Kristen Valnicek stared at her computer in disbelief. She cupped her hands over her mouth and fell to her bedroom floor. “I can’t feel my body,” she wailed. Then she hopped up and started dancing. She looked back at the screen. “Oh my God, it’s real.” Someone with the username Andy, a fan she’d never met, had just given her a D—her shorthand for donation—of almost $7,000. “Mom!” she yelled. “I got the biggest D ever!”
Several months earlier, in early 2014, Valnicek had dropped out of the University of Saskatchewan, where she’d been an undergraduate studying accounting and law, to pursue a new kind of Internet career: playing video games for a live, online audience. Her father, a doctor, was ambivalent. Valnicek, whose bright green eyes and dyed black hair make her look like Shannen Doherty during her Beverly Hills 90210 years, pressed on. Soon, for three hours a day, five days a week, using the screen name KittyPlaysGames, Valnicek was streaming herself playing death matches in various games, most frequently Counter-Strike, a popular first-person shooter.
Fans follow her footage on a website called Twitch, which bills itself as a social network for video game fans. Typically, they watch Valnicek in a split-screen format, with her gameplay in one window and a smaller projection of her head and torso, captured via webcam, in another. While Valnicek wanders through battlefields slaying terrorists, she banters with her audience, welcoming familiar viewers to the stream, thanking everyone for watching, encouraging fans to check out her other social media pages, and playfully turning down marriage proposals. Occasionally, she’ll back away from the computer to show off one of her signature moves, nimbly moonwalking for the camera. Growing up, Valnicek dreamed of being a doctor or a corporate rainmaker, not an entertainer. Her skills as a performer are self-taught. “My success is really dependent on how happy, bubbly, and excited I am,” she says. She’s now 23 and one of the top performers on Twitch. It’s her full-time job and occasionally results in a spontaneous four-figure D.
To anyone born before 1990, all of this may sound nonsensical. As Jimmy Kimmel, ABC’s late-night host, put it in a recent monologue: “To me, watching another person play video games is like going to a restaurant and having someone eat your food for you.” The segment ended with a skit in which God, looking down from on high, concludes: “I’ve created a race of idiots.”
Twitch, which was launched in 2011 as the side project of a floundering San Francisco startup, has grown into a global vortex of adolescent veneration. Last year the analytics firm Deepfield found that Twitch regularly broke into the top four users of Internet bandwidth, trailing only Netflix, Google, and Apple. In August the site attracted 10.2 million unique visitors in the U.S., according to ComScore, up 15 percent from last year. The company says its viewers, 95 percent of whom are male, watch for 106 minutes a day on average.
Stars such as Valnicek gather admirers as they narrate action, explain strategy, mock opponents, and celebrate victories. Along the side of the screen, in an emoji-strewn chat stream, everyone mixes it up. With little more than a fast Internet connection and a webcam, anybody can become a Twitch broadcaster.
Attracting an audience is the hard part. First-time visitors to Twitch contend with a dizzying, kaleidoscopic galaxy of viewing options. The range of channels to choose from feels endless. There are swarms of people playing League of Legends, World of Warcraft, FIFA soccer, Mario Kart, Minecraft, Guitar Hero, Grand Theft Auto, Farming Simulator (which is exactly what it sounds like), Poker, Destiny, Halo—and on and on. The biggest clusters of fans tend to form around live professional tournaments, also known as eSports, or on the streams of particularly charismatic Twitch personalities.
Thanks in part to the surging popularity of eSports—particularly in Asia but also increasingly in North America and Europe—video-game-inspired programming is emerging as a lucrative sector of the entertainment industry. This year, 486 million people around the world will watch “gaming video content,” according to the market analysis firm SuperData Research, up 28 percent from last year. The genre now generates $3.8 billion in estimated revenue, primarily from advertising and corporate sponsorships. Meanwhile, according to Nielsen, in the second quarter of this year TV viewership in the U.S. among 18- to 24-year-old men fell 16 percent from the same period last year.
Twitch, which Amazon.com acquired in September 2014 for about $970 million, is the front-runner in this growing market, but it faces a serious challenge from a powerful adversary: Google’s YouTube. While Twitch dominates live-streaming, YouTube is the premier destination for recorded-and-edited gaming clips. The most popular artist on all of YouTube is Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg, aka PewDiePie, a 26-year-old Swede who’s grown rich laughing, screaming, and cursing maniacally while playing video games. His YouTube videos, of which there are a couple thousand, have generated more than 10 billion views.
Many video game personalities maintain a presence on both platforms, which, until recently, coexisted peacefully. In August, however, Google started YouTube Gaming, a site catering exclusively to players, their fans, and advertisers hoping to reach them. It features a new slate of live-streaming tools that directly target Twitch. Paul Verna, an analyst with EMarketer, says YouTube’s frontal assault is the latest salvo in a broader war between Amazon and Google. For years, the two companies have been battling in e-commerce, mobile hardware, and cloud computing. With Amazon’s acquisition of Twitch and Google’s launch of YouTube Gaming, they’re now squaring off over a critical component in the future of home entertainment. This year, according to EMarketer, YouTube will generate $4.28 billion in advertising revenue for Google. Amazon doesn’t disclose ad numbers, but, Verna says, “Twitch has the potential to play a similar role within the Amazon ecosystem.”
Emmett Shear, Twitch’s co-founder and chief executive officer, says he isn’t worried by YouTube’s push into live-streaming. He argues that, while it may drive up the cost of talent acquisition, the competition will ultimately benefit his company. “The more of an attractive career it is to do live game streaming, the more quality people will do it,” he says. “In the long run, anything that’s good for the talent is good for us as well.”
Not long after graduating from Yale in 2005, Shear and his classmate Justin Kan attended Y Combinator, an entrepreneurial testing ground in Silicon Valley. Shear and Kan came up with a madcap idea: Strap a video camera on Kan and begin broadcasting his life live over the Internet, 24 hours a day, on a site they christened Justin.TV. They called the new art form lifecasting.
From the get-go, Kan struggled to keep up with the Kardashians. Much of his lifecast involved eating and sleeping. Viewers were unimpressed. Eventually, Shear and Kan decided to open up their lifecasting platform to the masses. Soon, people around the world were broadcasting anything and everything—weddings, pets, home improvement projects, peewee soccer, pirated NFL games, cooking tips.
Of all the banal and esoteric things that appeared on Justin.TV, it was the streams of dudes playing video games that attracted the most viewers. Before long, Shear and Kan realized they’d stumbled into a severely underserved market. In the summer of 2011 the company launched Twitch.TV, a spinoff site for the video gaming community. The site’s growth soon eclipsed everything else on Justin.TV, which they eventually shut down.
Today, Twitch’s headquarters are in an office building in downtown San Francisco. Most of the common areas are tricked out with video-game-inspired décor. A Donkey Kong-themed room has scratch-and-sniff banana wallpaper. Twitch’s head count is about 400 and growing. New hires are given a purple hoodie with their Twitch username prominently embroidered on it. A company spokesperson explains that the coveted garments—asking price on EBay: $185.95—aren’t for sale to the general public.
Shear, 32, says there’s nothing weird or mysterious about the viewing appeal of video games. If you enjoy working on your house, you watch HGTV. If you like playing basketball, you watch the NBA. If you like video games, you watch Twitch. “When the Food Network launched, nobody thought that watching food shows could be such a huge thing. Gaming is the same way,” Shear says. “It’s a linear streaming format. People are hanging out and watching for long periods of time. That creates a very different dynamic than coming in and out for two minutes of video at a time like you might at Facebook or YouTube. This is more like TV than it is like anything else online.”
One of Twitch’s goals is to keep making it easier for newcomers to start streaming. At the same time, the company is busy developing better tools for its existing broadcasters. It’s working on a more effective search function and a less bug-prone video player. In the early days, almost all users were live-streaming via personal computers. Since then, Twitch has worked closely with video game console makers to integrate broadcasting technology into their hardware. Sony PlayStation 4 owners, for instance, can now hit a “share” button and be up and live-streaming on Twitch in minutes. “Our whole purpose in life is to enable our broadcasters to do better,” Shear says.
Twitch’s audience is growing quickly overseas, particularly in South America and Asia, and the company is building data centers around the world to keep up. “One of the cool things about gaming content is that it is global,” Shear says. “We plan to be investing heavily in places like Japan and Korea. We think those can be amazing territories for us.”
Twitch’s growth has been amplified in recent years by its broadcasts of eSports, in which teams of professional gamers battle for big cash prizes in front of sizable crowds. The top tournaments draw thousands of paying customers to arenas like L.A.’s Staples Center. Fans who can’t attend in person watch the tournaments online. Earlier this year, a Counter-Strike event in Cologne, Germany, attracted 1.3 million concurrent viewers on Twitch. In between tournaments, pro players often broadcast their practice sessions, which can also draw significant audiences. “The bigger eSports gets,” Shear says, “the bigger we get along with it.”
Whenever a big video game is released into the market, top Twitch personalities, hoping to ride the resulting wave of consumer curiosity, will test it out extensively for their viewers. Video game fans use these early, quasi-reviews on Twitch to help determine whether a game’s worth buying, making the video game studios giddy. As a result, all the major developers and publishers—including Nintendo, Sony, Activision Blizzard, and Microsoft—now maintain channels on Twitch where they orchestrate and conduct live-streams, showing off their wares. Recently, game developers have even started to build in features specifically designed with Twitch audiences in mind. The tech news site Ars Technica recently dubbed the phenomenon “Twitch bait.”
Occasionally, Twitch experiments with nongaming content. In March it hosted a live, sponsored broadcast of the Ultra Music Festival, an annual electronic music party in Miami. This fall the company unveiled a new section of the site, called Twitch Creative, devoted to people live-streaming themselves creating works of art: painting still lifes, blowing glass, building sculptures, composing music. To publicize its embrace of the do-it-yourself art crowd, Twitch hosted a Bob Ross marathon, airing archival episodes of the late public television art instructor painting clouds, brooks, and mountaintops, while thousands of Twitch users in an adjacent chat room alternately mocked and marveled at the mellow maestro’s languid technique.
Shear says expanding into other subcultures could eventually be a “massive opportunity” for Twitch. “But 99 percent of our attention is going into growing the gaming community. We believe there’s so much headroom left there.”
Valnicek frequently dresses up on Twitch in revealing costumes; past ensembles have included Wonder Woman, Lara Croft, and Catwoman. Her audience typically ranges from 2,000 to 5,000 viewers at a time; during the costumed performances, viewership can spike past 15,000. On traditional TV, such ratings would quickly get your show canceled. On Twitch, they’re enough to generate a hefty income.
Once streamers get established on Twitch, they can apply to become a so-called partner. If accepted, they sign a contract with the company under which they get a cut of whatever advertising, subscription, and merchandising revenue Twitch can generate from their channel. There are currently more than 12,000 Twitch partners. Valnicek is one.
Twitch allows its partners some leeway in choosing how often ads run on their channels. Broadcasters say the more important source of income, however, is subscriptions. Anyone can watch for free, but hard-core fans will pay about $5 a month to subscribe to their favorite channel. In return, they can participate in subscriber-only chats and get access to custom-made emoji. Until recently, Valnicek offered to send a “super secret” Snapchat selfie to anyone who got a three-month subscription. If you sign up for a year, she’ll follow you on Twitter.
Valnicek says she has about 2,500 subscribers. She won’t say how much of the roughly $12,000 a month in subscription money goes to her vs. Twitch. Likewise, the company declines to disclose the terms of its deals with partners. One broadcaster, who asked to remain anonymous, says the split is typically 50-50.
Valnicek’s life sounds like a millennial fairy tale. She makes her own hours and can afford to live wherever she wants. Earlier this year, she spent several months renting a place in Vancouver. Then she moved to Berlin for the summer; now she’s contemplating going to Seoul, where eSports tournaments fill soccer stadiums. Every day, she’s bombarded with sponsorship opportunities. So far, she’s done paid promotional events for Intel and Pandora. She won’t specify her take-home income but says a career in corporate law would be a step down. According to SuperData Research, top Twitch personalities can earn upwards of $30,000 a month. A company spokesperson says Twitch has “dozens” of broadcasters making six-figure incomes.
Another way broadcasters like Valnicek generate cash is from viewer donations. On Valnicek’s Twitch page, she lists the usernames of her top “Godlike” contributors. So far, more than 50 fans have given her gifts larger than $1,000. Valnicek has become semifamous for her wild reactions to the largesse. Her excitability seems to inspire dudes to one-up each other with the size of their tips.
It can get creepy fast. The gift from Andy, in the amount of $6,969.69, prompted Matavor to shell out $7,000.69. The chat room exploded with suggestions of ways Valnicek could show her gratitude. “Twerk for Andy.” “Nudes for Andy.” “I want nudes.” “Striptease.” “Rapetime.”
Valnicek says she doesn’t know who the Godlike donors are in real life, and reminds viewers frequently that she’s in a committed relationship. “When people watch your stream, they truly feel like they’ve developed a connection and a relationship with you,” she says. “I learned early on that it could be taken the wrong way. So you need to squash that out.”
In September, an anonymous female Twitch streamer took to a public forum on Reddit using the handle Euryale11 seeking advice on how to deal with the scary behavior of certain viewers. “When I started streaming, I understood that I would get weirdos on my channel, and accepted that this was the Internet and I would experience creepy people,” she wrote. “But threatening to hack me, find me, making sexual threats about me, is a little too much for me to handle.”
Valnicek says the harassment is something female streamers have to deal with routinely. Acknowledging it in public, she says, tends to make it worse. Her coping strategy is to ignore the negativity, because “people are just looking for attention,” and to focus her energy, instead, on friendly viewers. “Part of the communication between streamers is ensuring you find holes in your privacy and to patch them as soon as possible,” Valnicek says.
All of which is a potential minefield for a company like Twitch trying to attract talent and advertisers. Jason Maestas, Twitch’s director of community and support, responds via e-mail that the company uses “a mix of human monitoring, technology solutions, and channel management tools” to protect its broadcasters.
More than a year after selling to Amazon, CEO Shear says life as a cog in Jeff Bezos’s everything store is copacetic. “We wanted to be acquired by a brand that allowed us to retain our culture and leadership,” Shear says. “Amazon did something similar with Zappos. And they’ve been great with us.”
Shear declines to share specific financial information but points to the company’s recent success at selling paid subscriptions as evidence of the strong loyalty of users. The main reason people pay $5 a month for something they could largely get for free, he says, is so they can have a little subscriber badge next to their name in Twitch chats. “Why do you buy a Bulls jersey if you live in Chicago?” Shear asks. “It’s a visible expression of your affiliation with this thing that you love.”
Twitch’s advertisers represent pretty much every lifestyle staple of young men: Pizza Hut, Mountain Dew, Old Spice, Foot Locker, and Universal Pictures’ action movies. Most of the ads on Twitch look like and run the same length as TV commercials. “The 30-second spot is a classic,” Shear says. “It’s a tried-and-true, proven way to reach people with your message.”
Earlier this year, a top personality named Tucker Boner (real name) starred in a 30-second ad for Taco Bell that ran exclusively on Twitch, in which he chows down on the chain’s new biscuit tacos. One potential challenge for Twitch: Those young, tech-adept viewers increasingly use online ad-blocking technology. On his Twitch page, Boner explicitly asks his fans, instead of giving him tips, to turn off their ad blockers, saying, “Twitch ads are how I pay my bills.”
“There’s no great way to deal with it,” he says. “But I feel like appealing to them and saying, ‘Hey, man, this kind of sucks, but just disable it on my page,’ is the only thing that works.”
Boner, 22, dropped out of college a few years ago and moved to L.A. to try to make it as a full-time video game personality. He says he earns about $10,000 a month from Twitch—and more than that doing product endorsements for brands. Despite making a good living, he’s grown accustomed to not getting a huge amount of respect from nongaming civilians. “At the end of the day, you’re still going to get people who are like, ‘So, you’re a cam girl? You get naked on camera?’ ” he says. “It’s way better than when I started. But we still have a ways to go.”
He adds: “Bless my parents. They do their best to try and explain it to their friends.”
In September, Twitch hosted its first TwitchCon, a two-day powwow inside San Francisco’s convention center, designed to allow fans to genuflect in person to members of the gaming community and to recruit new streamers. More than 20,000 people attended.
Shear delivered the keynote address. With YouTube pushing into live-streaming, he announced a feature that will allow broadcasters to upload prerecorded and edited content onto their Twitch page—a direct counterattack on what has traditionally been YouTube’s bailiwick.
Throughout the weekend, Twitch trotted out a procession of its top stars, who gave uplifting testimonies and sat on a series of vocationally oriented panels. Topics included “Broadcasting: It’s not Rocket Science,” “Passion to Paycheck: Making a Career out of Broadcasting,” and “From YouTube to Twitch: Transitioning Your Content.” The whole thing felt like a 21st century version of a Tupperware party.
At a panel on self-branding, a Twitch personality named Kyle Weaver soaked in the lessons. Not long ago, Weaver, 22, quit his job delivering pizza. He’s streaming 30 hours a week, playing games such as Halo and The Elder Scrolls. “Some people want to be veterinarians, because they love animals,” Weaver says. “Others want to be firefighters and be heroes. Doesn’t everyone want to make a living doing something they love?”