Ads are important on Twitch in the same way they’re important on any website that relies on advertisers for revenue. (Hello from Vox Media.) But it is a war. Ad-blockers keep websites ad-free, and then the sites themselves innovate around the blockers. Escalation is the norm.
It’s also the background for the current ad-based controversy on the streaming site. Twitch pushed an update that broke uBlock Origin, a popular ad-blocker. UBlock Origin users were suddenly greeted with a pop-up noting that they may be using a third-party tool or browser extension that “is impacting site performance” every 10 or 20 minutes — a little like a site-triggered midroll ad.
A spokesperson from Twitch told me that users were getting that specific pop-up because the tool they’re using is manipulating the site code. This person stressed that the midroll experiment was over and added that Twitch hadn’t actually changed the overall ad density of the site — which is to say, the only automated ads running on the site are prerolls, and streamers can disable those for their subscribers. (They also noted that some bigger streamers may use third-party tools to run automatic ads on their streams and that those can sometimes seem like they’re coming from Twitch.) For its part, Twitch says that it is not targeting ad-blocking users with any more ads than any other.
For Twitch, ads are a little different than they are on other free sites: because the service is live, ads as they’re currently constituted on the site obscure the content. You can miss things in a way that you can’t with, like, YouTube. Imagine, if you will, that you’re watching a football game when, in the middle of a clutch play, an unskippable ad triggers. You can always see the replay, of course, which means, technically speaking, you didn’t miss anything. But it feels terrible to have missed the crucial moment as it unfolds. This was the situation for a few weeks on Twitch this summer: the company began testing automated midroll ads, which were universally hated.
Twitch is targeting viewers using ad blockers by running frequent ads in an attempt to annoy them into submission. You'll have to disable your ad block to stop these otherwise they'll run every ~10 minutes. pic.twitter.com/70CevtuugF— Lowco (@Lowco2525) November 2, 2020
The bottom line: when an ad is blocked, nobody makes money — not streamers and not Twitch. That said, with CPMs being what they are, streamers are getting the worse end of the deal. As of September, both partners and affiliates in America were earning $3.50 per 1,000 ad views.
“Things are hostile because streamers don’t like running ads. And viewers aren’t going to like ads either because of that,” says Lowco, a Twitch partner, when I reach her on Discord. “When you’re getting 10 viewers... running ads, I mean, it’s just not going to add up, right? And it’s super intrusive to the viewers,” she continues. “I think Twitch can do a lot better in this regard, to make ads, something that works for streamers.”
Lowco says she doesn’t have a problem with Twitch targeting users who are using ad-blocking software because it’s a big part of Twitch’s business model. But she also says she thinks Twitch can do better by its streamers. “I think if you’re gonna force ads, it’s not gonna work,” she says. “Twitch is all about community until it comes to these types of things. And then it looks very top down. And to me, I think people respond negatively to that type of, you know, forcible implementation.” Which does seem true.
She also thinks that ads on Twitch can just be done better. “You can have skippable ads, better inline ads, lower third ads that are more seamless with the live content — the live nature of Twitch.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified uBlock Origin as uBlock. UBlock Origin creator Raymond Hill confirmed in an email that Twitch was blocking uBlock Origin, and not uBlock, which is a separate project.