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Twitch Won’t Abandon Gaming Roots. It’s Using Them to Inform Its Evolution.

At one time, it was shocking that an NFL game was streaming anywhere.

The league, famously protective over its games, has come a long way since then and Amazon’s been a big part of that evolution with weekly streams of games in some form since 2017. Late December’s exclusive Amazon Prime/Twitch stream of the Arizona Cardinals vs. San Francisco 49ers game, however, is a unique new wrinkle to that dynamic. And it’s one that likely informs a big part of the future of Twitch.

Though Amazon-owned Twitch has been around for nearly a decade at this point, it’s really started to have its “moment” in the national consciousness over the last couple years. Gaming has long been the service’s bread-and-butter, and the initial reason for its rapid rise in popularity. While that’s still a core part of the app’s traffic, gaming’s bigger contribution is providing a blueprint for how to grow similar niche viewing communities as the demand for specialized content seems to be rising across all video platforms.

The graph below from Twitch Tracker shows off Twitch’s exponential growth year over year — but especially once COVID-19 started confining more people to their homes in 2020. Looking at hours watched, there’s an enormous jump here from about 1.22 billion in March 2020 to 1.79 billion in April. And those higher levels of time spent viewing Twitch content seem to be have continued (relatively) ever since.

Data to this effect — along with other, TV-like video measurement solutions from a company like Tubular Labs — shows the opportunity for audience attention with these sorts of platforms (and Twitch, in particular). Twitch has become an engaging community-building tool for gaming, sure. But also cosplaying, journalism, chess (to a great degree), politics, music and now, mainstream sports, among countless other topics. The key, as anyone who’s used Twitch understands right now, is to provide a compelling narrator with a genuine passion for the subject matter and an ability to speak endemically about it… along with content that people actually want to watch, of course.

What worked (and continues to) for Fortnite also works for a politician like U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And it’ll work for the NFL, as well, provided the product on the screen can push to be something more than just your standard league broadcast. While streaming on Hulu, Apple TV+, Peacock or the like doesn’t need any extra bells and whistles to seem like a natural fit for the platform, utilizing Twitch would suggest that a broadcaster is willing to speak directly to the sort of community building that make it so worth the unique investment. That also comes with some risk, too.

Though comment sections and message boards always have the chance to turn into cesspools (comments below Yahoo news articles arguably being the pioneers to turning any public forum into a hive of scum and villainy), the rapidfire shorthand of Twitch and a long-time acceptance of it as “part of” gaming culture has made streams uniquely susceptible to some form of harassment. Even as Twitch has grown, policing that dynamic remains a key consideration — and one they can (and have to) continue to improve upon.

You can opt for a version of Twitch that doesn’t feature user engagement, I guess. But if you’re going for that, what’s the point of using Twitch to begin with?

Crucially, this next stage of Twitch’s evolution will need to find the balance there. It’s a place that draws eyeballs, so naturally, content producers want to be on it. But it potentially loses those eyeballs if viewers feel like it starts to shed the differentiating (and positive) factors that set it apart as a community around specific interests.

Twitch’s successes — as well as its follies — around gaming will help fuel what’s next, as will how closely it works with new content partners to make sure the influx of interest leads to natural fits for the platform. As we enter what should be a long winter in the U.S., there’s a lot of pressure on Twitch to nail this, sure. But also a lot of opportunity ahead as it’s deciding what it wants to be as it “grows up.”