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Twitch's Digital Convention Was A Day-Long Commercial That Left Streamers Feeling Frustrated

Illustration for article titled Twitchs Digital Convention Was A Day-Long Commercial That Left Streamers Feeling Frustrated
Image: Twitch

Its location, size, and Pokimane pizza lines have varied, but since 2015, Twitch has hosted some form of convention every year. 2020 is not like other years, to put it mildly. Of all activities people could choose to perform in our pandemic-stricken nation right now, conventions might actually be the most out of the question. So over the weekend, Twitch put on GlitchCon, an entirely digital convention. However, this celebration of Twitch streamers and culture felt, at times, as though it was taking place in another world—one where Twitch is what it (and advertisers) want it to be, and not what it actually is.

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The convention took place on November 14, but a difficult-to-ignore sensation of dissonance began to creep in before it even kicked off. To promote the event, Twitch sent themed trailers decked out with Twitch merch to select streamers—which streamers began tweeting about on November 13. While the streamers who’d received the vehicles seemed pleased, the response from many others was uniform: Why was Twitch spending money on glitzy trailers when it should’ve been putting every penny it could toward licensing music, thereby beheading the DMCA dragon currently terrorizing the platform?

Of course, the teams at Twitch that handle event planning and DMCA-related matters are very different, and this question ignores the reality of how budgeting tends to work at large companies. However, the broader sentiment from streamers was understandable; over the course of the past month, Twitch has massively eroded community trust by leaving streamers high and dry when the music industry finally came to collect its toll, forcing streamers to delete their entire histories instead of providing them with alternatives—or even accessible means of contesting copyright claims. During the lead-up to GlitchCon, streamers were not exactly in a celebratory mood.

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On Saturday, the event began with a keynote from Twitch CEO Emmett Shear, who said little of consequence compared to the feature announcements of previous TwitchCons, but did touch on DMCA troubles—albeit very briefly. He began by saying that the company would not be hosting a live Q&A after the keynote, as it had originally planned, for painfully obvious reasons.

“It’s obvious that many of you want and deserve a lot more information from us, and a 10-minute Q&A session wouldn’t even come close to the level of depth of conversation that we want to have with you,” he said, noting that there will be a town hall devoted to the topic of DMCAs next month. He proceeded to apologize, largely reiterating what Twitch said in an apology letter it posted last week.

“If you receive a DMCA takedown, you should be able to know exactly what the content is or, if you believe you are authorized, you should know how to contest the takedown. I believe it’s a failing of our email to creators on October 20 that we didn’t include enough of this information, and it’s an issue with our current systems that we’re working to improve,” Shear said during the GlitchCon keynote. “We should have had better tools for you to manage your content, and we wish we did. We’re sorry those tools weren’t available when you needed them and that so many creators had to delete their videos capturing their communities’ best moments and accomplishments.”

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Reaction from streamers on Twitter was not positive. It’s been nearly a month since the DMCA drama began, and once again, Twitch offered very little in the way of concrete information. It did not help that Shear and company then cannonballed straight into the pageantry portion of the proceedings. Following segments saw Twitch demonstrate its more charitable side. The company granted partner status to multiple streamers, including two women of color, MiladyConfetti and ZombaeKillz, to ebullient live reactions from streamers and chat alike. It also donated $1 million to AbleGamers, a charity dedicated to improving the lives of people with disabilities through video games.

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These were legitimately emotional moments for all involved and admirable contributions on Twitch’s part. However, they were marred by gaffes and pervasive platform-wide issues that remain under-addressed. For example, when MiladyConfetti was told, live on stream, that she’d been granted partner status, her incredulously joyful tears were undercut by a torrent of “Trihard” emotes in chat. This is a common racist joke on Twitch. Viewers see a Black person—any Black person at all—and spam the emote, which is a picture of veteran streamer Mychal “Trihex” Jefferson’s face.

On top of that, there’s the simple fact that becoming a Twitch partner barely means anything anymore. Back in the day, it was a perk-ensconced gateway into a full-time streaming career. Now it’s just a sign that you’ve jumped through the requisite metrics-based hoops (an average of 75 viewers, etc), but it’s not a guarantee of anything aside from a few additional perks that the more easily obtained “affiliate” status doesn’t already grant you. In an official FAQ, Twitch says that “out of over 2 million active broadcasters, around 27,000 are Partners.” However, unofficial stats now put the number of streamers at closer to 4 million million, meaning that the partner stat is likely outdated, and there are even more now. Ultimately, what Twitch got—free publicity from somebody who acted like their life had just been changed—was far more than it actually gave.

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In fairness, Twitch did give quite a bit to AbleGamers. But even that moment was marred by the dumbfounding decision to deploy a giant golden “kappa” emote on the screen during AbleGamers’ COO Steve Spohn’s reaction. The kappa emote was a big part of GlitchCon’s promotion, but it’s also most commonly used in chat to express sarcasm. Viewers, then, were not sure if Twitch actually gave AbleGamers $1 million, or if it was a cruel joke.

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These segments, charitable as they ultimately were, also shone a spotlight on a conspicuous absence from the convention. In addition to various other events like esports tournaments and meet and greets, TwitchCon hosts panels in which streamers discuss topics near and dear to them. During the past few years, these have included discussions of difficult, often unflattering (if you’re Twitch) subjects like racism, sexuality, and disability. At GlitchCon, however, there were no panels—just moments when Twitch got to briefly look like a knight in shining armor to marginalized groups that it routinely underserves. Over the summer, Black streamers spoke about how it was all at once validating and heartbreaking that Twitch—as both a company and culture—barely reached out until their communities had been ravaged by police violence. And yet, months later at GlitchCon, the Trihard emotes rained, an unmistakable reminder that very little has materially changed.

The convention itself was basically a highlight reel of Twitch, but with edges shaved off and ample ads in their place. Segments included a cosplay competition, a guessing game in which chat tried to figure out the identity of a “glitched gamer,” Dark Souls speedrunning, esports, a talent show, and a music-based “afterparty” hosted by musician and streamer T-Pain. Sprinkled throughout, there were some legitimately fun moments; the Dark Souls speedrun competition included a portion where streamers played the game using Dance Dance Revolution pads, which was handily won by Luality, a previously lesser-known streamer whose channel description is literally “Plays Dark Souls 3 on a dance pad.”

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The winner of the talent show, meanwhile, was a musician named Juliaaaeasttt who opened the show with an embarrassing gaffe (her sound did not play, but she was not aware and rocked out while the judges yelled to try and get her attention) only to come back later and take home gold with a dynamite performance of Kimbra-like looping pop. It was one of those moments that perfectly illustrates why live content—even when rigorously planned—is so enrapturing: You never know when something might go awry, but that doesn’t mean it’s all over. Great streamers have mastered the art of thriving when other people would be melting down.

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It was clear that the team at Twitch responsible for putting GlitchCon together poured a lot of effort into emphasizing what makes the platform unique. GlitchCon, despite covid-imposed constraints, was legitimately enjoyable viewing. It’s even more of a feat when you consider that the boiling tensions between streamers and Twitch are clearly beginning to wear on Twitch employees, many of whom have no choice but to roll with the punches prompted by their employer’s decisions.

All throughout the event, however, things felt off. There were guest spots from numerous popular streamers, none of whom seemed quite in their element stopping themselves from cursing and regularly shouting out Verizon 5G. “Keep your eye out for a couple massive Verizon giveaways in the show,” Twitch streamer and YouTuber Tucker “Jericho” Boner said while hosting the glitched gamer guessing game. “See, we really are all winners.” Then he trailed off for a moment, clearly uncomfortable, before adding: “It’s in the script, I have to say it.”

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Multiple streamers renowned for regularly busting out edgy jokes and memes—or, in the case of Tyler “Tyler1” Steinkamp, sometimes straight up berating viewers—made tamped-down, brand-friendly appearances. The talent show, for example, was hosted by Austin, a talk show host who formerly went by the moniker Rajj Patel. The risqué chaos of his popular streaming spins on shows like The Bachelor, however, was nowhere to be found. Other streamers who’ve previously dipped their toes in edgier waters like Andy Milonakis and Chance “Sodapoppin” Morris were also on their best behavior.

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Morris, at least, seemed to be having fun borderline-parodying the event he was a part of. When asked to explain the glitched gamer segment he was helping host, he replied in a sarcastic tone: “We’re doing some stuff. It’s gonna be super cool and poggers. We’re gonna crunch some numbers. We’re gonna find a winner. We’re gonna find a loser. It’s gonna be really, really pogchamp.” Then he proceeded to keep score by writing in sharpie on a broken-down cardboard Amazon box. It’s hard to say if that’s exactly what Twitch wanted, but it was definitely funny.

Bringing everything full circle, the night’s afterparty called back to the strangeness of the morning’s keynote. T-Pain proved an able host, but after spotlighting a few other musicians, he introduced a DJ named AC Slater who proceeded to spin licensed music. After a handful of minutes, the stream abruptly cut away to a GlitchCon screen, so that Twitch would not have to take down its own event. When it returned to T-Pain, he was holding a Twitch rulebook. Pretending to read, he said, “In order to not get DMCA-ed, you...OK, use the Pizzle Pack whenever you can,” referencing his own pack of royalty-free beats. Not a bad save on his part, but an embarrassing moment for Twitch nonetheless.

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That was GlitchCon in a nutshell: A series of close shaves and awkward saves surrounded on all sides by a solid though sanitized attempt at salvaging an unsalvageable year. Like so many TwitchCons before it, it functioned as a demonstration of how Twitch wants the world to see it, as well as a glimpse of the future. The company clearly hopes to maintain the spontaneity and community that have come to define its platform, but it wants them in an uncomplicated diet form—one that doesn’t require it to do inconvenient things like spend money on licensing or figure out a business model that isn’t rooted in antiquated forms of advertising. If streamers wind up caught between the crushing clamps of these competing priorities, so be it. One way or another, the show will go on.

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Kotaku senior reporter. Beats: Twitch, streaming, PC gaming. Writing a book about streamers tentatively titled "STREAMERS" to be published by Atria/Simon & Schuster in the future.

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DISCUSSION

I only stay on the sidelines of these things, but it really seems like Twitch has become MTV. The spontaneity that grew the brand has become scripted.