It’s Friday morning and Tim Mines is sitting in his one-bedroom apartment in Brighton, U.K. A 36-year-old with thick black-rimmed glasses and an always-present baseball cap, Tim is known to thousands of people around the world as Spamfish. He’s humming to himself, looking in my direction. I can see Tim, and the wall full of framed posters behind him, because he’s on my screen, there in the bottom right corner, superimposed inside the graphic of a retro tube television.
I can see Tim because I’m watching his channel on Twitch, and at 8:44 a.m., he went live. Along with over two million people around the world, Tim is a streamer and nearly every day, he broadcasts himself from his apartment playing video games.
Twitch.tv, the world’s biggest social video platform for video game culture, is home to roughly 15 million daily users who watch and interact with one another. Put simply, it’s an evolution of television for the social generation where anyone can have their own channel and they can all talk back to you. In 2014, Amazon bought the platform for US $970 million, and with it propelled social video gaming into its own category of entertainment. Even with the investment, however, the path to success for streamers like Tim is still largely an unknown.
Shortly after his channel went live on Friday morning, his regulars slowly filter in and they collectively decide on what game to play (they eventually decide on the Nintendo Switch title, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild). Known on Twitch as the face of failure (see below), Tim’s channel is like playing video games with your best friend on your living room couch; he’s no better than you are — and that’s why people watch. While he doesn’t tolerate spoilers, Tim will frequently take suggestions from the chat, and holds several conversations during game play. He puts it this way: “My business is my personality. People aren’t watching for skill, they’re not watching for professionalism.”
Unlike many of the popular channels on Twitch, with higher production value centred around an exceptional, sometimes developed persona, Tim is just himself — brutally honest, wildly talkative, and opinionated. “I’m just a guy that literally presses ‘start streaming’ every day. I just chat with people, and I think people identify with that.”
It’s also why people support channels like Tim’s, through monthly subscriptions that unlock an enhanced experience. Along with advertising and sponsorships, subscriptions contribute significantly to most professional streamers’ growth.
The inside secret to Twitch’s success is that it’s not about the game — it’s about the experience. “Despite the fact that there are all these wires and satellites and screens, I’m making real connections with real people in their homes,” says Tim. While it might seem odd to watch someone else play a game instead of playing it yourself, the value of Twitch isn’t so much in the gameplay as it is the community building. Most active viewers have their favourite channels and tune in several times weekly to be part of the action. In fact, while the streamer has the loudest voice on the channel, there are nearly always several concurrent conversations happening within the chat, between viewers, separate from the primary narrative happening on screen.
Twitch is a brave new world, it’s like the Wild West; everyone is trying to make their claim for gold. And a lot of that is what excites me about it.
The best example of the platform’s ability to bring people together is its annual conference, TwitchCon, held in Long Beach, California. Over 35,000 people attended in 2016, as streamers, viewers, and video game enthusiasts gathered to celebrate everything Twitch. The three-day event involved panels on the basics of streaming, to monetizing your channel, talent shows and cosplay competitions, and, of course, playing video games.
Now in his seventh year of streaming, Tim has become one of the enduring voices on the still-young platform. While he’s made more for himself than just a name (Tim openly talks to his chat about his near-term goal of signing a mortgage), the future of this cultural phenomenon is anything but clear. “All the routes of [traditional] success are very defined. Those industries are set in stone. Twitch is a brave new world, it’s like the Wild West; everyone is trying to make their claim for gold. And a lot of that is what excites me about it.”
For now, that path forward is still a prototype and every streamer has their own version. From exclusive subscriber benefits, to channel-specific currency (think Monopoly dollars), to entire fan websites, every channel is experimenting with ways to turn eyeballs, collective gaming, and everyday conversations into a sustainable business. And for as long as those social connections drive the medium forward, you can be sure to find Tim down in the corner of his channel, chatting away inside that retro television.
The Expressions of Twitch
Every channel on Twitch has a dedicated chat, and like every other messaging platform, Twitch has its own set of emotes that are tailored to the expressions and reactions of the gaming community. Below are some of the famous faces that you’re likely to see occupying Twitch chats throughout the web.