During the pandemic, Twitch, the streaming platform owned by Amazon, saw exponential growth as viewers and new streamers flocked to the site. It had already enjoyed a rapid expansion in recent years, despite a slight dip prior to the pandemic. But the growth accelerated when people were forced to stay home last year.
Now, however, with vaccine rollouts and creative industries tentatively reopening, those who began streaming during the pandemic is whether they will return to “normal” life again.
Australian comedian John Robertson has been performing for 17 years, living in London since 2013, and like many comedians before the pandemic, he was doing shows for audiences up and down the UK. “I was doing everything that you can imagine. You would go to Hammersmith and do 10 minutes after Harry Hill had been on," he says. "I would go and do my show The Dark Room at sci-fi conventions and gaming expos and theaters and art centers, then you’d be back at somebody’s hen do in Plymouth. You just do everything on the planet.” This is a fairly typical snapshot of life as a jobbing comedian. Robertson’s offbeat, weirdly wild and energetic style translated perfectly to a Twitch community, which he calls “diverse, perverse, wholesome, yet awful.”
He had returned to the UK, and with gaps in his schedule, and in the middle of a breakdown, he threw himself into streaming under the name Robbotron. Unlike many who turned to Twitch when the work dried up, Robertson had found success on the platform some months before, and when the work did disappear, he already had a bustling schedule on the platform.
Robertson’s channel consists of high-octane chat and shows like The Dark Room and Sunday Lunch With Your Dad. Talking fervently about the community and togetherness, he notes that “the most important stuff we’ve done is the charity stuff,” raising nearly £50,000 via the stream for charities like Mind, Black Minds Matter, Women’s Trust, and End the Virus of Racism.
With the UK slowly coming out from lockdown, Robertson’s schedule doesn’t look to be changing much. Instead he intends to do more. “We’re going to start streaming the live shows," he says. "There are some venues that have kitted themselves out beautifully,” which makes his shows more accessible to those who either don’t want to attend live performances or just can't because of circumstances like health or location.
You can find parallels here between comedy and music. Neo new-wave band the Fantastic Plastics have been together for eight years, technically a three-piece composed of Tyson, Miranda, and Dylan. Tyson and Miranda are on camera, with Dylan (aka Chicken Burger Disco) writing with the band and doing video production in the background. Like Robertson, they took to Twitch before the pandemic, in an effort to build an audience and figure out where their fans were located to make touring easier. What they didn’t realize is that Twitch would make playing live irrelevant for them. “We realized the capability of Twitch as an expression of art beyond the music, which worked well for us because we had all these visual elements,” says Tyson.
Although the band has experience playing all kinds of live shows, including the Vans Warped Tour in 2017, they’ve seen a decline in the indie-music live scene over a number of years. For a band their size, it was hard to keep connected with live audiences and for their passion to be economically sustainable. “The problem with touring is, we just won over a room full of people, and now we’ll be lucky to get back there in a year or two. It was hard to really foster and build that fan base,” says Tyson.
Although the pair miss the “palpable energy” of a live audience, as they put it, they like the immediate feedback they get on Twitch. The band has been growing creatively on the platform, adding a chat show to their schedule that features an array of guests, and cross-pollinating their audiences with other communities and streamers. “We really enjoyed talking to people,” Miranda recalls. “We had some of our hardcore fans on there, telling us what songs they wanted to hear, and that immediateness was really cool.”
Tyson and Miranda are adding more interactive elements to their Twitch streams, where their audience will be able to direct the visual elements of their performance via chat comments. Think of it like an interactive music video. Regardless of the pandemic, the band members are “all in” on Twitch. They now have ambitions to make the channel even bigger, perhaps eventually pitching ideas or working with Netflix or Adult Swim. “I think the only way we’ll go back to live shows, aside from the obligations we have already from before the pandemic, would be if the demand justifies it,” Tyson says.
However, actor, podcaster, and comedian Paul Scheer, who you may know from The League or Veep, only discovered Twitch as the pandemic hit, as he looked for another outlet to play with and express his creativity on as the world locked down. He was looking to find his people, he says. “I did YouTube, and it felt like the audience was behind a wall. Then I was doing Instagram, and it felt like window shopping. Twitch just felt like you could be free.”
He originally joined Twitch under his own name, bringing in his friend, fellow comedian and actor Rob Huebel (who’s had roles in Children’s Hospital and The League), and the pair started doing a Twitch version of their stage show, Crash Test. As Scheer began bringing in other friends to collaborate, he eventually renamed the channel Friendzone, turning it into a space for Scheer and his friends from across the industry to experiment.
When I spoke to him, Scheer talked excitedly about the connection between the audience and creator on Twitch. “I think people are looking for this connection,” he says. “But I will say, it doesn’t feel forced—whereas I think a lot of these social media companies are trying to sell this idea of ‘connect with your fans, be with your fans,’ and it’s all these ways to appear you’re connecting with them, but you’re not.”
Although Scheer has still been working during the pandemic, he doesn’t intend to stop streaming if life suddenly returns to “normal.” Not only does he see Twitch as a way to open himself up to new audiences around the world without the traditional constraints of the film and TV industry, there’s a “fun and playfulness,” as he describes it, that people aren’t necessarily getting from bigger productions.
“I think that whenever we go through something structurally traumatic, we walk away and we go, ‘Oh well, we’ll keep that now,’” Scheer says. “I think there are going to be lots of things that we keep that are benefits from the pandemic.” He sees streaming post-pandemic as something creatives can add to their roster of jobs and talents, and it doesn’t have to stop. “We’re probably going to go back and perform on stages. But that doesn’t mean people in Minnesota or Australia are going to be able to go see those shows. So why not just keep doing it? It’s just yet another outlet.”
What is clear is that in hard times, people still need some form of escapism and connection, and the latter is something that traditional forms of media can’t always provide. Whether the broader entertainment industry catches on remains to be seen. “When they realize that they can make money off you doing it, then they start to give a shit, but the truth is, if you go in trying to make money, I don’t think it works,” Scheer explains.
Robertson, aka Robbotron, notes though that the “unsung heroes” of Twitch are those who were streaming on the platform many years before, like Melanie Clark, aka HerNameIsMelula. She’s been streaming for three years and has a strong community and a regular schedule on the platform. During the pandemic, Clark started a new project called Virtual Lunch Club, as a way to remember to take lunch breaks during her working day, Monday to Friday. “What started off as something I needed became something my community and the new people who discovered me used to have an anchor point in their days of lockdown,” she says.
Clark says her content changed in positive ways during lockdown, bringing her and her community closer together. She doesn’t see it changing much as she goes back to work, commuting between her home and her office. “Streamers who existed before the pandemic will return to their old schedules, while those who joined during the pandemic will scale down their streaming hours,” she says. “Hobby streamers who have been using Twitch to pass the time may fall off the platform altogether. But most professional performers who joined during the pandemic will probably stay, as it’s another content platform for discoverability and income.”
Twitch’s growth may level off as people return to life in a post-pandemic world, but it’s those creators and communities that have adopted the platform during the pandemic that have transformed it into something more. With luck, that creativity will make its way to other platforms, and people eager for those connections will find their way to Twitch.
As Scheer puts it, there’s no reason we can’t keep the positive things we’ve discovered and learned in what otherwise has been a stressful and difficult time for everyone.