TechScape: Twitch and the dark side of the streaming dream | Twitch

Twitch is having a rough time. The live-streaming site, owned by Amazon since 2014, is synonymous for many with video games. The audience for TechScape is broad, so forgive me: some of you will wonder why I have to explain that Twitch is where viewers watch microcelebrities play video games, interact with those influencers and experience tight parasocial relationships of the sort that other communities have with podcasters, YouTubers or newsletter authors. (I love you, too). Others will wonder why anyone would want to watch someone playing video games.

Whether you get it or not, there’s no questioning that Twitch streamers are bona fide celebrities. We’re some years out now from 31-year-old Richard Blevins – better known as Ninja – hitting headlines in 2018 for playing Fortnite against Drake and earning an easy million-dollar salary in the process.

Since then, Ninja’s trajectory is telling of the extent to which Twitch’s leadership in the space has been challenged. In 2019, he was given an exclusive contract by Mixer, Microsoft’s homegrown Twitch competitor, for an undisclosed sum. It wasn’t just about the money, Blevins said: the “toxic” community that had grown up on Twitch played its part. But by 2020, Mixer was shutting down, and Ninja was released from his contract. Now, he splits his time across multiple platforms, still streaming to Twitch but also broadcasting on YouTube, TikTok, Instagram and Facebook.

Ninja isn’t alone in looking beyond the market leader for a platform. And Twitch isn’t helping things. The company recognises the importance of its stars, and in a move that is quietly common across the world of social media, started to offer its biggest celebrities sweetheart deals, splitting the earnings of a Twitch subscription – a monthly fee paid by a viewer to support an individual host – 70/30 in the streamer’s favour for the biggest and best. For smaller streamers, the deal was split 50/50, but with a supportive audience and a community culture that encourages parting with cash, rather than relying solely on advertising, even that can provide a meaningful sum of money.

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In September, however, Twitch ended the 70/30 revenue split, slashing its payouts to its biggest stars. “We don’t believe it’s right for those on standard contracts to have varied revenue shares based on the size of the streamer,” Twitch said in a blogpost. “In an ideal world, all streamers would be on the same set of terms regardless of size.” No sweetheart deals sounds fair enough – but why not standardise at 70/30, uplifting the smaller creators?

“We have to talk about the cost of our service,” Twitch president Dan Clancy explained. “Delivering high-definition, low-latency, always-available live video to nearly every corner of the world is expensive. Using the published rates from Amazon Web Services’s Interactive Video Service (IVS) – which is essentially Twitch video – live video costs for a 100 [viewer] streamer who streams 200 hours a month are more than $1,000 per month.”

When it streams it pours

Telling streamers whose income was being cut that it was necessary because the Amazon subsidiary Twitch couldn’t pay its Amazon Web Services bills without doing so went down poorly. But the company had an opportunity to make amends in October at TwitchCon, its annual gathering.

Instead, things got worse. From the off, attenders said, the convention felt clinical and corporate, an opportunity to celebrate the company rather than a moment for the company to honour the streamers who have made it what it is.

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And then there was the foam pit. A booth set up by PC manufacturer Lenovo featured gladiator-style battles between top streamers on top of a pile of foam blocks. But unlike the TV show, the blocks were reportedly just a thin layer scattered over the concrete floor of the convention centre. Injuries to some people who jumped off the platform were reported, with the most serious being Adriana Chechik, who says she broke her back in two places. Throughout, Twitch has remained silent about the incidents. (A Lenovo rep told the website Polygon at the time: “Safety remains our top priority and we are working with event organizers to look into the incidents.”)

The slights create the impression that Twitch doesn’t care about the people who devote themselves to making content for its platform. And that’s increasingly problematic, because “devote” is an accurate word. To join the Twitch “affiliate” programme, and access the monetisation features, you have to have streamed for a minimum of eight hours in a 30-day period, spread over at least seven days (and to an average of three viewers over that entire period). It’s a fairly gruelling schedule for work that is, by definition, unpaid, and pulling it off still doesn’t guarantee that Twitch will actually accept you.

The shackles of streaming

Once Twitch is paying you, the work doesn’t get less intense. As the Guardian’s Keza MacDonald wrote last year:

Talking to the people around that table, I was instead astonished – and, honestly, worried – by how hard they worked. The woman sitting next to me told me that she streams for eight to 10 hours every day, and when she wasn’t live she was curating her social media, responding to fans, scouting for brand partnerships or collaborations with other streamers; throughout our conversation she was visibly resisting the impulse to check her phone, where new stats and fan comments and potential opportunities were presumably stacking up. I asked what she does for fun and she seemed genuinely confused by the question.

It’s a hard life if you get the rewards of it. It’s harder still if someone else is using you. Last week a top-tier Twitch streamer alleged that her partner had spent years manipulating her and forcing her to stream on the platform after taking control of her finances and bank account. She called the world she had been living in a “fancy prison”, claiming that her 12- to 15-hour streams were not her choice and the rewards for doing them were not all accruing to her. In a follow-up video, she said she was safe and happy to be out: “I don’t have to wear cleavage every day.”

In a recent interview, Twitch CEO Emmett Shear acknowledged that the company’s relationship with its streamers needs to change – but called on the US government to make the first move. ““It’s not quite a W-2 job and it’s not quite a contracting job,” he told Bloomberg (£). “I think we could really use legislation that created a third option that was appropriate for the gig economy and the creator economy.

“One of the fundamental dynamics of the creator economy is that tech companies aren’t used to the level at which creators rely on them for their business,” he added. “A rapid change to how a product works isn’t just a matter of, ‘This person didn’t get as many views on their video,’ but rather, ‘This person can’t make rent this month.’”

As a recognition that the relationship needs to change, it’s a start. But Twitch can do more for its creators than wait for the government to make them pseudo-employees. The question is whether it will before they turn to someone else who can.

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