An examination of the feudal nature of Twitch, their streamers, and the King of the industry that runs it all.
By Mitchell Duran
If you’re anything like me, you may find yourself increasingly needing to be “entertained” by something constantly. Working from home as 26% of U.S. employees did in 2022 (36.2 million American employees are expected to be working remotely by 2025), I always seem to have some form of media or content spewing from somewhere into at least one of my senses: sad piano via Spotify, a tea tree infused air diffuser belching forth, a foot massager under my desk, and almost always some Youtube or Twitch streaming in the background. Most days, when I make lunch from a string of saved 20-second TikTok video recipes, my iPad always plays a podcast or broadcasts a video game, whether Apex Legends or Warzone 2.
There is never a moment when some form of media is present in my life, not necessarily in control but taking some of my attention.
And yet, fully aware of this existential crutch, unsure if I’m even enjoying any of it or connecting with anyone on the other side of the screen, I still make no effort - most of the time - to turn everything off. Nothing terrible would happen to me except the sound of silence if I did. Maybe I’d even think of something outside of the network I’ve affixed myself in that would make me realize how insane my lifestyle was. So, why can’t 2.78 million concurrent viewers on Twitch and nine million Twitch streamers help themselves? The answer, concerning YouTube and Twitch specifically, two platforms I find myself returning to daily, I believe, is found in the communal comfort of “the chat,” as it’s often called. Next is the general addictive nature of video games: engaging, competitive, and never-ending, depending on one’s game of choice. Finally, and at the core of everything in this essay, are our historical bonds of individual kingdoms and communities' dependence on being entertained while simultaneously, knowingly or unknowingly, being controlled. All this is within the now mutated skeleton of the medieval feudal system and the present global gaming industry, worth more than $300 Billion.
I want to focus on today’s relatively untouchable video game assortment of corporations and their live-streaming subsidiaries, exponentially growing yearly by the billions. First, I want to touch on the history of the feudal system and all who ruled the lands before.
What is Feudalism?
You probably know what Feudalism looks like if you’ve seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Braveheart. In a more formal format, Feudalism was a socio-economic and political system that dominated medieval Europe, particularly during the 9th to 15th centuries. The system was hierarchical, organized like a pyramid (see above), with different levels of obligation and privilege. Remember this when we transition into comparing and contrasting Twitch’s current system. At the apex of the feudal pyramid was the monarch, usually a king or queen, who technically owned all the land in the realm.
Below the monarch were the lords and nobles, which included various ranks such as dukes, earls, and barons. The monarch granted these nobles large tracts of land in exchange for military service and loyalty. One level down was the vassals, lesser nobles or knights, who pledged service to the higher-ranking nobles in return for protection and smaller land holdings.
At the bottom of the pyramid were the peasants and serfs who worked the land. They had the least power and freedom (if you’ve ever been on Twitch, you’ll see that viewers have little or no sway regarding what the streamer does), as they were often bound to the land they worked on. You could perceive this concept in terms of Twitch as a person’s commitment to the streamer and their community over time (see Nick Merc’s “Spartans” or any other legion of followers popular streamers decree their viewers). Feudalism, ultimately, was a structured system where land was exchanged for service and protection (community), creating a network of obligations that kept the society functioning or, in the case of Twitch, kept the platform running. Each level of the feudal pyramid had specific roles and responsibilities, contributing to the entire system's stability or instability.
What is the Hierarchy of Twitch?
Twitch operates on a somewhat different business model compared to feudalism, but a hierarchical structure can be identified, facilitating content creation, revenue generation, and community building. Their CEOs, Emmet Shear, Dan Clancy, and Micael Seibel, are obviously at the top of this hierarchy, providing the virtual space where all gaming and streaming activities occur. They set the rules, take a share of the revenue, and provide the infrastructure for streaming and community engagement. Think of them as the Kings of Twitch, sitting pretty at the top of this feudal pyramid with a watchful eye on their kingdom.
The high-profile streamers and content creators are directly under them, comparable to the nobles in the feudal system. Individuals like Nick Mercs, Tarik Ironmouse, and Amouranth are some of the most popular streamers on their platform. They often have exclusive partnership agreements with Twitch and generate significant income through subscriptions, advertisements, and donations. They carry considerable influence within and outside the platform, often leveraging their brand into other ventures, leading to even more money, connections, and promotions with games similar to nobles and their sway around the kingdom.
Interesting side note: Twitch's CEO, Dan Clancy, was recently seen “disgruntled” when famed ishowspeed won a Streamy award a few weeks ago. For some context, Twitch banned ishowspeed in 2021 for comments made during another stream's live show, which shows another striking similarity to comparisons between the laws of feudalism and the realm of Twitch. This isn’t to argue either side but to point out the similarities. Read the full report of the ban here.
Next up are affiliates. These streamers meet specific minimum requirements for Twitch sets to monetize their streams through subscriptions and ads but have less extensive reach or as many privileges as partnered streamers. They could be compared to vassals in feudalism, bound by fewer obligations but also afforded fewer protections and less "land" in the form of visibility and algorithmic favor.
At the base level are the viewers and non-affiliate streamers, who might be seen as the peasants and serfs of this ecosystem (that’s me!). Non-affiliate streamers broadcast without direct monetization options from Twitch, essentially working the "land" without owning any part. Viewers, on the other hand, form the community, contribute donations, and subscribe to channels, thus generating the revenue that sustains the entire structure. Think of this as a kind of tax in feudalism who have little or no power regarding Twitch, the platform, the streamers, etc.
Now, Who in This Side by Side is God?
The concept of divine right in feudalism often played a significant role when selecting a king or a king, positing that their authority was God-given. This divine mandate theoretically meant that the king was accountable to God for his actions and the well-being of his subjects. Whether this was true or not, this often legitimized the king's rule and dissuaded challenges to his authority. Naturally, this also placed the expectation to rule justly and follow religious principles, regardless of whether they truly believed them.
In Twitch’s case, try and view “God” as the gaming studios of popular games viewed on Twitch. Without anything to do per se, most platforms and streamers would be playing music or “just chatting” in more provocative ways than not to get viewers. As you can see in the metrics below, video games and their players make up most of their viewers.
In 2023, Epic Games, Electronic Arts, Activision and Blizzard Entertainment, Nintendo, Tencent, Microsoft, and Sony are the five biggest gaming studios. View their revenues here, but let’s say it’s a lot, and for good reason. They hold all the power, and ultimately, however bad the game is (and some of them are bad), Twitch as a platform and their streamers are forced to play them, comment on them, and have their viewers watch, eerily similar to the psychology of the King (Twitch CEOs), lords (premier streamers), knights (affiliates), and the peasants (the viewers). In some way, it reminds me of scenes of today where King Charles was waving to a crowd of people all watching to see him and do whatever King Charles did.
In many cases, Twitch and its streamers are a place for solidarity, entertainment, and community, and there is nothing wrong with that. To be honest, as I conclude this piece, I’m watching Shroud play the newly released Starfield, and it’s entertaining as always as I write. What worries me most is the guise of community wrapped in old models of feudalism that have historically proven to rely on the lowest level of people (serfs and viewers) not truly understanding the system they are contributing to and getting less than they put in. Twitch dominates the live streaming landscape, capturing 73% of user share, and is estimated to generate around $2.5 billion annually. In just the second quarter of 2023, the platform raked in approximately $29.95 million from in-app purchases alone. Yet, none is shared with 92,300 concurrent channels and 2.46 million average concurrent viewers.
How a platform would share these profits with viewers while ensuring streamers of game content is another essay. Still, in the world of Web 3, ongoing efforts in decentralization, and crypto and blockchain games, Twitch may have to adapt or die as feudalism did hundreds of years ago.