TwitchCon Research Trip
Last week I was in San Diego, doing some initial research at TwitchCon! As some of you may know, myself and my colleague Jamie Woodcock have been developing a research collaboration with Twitch (and also with ESL) on streaming and eSports in the last few months. We won research funding a few months ago to pay for visits for us both to TwitchCon in San Diego, and support the flights, accommodation, food, etc, whilst Twitch offered us free tickets and pretty much full access to complete the package. With that all sorted, off we want, collecting our passes on the way…
…and preparing for what turned out to be three extremely busy days.
Our objectives were to interview as many partnered streamers as possible, ideally those who stream as their full-time income, but those who were partnered but not yet doing it full-time were also within our purview of potential interviewees. These interviews ranged from five minutes to over thirty, and we explored a whole range of topics about their backgrounds, how they began streaming on Twitch, and their experiences of using the platform. In truth, we were amazed by how much data came out of this – we were expecting perhaps a dozen interviews that would be quite short, but we got close to fifty interviews of this length, which have yielded a tremendous amount of interesting information. We’re currently working on a paper using this data to examine the lives and careers of professional (and aspiring professional) streamers, and we’ll be focusing on a range of really fascinating themes that emerged from this interview data.
We were also interested in a more ethnographic study of the overall behaviours of people at TwitchCon and how the event as a whole functioned (and how we might relate this back to Twitch as a platform, and how we should see the online-offline connection), and this also went extremely well. Some of the most interesting things were simply what we observed simply by hanging around at TwitchCon – the demographics of attendees (both viewers and broadcasters), how people behaved when they met their favourite streamers, the kinds of merchandise and third-party stalls on offer, the branding and aesthetics of the convention and the things being displayed, and just the general attitudes of the attendees towards Twitch as a company and the convention as an event. For instance, on the first day we passed by probably one of the few dozen most famous overall streamers in the world, in the street, being mobbed by a cloud of fans whilst non-Twitch-Con attendees wandered past (“I really must find out what this TwitchCon thing is…”) completely oblivious about who this person was. It was an interesting moment of extreme fame within a particular community, but a kind of fame that almost certainly nobody outside that community would ever have experienced. Similarly, the sizes of the lines at the signing booths were testament to the same thing, and ditto the turn-outs at the panels with some of the biggest-name streamers. Seeing how the community responds to the biggest streamers was a fascinating experience, and something which is going to factor into our future analysis.
I also attended the panel on streaming poker on Twitch. Poker is pretty much the only game I currently watch on Twitch, with the exception of EVO, the odd bit of competitive Smash Brothers Melee or Counter-Strike: Global Offensive that pops into my feed, and speedrun streams every now and then. Sadly the turnout was quite low due to some issue with getting people into the building that day, but our Special Guest passes allowed us to bypass the queue and get inside fairly quickly. The panel discussed what makes poker so good to stream on Twitch, the unique challenges of streaming poker on Twitch, what kinds of develops in Twitch poker they expect in the coming years, and there was some discussion of the new investment Twitch is putting into poker for the future. It was really interesting to hear their thoughts about what is, by far, the most popular non-video-game game on Twitch – and to meet some people I’ve watched! – and says something very interesting about the future of poker broadcast. The era of recording a tournament and then broadcasting it three months later is surely over, but it’ll be interesting to see how much longer that tournament endure for before everything goes live.
At the end of Saturday we attended the TwitchCon party – now a quite famous venue – which consisted of two parts. We travelled to a baseball stadium in San Diego for a brief three-game esports tournament in Heroes of the Storm (if memory serves), with two five-person teams competing for the TwitchCon prize. As someone who doesn’t watch any MOBAs, let alone a specific MOBA, it was an interesting experience going from absolutely nothing towards trying to figure out the overall mechanics of the game, and trying to make sense of the ebb and flow of gameplay, and which teams were ahead and behind at which points. A rather unusual element was a “tortures” mechanic, which allowed viewers to vote on various things to happen to the players in their booths, such as heating the booths up, making the booths shake, and so forth; it was a very strange addition to the tournament, but definitely marked it out as something quite unique. As the evening wound on, it became a very striking setting, and has set me up quite well for attending some of the larger esports tournaments I’m hoping to get to in the next year or so, such as Dreamhack in Sweden, possibly some of the ESL events in Germany and China, and so forth…
After the tournament the party proper started, which involved everyone heading down to another part of the stadium and jumping around for several hours. Not that I have anything against jumping around to music per se, but it’s definitely not really my thing, so we hung around an hour or so in order to soak up the atmosphere and get a feeling for what kind of party it was, before making our way out. I’ve since seen some highly amusing videos of the party on Twitter, though, so if it’s your thing I encourage you to give them a look.
All in all, TwitchCon was a totally fantastic event – both tremendous for research and hugely enjoyable and interesting in its own right. We’re now in the process of writing this up as hopefully several pieces for popular magazines and newspapers (more on this as and when) and turning it into journal papers. We have two in mind to start off with, and several others planned for the future once we’ve continued research in some new contexts. If you’re never been to TwitchCon, spend any kind of time watching streams on Twitch, and you either live on the West coast or you can afford to travel there, I highly recommend it. Definitely the best convention I’ve been to up to this point, and with any luck we’ll be going back next year to give a talk about our research. Stay tuned!
Rock Paper Shotgun
Meanwhile, the last two parts of my Rock Paper Shotgun series have been posted, which I don’t think I remembered to post here when they actually went live. So, about a month ago the third part went up:
Followed closely by the fourth and final part:
It was really enjoyable to write these for RPS, and in all the pieces I felt that we got a really high standard of very interesting discussion going in the comment threads. There were a lot of intriguing ideas about other games that were relevant to the discussion, the potential (and current) roles of PCG in various kinds of game and game genres, and a range of concerns about PCG in general, and also a lot of comments about No Man’s Sky. As someone who hasn’t yet played NMS – and given my ongoing workload at the moment, it isn’t likely to happen any time soon – I couldn’t really respond to these comments in a useful manner, but they were interesting to read. It’s striking to note the strength of the response about NMS, and when I actually get the time to play it (or at least watch someone streaming it…) I’ll be sure to put some thoughts up here on the blog.
First Person Scholar
Next up – the excellent First Person Scholar (games academics write academic-but-accessible pieces) just put up a great podcast episode about PCG, and URR gets a good mention. If you want to give it a listen, you can find it here…
I am slowly getting out of the period of mad busyness that has led to the temporary suspension of URR development (and my apologies for another missed blog post). Give it a few more weeks, and I think my calendar will have freed up just enough to get back to coding, finish off 0.8, get it released before the end of the calendar year, and then start planning where we go from there! I’m working twelve hours a day, every day at the moment, but I’m getting it all done, and my day will be freer as October comes to an end. I’m immensely looking forward to getting back to it, and it shouldn’t be too long away now. Apologies again to everyone; needless to say, I never wanted things to play out like this, and I wanted URR 0.8 to be out a while ago, but life has really got in the way. The project is obviously still 100% live, I’m not going to stop until the game finished, game development is still a vital addition/side work to my academic life, this doesn’t mean anything about the long-term future of URR, etc etc etc – but I still need a few more weeks of break in order to put everything else in my life in order and allow me to really focus on finishing off speech generation and getting the next version out. More updates as and when…
Finally, to help tide us over until URR development restarts in November, we might be having some guest entries for the first time! I’ve assembled a team of superb games people to talk to you about things they think are interesting, and I think they’ll bring a lot to the blog whilst I recharge, get through this intensely important two or three months in my academic career (more information on this later), and return to finish URR 0.8 and take stock of where to go from here. See you all next week!