TwitchCon 2015 was weird, and that’s a good thing

TwitchCon 2015 was weird, and that’s a good thing

When you look at the history of conventions, it’s easy to see how something like TwitchCon would be a success. In a lot of ways, it’s similar to how the convention’s subject, Twitch, rocketed itself from a novelty (watching people play games!) to a $970 million acquisition by Amazon.

Last weekend, more than 20,000 people flooded San Francisco’s Moscone West to take part in the inaugural weekend of TwitchCon — a convention that frankly felt like it mixed one part of PAX and one part of VidCon and shook vigorously.

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It was not just the first convention of its kind for fans of Twitch — monthly active users total 100 million as of 2014 — but also its core group of broadcasters that are specifically partnered with the company to provide content.

What we could agree on was that this convention was something different.

But First, a Note

But before I speak about TwitchCon the event, it’s important to illustrate Twitch as a platform and, perhaps more importantly, as a community. Twitch is an example of what happens when a livestream actually turns into a live dialogue — broadcasters are rewarded for interacting with the viewers who show up and watch the stream, generally creating an atmosphere where some of the best broadcasters are shouting out viewer handles as often as they’re playing.

By and large, it’s a community that has positive goals in mind — show up, talk, have fun, watch games, and sometimes do it all for charity. But Twitch is not all hugging and positive talk.

Attendees waiting to get inside the convention. Photo by Robert Paul.
Attendees waiting to get inside the convention. Photo by Robert Paul.

Especially for broadcasters that live in the minority compared to the average Twitch user — which is to say, not a straight white man — hate speech and general trolling are still a big issue that continues to survive through the company’s decentralized approach to moderation, which allows broadcasters to set up their own moderation tools and rules. The Daily Dot did a great piece that articulated plenty of what makes Twitch’s abuse and language problem so sticky and persistent.

Twitch’s continued struggle with moderation does not make it an outlier in gaming, in social media or even on the Internet in general. But it does feed into larger issues, especially when it becomes an event IRL. Harassment at conventions is a real thing, and debuting in meatspace meant that TwitchCon had a lot of questions to answer for itself.

Would it be different? Would we see the best parts of the Twitch community? Or would it be another rehash of the exhausting fight to make geek culture a place for everyone?

Twitch’s Purple Rain

Everything at TwitchCon was purple.

It took me a little while to adjust my eyes to see in the main show floor at TwitchCon, which eschewed all natural light for the royal hue that also makes up Twitch’s logo. But when I did, I was shocked to see how much space everyone had — there was plenty of casual gathering, and little crowding around most things.

That might have to do with the caveat of being the first convention for Twitch, and also that practically everything of note was streamed live for those who couldn’t make it to San Francisco. It was easy to see that the majority of attendees were male, although I made note that there were plenty of young teens and kids in attendance as well.

Attendees watching an event in the Kappa Theater. Photo by Robert Paul.
Attendees watching an event in the Kappa Theater. Photo by Robert Paul.

Seeing fifth-graders run around wasn’t too surprising — one had to do very little mental gymnastics to see that they likely spend time on the site watching people like CaptainSparklez play Minecraft. But what was surprising is the lack of booth babes and cosplay. Twitch also laid out a very specific rules of conduct, featuring the aforementioned choice to costume:

Remember: Cosplay is not consent. When at TwitchCon, be respectful, be nice, be cool and be kind to each other.

But for a convention that was both about gaming and video, it seemed to have plenty of both: hardware manufacturers were on hand to talk about ideal rigs for broadcasting, while indie game studios were angling to become the next hot streamable game like ‘Rocket League.’

There was also merchandise aplenty, but no one sold more on that floor than Twitch itself. Without an online store or official public merchandise, the debut of the Twitch booth set off a frenzy, culminating in an hours-long line of devoted fans just trying to get a purple shirt for themselves.

That line showed off the best of Twitch — people who would spend nearly an entire day of a two-day event in line for a hoodie — and the worst, as sour moods and grumbling led to overwhelmed staff and a nexus of anxiety as more items were sold out.

A large portion of the programming for TwitchCon was focused on how to optimize channels and gather an audience, in a way a more business-focused event like SalesForce would. These panels were surprisingly well attended, with plenty of beanbags and other surfaces occupied by eager students of Twitch practices.

They were eager to study up to become TwitchCon’s main attraction.

Broadcast Stars

Lines of varying lengths extend out from a group of booths, like branches on a tree. Some short but eager, others long enough to snake out into other areas and interrupt live panels.

Broadcaster Alley is, in a lot of ways, the gallery of Twitch success stories. In order to become a Twitch Partner — a select group of broadcasters that get access to greater community, revenue and merchandising tools — users have to show a fanbase and viewership to earn it. Dotted in different small booths were those who achieved that summit, and have turned Twitch into a full-time opportunity because of it.

Ben, who goes by the broadcaster name ‘CohhCarnage,’ is one of the staples of Twitch’s partnership base and a full-time streamer whose income has allowed both him and his wife to quit day jobs and focus on producing streams. He’s also a relative veteran of streaming with two years under his belt, and has a sponsorship with Intel, among other businesses.

“I started as a joke between me and my friends,” Ben explained. “And I really quickly realized how unique and amazing Twitch is. It’s been nothing but up from there.”

Ben has traveled with Twitch in the past to other conventions — he says he tries to hit all the important ones throughout the year — but has seen nothing like Broadcaster Alley.

“Every single person you meet you know has a vested interest in something that you do too,” he said. “Everyone is cordial and nice, and enjoys Twitch. It’s not like any con I’ve ever been to at all.”

He cuts off our brief conversation to begin his shift. Broadcasters are put in rotations to help them also enjoy the convention. After participating in the invitational for early-access game ‘H1Z1,’ it’s finally his turn.

Returning from her stint at Broadcaster Alley, Natalie ‘ZombiUnicorn’ Casanova lugs the sign with her name on it into the room. Her rainbow-colored hair pinned back, Natalie explains that she used to live in San Francisco before moving to Los Angeles to take advantage of the greater opportunities for internet personalities — more partnerships to pursue in addition to a sponsorship with Nvidia and a partnership with Machinima.

Broadcasters compete in the H1Z1 Invitational. Photo by Robert Paul.
Broadcasters compete in the H1Z1 Invitational. Photo by Robert Paul.

Like Ben, she’d traveled on Twitch’s behalf for some time, but recognized it had a different flavor.

“I was just thinking about it — it’s not as busy as PAX but it’s nice like that,” she explained. “There’s room to walk, and there’s cell phone service! There’s also a lot of interesting stuff to do, like the gaming lab.”

In a male-dominated platform, Natalie is known on her streams for being tough when it comes to Twitch’s troll problems. She maintains a strict “no personal questions” policy on her channel and is unafraid to call out inappropriate comments while she’s gaming.

For the most part, she says TwitchCon has been pleasant on that front.

“It was very clear what they would want, and they’ve been very protective I feel like. Not of women in particular but everyone,” she said. “No bullying. No bullshit. It’s a good time.”

When asked a similar question, new Twitch Partner Angel, also known by her username ‘SidecarAngel,’ had more of a mixed response. Attendants of TwitchCon were mostly respectful, but with one minor issue.

“I have one guy following me around,” she says. “I don’t want to be rude because I’m a nice person. I just try to be as kind as I would be, and hopefully they won’t take it any further.”

Angel is new to the fame of Twitch, but it’s not hard to see how she got there: pretty, upbeat and open, it’s not a surprise when she tells me that her rise to a Twitch Partner happened fast for her. But she’s also a part of Twitch’s Creative subculture — where artists coalesce to put their skills and spin on geek culture. TwitchCon did have a small corner for Creative work, but Angel believed there could be a lot more to represent that culture.

“I would love for everyone to be able to do an art piece, where they can contribute and really try to add something, not just signing your name,” she said. “That would be so cool! We could auction it off for charity and everything.”

But perhaps no one had a TwitchCon quite like Chris, also known as ‘Futureman‘. Clad in a blue tracksuit and futuristic sunglasses, Chris has built a cult of personality on Twitch. From his bizarre backstory as a man sent form the future to beat the games of the past to his high production green-screen intros, it’s not a surprise that he’s one of the most recognizable broadcasters at TwitchCon.

“I think the Futureman thing caused people to give me a second look,” he explained. “From there, it’s my personality and who is hanging out in the chat that will keep people watching.”

Futureman (second from right) competing with itmeJP (second from left) with Ms_Vixen (left) and Ezekiel_III (right) dancing behind them during the PJ Saltan of Stream Tournament. Photo by Robert Paul
Futureman (second from right) competing with itmeJP (second from left) with Ms_Vixen (left) and Ezekiel_III (right) dancing behind them during the PJSaltan of Stream Tournament. Photo by Robert Paul

Relatively new compared to other broadcasters, his flashy look makes him high profile — acknowledging that in this community, he’s one in control and with cachet. But it’s all done in gratitude, and he’s happy to relish in the rewards of his hard work.

“It is the best thing. It is my favorite thing. I am having so much fun,” he said. “I ask them their username, and I actually know them! As amazing as it is to cast, I love this as well.”

He would later wear tracksuit onstage at the Kappa Theater, where he participated (and won) a gauntlet of silly and frustrating games at the “PJSaltan of Stream” tournament — an original tournament series where indie games often produce exclusive levels and challenges for streamers. For his trouble, he won a trophy depicting a can of salt (the premise of the entire tournament, from games to the attitude of the players, was to be salty).

Staying Goofy

Cans of salt, silly pranks, tracksuits and people running around with diamond pickaxes from ‘Minecraft’ are the kinds of things that Twitch clearly worked hard to remain visible at the event. In a lot of ways, it was a goofy place to be. But goofy can be good.

It will be interesting to see whether that culture can remain as the convention scales up to accommodate more fans yearning for purple hoodies and signatures from their favorite broadcasters. I wonder if it will be able to continue to promote the good and filter out the bad.

Futureman winning his salt trophy. Photo by Robert Paul
Futureman winning his salt trophy. Photo by Robert Paul

That will be a challenge that will require plenty of careful decision-making from Twitch. Choices that include continuing to support charities, hold panels on acceptance, and arming its broadcasters and fans with better tools to make their chats — both on the platform and IRL — safe and productive. I believe that Twitch can do it because I believe it cares about its people, and I hope it doesn’t let me down.

I hope that TwitchCon 2016 stays weird, wide-eyed and earnest.

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