Usually on Twitch, the rallying cry “Let’s get top five, baby!” refers to a video game leaderboard. Now, in the wake of a cataclysmic data breach, the gaming world is focused on a new leaderboard: one that ranks streamers according to how much money they make from Twitch.
A circus of controversy washed over the internet Wednesday after an anonymous 4chan user leaked 125 GB of data from the streaming platform, which included payout information for over 10,000 Twitch streamers. Twitch confirmed the breach later that day, saying that a server configuration change had allowed a “malicious third party” to access the data. The revenue data, which spanned subscriptions, donations, and ads from August 2019 to October 2021, immediately went viral on 4chan, Twitter, Reddit, and other social media. (Several streamers have stated that the information is mostly accurate, although the Twitch payments do not represent their only income source.) And while streamers are understandably concerned about potential privacy risks associated with the data breach, many have also been meme-ing on the money and, as always, making money on the memes.
“NUMBA 6 BEGS FOR PRIMES,” top streamer Ludwig Ahgren titled his livestream Wednesday, referring to Twitch’s Prime subscriptions. Twenty-four thousand viewers tuned in. Scrolling through a website that organized the payout information into a leaderboard, Ahgren typed in various streamers’ usernames to find what they made. (The website has since been taken down.) At one point, Ahgren called another streamer, Matthew “Mizkif” Rinaudo, to continue the gossip fest. “Number six!” Rinaudo yelled in a greeting to Ahgren. “You have to scroll to see my number. That’s embarrassing.”
“I’d never want to hide how much I make, so I’m down to make a meme out of it,” Ahgren tells WIRED. “I've had a meme for a while: bigger number, better person. That's kind of how it feels when you're a content creator, directly correlating your value as a human to how big you are, how much money you make.” (Ludwig confirmed that he did earn about $3.3 million through Twitch subscriptions, Twitch Bits, and ads from late 2019 to October 2021.)
All day Wednesday, streamers and their fans referred to their favorite gaming celebrities by their numbers on the now-defunct Twitch earnings leaderboard. On popular Twitch gossip subreddit r/LivestreamFail, posts piled up with titles like “#6 talks to #23,” “#137’s worst nightmare” or even “#6, #188, #264, #280, #269, #343, #414, #550, #1049 and #1905 team up to beat up #28.”
Part of the impetus to meme came simply from streamers’ gargantuan payouts. According to the leaked data, the top 81 streamers each earned over $1 million through Twitch since late 2019. The top five earned more than $5 million each. While the financial information was explosive, it’s not news that some streamers rake in millions. In fact, savvy viewers might be able to approximately calculate some streamers’ revenue information on their own, no leak required. Most subscriptions for streamers with Partner status cost $5, and Twitch takes 50 percent of those earnings. So if a Partnered streamer has 50 subscribers paying $5 a month, that streamer will earn $125 a month from subscriptions. On top of that, streamers earn money from Bit donations (Twitch takes 30 percent) and partner program ads (which Twitch takes 20 to 30 percent), according to Alex Curry, a gaming influencer marketing strategist at Upfluence.
“This leak highlights how lucrative streaming can be, and we are only speaking of direct incomes from Twitch itself (subs plus ads plus bits),” says Curry. That’s not a whole picture of streamers’ earnings, though. “To those figures, you can add brand collaborations, sponsorship, merchandising, and donations. So the top-streamer salary reality is significantly higher than this.” The actual mystery, at least to the public, is how much money streamers make from those private deals. And those numbers—which weren’t included in the hacker’s data dump—can be huge. Wednesday, in a spreadsheet, Ahgren shared that from late 2019 to October 2021, he made $3 million, 44 percent of his income, from sponsors.
Top streamer Imane “Pokimane” Anys (“#39 reporting for duty”) took the opportunity to share her philosophy on stream revenue with her 17,000 live viewers Wednesday. “That’s not how much I’ve made over the last two years,” she said, referencing the leaked number. “I try to make as much of my money [as I can] off companies, sponsorships, off exclusivity deals.” Anys has partnered with companies like MAC cosmetics, Postmates, and HyperX.
Anys initially made streaming her full-time job due in part to regular fan donations. In exchange for a few bucks or more, she might personally acknowledge that fan on stream or even read out a message they attached to their donation. Last year, however, Anys became the first streamer to mandate a $5 limit to donations on her Twitch channel. She thanked her fans for supporting her to the point where anything more than that would be unnecessary. “Look at me, chat,” she said Wednesday, staring into her camera. “I don’t want your money! I don’t want it!” She sais she doesn’t want to “feed into this addictive, give-attention parasocial cycle that exists on Twitch.” If a streamer had more than 2,000 live viewers, they were already making more money than most people hanging out on their stream, she said, calling this dynamic “poorbaiting.” Fans of top streamers can donate to smaller channels or buy themselves a cookie, she suggested.
Although it is apparent from streamers’ publicly available subscription counts that they are raking in cash, the leak threw into sharp relief the gap between top streamers’ finances and that of their viewers. Hasan Piker, a democratic socialist who shares news and commentary with his 1.5 million Twitch followers, trended on Twitter Wednesday after the leak exposed his Twitch revenue. The controversy followed another blow-up around Piker’s finances last month, when he purchased a $2.7 million Los Angeles mansion. Viewers accused him of hypocrisy for earning millions of dollars while also preaching wealth redistribution. Fans of Piker’s joked that “socialism is when Hasan makes no money.”
Piker has in the past said that he donates lots of money and doesn’t think his earnings contradict his political views. When controversies like this occur, he said on stream, his family receives threats. “If you’re mad at me, tax me more,” he said. “Tax people in your income bracket more. Vote for and agitate for politicians who tax people like me more.”
The breach also revealed the vast differences in earnings among Twitch streamers themselves and provided evidence debunking some popular narratives in the gaming world. Since Twitch’s inception, there has been a pernicious myth among some audiences that female streamers, and particularly attractive ones, were “taking” views from so-called “legitimate” gamers—which in the minds of these haters were almost uniformly men. Wednesday’s data breach confirmed what female streamers already knew: Their gender is not some handicap making streaming success easier. Only three of the top 100 streamers by Twitch payouts are women.
In fact, only the tiniest fraction of streamers makes any money of note through the platform. “We are looking at the top 0.001 percent of Twitch streamers here,” says Upfluence’s Curry. “It means that the large majority (the bottom 99 percent) of Twitch streamers are not making enough money to make a salary.”
Streamers made light of the leak because content is their job and, boy, was this content. In his stream Wednesday, Ahgren presented a game for his fans titled “Bigger number, better person.” In a best-of-five match, he and his viewers competed to guess which of two streamers made more money. If his chat lost, he said, they’d have to subscribe to a Twitch streamer. They could subscribe to him, if they wanted, but probably not that day; it was a bad look, he said. Maybe tomorrow.