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Twitch has generated more than 67 billion hours of live stream viewership since 2011, or enough for every person on Earth to watch over eight hours of video each. And one of the people who has been there for most of the time is Marcus “djWHEAT” Graham, head of creator development at Twitch.
Graham’s job is to build programs that amplify and invest in the creators at Twitch. He has been at Twitch since near the beginning, as he was employee No. 19. And he has watched Twitch grow through the years, beyond the $970 million acquisition of Twitch by Amazon in 2014, and into the heady days of 2021. I talked to him about the evolution of Twitch, particularly as it changed from Justin.tv to Twitch when game livestreaming took off.
Now, at any given moment, there are 2.5 million people tuning into Twitch. On average, Twitch gets 30 million daily visitors, up dramatically from 17.5 million at the start of 2020, before the pandemic. It turns out that people needed social contact during lockdown, and the Twitch community watched over one trillion minutes in 2020, up from 600 billion minutes in 2019.
Now there are more people doing what Graham did for much of his career. Over seven million unique creators are streaming every month. I talked to him about the past decade, on how Twitch has grown beyond games, how people have created brand new careers that never existed before, and how we are on the road to creating the Leisure Economy, where everybody will one day get paid to play games.
Twitch has grown massively — 2020 had more than 86 times the viewership of 2011, and every month in 2021 thus far has surpassed any months in 2020 or prior. Behind these hours watched is a massive community of creators — with over 26 million channels going live in 2020 alone.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
The tenth anniversary
GamesBeat: What does the tenth anniversary make you think about? How did you first get involved with Twitch? What was it like when you joined?
Marcus Graham: There’s a lot to talk about over 10 years. I joined in October of 2011. I’m coming up on my 10 years here. I was the 19th employee. I came as a broadcaster. I was a streamer on Justin.tv as it made the transition to Twitch. I became a Twitch creator, Twitch broadcaster. At the time I was doing an incredible amount of work in esports. When I originally joined Twitch, that was a lot of my focus. At the very beginning of Twitch we saw a lot of growth and activity around the world of esports. And so there was a lot of effort to drive more tournaments, more players, to the platform.
I was very excited. I was joining a group of individuals that were incredibly passionate about the idea of live streaming, about the idea of esports, about gaming in general. And so for me it felt very much like home. I feel like every employee that was starting around that time just loved what they were seeing and what we were watching. It was a very easy place to feel like I belonged and fit in.
GamesBeat: You got used to the idea of streaming before Twitch was a thing, then. Before game streaming was the obvious application.
Graham: My story is probably a little unique in that I first started streaming back in 1999, when it was audio only. We were using internet radio, and then we were using IRC as our chat client. All the way back to 1999 and the early 2000s, I got into this idea of having a live feedback loop and building community through interaction, which is essentially something that I chased for many years, and it was Twitch that delivered on the package as a product. It was everything, from a creator perspective, that I wanted. The ability to broadcast my videos globally, but then also having the aspect of chat, which fueled the community interaction.
So yes, I felt like I was joining something that I was waiting almost 10 years of my life to finally exist. It was incredibly exciting to be at the forefront of the development and the growth of live streaming on the internet.
The early days
GamesBeat: What did you notice was catching on back then? Whether it was things people enjoyed or that drew bigger audiences.
Graham: Back in the early days, in 2011 and 2012, believe it or not, most of the growth was being driven by esports and PC gaming. We saw a lot of that. We saw what you see now in terms of the big weekend tournaments. Maybe it was a StarCraft II event, or the start of the League of Legends championship series. There were a lot of fighting game organizations bringing their weekly tournaments online and doing larger weekend events. I remember that was always the exciting thing every weekend early. What esports are on this week? How many people will be watching it? This is the first time we’re seeing a Halo championship on Twitch! There was a lot of growth and interest initially driven by esports.
One of the interesting things, and I guess this is an aside, that I look back on now and reflect on over the last 10 years–one thing we can certainly say that’s helped with the growth, especially for the variety of creators we see on Twitch, is the evolution of technology. Back in the early 2011 and 2012 days, we didn’t have as many console streamers. The reason why was because there wasn’t a whole lot of technology and tools that were easily available, that were affordable, that made it easy to capture a PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360. Over the years, around 2014-2015, that started seeing the accessibility of technology improve, and we started seeing that influx of–it didn’t matter if you wanted to play on PC or play on PlayStation or Xbox or Switch. It was all something you could do.
So it was driven very heavily early on by esports and by people wanting to game primarily on PC, because it was easier to do it with the technology. But over the years we started to see more and more of the content diversity start to happen.
GamesBeat: Did you feel that Twitch turned a corner somewhere to snowball into its current success?
Graham: There’s quite a few areas that immediately come to mind. First and foremost, one of the biggest turning points was the fact that when Twitch launched, it had a partnership program. It was the first time that anyone in live streaming, from a business perspective, was able to say, “We can pay you as creators, as partners, on Twitch.” Right now that’s a very common thing. A lot of people stream because they want to build community or they hope to supplement their income or they want to go full time. But back then, in 2010 or 2011, this was a relatively new thing that was being offered to live streaming creators. The idea of being able to be a partner and earn ad revenue and earn subscription and have more tools to be able to help build that community and be supported by a community, that was one of the biggest turning points, when I look back on it.
It took what was a dream for many and turned it into a reality. Suddenly, because I was able to be a partner, because I was able to monetize on my content, it turned that dream into being able to create a business. That was a large turning point for Twitch.
The other thing that comes to mind is the idea of just having this immediate feedback loop that’s happening with your community. Being able to fire up the stream and say, “What are we going to play today?” and seeing 30 games fired off in the chat. “Okay, let’s vote on what game we play.” The ability to have this two-way dialogue between the streamer and the community and the audience, and being able to incorporate that into the content itself, this was fairly new to the medium overall.
While you might see it in other areas now, there’s no doubt that one of the places that has excelled and continued to build the right tools for creators to be able to amplify these things is Twitch. That has certainly evolved a lot over time.
The Leisure Economy
GamesBeat: One of the themes I like a lot is what I call the leisure economy, where people get paid to play games. This becomes the livelihood of a long tail. More and more people can say they get paid for their work in games. What’s interesting here I guess is so many people are creating brand new careers that didn’t exist before. I don’t know if that’s what you saw happening, that people were inventing themselves, inventing their jobs, and running with it.
Graham: There’s absolutely truth to that. Again, suddenly the ability of–I’m doing this as a hobby, and man it would be great if I could get paid for the work I’m doing. That began in 2011, and it’s exponentially evolved over time. Whether that is just being able to earn revenue as a partner, through subscriptions or whatever, through the ways that the game industry now interacts with Twitch creators and works with creators, whether it’s from a marketing perspective or whether it’s, “I know this creator loves the Halo franchise, let’s get them involved with our launch plans on Twitch,” we’re seeing all sorts of different opportunities pop up, and they’ve been popping up over 10 years.
From the job perspective, the ecosystem that has been created doesn’t stop at the creator. 10 years ago the idea of saying, “Yes, I make a living creating emotes for Twitch broadcasters,” that was nonexistent. But as you saw the need for more creators that needed emotes and wanted to change their emotes on a monthly or quarterly basis, that was something that was introduced in the Twitch ecosystem. Those who build technology for streamers was a part that was introduced in the ecosystem.
I don’t think it was limited just to the creator or broadcaster. In reality, as Twitch saw growth in this area, and as it expanded to other areas, whether that was in creative or in just chatting or travel streams, we started to see other jobs open up. Emote artists is one of them. Musicians is another one. Being a full time content creator, whether you’re a gamer or you do travel streams or you create talk shows, suddenly all of these became possible. There’s absolutely then a giant shift in the things you can do to make a living, the way that the ecosystem brings new jobs, new opportunities, in areas that, 10 years ago, we were not necessarily predicting that was going to happen.
GamesBeat: It then became more interesting to see all the superstars in this space, people getting enormous numbers of followers and becoming rich from this. Creating the dream for everybody else to chase.
Graham: When I look at that through the lens of the last 10 years, one of the interesting things to me is–you look at how many superstars find success on a yearly basis. There are quite a few. We’re constantly learning about these new creators who are reaching new numbers or hitting subscriber goals, whether it’s in the U.S. or the global community that exists on Twitch.
What’s interesting about that is that first five years–we probably now see more superstars, in the course of a year, find success on Twitch, find that community and start building that audience, than we had in the first five years of Twitch. This is something that, through growth and exposure and more different types of content that people can do–I think we’ve seen this exponentially climb. What was surprising back then, between 2011 and 2015, is now not as surprising as we see more and more individuals finding that level of success. Essentially making a living off of content creation on Twitch.
GamesBeat: What do you think about the ratio of creators to viewers or spectators? I forget where the numbers are now, but it’s a small percentage of people who take that step to be creators. Why do you think that number doesn’t dramatically go up?
Graham: I obviously can’t speak for every single creator or every viewer who’s tried to be a creator. Certainly streaming has gotten easier over time through software, hardware, and tools that are available on Twitch. That’s helped to see new creators come in.
I hear this question, though, and it’s not much different from saying, “A lot of people watch movies, so why don’t more people make movies?” Looking at Twitch as what I think of it as, the future of entertainment, an entertainment that is more intimate, that builds more around the passion and engaging with the community, engaging with an audience–that’s a form of entertainment that I think people enjoy getting into.
It’s also not necessarily a form of entertainment that every single person who actively participates says, “You know what, I’m going to stream.” That’s been one of the interesting things to see over time. There are a lot of people that try to stream, but aren’t necessarily looking to be the next Pokimane, the next Tim the Tatman. They’re just looking for a way to archive the raids that they do in Destiny with their friends. They’re fine just streaming a small group of friends, or just saving those spots, whatever it might be. Certainly a lot of people dive into the world of content creation and streaming without necessarily the big dreams of being the next big content creator. They might want to use it just to share with a small community they have. I’ve heard stories from the Final Fantasy XIV community of people who do just that. They have someone stream so that they can record their exploits in the world of Final Fantasy.
It’s a type of entertainment. There’s plenty of entertainment out there that has a large audience, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into every single person wanting to be a creator. Would we love it if every individual gave content creation a shot? Absolutely, because that’s how those superstars are found. One day, someone who says, “I love to play Overwatch,” they give it a shot and stream. Months later they find out that they’re a big streamer. They’ve found that next big thing. It doesn’t necessarily happen for everyone, but sometimes those who just give it a shot are the ones who end up being the superstars and the next generation.
The downside of fame
GamesBeat: There’s the downside of fame, which is you got to where you wanted to go, but then it’s not all you thought it would be. We’ve seen a lot of streamers talk about mental health challenges or having to deal with bad behavior among the fans. It feels like that’s one of Twitch’s major challenges right now, how to solve for this kind of problem. Especially during the pandemic. How do you enable these people to be successful without running into these problems?
Graham: Speaking to the pandemic, on the one hand, you’re absolutely right. Twitch facilitates meaningful connections, and the pandemic–you’ve seen the numbers behind the growth during the pandemic. A lot of people did turn to more interactive content like Twitch in order to fill in some of the gaps that they were having socially. Not being able to meet with their friends or quarantining, or maybe a different way to meet up with their friends. That’s certainly its own thing.
As far as the challenges of being a content creator, I look at the last 10 years of Twitch. There’s no doubt–you mentioned it already. This is a new industry. It’s opening up new opportunities. We’re learning new things each and every year, things that will help the future content creators be better content creators, and potentially find more success faster. But there’s no doubt that we take the mental wellness of our creators very seriously. We’re always trying to figure out ways that we can help our creators, whether that’s through the building of their communities, or through tools that can help them engage with their community, and not always feel like they necessarily need to be live all the time.
I also think that these aren’t necessarily challenges where we’re going to find one tool that will just solve everything. By continuously talking to the creators and the creators talking to their own communities about some of the challenges of being a content creator, it gives us the opportunity to be able to figure out ways to help and support the creators in more ways than we’ve been able to in the past.
Certainly not something that’s going to go away. But it’s something we’re always looking to think about. As we look forward to the next 10 years of Twitch, we’re very excited, because if we were just crawling in the first 10 years, this might be the next 10 years where we get to walk a little bit. We’re going to take all the learnings from the past 10 years and really apply that to the future of Twitch, and of course the future of all the generations of content creators that will inevitably find a home on Twitch.
The next 10 years?
GamesBeat: What do you think about how we still might be in the very beginning of this? This is the first 10 years, but in another 10 years, it could be exponentially bigger or different. One thing I was thinking about was that–there’s that push toward user privacy now. Targeted advertising is taking it on the chin. You can’t just take user data and spam people with the hope of getting two percent of those people to download your free-to-play game. But influencers and the people who follow them seem like a very undertapped potential there that could replace what is falling off. It seems like there’s this huge potential for growth. That’s my example, but I wonder if you see other reasons why this should keep on growing and getting bigger.
Graham: Absolutely. There’s one thing–when I take two steps back and look at the last 10 years of Twitch, some of the key things that played into its growth that I mentioned–esports was one of them. But also the proliferation of who uses Twitch and what types of content are happening on Twitch. Now you see the growth of the Just Chatting section, and the fact that people aren’t limited just to playing games. People can also do fitness workouts. They can create music. They can make a talk show about sports. They can just sit around and chat with their friends. They can go outside and play Pokemon Go. They can travel to Japan.
One of the ways I look at this, when you look at the millions of people that are coming to Twitch every day, whether they’re creators or whether they’re viewers–we may have originally come to Twitch because we loved gaming. That was the one universal core thing that we all happened to have in common. But you know, because you’ve been in this industry as well, that we’re typically not defined by a single core interest. Yes, gaming, but I also love comic books. I love reading Brandon Sanderson. I love playing pinball and watching movies and watching anime and all of these other things.
As we bring millions of people who do share a core interest in gaming together on Twitch, which optimizes live interaction, it’s no surprise that you’ll see growth in content and evolution that plays into the other core interests that we have. That’s why I see comic book talk shows happening, and why some of my favorite Twitch streamers are also pinball streamers. It gives us the ability to share all of the things we love. Whether you’re a console gamer or you play on PC or you want to talk about the latest Disney+ series that everyone is watching, these core interests were always going to expand beyond gaming. In this last decade we’ve seen that slow bubbling of that find a place on Twitch to really diversify the types of content. I don’t expect to see that slowing down. Just like always, the userbase will continue to evolve and bring other core interests to Twitch, and as such, that content diversity will continue to grow and evolve.
Now, that’s from a content perspective. I know you mentioned things like targeted advertising and whatnot. On the Twitch side, obviously we’re always looking into ways to improve the product experience on Twitch, ways to benefit creators, ways to benefit audience. That goes for everything from commerce to those who are building products for community. That innovation and that thought in terms of how we’re future-proofing the next 10 years is never going to stop.
The hybrid life
GamesBeat: I would expect that this format could still get a good shot in the arm once everything comes back after the pandemic is done. We can do hybrid events. We can do in-person events again. Things like Twitch live from the show floor at E3 were and will be a big deal. The combination of in-person and online is still going to be strong in the future.
Graham: I absolutely agree with that. Everyone’s excited to get back to events. Everyone’s excited to see the games industry as a whole return back to what we would call normal. What we’ll probably see–you’ve had content creators making incredible strides in new types of content and new formats as a result of being indoors. Having to do things, thinking about everything with remote capability in mind.
What I hope we see is a lot of this almost bottled-up excitement from creators who say, “Awesome, now we can do all the things we were thinking about doing, that we came up with during quarantine. We created this new show that was successful. Now we can bring it to a live format.” Obviously with esports already starting to slowly see the live events come back, I think we’ll probably see another explosion in terms of the diversity of content overall. As we return to a level of normalcy that will be acceptable, we can be trying and experimenting with new things. You’ll see content creators, like they always are, because Twitch is community-driven–you’ll see them taking that to the next level.
It’s almost that unknown that makes me very excited. But I guarantee you, when you have a community like this that is doing everything they can to make new content and create a new remote world that we can live in given the circumstances, they’re definitely going to have some surprises when we come out on the other side.
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