

More than anything, Gilhuly says, Twitch needs to listen. It’s the company’s general lack of transparency and communication, inviting trusted community members to meet then ignoring their suggestions, (like this, he says) that’s most frustrating. “If creators and viewers want something … why don’t they just do it?” he says. “I think the biggest issue I notice is that Twitch is once again losing its connection to its creators. The current leadership of Twitch makes me consider questions like ‘What will my community have to deal with next?’”

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