The most popular games on Twitch don’t exactly scream “relaxation.” Instead, it’s action-heavy, competitive games like Fortnite and League of Legends that typically dominate the streaming charts. Animal Crossing: New Horizons is in many ways the antithesis to those experiences; it’s a laid-back life sim that moves at a glacial pace. Yet despite this — or maybe because of it — the game has accumulated a sizable audience on Twitch. Everyone from stars like Imane “Pokimane” Anys to actor Jordan Fisher to the Monterey Bay Aquarium has streamed the game. Thousands of people are watching these personalities catch fish, chop down trees, and get really excited about new outfits at the island’s clothing store.
With much of the population stuck at home, Animal Crossing has exploded in popularity, and when it comes to streaming, it offers a more communal and subdued experience compared to other big games. “New Horizons is unlike anything else on Twitch right now,” says streamer Miabyte. “It’s incredibly wholesome.”
This type of viral popularity is something new for the series. While the games have always sold well, past Animal Crossing games have existed on platforms with little to no online capabilities. It wasn’t exactly easy to tweet screenshots of what you were doing in a game on the Nintendo 3DS. The same goes for streaming. When Animal Crossing streamer Sarah “sarahpodz” Podzorski wanted to broadcast gameplay from the 3DS game New Leaf, for instance, she actually had to mod her handheld with a capture card. It was quite the process. Things are easier with the latest release, at least from a technological standpoint; it’s not as straightforward as streaming from an Xbox or PC, but at least you don’t have to mod your handheld.
That’s not to say streaming Animal Crossing is necessarily simple. In fact, in some ways, it provides more of a challenge for creators, since the game has no plot or competitive element to hook viewers. “You have to create your own story that viewers want to be a part of and feel ownership of,” says Podzorski. “I was actually a little worried how my community would react to the game,” adds Miabyte. “It’s completely different to the narrative driven and action games I usually play, like say Warframe for instance. But the experience has been incredibly positive. It’s nice to have a game where I can chill out and just chat, giving equal attention to both the game and audience. It’s hard to find games like that.”
That community element is a large part of the appeal. Watching Animal Crossing and playing it are complimentary experiences; it’s so slow paced you could even do both at once. Players can get new ideas for their islands by watching streamers, learn some of the more ambiguous gameplay secrets, and Miabyte says she’s actually traded items with viewers. “It’s been great for collaboration with my audience,” she notes.
There’s also a creative aspect. One of New Horizons’ most popular features is the ability to create patterns for clothing and other objects, and share those designs with others. Ross “RubberNinja” O’Donovan, a streamer and YouTuber known for art streams and Mario Maker videos, has taken advantage of this by making outfits based on things like the space marine from Doom. (Doom Eternal and New Horizons actually launched on the same day; O’Donovan celebrated by hooking a controller up to a PC and Switch so he could play them both at the same time.) “Anything that allows me to flex my creative muscles seems to do well,” he says. “Animal Crossing was no exception with the custom clothes I’ve been making.”
It’s likely a combination of these elements that has made the game so popular on Twitch. New Horizons is novel, it can make for more interactive and community-oriented streams, and it’s also a new game, which often leads to an initial spike in popularity. There’s also the timing. New Horizons landed just as almost everyone is self-isolating, in search of both social connection and distractions. New Horizons producer Hisashi Nogami told me last month that he hoped “Animal Crossing fans will use this as an escape, so they can enjoy themselves during this difficult time.” Or as Miabyte puts it: “I think it’s arrived at exactly the right time, offering a chance for people to escape into their own personal paradise.”
On top of all of that, there’s the most basic appeal of Animal Crossing: it’s relaxing. The slow pace makes it an almost ideal virtual getaway, whether you’re playing or watching. “The chill nature of the game is making me the background noise for a lot of people who are currently stuck at home,” says O’Donovan.