In 2020, “canceled” takes on a far more literal meaning now than it did in 2018. Due to coronavirus, sporting events are actually canceled. Concerts are canceled. Conferences, St. Patrick’s Day, SXSW — all put on hold as the world locks down. Amidst all these cancellations, a global recession seems imminent. As the realities of coronavirus change by the hour, each day brings a fresh intonation of Dorothy Parker’s famous line: “What fresh hell can this be?” Many Americans went into self-isolation thinking it would only last two weeks. Now the Trump administration reckons the lockdown will last ten to 12 weeks, and with the ground consistently shifting under our feet, it’s not hard to imagine three months spanning into six.
As much of the world enters self isolates and people seek creative ways to stay sane, live-streaming platforms like Amazon’s Twitch might be in a perfect position to evolve from gaming social media and into the mainstream.
Hollywood’s Golden Age during the Great Depression taught us that in times of crisis, people still need to be entertained. Thankfully, the digital age has delivered unto us an abundance of entertainment options. The general populace has likely never been as emotionally attached to Netflix as it is in this moment. But passively binge watching TV shows will get old. If we remain on lockdown, it’s not just entertainment people will want for: It’s human connection. It’s the sense of community that comes from collectively holding your breath as the ball leaves Kyrie Irving’s hands and arcs towards the net; from Lizzo sticking her mic out to the audience so they can chime in with “Feelin’ good as hell”; from walking away from a TED talk about editing genomes feeling exhilarated and troubled, and exchanging ideas with a stranger over a hotel bar drink.
Twitch has amassed a huge following as the world’s largest video game streaming platform, where gamers congregate to watch others play video games like Fortnight or League of Legends, as well as broadcasts of eSports competitions. But over the past several weeks, musicians, creatives, charities and “in real life” streamers have taken to the platform to entertain and earn money via subscription-based access to their streams. According to data from StreamElements, Twitch saw a 10% increase in traffic last week alone.
What makes Twitch different from, say, YouTube, which offers similar content, is the sense of community. Users don’t join the platform just to watch on demand video solo, like they would on YouTube. They come to engage with their community, one that’s fueled by a live chat that connects directly with the streamer and is built around that streamer’s personality. The community is often more important than the live stream itself.
“Streaming platforms like Twitch provide an amazing way for our community to interact and support us directly, giving us feedback on what they do or don’t like and sharing new ideas we haven’t thought of yet,” Geek and Sundry, a popular Twitch channel that puts a creative and narrative spin on traditional gaming and geek culture. “The intersection of community and entertainment is perfect for our core goal of putting our unique spin on the conventional, and then inspiring our community to do the same. We love it when we can do what we do and the world plays along with us!”
At any given point, over 1.3 million people are on Twitch on average. According to a Twitch spokesperson, the platform’s infrastructure is prepared for the potential influx of industries that want to get on the live stream train.
“These are difficult and uncertain times, but Twitch has always been about bringing people together, making connections, and creating communities around shared interests,” said Sara Clemens, Twitch COO, in a statement. “Where possible, we are working with these groups to help bring those experiences to life.”
Other platforms are also seeing success in live streaming, with Microsoft’s Mixer coming up on Twitch’s heels after poaching top personality and professional video game player Tyler ‘Ninja’ Blevins. After that move, Twitch’s total hours of video viewing slipped 1% during the fourth quarter of last year, versus a 33% increase in viewing hours for Mixer.
While the quarantined masses take to watching others play video games, it’s clear that live streaming with community involvement, and the platforms that can deliver that and monetize on it, have a lot of opportunity to expand into other industries. According to a Twitch spokesperson, the platform has already seen success with live streaming events like E3 and similar conferences, and has been getting incoming requests from event organizers looking for ways to carry on virtually as the world grinds to a halt. Bernie Sanders took to Twitch earlier this month for a fireside chat, and Amazon is working on ways to offer businesses a way to use Twitch for things like hosting events or Q&A’s.
As concerts and tours are canceled, musicians are finding opportunities on Twitch. Lizzo’s producer has encouraged the music industry to stay virtual, noting: “A lot of musicians are new to Twitch, which not only provides a great platform for live streaming your work for collaboration but can generate some income while you’re at it.” Code Orange, an American hardcore punk band, live streamed their show on Twitch when it was cancelled.
Electronic musician Marc Rebillet seems to be leading the charge of indie musicians who are migrating to digital platforms to perform “quaranstreams” during the pandemic and try to earn back some of the cash they’ll be losing from missing out on live performances, which make up the bulk of most indie performers’ income. Last week, Soundcloud and Twitch announced a partnership that aims to help musicians and content creators earn income through live streams. One can imagine a world in which comedians follow suit and switch to live streams. Heckling will take on a whole new meaning.
eSports has already been popular on Twitch, but with live sports canceled, it seems that many sports fans are indeed content to watch virtual races, matches and games on the internet. Formula 1 racing is taking their Grand Prix series online, the driver lineups a combination of real-life drivers, racing game streamers and eSports hosts and personalities. NBA team the Phoenix Suns have been finishing out their regular season on NBA 2K, or a series of high res basketball simulation video games, facing off against the Dallas Mavericks earlier this month. LaLiga soccer players Borja Iglesias, of Real Betis, and Sergio Reguilon, of Sevilla, attracted 60,000 fans on the same day as their canceled match by battling it out on the FIFA 20 video game.
Whether it’s on Twitch or any of its competitors, humans will find a way to adapt to lockdown in the search for collective entertainment and productivity. “Self-isolation provides a weird unconventional opportunity to think outside the box of what’s creatively possible,” said Geek and Sundry.
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