A man sleeps while users watch him on Twitch. Credit: Twitch

Why Twitch isn’t just for gamers

Twitch allows you to watch other people play video games, draw or even sleep. What’s the appeal?
December 9, 2021

One afternoon last week, I watched a stranger sleep. She was on the other side of the world, wrapped up in bedclothes rising and falling with her breath. I happened to tune in right before she woke up; a light slowly illuminated her bedroom. When she finally opened her eyes, she waved a hello to the camera and said good morning. A chat box lit up with comments from some of the other spectators, wishing her a good morning back. There were 13,000 of us. 

For the majority of its existence, Twitch, the live-streaming platform where this woman was broadcasting her snooze, has been for watching people play video games. But its origins are something closer to the stream I watched. In 2007, the platform’s co-founder Justin Kan and some fellow Silicon Valley types decided to see what kind of viewership they could attract by broadcasting live footage documenting every moment of Kan’s life (except trips to the bathroom) for nine months. But the people who watched this wanted to be able to live-stream for themselves and, particularly, to live-stream themselves playing video games. Twitch was launched in 2011. In 2014, Amazon bought it for almost $1bn. The site now sees 140m unique visitors every month, and almost 10m are streamers themselves.

How does it work? Let’s say you want to watch someone play Minecraft. By searching Twitch for the game, you can bring up a list of all the streamers playing Minecraft live right now. Once you select which streamer you’re interested in—perhaps the one with the most viewers, or one who looks like the kind of person you could stand being stuck in a lift with, as my criterion was—their stream begins. Usually, it’s split screen: you see what they can see on their monitor, and you can also hear and see them in a smaller window. Alongside, there is the chat box where you can comment or read other comments from subscribers to the streamer’s channel. And the streamer can respond to those comments, aloud, in real time.

But your question here might be: why would I want to watch someone play Minecraft? Why not simply play Minecraft? Some people watch to improve at games, but this is by no means everybody. Maybe you are a younger sibling, and have already experienced the strange half-pleasure of watching someone else play video games. Twitch also hosts competitive  video gaming, or esports, a form of entertainment that is set to pull in more American viewers than the NBA by the end of 2021.

Twitch has expanded beyond video gaming by now, though. There is sleep streaming, which unexpectedly shot to popularity last year. There are channels  for ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response), where people make noises up close to the microphone to induce a pleasurable tingling response in the viewer’s head and neck. There are channels where you can watch people draw, others where you can watch someone gamble on online slot machines, play board games or cook. The “Just Chatting” category has been number one on Twitch for most of the past year, and here streamers are, well, just chatting to their followers.

For every Twitch superstar, there are a thousand uncharismatic teenagers broadcasting live to nobody

Part of the appeal is that it offers you the option, as a viewer, to get really involved, commenting and receiving real-time answers from streamers. Unlike, say, a YouTube video, a Twitch stream has an unfiltered, intimate feel to it—it’s literally a stream of consciousness, broadcast live. It’s like if you could watch Gogglebox but also talk to the people on Gogglebox during the programme, and have them talk to you.

But the secret to the platform’s success is that it also offers you the opposite. I asked a friend what she likes about it. “Often it’s background noise for me,” she said, “and it filled a social void in the pandemic especially, of missing hearing people just chatting in a pub.” Think of it in the same way that people listen to talk radio while cooking: as soothing, ambient entertainment.

The professionalism of Twitch streams varies enormously, from messy bedrooms filmed on laptop cameras right up to green screens and high-spec recording equipment. For every Twitch superstar, there are a thousand uncharismatic teenagers broadcasting live to nobody. It must be agonising to be able to see, moment by moment, that your channel has no viewers, but to have to keep talking just in case somebody tunes in. But the reason people stream, other than for the potential to become part of the tiny percentage of streamers that make millions of pounds every year through their paying subscribers, advertising and sponsorship, is the same reason people watch. It’s the potential for interactivity, to connect with people, rather than simply to produce content.

For now, it’s a platform that still feels quite closely tied to a certain archetypal male nerdery that has haunted the video games industry since its earliest days. Sixty-five per cent of Twitch users are men, and Twitch made the extraordinary claim in 2017 that it reaches half of all millennial males in the US. But it may not feel this way for long. Twitch streams have featured on the The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon. Celebrities are increasingly using the platform (see “Star of the small screen,” page 17). Snoop Dogg streams himself playing an American football video game where you can often only see the top of his head while he sort of mumbles to himself and sings little songs. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has streamed herself gaming; Bernie Sanders hosts live debates on issues like housing inequality. So while Twitch streaming still feels like a niche interest, who knows? It may not be long before you, too, are tucking yourself into bed at night in front of a viewership of thousands.