Saqib “Lirik” Zahid, who has 2.5 million followers on Twitch, is the last streamer to need a viewbot. Nevertheless, over the last couple of days, his fans and followers wondered whether he’d somehow succumbed—this week, his average 27,000 viewer count for November shot up to a huge 76,000 for no discernable reason.
Zahid felt the need to clarify what was going on, but in truth, it only provoked more questions. “It’s actually not viewbots,” Zahid said yesterday on stream. “These are actual people.” In truth, though, these “actual people” may not be “actual viewers,” as Zahid’s stream is one of many participating in a shady view inflation strategy—though this time, it appears Zahid was not the culprit.
The inflation of views on various video platforms has been big business since views became synonymous with cash and clout. It happens in a lot of different ways, from autoplaying videos on news sites to buying a couple thousand “bot” views from some underground marketplace. In the decade since YouTube, Instagram and social media translated our collective understanding of “money” and “fame” into likes, clickthroughs and views, platforms have developed sophisticated technology to root out the kind of view inflation that runs against their terms of service, like your typical bots and things.
Of course, though, inflation is happening regardless. And a lot of the time, it happens through above-board loopholes.
A 2018 Kotaku investigation revealed how the gaming wiki Gamepedia was embedding Twitch livestreams at the bottom of many of its 5.2 million wiki entries and inflating those livestreams’ viewcounts by 50 to 800 percent. People were clicking on a wiki to read it, and might have been oblivious to the livestream playing below, even though they were being counted as one of its viewers. The company behind Gamepedia was Curse, an ad and web company that Twitch owned at the time.
While Zahid says he doesn’t know where his streams are getting embedded, he said he did “confirm” that the embedded view inflation was happening. It looks like Twitch itself has advertised Zahid’s stream on Reddit:
If you look closely, the Reddit ad is promoted by u/Twitch. The stream is live, and it’s possible that users scrolling past it while the video is playing is counted as a view. Ta-da: “Real” people initiating “real” views.
However, it’s likely that a lot of these views are “junk,” through no fault of Zahid’s. In a 2019 investigation into the esports bubble, a former Twitch employee with knowledge of Curse’s business practices said, “I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that a ton of that is junk views,” or a view that “only exists to increase a metric for somebody in sales or business development.” (Neither Zahid nor Twitch returned Kotaku’s request for comment.)
Posting your Starcraft II gameplay to a couple of SquareSpace sites is one thing, but when livestream embedding is happening on a large scale, it has the potential to really muck up the already volatile Twitch ecosystem. Even earlier today, the gaming wiki Fextralife had its own livestream embedded across several of its own pages. Seven minutes into streaming, an apparent 6,700 viewers were tuned into their stream—yet they only have about 115,000 followers.
The owner of an illicit viewbotting service called Viewerlabs says that embedding a livestream across several websites, like Gamepedia, “is essentially the same thing” as what he does. He added, “my completely unbiased opinion is that viewbots are good.”
In a recent blog post, Twitch clarified their position on illegal, fake views from bots (not people): “Fake engagement is artificial inflation of channel statistics, such as views or follows, through coordination or 3rd party tools. This behavior is characterized by the creation of incidental or duplicitous views or follows.” Twitch added in a tweet that, actually, though, “We will still include viewers who are watching, but may not be chatting, have the stream or browser tab muted, or may be watching a handful of streams at one time.”
It seems like a harmless way for a streamer to boost their exposure at first blush, but digging deeper, it’s apparent how easily this technology can be exploited. For example, if a streamer took a “Twitch Bounty”—a sponsorship opportunity where cash payouts are tied to views—while their stream is embedded across a hundred websites, that could lead to some questionable gains. It also gives an unfair leg up to popular or well-connected Twitch streamers, whose livestreams rocket to the top of Twitch’s directory, thereby attracting more organic viewers and potential followers.
In an effort to figure out what’s kosher and what’s not, Dan Saltman, an entrepreneur and Twitch streamer, reached out a half dozen times to Twitch in attempt to clarify what they meant by their recent tweets. He asked, “If you own a website, are you allowed to embed your own stream on it to advertise your Twitch channel?” He added, “I am asking this for a friend.”
After several days and emails to Twitch, Saltman received an emailed response, which he shared with Kotaku when reached for comment: “We cannot provide evaluation of whether the content described is appropriate for our services.”
The bottom line is this: If you or a powerful friend own a lot of well-trafficked websites, you have a leg up on your streaming competition on Twitch.