After an intriguing but worryingly barebones launch in March 2018, Rare’s ambitious pirate opus Sea of Thieves found itself lost at sea. There just wasn’t enough for players to do, causing many to fear that the game would never live up to its potential. Late last year, that began to change. Now, Sea of Thieves is improbably scaling Twitch’s mast, getting closer to the top every day.
For the past few weeks, it hasn’t been uncommon to see Sea of Thieves in or hovering just outside of Twitch’s top 10 most-viewed games. The past handful of days, though, have seen it rocket all the way up into the top three at peak hours, with an especially strong Monday showing putting it in second place with 102,000 viewers to Fortnite’s 217,000.
This is, in many ways, unprecedented. Launch aside, Sea of Thieves spent most of 2018 peaking well below 10,000 viewers on any given day. Then, in December, Rare released the “Shrouded Spoils” update, making the game more unpredictable by adding new enemies, giving old ones new tricks, and improving other haggard systems like loot as well. This rekindled fan interest in the waterlogged ship of a game, and then it hooked a big one: popular streamer Summit1g. With the 3.5 million followers that he’s accrued since 2012, Summit’s PVP-focused antics—whether they involved insanely improbable plays or, somewhat controversially, trolling the heck out of other players—brought a fresh helping of new eyeballs to a game sorely in need of them. Since then, Summit’s ruled the roost, becoming far and away the most-discussed streamer in Sea of Thieves’ community. Other, smaller streamers also gravitated toward the game, causing it to gradually peak higher and higher throughout December and early January.
It was only a matter of time before other popular streamers—ever vigilant for the next big thing after Fortnite, whose constant changes have caused consternation—clutched their knives between their teeth and boarded the ship. Over the past week, battle royale superstars like Dr Disrespect, TimTheTatman, and even Ninja have dipped their toes into Sea of Thieves’ shark- (and kraken-, and skeleton ghost pirate-) infested waters, generating everything from comedic highlights to themed production gimmicks to simmering faux-rivalries with Summit. This, alongside Summit’s continued success, has boosted the game’s Twitch numbers and led to what fans believe is an influx of new players. Some longtimers believe it’s their duty to help these fresh-faced sea puppies, while others, true to the pirate spirit, suggest robbing them blind.
Developer Rare, too, has taken notice, with executive producer Joe Neate describing the upswing in players and streamers as “incredible” in a recent developer update video. He specifically noted that, based on Rare’s metrics, monthly active users, sales, and streaming numbers are all on the rise. And sure enough, the PC version of Sea of Thieves is currently the second-best seller on Microsoft’s store. (The Xbox version is still far from a top-seller.) Neate also said that more changes are on the way, starting with combat balance tweaks and measures against cheaters.
Some streamers, however, have expressed trepidation over this rising tide. Hero of Oakvale, a smaller streamer who made Sea of Thieves his primary game months before Summit and crew elevated its profile, is worried that big names will sponge up all the potential viewers. He recently wrote about this in a thread on the Twitch subreddit, with other users telling him to do everything from “ride the waves (pun intended)” and try to stream during hours bereft of big streamers to find another game.
In a Discord DM, he told Kotaku that he’s seen his viewer numbers drop from 12-14 people to “maybe 5-7 viewers peak” since Summit and others have taken over, but he plans to stick with the game nonetheless.
“I will stick with Sea of Thieves because I enjoy their game overall,” he said, expressing his appreciation for Rare and its ongoing support of the game. “I haven’t had one bad stream while playing their game. I may not be getting as many views as I would like, however I think the game is wonderful, and [I’m] very happy to see more people picking it up for the first time.”
At this point, Sea of Thieves could wind up being just another flash in the pan on a platform prone to giving games 15 seconds of fame and little more. Right now, it still seems like big streamers, Summit aside, are feeling curious rather than committal. In another week or two, they could easily jump ship back to Fortnite without so much as a tear shed over their short-lived seafaring days. But Rare’s promised more support for the game, and if it can keep things fresh, this might be just the beginning for Twitch’s latest major player.
One thing Sea of Thieves definitely has going for it, though, is an open, socially focused environment that allows players to just chill—as long as they’re not being marauded by pirates, anyway. Given that Fortnite became a phenomenon in part by functioning as a hangout as much as a competitive game, it’ll be interesting to see if people start using Sea of Thieves in a similar way.