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Twitch doesn’t need to be YouTube

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Streaming culture is only just beginning, says CEO

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

In March, streamer Ninja, pop superstar Drake, and breakout hit Fortnite coalesced into a perfect, record-breaking storm for the streaming platform Twitch. Ninja was already the most notable player of the popular game, but the combination propelled his name into general media consciousness and further solidified him as the most famous figure on Twitch.

Ninja’s breakout success is a big win for the site, and he’s a human face it can tie to the often difficult-to-navigate platform to propel it forward. At a panel during TwitchCon 2018, Twitch co-founder and CEO Emmett Shear said that this is only the beginning for the company. “I think we’re still at very early days on Twitch,” he said. “It still feels like the start of the streaming world.”

Twitch began as a gaming offshoot of Justin.tv, a personal broadcasting site founded in 2007. It has continued to grow steadily since 2011, and it currently supports more than a million viewers at any given time and half a million streamers daily. According to Shear, it quickly became obvious that people who play video games want to watch others play. “It was, in some sense, an inevitability, only a matter of time before someone would figure out how to create the stream that would pull those people in,” he said.

Where YouTube has found success with creators who carefully edit and curate their personas, Twitch relies on entertainment on the fly. Fans don’t just show up and leave comments on a previously recorded piece of content. They’re interacting in real time and living in the moment with their favorite creators.

Shear used the term “multiplayer entertainment” often during his TwitchCon’s keynote, a concept Twitch seems to be leaning into. “Multiplayer entertainment means that when we do things live, when our favorite creators get partnered in the middle of a stream we celebrate that moment right when it happens,” he said. “It means that we do things together.”

And Twitch continues to evolve. This weekend, the company announced a variety of upcoming features, including karaoke, better moderation tools, and additional ways for streamers to collaborate and be seen by viewers. Shear said that throughout all of Twitch’s changes, the core of its business is not just about passive consumption, but interactivity.

“We love stories. Not the ones that already have an end, but the stories that we can all tell together,” he said. “I don’t think we’re interested in being talked at. We are here for a conversation.”

At the moment, Twitch isn’t a direct rival to YouTube, but rather an up-and-coming competitor that offers something different. Earlier this year, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki said that YouTube has 1.8 billion registered users watching videos on the platform each month, and the platform’s most popular individual streamer, PewDiePie, has more than 68 million subscribers. By contrast, Twitch’s biggest name, Ninja, is at the 11 million mark. And the company still has a great deal of work to do in smoothing out its experience for a more general audience.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, Twitch, but it can be kind of hard to figure out what’s going on in a Twitch stream sometimes if you’re not part of the community,” Shear said. “And I think that it’s on us to do a better job of figuring out how to introduce people and get them across that gap of learning how to Twitch.”

Twitch has always focused on community and bringing people together, Shear said. “The thing that we always said was that you come for the video, but you stay for the chat ... People have a deep, long-standing, forever need to be part of something bigger than themselves, and I think Twitch helps scratch that itch.”

Shear is confident that in the coming years, individual streamers will continue to draw in millions of new subscribers. “There’s 310 million committed console and PC gamers in the world,” he said. “That’s not just people who touch video games, but call themselves gamers. You could have a stream that reached 100 million people, easily, because every single one of those people could be watching Twitch and could be watching streaming.”

Twitch may not be there yet, he adds, but the community is still growing. “I don’t think there’s any reason for that to stop because people like being part of a live event,” he said. “They like being part of a live experience. And I think we have the opportunity to have that be an individual thing.”