I am a PC gamer, and I have been since basically the beginning of middle school. I got my first computer for Christmas right around then, and I would spend time messing around on it at the desk adjacent to the kitchen in my family’s old house. I was 13 when I first joined a circle of friends and started playing League of Legends, a MOBA style online game that I still play to this day. While I did buy and use some consoles over my life, in recent years I have sold or stored most of my old consoles and transitioned to almost entirely PC games. Almost all new releases that I would be interested in are available for download using mediums such as Steam or Epic Games Store, so I don’t have to worry about being excluded from a new title I like. Altogether, I have spent thousands of hours playing online games and PC games more broadly. Naturally, I also wanted to be good at the games I was playing. In order to achieve this, I spent even more time watching others play the same games that I have played and trying to glean useful tips and tricks from them to integrate into my own game play. All of this can be summarized by saying that a vast majority of my free time outside of playing video games was dedicated to reading, listening to, or viewing video game related content.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and later the start of summer vacation, this pattern of content consumption has only increased. With most in-person activities I was involved in closing down and the increased difficulty of finding a summer job for some extra money, my time at home and thus on my computer got even higher in the past few months. Even with the start of the fall semester, I sometimes find myself watching a YouTube video up until the final few minutes before a class begins. If I am caught up on work, I am often talking and playing with distant located or close-by friends using Discord. In particular, my usage of the streaming platform Twitch has greatly risen whenever I find myself wanting to relax towards the end of a night or have background noise while I do something else on my computer.
Outside of YouTube, Twitch is one of the largest streaming platforms for general content. However, Twitch has always had a primary focus on video game streams and content related to video games. If a new viewer goes to Twitch, they will encouraged to create an account and find and follow one or more channels they find interesting. Browsing the most viewed categories, one can always find staples such as League of Legends, Defense of the Ancients 2, World of Warcraft, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and more recently, Fortnite. Sprinkled in among these there are often newly-released games that receive viewership in proportion to the amount of buzz they were able to generate. Finally, one can find more obscure games the further down they go. These can vary from cult classics to games that for one reason or another have attracted the attention of the speed run community. No matter which category someone chooses, they can then find a number of streamers currently streaming content related to that topic.
It’s not news that live-streaming platforms have grown to actively compete with cable television in recent years. With the start of the pandemic and lock down regulations at the end of March and beginning of April, Twitch hit record numbers of average viewership. Twitch streamers primarily streamed from a home office or computer to begin with, so the production of content remained uninterrupted and readily available as thousands and potentially millions of people found the platform while spending more time online rather than going outside. This alone helps explain the massive spike in viewership that is still slowly leveling off month by month. Nevertheless, my personal experience with the site has led me to believe that the pandemic has highlighted another important aspect of Twitch that has contributed to its success: it can provide a sense of community.
As a new viewer, you are likely to find yourself in one of a few high-viewership channels streaming popular content. As you become familiar and find channels you like, however, Twitch recommends related channels. Soon, you can find yourself in a channel with less than a thousand or even a few hundred viewers. The streamer may be holding multiple ongoing conversations with multiple people in chat, who in turn may be discussing topics amongst themselves. Of course, everyone is bound by at least one shared aspect: they enjoy the content the streamer produces. The platform allows for messaging between individual users too, so you can add fellow viewers to your friends list and even interact with them outside of stream. As I’ve used Twitch more and more, I have viewed quite a few small streams. Even in streams that average only 40 or 50 viewers, an ecosystem of sorts can develop. Among regular viewers, there are of course those who tune in more or less regularly and do not engage in the chat. On the other hand, those who do choose to chat will slowly build a rapport with the streamer and other viewers stream by stream over the course of weeks, months, or even years. Eventually, some viewers become as synonymous with the stream as the streamers themselves. All of this is especially true when a streamer streams often and at a regular time.
In this way, Twitch has become an entertainment platform such as television, but with the option for deeper engagement and social interaction if one is willing to actively make themselves a member of a community they enjoy. Following this trend, Twitch implemented channel points in August, which are points accumulated by watching a stream regularly. They can also be accrued faster if one is willing to actively watch the stream in question, as occasional interactive cues will appear on the stream that can be clicked for bonus points. These channel points can then be redeemed for special rewards or activities set by the individual streamer. In my opinion, it is these measures to actively engage participants and create hundreds or thousands of communities that have made Twitch a recent leader in entertainment services despite the crisis our society is facing.