For years, Twitch has wrestled with whether it could balance being a place where video game players could happily make good money from livestreaming to fans with becoming a profitable company.
That conundrum dogged the platform as it grew from a small start-up called Justin.tv to an Amazon-owned, pandemic-fueled behemoth in the world of live video. Today as many as eight million streamers broadcast their gaming exploits, cooking experiments and political hot takes every month to the 31 million viewers who visit the platform each day.
Along the way, Twitch has mostly maintained the good will of the streamers who are its lifeblood. But that has been changing, and streamers say they are increasingly worried that they’re being forgotten by the platform in the name of profits. More than a dozen star Twitch streamers have switched to YouTube in recent years, and the service risks losing more to other livestreaming platforms.
Rebellion was in the air this month at TwitchCon, a gathering of 30,000 people in San Diego where fans meet their favorite streamers in person. Streamers, while holding their usual meet-and-greets and reuniting with their friends, said they were angry about a recent decision Twitch made to take a greater cut of the revenue some streamers make from fans subscribing to their channels — a change they believe is emblematic of Twitch’s shifting priorities.
“The displeasure with that decision is tangible,” said Taylor Drury, who streams on Twitch as Taylien. “We’re all confirming with each other: ‘You hate this?’ ‘Yeah, we all hate this.’”
Streamers say there are other signs that Twitch is losing touch with its community, a complaint that has been leveled at other streaming and video services over the years as they have matured.
An effort by Twitch to persuade streamers to run more advertisements on their channels has dismayed creators who say more ads will repel their viewers. The executives who were considered to be the biggest supporters of the streamer community have departed. Streamers say communication with the company has deteriorated, and they believe Twitch has prioritized adding engineers over hiring people to handle their concerns.
Samantha Faught, a Twitch spokeswoman, said Twitch had tripled the number of employees in “community-facing” roles in the past two years and added new ways for streamers to give feedback. She acknowledged that because of the platform’s rapid growth, “it becomes harder to scale the personalized communication and feeling of close connection.” She said relationships with streamers remained a priority.
Streamers also wonder if Twitch is under pressure from Amazon, which purchased the service in 2014. Andy Jassy, who took over as Amazon’s chief executive in July 2021, has looked for ways to control costs this year as Amazon’s growth has slowed to its lowest level in two decades. The company has focused on efficiencies in its warehouses, shuttered teams with lackluster projects and temporarily frozen hiring in its retail division.
Amazon does not break out Twitch’s financials, though analysts do not believe the site, which has more than 1,800 employees, turns a profit.
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“It’s wild that Amazon is trying to force Twitch to squeeze more revenue out of top content creators,” Hasan Piker, one of the site’s biggest names, said in an interview. At his booth on the convention floor, Mr. Piker, known as HasanAbi on Twitch, was giving out faux newspaper front pages with a provocative headline: “Twitch Steals 30% of Revenue From Content Creators.”
The subscription revenue change will only affect streamers with so-called premium deals with the platform that let them keep 70 percent of their subscription revenue, with 30 percent going to Twitch. Starting next June, those streamers’ subscription earnings will be split 50-50 with Twitch after their first $100,000. The company said several hundred streamers currently earn enough money to be affected by the change.
Dan Clancy, Twitch’s president, said in an interview that the change would help Twitch pay for the rising costs of hosting live video. He also argued it would eventually help streamers.
“Ultimately, the more we grow our audience, the more our streamers benefit,” he said. “A big part of it is about trying to get to this position that allows us to keep sustaining and steadily being able to invest, being able to grow.”
Mr. Clancy said Amazon was not involved in day-to-day decision-making.
“They give us a lot of freedom; they’re very bullish on Twitch,” he said. “And so that is not one of those things where there is a lot of detailed meddling.”
Twitch has also made several changes to appeal to streamers in recent months, including giving them a greater cut of ad revenue, letting them broadcast on rival platforms and lowering the amount of money they are required to earn on the site before they can cash out.
Twitch is betting that the new features will help it appeal to a broader swath of streamers, even if policies like the subscription revenue change frustrate a handful of top personalities.
“I just don’t think the way to make deals with streamers in the long run is to focus on cutting special deals with the top 0.1 percent of streamers,” Emmett Shear, Twitch’s chief executive, said in an interview. Instead, he said, the focus was on “making our standard deal attractive, which I think it is.”
Some streamers at the San Diego conference said they understood the rationale.
“What Twitch is doing, I like it,” said Antwayne Doctor, who streams on Twitch as Babywock. He said he thought a 50-50 revenue split was fair because although he provides the entertainment, Twitch helps grow his audience. “That’s a partnership,” Mr. Doctor said.
But former Twitch employees focused on relationships with streamers said Twitch in recent years had prioritized its engineering teams and moneymaking endeavors over keeping content creators happy. Ben Goldhaber, who led content marketing and was one of Twitch’s first hires, said Twitch first took off because of the strong bonds it built with streamers.
“That’s changed,” said Mr. Goldhaber, who was laid off in 2018 and is now the chief executive of an e-sports app. “They’ve shifted away from this original strategy of make the creators happy and we win.”
Some streamers and former employees also believe that a management shake-up over the last two years has been indicative of changing priorities.
Kevin Lin, Twitch’s co-founder and chief operating officer, left in 2020. Sara Clemens, Mr. Lin’s replacement, and Michael Aragon, the chief content officer, both departed this year. Ms. Clemens reacted to the subscription revenue change by tweeting “SMH,” which stands for “shaking my head.”
Mr. Lin was considered to be the face of the less technical areas of Twitch, like managing streamer relationships. Mr. Aragon was someone “who could go into the executive meetings and fight toe-to-toe” against proposals that were unfavorable to streamers, said Zachary Diaz, who worked on Mr. Aragon’s team and left Twitch in January.
“Unfortunately, every executive who had that as a mentality has left,” he said. Ms. Faught, the Twitch spokeswoman, said that was “absolutely inaccurate.” She said beefing up product and engineering teams was “not at odds with prioritizing relationships with streamers.”
Rod Breslau, a video game consultant, said that Twitch “is fast becoming just like every other site. Why stay at Twitch if it’s no longer that tight-knit, bleed-purple community?” (Twitch is known for its purple color scheme.)
The exodus has also created a disconnect between Twitch leadership and some rank-and-file staff, said two current Twitch employees, speaking anonymously because they were not authorized to discuss the subject. They said many employees raised concerns internally about the new subscription revenue policy and how it was communicated to streamers.
Kyle Hinchliffe, a streamer known as Baddie on Twitch, said Twitch employees he had spoken with were “on the same page as us — there’s some disappointment there.” The problem, he said, seemed to be at “upper-management levels.”
At TwitchCon, streamers were sometimes able to put aside their gripes. They spent hours signing autographs, donned colorful costumes, packed downtown nightclubs and delighted in Megan Thee Stallion’s appearance onstage at a concert next to Master Chief, the main character in the Halo franchise.
The experience, for many, was bittersweet: It reminded them why they came to Twitch in the first place, and why they were fighting now to keep it from changing.
“We love this platform, and anything that they do that’s a really good thing, give them a thumbs up — we are very vocal about that,” Ms. Drury said. “But we are going to be equally vocal about the things that make us feel more disconnect.”
Karen Weise contributed reporting from Seattle.