In May, Paste’s Maddy Myersquestioned the ethical and economic responsibilities that Twitch bore to its million plus streamers, demanding “institutional, organized, comprehensive support” for the “users” in this new “user-generated” economy. In response, Twitch reached out to explain exactly what support the company was offering, and in the process we had a conversation about the streaming service’s history, practices and potential.
Different Streamers, Different Aspirations?
While Twitch features over a million unique broadcasters every month, only 6,500 of these are “Twitch Partners.” This means that only .65% of Twitch’s users can collect revenue on the advertisements that viewers see when they join a channel, or choose to run additional ads for further revenue. Further, only those 6,500 people can offer their viewers the option to “subscribe,” which allows audiences to pay streamers directly for extra features or content. Yet if less than one percent of all Twitch users make money streaming, then why do so many people spend hours every day broadcasting their play sessions?
Twitch VP of Marketing Matthew DiPietro compares these “social” or “casual” streamers to early bloggers. Their audience is “just their friends and family,” he says, and “they broadcast just because they love to do it.” Sure, a few might make it big, but most folks just use Twitch “like they’d use Facebook or Twitter or Reddit.” When I press him on this, when I ask about the aspirational and economic motives of some of these streamers, DiPietro paints a very familiar picture. He uses phrases like “passion project” and “personal reasons.” He tells me it’s all about “expression.” While he admits that, sure, some people want to make money at this, he remains steadfast in his claim that “a large portion of those folks just have no interest.”
This argument is well worn. The idea is that if you like what you do, you shouldn’t need to be paid for it. Whether it’s about artists, teachers, writers, or athletes, you hear it again and again: Don’t do it for money, do it for the love of the game. This argument sidesteps the question of exploitation: if you do a thing that makes money for someone else, do you deserve a cut? It also evades other, even trickier questions: Can people who are enjoying themselves be economically exploited? (Yes.) Does economic exploitation immediately mean a cultural activity is worthless? (No.)
It’s a complicated set of problems to work through, so I let DiPietro’s claim stand. But a mere twenty minutes later, I hear a completely different story from Twitch Community Manager Jordan Tayer. “[For] a lot of broadcasters,” Tayer says in an all-business voice, “the dream is to make money playing videogames. Straight up, to be honest.” The call is tense for a moment. Tayer, a successful streamer in his own right, was out of the room when DiPietro made his “passion project” argument. I expect to hear him change his tune, but he doesn’t. Words like “expression” still come up, but now they’re tied to arguments about economic freedom. Tayer explains that he could set his own hours, play and talk about whatever he wanted, all because he’d managed to make streaming DayZ “lucrative.”
Tayer’s story sounds seductive on its face, but the reality is less glamorous. While describing his own ascent to Twitch stardom, Tayer lays out the costs he paid to succeed. He explains that when he started streaming two years ago, he “invested thousands of dollars for a streaming rig,” and more for streaming software and broadcast training. He also devoted an amount of free time that many don’t have, streaming for six days a week, and sometimes upwards of 10 or 12 hours a day. He’d networked with people at Microsoft Game Studios to get his stream promoted on Twitter, and with ASTRO to get free gear and further promotion. He’d spend time cutting up two-to-five minute long promotional clips, putting them on YouTube to attract new viewers. Professional streaming was hard work.
The conflict was clear: DiPietro told me that most streamers weren’t being paid because they just didn’t want to be, while Tayer was saying that the desire was abundant, but that streamers couldn’t always clear all the obstacles separating them from success. Throughout the interview, these two stories bubbled up over and over, never quite meshing. The closest they came together, though, was when we discussed Twitch’s plans for the future.
Flexible Platforms, Flexible Workers
While there was no clear answer on the question of aspiration, there was no doubt that Tayer was right about the difficulty of becoming successful once a streamer sets out to “go pro.”
Twitch is working to address this difficulty, says DiPietro. He says that they want to provide “a platform that is flexible enough to allow you as a broadcaster, whoever you are, to meet your own goals, whatever they are.” Tayer confirms that Twitch has removed many of the hurdles that he had to leap when he started to stream just a couple of years ago.
Chief among these is the technical difficulty one had to overcome to begin streaming. While Tayer spent thousands on equipment, now anyone who owns an Xbox One or a Playstation 4 (and who has an internet connection fast enough) can start streaming almost immediately. “All those [technical] barriers are removed,” DiPietro says, before laughing a bit. “There’s a share button right on the controller!”
This ease of access has had a huge effect on Twitch. Before these new consoles launched, there were as few as 500,000 unique streamers a month. Since the Fall 2013 launch of the new generation of game consoles, that number has been consistently twice as high. In fact, they tell me, the first wave of successful console streamers are now being invited into Twitch’s partnership program.
That’s not the only improvement that DiPietro and Tayer cite, either. They both argue that two years ago people like Tayer were inventing a profession. They had to develop their own best practices and business strategies. Now the careers of professionals like Tayer had become templates for new streamers.
They also tell me that they want to offer even more people the chance to be Twitch partners. “In an ideal world,” DiPietro tells me, “everyone would be a partner,” but right now there are “business realities” that prevent them from offering partnerships to more people: Contracts, payment systems, bureaucratic paperwork. Twitch’s staff is working on streamlining it all, and over the next few years they’d like to increase the total number of partners by double, triple, or even by ten times of what it is now.
Even at that point, though, questions would remain. If the current number of total users was frozen in place, a 10 times increase in partners would still mean that 93.5% of twitch users weren’t being paid. Further, as Myers’ original piece argued, it seems that the partnership program itself is lacking, as some potential Twitch Partners have felt it necessary to turn to crowd-funding sites to finance their streaming instead of relying on Twitch’s own subscription system.
Yet, DiPietro and Tayer see this new development as another improvement. For them, crowd-funding is just one more potential source of income for streamers. The reality is, they tell me, most streamers who make a living at this only do it through multiple income sources: sponsorships, promotional deals, and yes, now crowd-funding. Twitch is investigating ways to make the “partnership product” more rewarding for the chosen .65%, but even still, Tayer tells me that streamers need external income so that they can reinvest into their channel, in order to improve the production quality of their broadcasts. “That’s just business,” he says, restating for the fourth or fifth time that people stream because they want to play games for a living. “The competition is fierce out there.”
Tayer is not wrong. While Twitch may be building a flexible platform, success on the platform also requires streamers themselves to be flexible workers. While the technical hurdles are gone, some of the social and economic obstacles remain. Streamers still need to devote dozens of hours a week to become successful. They need to find secondary and tertiary income sources, even if that means entering into complex (and, sometimes, questionable) relationships with industry companies. And of course, they also need to deny their desire to get paid. Tayer’s is a familiar chorus in the era of hope labor: “They’ve come to realize that spreading their channel name and their brand is a little bit more important to do before asking for funding
That’s the first logical step.”
New Voices, Old Strategies
DiPietro and Tayer say that Twitch is a platform built to allow self-starters to succeed, but that they can’t make superstars. They do, however, curate the front page carousel, which attracts new viewers to up-and-coming streams. It’s hard to get an answer about what it takes to get this extra spotlight to shine on your channel, but Twitch’s Director of PR, Chase, tells me about the deep roots that Twitch has with gaming culture. Their staff includes former competitive FPS clan founders, eSports announcers, and, of course, streamers like Tayer. Chase doesn’t say it explicitly, but it feels like he wants me to know that they love gaming there, that this love would help them bring the best streams to the forefront.
To be honest, I don’t doubt their intentions. Each of the people I spoke to clearly knows what they have here. They understand that live streaming is emerging as a new, communal, user-driven media form all its own. They are passionate about live streaming, about games, and about community. It’s not just the streamers who are inventing something as they go along, it’s the people at Twitch too, and their passions form an engine that drives them to build and improve the platform. Twitch has brought new voices into the conversation around games, including many voices that have been unable to break into the mainstream games press. Yes, these new voices range in quality, style, and intention, but that’s part of what makes live streaming exciting. Live streaming can be boring or beautiful, offensive or insightful, relaxed or frenetic. Sometimes it really is transformative.
What those working at Twitch have done so far is an accomplishment, and deserves praise, but it will take more than good intentions from Twitch to keep these new voices around. After all, which of streamers will be paid? Which will find reason to stick around? DiPietro and Tayer may have had different stories about streamer aspirations, but they were consistent when speaking about the tactics necessary to succeed. If the only way to “make it” as a streamer is to follow Tayer’s template—to get a promotional deal with a publisher, to angle for equipment sponsorships, and to beg and borrow in order to invest in your production quality—how varied will “professional” streaming be? In the end, will the same sorts of voices already so prevalent throughout the rest of the games industry be privileged in this new space, too?
DiPietro says that Twitch hopes to expand and improve their partnership program. I hope so too, but when he tells me that streaming-for-pay is “not for everybody,” I worry that these changes won’t be enough. I hope that Twitch continues to experiment, to break ground, to be risky. I hope that they develop payment and broadcast systems that encourage a wide variety of users to continue streaming, not only because I want them to be fairly paid, but because this new medium deserves to be explored. Twitch can’t make superstars, that’s true, but maybe the system shouldn’t be limited to “superstars” and “everyone else.”
Austin Walker is a PhD Candidate in Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario, writing about games, labor and culture. He writes about games at @austin_walker and at Clockwork Worlds.