Illustration for article titled How Twitch Encourages Fans To Obsess Over Streamers Viewership Numbers
Image: Nathan Grayson (Tiny Red Man Originally Created By Twitch)

Sit in any sizable streamer’s Twitch chat for long enough, and the topic of numbers is bound to come up. Why isn’t viewership what it used to be? Why has the streamer plateaued? Why aren’t they as big as [insert bigger streamer here]? After a while, it starts to wear on some streamers.

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Cory “King Gothalion” Michael is a Destiny streamer who signed an exclusivity deal with Mixer in October. He told Kotaku he had decided to do this for a multitude of reasons, but the metrics-based rat race some of his own viewers continually reminded him of took a particularly notable toll.

“I started streaming six years ago on Twitch, and it felt like back then everything was more about community,” Michael told Kotaku over the phone. “But now on Twitch, it’s very much the second you log in, you’re under a microscope in comparison to everybody—not only your friends, but every other broadcaster on the platform. And because of the volume that Twitch has, you could say that one out of every 50 comments was some sort of jab or comparison. I’d much rather focus on making content, making relationships, than this big ego contest and who’s making the most money and who has the most views. That kind of thing is exhausting.”

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He went on to note that he feels like, in the past few years, toxicity has become a big issue on Twitch. He called it a “byproduct of growth,” but also pointed to Twitch’s slowly and inconsistently revised terms of service as another possible cause. Mixer, he said, has him in a much more optimistic place, because it “feels like Twitch five years ago.”

Michael’s move to Mixer, he said, also appeals to another portion of the stream viewer psyche. As epitomized (though certainly not kicked off) by Tyler “Ninja” Blevins’ meteoric rise to superstardom in 2018, people like to watch numbers go up. Blevins’ growth, in part, was facilitated by the fact that he was growing at an implausible rate. Viewers wanted to come along for the ride, to see what new and unexpected moments, collaborations, and deals would happen as a result. This mentality, though, has a flipside: If a streamer isn’t growing on Twitch, then they can appear to be stagnating, even if they’re still doing new and interesting things as part of their stream.

“There’s definitely some mentality where people want to rally around the starving artist,” said Michael, who noted that moving to Mixer and starting anew has “breathed a lot of life into my community.” On a new platform, Michael can have some of that scrappy up-and-comer appeal again: “It’s like there’s two types of people that people love to rally around: the winner and the starving artist. So if you’re just somewhere in between, then you’re probably going to get less people rallying, right?”

That duality frustrates Michael, who thinks that streamers caught “in between”—the ones who aren’t either at the top of the food chain or clawing their way up from the bottom—are “incredibly important.” He chalked up the contradictory viewer mentality, which he acknowledged that he’s currently benefiting from by switching platforms, to a lack of other available signifiers of competitive success in the streaming world. His manager, Omeed Dariani, CEO and founder of content creator management company Online Performers Group, compared it to basketball. In professional basketball, Dariani said, there are tons of statistics and other forms of evidence that cleanly separate the pros from the scrubs. Streaming, for better and worse, shares no such delineation.

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“On the court, you can very easily tell your progress and where you are in the ecosystem,” Dariani told Kotaku over the phone. “Whereas in streaming, the only stat that is easily available and understandable for people is size. So that growth is the only place that there’s validation, and you don’t have the thing of ‘Well I just got cast in Mission Impossible. I’m an A-list actor. I’m getting invited to all these awesome parties’ to validate what you’re doing. It’s really only that number.”

This is not an accident. Take a look under Twitch’s hood, and you’ll find that it’s largely by design. Twitch is a platform made for gamers that, itself, unfurls over time like a game. It has numbers-driven “paths” to Affiliate and Partner statuses, which unlock more money-making options for streamers, as well as an entire achievement system with goals like lassoing together 100 viewers at the same time or streaming for hundreds or thousands of hours total. It’s little wonder that the implicit pressure to keep your numbers up ultimately trickles down to viewers and how they engage with the platform. These viewers, meanwhile, are as competitive as you’d expect of a group of people who are parasocially bonded to competitive gamers, and video games have taught these competition-minded fans to keep a single eye open at all times, dolphin-like, for stats and numbers. I doubt Twitch minds that viewers are contributing to this pressure cooker environment for streamers. After all, the better numbers are looking, the more negotiating power the company has when it’s making ad deals, the plasma of its lifeblood.

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As streamers disperse to platforms outside of Twitch and numbers become less directly comparable, this mentality could change. Or some viewers might just get hung up on comparing streamers’ new stats to their old ones despite the size differential between, say, Twitch and Mixer, or YouTube and everybody else. There’s also the elephant in the room: deals, with both brands and, now, platforms. That’s another way for streamers and viewers to measure progress, something they already do sporadically, if only because new deals are themselves a sporadic occurrence. For now, though, streaming is a numbers game, and it’s one that everybody’s playing, whether they like it or not.

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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