At the end of a long day, you might like nothing more than to fire up the PS4 and kill a few hours slaying zombies. But if you're one of the thousands of gamers streaming their gameplay online, you'll also fire up your webcam and log in to Twitch.
To explain what Twitch is, it might be easier to use an analogy from an equally popular global pastime: football. So imagine you’re a football fan. Your heroes are Lionel Messi, Ronaldo, Ibrahimović. Imagine you could hang out with them every day, watch them train, watch games from the touchline. You could ask questions, share jokes. Imagine Messi inviting you for a kickabout with his mates, Neymar and Luis Suarez.
Gamers don’t have to imagine. They have Twitch. And instead of Messi or Ronaldo, it’s an unassuming girl from a small town somewhere, a bedroom rock star with thousands of adoring fans across the world. Fans who tune in every time she plays. They chat with her, subscribe to her channel, start fundraisers to help her buy better equipment. Sometimes she invites them to play games with her.
There are many thousands of gamers streaming their play live every day on Twitch – the world’s best players of the world’s most popular video games. And there are millions of viewers tuning in on their phones, laptops, and TVs to watch their heroes dust off an enemy team, or rescue the prince.
This popularity has seen Twitch rise from its first broadcast in 2011 to ranking fourth in peak internet traffic in 2014. In 2015, Amazon bought the company for a cool $1 billion.
Unless you’re a gamer, you probably haven’t heard of it. Or if you have, you might have no idea why it’s so popular. We met with three UK-based streamers to find out.
“I enjoy the interaction with my viewers,” says Tanya, aka TankRacerGirl, a 28-year-old Twitch streamer from Essex. “It's made my gaming life so much more fun.”
Tanya is a lifelong gamer who started streaming in 2014 at the urging of a friend.
“At the time," she says, "my friend Hailee was streaming Battlefield 4. I went over to her house and gamed with her while she streamed. It was because of her, and her Twitch community, that I decided to broadcast on my own.
“Streaming on Twitch has been a game-changer for me. It’s made my gaming more social, and I've made some great friends. My community are like one big family. I call them my Tankheads.”
By day, Tanya works as a beauty adviser at Marks & Spencer in London. Her community do sometimes make small donations – with their help she saved enough to buy a new monitor, and she's sometimes sent games from fans who want her to play with them – but she hopes to eventually turn TankRacerGirl into a full-time job.
“It would be amazing. I absolutely can't get enough of streaming, and with all the games I have there's not enough hours in the day to get through them all while juggling a job.”
Streaming on Twitch can indeed turn into a career. There are some 17,000 Twitch Partners globally – trusted streamers who can make money through subscriptions. Of that number, only a small percentage make enough money to turn professional.
Craig, aka OnScreen, is a 29-year-old Twitch streamer from the Wirral who has been streaming professionally for around two years, after quitting his job with Shell to take up Twitch full-time.
“I had a good IT career," he says, "but I always said if I reached 1,000 subscribers I would quit my day job. I hit 1,000 subscribers at the start of 2015 and subsequently handed in my notice – I still remember the awkward conversation with my boss today.
“I’ve seen many say they are going to quit their job and stream for a living, but my advice is, do it as a hobby, and if it ends up bringing in enough money to live off, go for it. But it should never be your main focus of streaming. Stream for fun, not for money.”
Twitch is free to watch, but operates a Twitch Partners program for popular channels. Twitch Partners get a subscription button on their page, via which fans can subscribe to a streamer's channel for £4.99 a month. This revenue is split between the streamer and Twitch.
“My whole ‘job’ is based on this community," Craig says. "No one has to pay anything to watch my stream, you don’t need to subscribe, nor donate, but thousands of people do just because they enjoy what I do. I myself am subscribed to over 30 different streamers.”
Because of the size of his channel, Craig also gets sponsorship money from brands who want him to use their products. He also gets opportunities with some of Twitch’s advertisers, appearing in sponsored streams for companies like Red Bull.
It’s a lucrative position to be in, but one he attributes to timing and luck as much as anything else.
"The main game I stream is Counter-Strike: Global Offensive," he says. "When I started, CS:GO was not as popular as it is today, and as it grew my stream grew with it – I was one of the lucky few to be there first.
"Because of the popularity of the game and the number of people streaming it, if I were to start streaming now it would be very difficult to attract the same viewership."
Leah, aka LeahLovesChief, is a 23-year-old Twitch streamer from Hampshire who gave up freelance videography work to stream full-time a year and a half ago.
“I enjoy the variety of people you meet and get to interact with," she says, "and the fact it's just completely a shared experience. It makes certain games a lot more fun for me when people enjoy watching my reactions."
Leah started out in 2015 by streaming Destiny and built a following from fans of that game. She quickly became a Twitch Partner, and started earning money from subscriptions, sponsorships, and tips.
“As Twitch became viable, I had to devote more and more time to streaming and slowly phased out the video work. Now I spend anywhere between 4 and 7 hours most days streaming.”
Though her rise to Twitch stardom was swift, Leah has also had to deal with the darker side of online fame. Over the past few years, she's has been the victim of some pretty horrific trolling. Men she’s had to ban from her channel for obsessive behaviour have turned up at her in-person appearances, and she’s been the target of some particularly vicious 4chan attention that spread across Twitter and message boards.
“I’ve heard every insult and been trolled in some awful ways but I have a fantastic bunch of moderators, and my community is so caring and open-minded it really outweighs the bad most of the time."
Twitch streamers interact with their fans via a chat module that appears alongside the video stream. As with all comment and chat systems, trolling is common on Twitch, and it can occasionally spill over to other social media channels, and even real life Twitch already allows streamers to designate moderators in their chat channel who can then delete comments or ban repeat trolls. It is also introducing a system where new accounts can’t chat in a channel unless they’ve been following a stream for at least 24 hours.
"Unlike Twitter, who took over 24 hours to delete some of the images, Twitch is working on some useful tools to help combat it.”
The cost of getting started can vary. Tanya started out with a pretty simple rig – a PS4, a webcam, and a laptop. She’s since added the donation-funded PC monitor, which she got secondhand for £90, and a comfy chair. She is saving up for a high-powered PC, which will handle the streaming and leave her PS4 CPU free to concentrate on the games.
At the other end of the spectrum, Craig estimates his setup, with three monitors and two high-powered PCs – one dedicated to gaming and one for running the stream – along with other high-end peripherals, would cost around £6,000 if he had to buy it from scratch. He admits much of it is unnecessary for the average streamer, but as he’s streaming 6-7 hours a day and it’s his sole income, it’s important to have a professional setup.
Leah's setup is somewhere between the two. She also runs her stream through a high-end gaming PC (provided, like much of her kit, through a sponsorship deal with Asus). She also has a green screen – a bit of Hollywood wizardry that allows her to appear as a floating head and shoulders at the bottom of the screen, rather than in the kind of screen-in-screen rectangle you get on Skype calls. It’s not mandatory, and many of the top streamers don’t green-screen, but Leah prefers it.
“I think it looks more professional,” she says. “It’s nice 'cos I don’t like having a huge webcam screen in the way. It lets people get a lot more immersed in the gameplay.”
Despite its global popularity, Twitch has yet to reach the household name status of YouTube or Netflix, so explaining to people what it is can be a challenge.
“When I tell people what I do I say it’s like YouTube, but live,” say Craig. “My family have never really understood it, apart from my father, who supported me along the way.”
Tanya, who hasn’t played professionally and doesn’t live and work with other gamers, says her friends and family find it a little strange that there are people out there who want to watch her play games live online.
“But they support me by giving me the time to stream, as I get great pleasure from doing so,” she says. “My friend Hailee, who introduced me to Twitch, is always at my streams and has encouraged and supported me from day one.”
When discussing both the allure and the success of Twitch, "community" is the one word that the three keep coming back to. Over the years Craig has developed close ties with some of his longtime supporters, meeting them at gaming events. “My biggest donor is a guy who has probably tipped me £7,000 over the years. Meeting him at an event was kind of strange. Like, ‘Hi! Thank you!’”
When BuzzFeed visits Craig, his desktop is a picture of him as American painter and TV presenter Bob Ross – who has become something of a Twitch meme. Twitch even did a one-off Bob Ross channel where they streamed his show around the clock. Craig says his community send him a daily photoshopped image of his face pasted on a celebrity.
“I’ve got hundreds,” he says, laughing. “It has to be one of the best communities out there – when I attend events, meeting all the different people, everyone is just so nice."
Part of the fun of running a successful channel is making it interactive and collaborative for the followers. With the sheer number of games, environments, and customisations available, there's an endless number of ways for streamers to have fun with their community.
Craig invites subscribers to play CS:GO with him, which fans of the game is a bit like having a kickabout with Ronaldo. Tanya has a slightly different engagement tactic.
“Every Friday I play Grand Theft Auto V online where anyone can join in,” she says. “The stream is called Pink Friday, where we dress our characters and cars in as much pink attire as we possibly can.”
No one is sure what the future holds for streaming. For Twitch's part, it's hoping people will want to stream more than just gaming. In 2015 it launched Twitch Creative, giving viewers the chance to watch and interact with illustrators, painters, musicians, and writers as they create their latest masterpieces.
And in December, it launched Twitch IRL, allowing people to stream whatever they want from their day-to-day lives.
Among the three streamers BuzzFeed spoke to, there exists a cautious optimism. “Twitch could go bust,” Leah says, “or my stream could become less popular.
“I’m incredibly lucky to be in the situation I’m in but it won't last forever, so I’m always looking into new opportunities.”
Craig takes a pragmatic approach. “It won’t last forever,” he says. “But for now I’m going to be gaming anyway so I may as well be streaming.”