Twitch is a live streaming platform founded in 2011 by creators Justin Kan and Emmett Shear. Since its inception as a video game-based off-shoot of Justin.tv (also created by the duo), it has consistently grown in popularity, size, and impact to the overall culture of the Internet. The average number of viewers of Twitch is nearly two and a half million as of this month, November 2020, and for the past few months, the service has been receiving over one and a half billion hours of viewership per month (source).
Because of the live aspect of the site, the interaction between streamers and viewers messaging in the chat is pivotal to the viewing experience and the culture of the website. Streamers frequently take questions from and ask questions to their chat, and chat usually responds to whatever happens during the stream in a handful of predictable ways. The main way viewers interact with streamers is through the use of emotes: “Twitch-specific emoticons that viewers and streamers use to express a number of feelings in chat” (source). As Twitch themselves describe emotes, “[they’re] a language of their own”.
There are two types of emotes: those added by Twitch staff which can be posted everywhere, called global emotes, and those added by individual streamers, who usually market the emoticons as an added benefit of supporting their Twitch channel with a paid subscription. Many global emotes have been added by the Twitch staff over the years, and because of the site-wide accessibility of them, they are the most prominent aspect of the culture. There are many emotes which are frequently spammed in many streamers’ Twitch chats; however, the most prominent of the Twitch emotes—and thus the most culturally relevant—is PogChamp.
In 2010, an outtake video was posted to the Cross Counter TV YouTube channel, a channel focused on fighting video games such as Street Fighter, Tekken, or Super Smash Bros. This video featured streamer Mike Ross alongside Ryan Gutierrez, a fellow streamer and professional Street Fighter player, who made a unique, memorable, and hilarious face in reaction to the cameraman bumping into his tripod and shaking the camera. A year later, in 2011, another video of the two streamers was uploaded to the channel, featuring them playing with Pogs, a collectible, mid-90s fad game also referred to as Milk Caps. The video was titled “Pog Championship”, and, soon after upload, the still image from the earlier 2010 video was posted on 4chan’s gaming board, /v/. The image was used to express excitement or surprise, and it quickly gained mainstream usage on the board.
Sometime in 2012, Twitch staff added the still image to its growing list of global emotes, titling it “PogChamp” in reference to the “Pog Championship” video. Although it crossed platforms from 4chan to Twitch, its meaning remained the same. The emote was spammed in Twitch chat whenever something exciting or unpredictable was happening in the live stream. Upon being added to the site, the emote was immediately adopted by the community, and it could be seen in chats far and wide. Ever since its addition to the platform, the emoticon has grown in usage, garnishing over a million uses per day recently (source). You can see hundreds of PogChamps being posted in any given Twitch chat at any hour of the day.
The most interesting thing about Twitch’s emotes is how they come into usage, how their usage is defined, and how they end up on the platform in the first place. The only way a Twitch emote can become global is if the Twitch staff personally add it to the list of global emotes, which does not happen frequently. This way, the production of emotes is throttled by Twitch staff. However, whether the community adopts an emote into their vocabulary, what the emoticon means, and when it should be used are all decided by the users of Twitch, specifically viewers that post in the chat. Because of this, the emotes exist in a cultural equilibrium between the administrators of the platform and the viewers and streamers who utilize the website.
However, Twitch staff does not have all the power when it comes to emotes. Since channel emotes are added by streamers to their own channels, they do not experience the same level of scrutiny. Some of these emotes relate directly to the streamer, but some also riff on popular global emotes. Some of these global emote variations have become popular enough that they entered the common parlance of the website. These emotes drove demand for a browser extension which would convert the name of the emotes into the actual images automatically, no matter where on the site or on the Internet a user is. Now, with the emote installed, a whole collection of additional emotes are supported, many of which are used just as frequently as PogChamp, despite not being natively supported by Twitch.
Some of these emotes which have been added outside of the jurisdiction of Twitch are PogU, Poggers, and WeirdChamp, which all riff on PogChamp, along with many based on Pepe the Frog. These emotes are not only given meaning and power from the community, but the community is also what drives them to be added to the list of channel-specific emotes supported by the browser extension.
These emotes are even starting to see mainstream usage. Streamers, those who watch streamers, and those in touch with modern “nerd” culture on the Internet frequently slip “pog”, “poggers”, and “PogChamp” into their speech with friends who are “in the know”. For example, I was telling a story to some of my friends over this last summer and one of them replied to certain parts of the story with “monkaS” or “WeirdChamp”, which are two of the most popular non-natively-supported emotes on the website. I had no idea what they were talking about, but I had heard the terms previously from other Twitch viewers in my friend group.
To those who frequent Twitch, emotes are not just funny pictures to spam in chat. Each one has its own emotion and purpose. Being sarcastic? Kappa. Are you surprised? PogChamp. Worried about what is happening? MonkaS. Laughing out loud? OMEGALUL or KEKW. Twitch emotes are not just an aspect of the culture; they are how you communicate within it. To an outsider, the emoticons frequently used on the site are just emoticons; however, to a twitch user, they are a language in and of themselves. PogChamp is just one small yet vital part of the whole vernacular of the website. That’s pretty poggers.