Leading up to the 2020 general election, US representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez hosted a stream on Twitch, the game streaming platform owned by Amazon. AOC, along with Representative Ilhan Omar, decided to play Among Us, a whodunnit-style round of intrigue and finger-pointing similar to the party game Mafia or Werewolf. Joining her were some of the platform’s biggest personalities, including popular streamers like Imane “Pokimane” Anys and Benjamin “DrLupo” Lupo, all there in an effort to drive people to IWillVote.com before the general election.
At the end of the stream, AOC was able to pull in 430,000 concurrent viewers on her channel alone, making it the third-largest in Twitch history. The VOD sits at 5.6 million views, with millions more on YouTube. Coupled with other streamers that were streaming to their audiences, it’s likely AOC’s Among Us stream was one of the largest, if not the largest, event in Twitch history. In an interview with Jake Tapper on CNN’s State of the Union, AOC claimed that her stream ended up being the largest driver to IWillVote.com ever.
It’s no surprise that AOC returned to Twitch in late November to help raise $200,000 for charity.
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“Politicians can learn a lot from AOC's strategy, if I can even call it that. Just be yourself,” said Mychal “trihex” Jefferson, a streamer and speedrunner with 435,000 followers in an email exchange with WIRED. “The biggest strength of Twitch is the spontaneity of live engagement. Doing an over-polished rehearsed speech or whatever is totally missing the strength of livestreaming.”
Nse Ufot’s New Georgia Project, referred to as NGP, also put on a 12-hour stream on the day of the general election titled Twitch the Vote. It brought together rappers such as Curren$y and Dave East, as well as esports pros like Mavs Gaming’s Artreyo “Dimez” Boyd and Panda Global’s Eric “ESAM” Lew. While NGP’s stream didn’t have the same hype and pomp of AOC’s, it did reach a maximum concurrent view count of 18,240 and saw 669,648 views overall, impressive for a brand-new broadcast. Given the demographic breakdown of Twitch, this hard-to-reach voting bloc will be critical for Democrats moving forward.
At the moment, Twitch is the 16th-most visited website in the US, ahead of sites like Etsy and Walmart. It has an average of 2.1 million people watching streams at any given time with 81.5 percent of its user base being male and a majority of those, 55 percent, being between the ages of 18-34.
It’s why the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns directly targeted gamers, buying up in-game ads in titles like Burnout Paradise and 18 other games through Xbox Live. And in 2016 the Obama administration held an esports tournament to raise awareness for the Affordable Care Act.
“The gap between TV and digital is narrowing each election cycle, and as campaigns become closer and targeting particular groups more important, we should see more activity in digital,” said Audrey Haynes, a professor of political science at the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia, in an email exchange with WIRED.
In political advertising, digital is often referred to as the realm outside of TV and old-school leaflet canvassing. This could include Google and Facebook ads, YouTube videos, Instagram or TikTok posts, and even memes.
According to Haynes, while a majority of political ad dollars still go to television, internet advertising continues to grow, taking up 18 percent of total ad spending in 2020. Television has a wide reach, but it cannot microtarget as effectively. That’s where online ads can fill in those gaps.
Haynes explained that you have to engage voters where they are, and depending on the demographics you’re targeting, Facebook isn’t your best option. “If those are voters you need to mobilize, you need to make sure you develop a message and strategy to communicate that message where they are at and in a way that is not likely to generate a backlash. It takes creativity, but it can be done.”
To ensure that NGP was reaching gamers in an authentic way during its general election stream, it brought on Malik Forté. While Forté most often hosts gaming and esports events and is well known for previously being a banner host and analyst for the Overwatch League, he found himself being both presenter and educator.
“It got to the point where I found myself explaining the electoral college to people multiple times throughout the stream, just so they could understand how the system works,” Forté told us.
Beyond the occasional trolls, Forté did find people who were genuinely curious and interested in learning more about the electoral process—though he found himself having to defend an electoral system that can leave many in non-battleground states feeling unheard.
“Folks who consume gaming content, we tend to see through a lot of the smoke and mirrors, like advertisements and influencers tend to throw in our faces on the regular,” said Forté. “So I think it's really important to just take all that down, take all the smoke and mirrors away, and create a transparent conversation around civic engagement and around politics in general.”
But Twitch is changing rapidly. It now hosts not just video game streams and esports tournaments but also more general broadcasts, from Bob Ross marathons to regular chat sessions. In fact, the Just Chatting category is now the largest on the site, and the one growing most rapidly.
“The site has switched from gameplay to more of a reactionary manner of content,” said Jefferson. He believes this type of content is more conducive to VOD, allowings clips to rack up views on YouTube or Reddit. Jefferson went on to say, “Hearing someone who is relatable (streamers) provide insight into all this is a welcoming lure that is dominating the meta.”
This was most evidenced by Hasan Piker, a liberal political commentator turned streamer (also present on AOC’s Twitch stream), who ran a nearly nonstop election week broadcast. Piker spent 80 hours streaming various election results, and at one point reached a peak viewership of 230,000 viewers. In the days after the election, he would consistently see over 100,000 concurrents.
The goal here for Ufot, Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight, and other grassroots efforts around the country is to turn young nonvoters into “supervoters.” According to Cambridge University, elections that can drive high turnout among young adults will leave a footprint for subsequent ones. Getting voters engaged as soon as they turn 18 could mean a lifetime of reliable votes.
“I thought this was going to be a season that we were going to have to organize around voter fatigue, and just people being over the election,” said Ufot, in an interview with WIRED. “What we're seeing is determination, and more resolve, particularly from young voters and first-time voters.”
After a record turnout of young voters in Georgia during the general election on November 3, that determination is probably why polls for the January 5, 2021, runoff election show the two democratic challengers, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, slightly ahead of the Republican incumbents they’re running against.
This time around NGP will not be putting together a Twitch stream before the runoff election. With the race being limited to Georgia, it could be that there’s less interest from the larger Twitch audience. NGP is, however, continuing its suite of online advertising on both Facebook and TikTok, hand-written mailers, and old-fashioned block walks to push as many voters to the polls as possible—even as the state shuts down early voting locations or aims to disenfranchise voters last minute.
Still, putting together a stream and trying to recreate what AOC did might not be as doable with other politicians. If NGP had gotten Ossoff, Warnock, or whoever else, it would have required having a politician drop the performative aspect of politics and be as they are with friends.
“A majority of politicians would be terrified to be in a live environment that can only be rehearsed or polished so much,” said Jefferson. “A similar take would be the Bernie Sanders streams from late 2019. Everyone was excited, until they realized it was just Bernie's team delivering generic messages, as opposed to engaging in a ‘Twitch town hall.’”
If there is to be a second upset in Georgia, Democratic leadership can only conclude that it’s time to try a different game plan, one led by grassroots organizers with a robust digital strategy and relatable politicians willing to be fun and make gaffes. Because for Ufot, a reimagining is the only path to victory.
“The old playbook says that black people don't vote, that young people are unreliable. So the idea is, if we're going to change the culture of voting, we need to do culture work. And gaming is an important culture for Gen Z and millennials.”