Illustration: Sam Woolley
Year In ReviewWe look back at the highs, lows, surprises, and standouts in and around video games this year.  

By pretty much every measure that matters, 2018 has been Twitch’s biggest year ever. Already a force in the gaming world, Fortnite helped catapult the streaming platform into the mainstream. There were big moments, bigger numbers, and of course, lots of growing pains.

In many ways, Twitch’s appeal in 2018 remained the same as it’s ever been: United by charismatic personalities and video games (or travel or cooking or chatting), people form online communities. They can engage as they please, whether that means actively participating or just chilling out and ambiently socializing. Several decades into the internet’s existence, this current era is defined by feelings of loneliness and alienation, even as people are theoretically more connected than ever. Twitch offers a place to go and experience interactions that feel spontaneous and real. Also, gamers love watching people who are better than them at gaming.

This year, Twitch’s version of accessible-seeming celebrity came into contact with more traditional notions of fame, resulting in previously unprecedented moments like Fortnite streamer Ninja’s stream with the rapper Drake, Ninja’s appearance on Ellen DeGeneres’ show, and, well, really just Ninja’s whole thing. For all the highs of Twitch’s 2018, though, there were also plenty of lows, including double standards for women and people of color, abuse and harassment issues, and of course, slurs a-plenty. As more and more people recognized that streaming could be a career, labor issues inherent to Twitch’s structure as a platform remained a persistent concern.

For now, Twitch is on top of the (streaming) world. It sets the tempo, and everybody else struggles to keep up. That doesn’t mean it can do no wrong, though. Far from it: mistakes—just like triumphs—now stand to reach more people than ever.

Illustration: Jim Cooke

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The Company

Twitch is still decidedly ruling the streaming market and, when it comes to game streaming, other livestreaming apps like Facebook’s, Google’s and Microsoft’s are eating Twitch’s dust. In fact, it’s become a meme that, when a Twitch streamer gets kicked off the platform, they go to YouTube’s streaming platform to lick their wounds.

One question remains, though: Is Twitch making itself worth the $1 billion Amazon paid for it back in 2014? It’s still hard to say. This week, however, Twitch published some stats from 2018 indicating that the number of streamers who make money on Twitch grew 86% between 2017 and 2018, and also, the number of streamers per month increased by one million in that same timespan. That’s gargantuan.

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It is hard to measure a video company’s success on the internet. Sure—Twitch says it was watched for 434 billion minutes in 2018. But, technically, what’s a view? Who counts as a viewer? Despite how often they’re used, terms like “view” and “viewer” can mean anything from “Scrolling past an embedded Twitch livestream while I’m looking up something on Gamepedia” to “literally a bot.” This year, news broke that Facebook had made a view-counting faux pas by a factor of 150 to 900 percent—and now, a lawsuit against the company claims that those numbers hugely bolstered its relevance to advertisers. We’re curious to see whether the specifics behind Twitch’s metrics will become clearer in 2019.

Photo: Kiyoshi Ota/Getty

The Platform

Twitch’s big platform changes this year revolved around helping users find new content they like, and so far, it’s been working great. Cecilia made it a goal for herself this year to find and stan for some new live cooking shows and, oh man, did she (shoutout to 제이치42). In July, Twitch viewers started getting personalized recommendations based on their interests. Late September, Twitch received new tags and categories for its streams. That made it even easier to find non-gaming streams, like for podcasting, cooking, chatting, whatever—all of which used to be wrapped up into one black sheep category called “IRL.” Then came more specific gaming-related tags, designed for viewers who didn’t just want to watch Overwatch but wanted find someone who streamed, for example, the Overwatch hero Roadhog.

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In the “finding stuff you like while also upping Twitch’s numbers” vein, Twitch also added “Community Gifting,” which let viewers give up to 100 paid subscriptions to friends or acquaintances or Discord randos. That has resulted in a lot of excited squeals from streamers.

Outside of these good bookkeeping-slash-discovery tools, a lot of Twitch’s other platform innovations were led by its forceful push into esports, and especially, the Overwatch League. Twitch snagged the rights for the debut of the Overwatch League (for a reported $90 million), and with it came a couple new features that sweetened the deal for viewers. Players could receive Overwatch skins and Twitch emotes in exchange for “cheering” with “bits,” virtual items that viewers purchase with real money that let them show some excitement for whatever’s going on. Also in exchange for viewing, Overwatch League fans could get “League Tokens” after each game. Fans could use those to purchase team skins if their Twitch is linked to their Battle.net account. And if we know anything about Overwatch fans, they love skins.

Twitch also introduced an All-Access Pass for the Overwatch League, which for $15 gave players in-game items and access to a special contest. Probably more interesting was the “virtual backstage access” it offered pass-holders, who could see post-match interviews and other extra content. All of this together gave fans the option to, well, fan harder and spend more money in the process.

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One negative change did stir a little controversy among Twitch’s most dedicated fans. Twitch, which is owned by Amazon, used to offer a big perk to Twitch Prime—or, Amazon Prime—subscribers: ad-free viewing. This fall, that got rolled back. Now, viewers have to shell out an extra $9 a month for Twitch Turbo, Twitch’s new ad-free subscription service. It isn’t as clutch of a deal for viewers, but streamers apparently received more advertising opportunities because of the change.

What’s Big On Twitch

The most obvious answer to “What big on Twitch in 2018?” is Fortnite, the survival shooter that has dominated Twitch for the better part of this entire year. The game’s relatively short rounds, challenging gameplay, regular content updates and whimsical, fun-to-look-at graphics all add up to Twitch flypaper. Even Logan and Jake Paul tried to get in on it, with mixed results.

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Twitch’s top streamer, Ninja, who streams Fortnite, averages a reported 40,000 viewers per livestream. Earlier this year, that number was more like 100,000. Users watched tens of millions of hours of Fortnite on Twitch this year. After Fortnite usurped it, League of Legends is still going strong and continues to be championed by some of the platform’s most prominent streamers, like Tyler1 and ImAQTPie. What’s not big on Twitch anymore—or at least, not as big—is PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, which in 2017 was all the rage.

What viewers really want is personality. Twitch’s new “Just Chatting” category regularly beats out Hearthstone, Dota 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive on the viewership front. It’s here that viewers are watching streamers like Kitboga prank fake tech support scammers, Forsen watch YouTube videos between variety streams and Pokimane charm her live audience of thousands just by being her lovely self.

Often topping each top game categories’ rankings were the esports tournaments hosted by game publishers like Epic Games, Riot Games or Blizzard. The Overwatch League’s first stage averaged about 137,000 Twitch viewers, although that number dwindled as the long season played out. Riot Games’ average concurrent viewership for the League of Legends Championship Series was just about 100,000 in the summer. Eleague’s Counter-Strike: Global Offensive’s Major grand final match had over one million concurrent viewers, Twitch says, which set a record for concurrents on one channel. These numbers are by no means bad, and we’re curious to see whether they can continue to prop up an alleged $1 billion esports industry.

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Aside from the typical gaming and chatting fare, Twitch played host to lots of marathon viewing events for anything from Inspector Gadget to Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. Twitch streamers also helped raise over $40 million for charity this year—30% more than last year. Finally, speedrunning remains huge: Records were set on Twitch for Super Mario Bros., Mega Man II and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

Photo: Ninja

Who’s Big On Twitch

In hindsight, it’s pretty funny to think about how the year started out with a viewership record war between Dr Disrespect and Tyler1, because Ninja—with the help of surprise musical guest Drake—ended up eclipsing them both and never looking back. Fortnite’s Twitch takeover propelled the platform to new heights of popularity in 2018, resulting in big mainstream boosts for streamers who’d previously been toiling in relative obscurity. Fortnite building maestro and uber-teen Myth became one of the most-followed streamers on the platform after a chance December 2017 encounter with Summit1g, a big name that Myth has since blown right past. Other big names in the Fortnite scene, like Tfue, DrLupo, and Daequan, quickly rose through the ranks as well. Streamers like Dr Disrespect and Shroud, who’d gotten big off PUBG in 2017, were forced to at least dip their toes into what they perceived as a kiddie pool in order to try and adapt.

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That’s not to say Fortnite was the only gateway to streaming success in 2018. Twitch is, after all, a personality-driven platform, and for some people, that’s enough to carve out a niche no matter what they’re doing. Variety streamers like Pokimane and TimTheTatMan made strong showings as well, not just through games (including, yes, Fortnite), but also by hosting IRL streams and podcasts. Unexpected personalities like Sweet_Anita, who’s succeeded both despite and because of Tourette Syndrome, also broke through.

Drama—the concept, not a confusingly named streamer—had a great year on Twitch, with stories of so-called reformation and redemption propelling streamers like the aforementioned Dr Disrespect and Tyler1 to new heights. Drama between streamers—whether that meant rumor-mongering about supposed relationships between more wholesome streamers like Pokimane and Myth, or shit-stirring and beef on the part of edgier streamers—became a genre unto itself thanks to places like the gargantuan Twitch-centric subreddit Livestreamfail and, of course, YouTube.

Photo: Christopher Polk (Getty

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The Watershed Moments

Twitch finally seems to be nearing the end of its growing pains, and its wild west community is calming down a bit. (In fact, this year, the LUL emote finally usurped Kappa.) It’s fair to say, even, that some of the community’s most prominent faces have become mainstream. This week, Ninja reiterated to Variety that his stream with “Drake, that is what pushed gaming into the mainstream and made it cool.” We’re not sure we agree with Ninja—we think gaming’s been cool longer than that—but whatever. That said, Ninja did appear on Ellen in October. He looked great, and was majorly charismatic, somehow even while teaching Ellen Degeneres how to play Fortnite.

With celebrity comes notoriety, and with Ninja, that didn’t change. Shortly after streaming with Drake, Ninja rapped a racial slur on stream while singing along with Logic’s “44 More.” He apologized shortly after, saying it was a “misunderstanding.” Pretty big misunderstanding, since the word he was rapping wasn’t even in the actual lyrics of the song. Mid-year, Ninja again stirred controversy when he dropped this bombshell: “I don’t play with female gamers.” He explained the decision by saying that he didn’t want his viewers misconstruing gaming as flirtation, he told Polygon, which could lead to some clickbait drama. But… really, man? In 2018? Topping off his year, in November, Ninja went ballistic on a Fortnite opponent who bested him and, after accusing his foe of stream-sniping, he asked publisher Epic Games to ban the player. From that came a conversation about how Twitch streamers’ influence and power can affect gaming communities.

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Ninja wasn’t the only streamer to put his foot in his mouth this year, with others courting controversy by using insensitive language. Dr Disrespect took flak in February for his use of a mock Chinese accent during a stream. He did not apologize, instead opting to double down and call the controversy “laughable.” While non-apologies have become regrettably common on Twitch—see, for example, Trainwrecks and his repeated derogatory comments toward women—longtime streamer Trihex demonstrated what it looks like to own up to mistakes after he got suspended for using a homophobic slur. “As someone who went to a Southern high school who saw gay students get ridiculed for nothing more than their sexuality by toxic peers, I felt that,” he said at the time. “There are real people who can be hurt by those words and slurs, and communication can never be undone.”

As Twitch continues its crusade to completely distinguish itself from camgirl sites—livestreaming’s first big boon—that crusade has bled into the chat boxes of Twitch’s female streamers early this year. Since its early days, Twitch has worked hard to moderate sexual content on the platform. This year, though, they released what is essentially a dress code along with its new community guidelines. Twitch recommended that streamers wear clothes that are appropriate for a public street, mall or restaurant. This ended up placing a disproportionate amount of scrutiny on female streamers. Self-appointed boob police started trolling women’s streams to report community guideline violations.

Many people still expected women on Twitch to be pristinely and traditionally attractive, as evidenced by a October blow-up surrounding Pokimane’s decision to stream without makeup for a day. In response, men and teenage boys acted like she’d torn off her entire face to reveal a haunting, bony visage. In reality, she and many women on Twitch put on subtle makeup looks to accentuate their natural features, in order to maintain a casual, laid-back stream atmosphere. Users who aren’t familiar with makeup didn’t realize what they’d been looking at before, and when Pokimane shattered that illusion, she illustrated one of the many double-standards women are subjected to on Twitch. As we wrote at the time:

Men having unrealistic expectations of women’s appearances is hardly a new thing, but one of the central selling points of Twitch is the perceived accessibility of streamers. Viewers can, in theory, spend whole mornings, afternoons, or even days with their favorite streamers, getting a front-row seat to intimate spaces like their homes and bedrooms. That does not mean, however, that streamers can just let their hair down on stream. It may seem like they’re your virtual pal kicking back, having a laugh, and playing video games, but it’s a performance—one that can take a toll over time. This goes double for women, who are expected to look all at once flawless and natural, so as not to break the illusion that they’re just regular people chilling out.

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Racism also continued to rear its ugly head on Twitch this year, with tone-deafness on Twitch’s part leading to the creation of a limited-time KFC emote that ended up getting used to make fun of black streamers, similar to the Trihard emote before it. In retaliation to racism, sexism, and general jackassery, streamers came up with new ways to push back when Twitch’s tools didn’t suffice. Xmiramira fought Twitch chat racism with a chicken emote. Annemunition made a public example of one of her harassers. DrLupo had a viewer write a 1,000 word apology letter after he used the word “cancer” as an insult. Last but not least, Mike Nichols—a genius of our times—created a (mostly) racism-proof talking banana.

Photo: Nathan Grayson

Real-Life Crossover

Some would have you believe that streaming and real-life are inextricably linked and that you’re peering through an authentic window into streamers’ worlds. That, of course, is a glorified sales pitch. What you’re actually seeing is a performance. 2018 saw a handful of more authentic intersections between Twitch and the world at large.

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Swatting—where asshole pranksters or people with malicious intent try to get SWAT teams to bust down streamers’ front doors—continued to be an issue, with one person getting killed in a swatting-related incident at the tail end of 2017. This year, The Seattle Police Department, which was not involved in that particular shooting, saw fit to launch an anti-swatting program in an attempt to get out in front of the problem.

Streamers also increasingly made waves away from their PCs, with many attending conventions and other events as guests. While these appearances usually went off without a hitch, a couple incidents raised questions about the extent to which Twitch empowers people to harass and abuse others. Ali “Gross Gore” Larsen, for example, caused a stir at the annual official Runescape convention RuneFest in October; local police confirmed that he got into a physical altercation with another streamer, and multiple attendees claimed that he sexually harassed women at the event. Larsen had been in hot water with Twitch before, but the company let him keep his platform and audience. A week after the RuneFest incidents, Twitch suspended Larsen, but did not permanently ban him.

TwitchCon 2018 also created some friction between streamers and the real world, with the resulting sparks shining light on labor issues that have plagued Twitch since streaming became a viable(ish) career. Just across the way from the convention center where TwitchCon was being held, San Jose Marriott hotel workers were on strike for more money and better conditions. Some attendees were understanding. Others were apathetic or antagonistic toward a picket line that stood between them and a quiet, straightforward convention-going experience. As we wrote at the time:

Between systemic encouragement of long hours, stratified streamer tiers that ensure only Twitch is maximally profiting from streamers’ work, and issues that come part and parcel with independent contracting like unstable pay and a lack of healthcare, Twitch has labor issues of its own. Some streamers are acutely aware of this. One prominent streamer I spoke to, Adam Koebel, said he might’ve ended up skipping TwitchCon altogether if he’d booked a room in the Marriott and then found out about the strike. But, for the most part, Twitch streamers skew young and come from a generation that lacks firsthand experience with things like labor unions.

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These labor issues posed especially big problems for streamers who aren’t part of the youthful and generally single demographic that composes most of Twitch’s upper echelon. Parents who stream struggled to balance family and work life thanks to unstable pay, a lack of healthcare, and ever-looming time commitments that—if not fulfilled—can cause subscribers to disappear in the blink of an eye. It’s hard to beat playing games and chilling with internet friends for a living, but it’s a lifestyle that comes with an often-invisible cost.

Some streamers’ viewers, however, chose to make themselves all too visible. In September, somebody fired what was likely a BB gun at Dr Disrespect’s house, shattering one of his windows. This came shortly after a shooter opened fire on a Madden tournament in Jacksonville, FL, killing two pros and injuring numerous others. These unsettling and tragic incidents led many streamers to fear for their safety, given the exposed nature of their jobs. It led to a discussion of precautions streamers can take, as well as the way Twitch celebrity still doesn’t garner the same sort of security measures as traditional celebrity.

Illustration: Jim Cooke

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The Future

Twitch is no longer thought of as a hang-out for edgelord teens obsessed with Starcraft esports or niche speedruns for games like Spelunky. In 2018, Twitch has become mainstream, and that’s no surprise to us at Kotaku, since gaming itself has been mainstream for years. This year, publications ranging from the New Yorker to NPR’s On The Media have published features on uniquely Twitch phenomena, like chaotic/evil prankster Ice Poseidon and the Overwatch League fandom. The oldies are taking notice! And so are the brands.

There’s still a Twitch out there for the intimate, small-community feel that helped rocket the site into business stardom. What’s covered more in the media is the Twitch that’s helped generate the sort of celebrity that 2018 has become known for: The influencer. Your favorite streamer—the one whose Discord you’ve lurked in since they were small time—might now nonchalantly take a sip of Red Bull, the energy drink brand that sponsors them, between stints of playing a not-yet-released game whose publisher cut them a big-money deal. It’s been reported that Ninja makes $500,000 a month. A lot of money is getting wrapped up in Twitch, and in 2019, we think that will only become more apparent and, potentially, change how viewers interact with the platform.

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Working diligently and quietly behind your Ninjas, your Shrouds and your Liriks are, often, managers, brands, game publishers, advertising brokers, consultants, even debt collectors—all the trappings of micro-celebrity. And increasingly, behind these streamers, is a web of contractual yellow tape.

Twitch gets 15 million unique daily visitors, according to its advertising stats. That’s made advertisers’ tongues wet. The authenticity and spontaneity that’s helped earn Twitch streamers the “influencer” makeover may, in the coming years, be at odds with the corporatization of the platform. It remains to be seen whether the corporate and the authentic can work in harmony, or whether, in the process of making a living on Twitch, our favorite streamers and the platform they live on will start to seem less genuine.