These days, Twitch streaming is an avalanche that drowns potential viewers in a daily rush of new names and faces. No matter how much you watch Twitch, you will never be able to keep up with even a fraction of the tens of thousands of partners and their daily streams, which generally last multiple hours. As a result, streamers’ fame exists in pockets. In one space, like this year’s TwitchCon, they can go outside and get mobbed. In another – their hometown, perhaps – they can walk down the street and be nobodies.
TwitchCon is an annual convention that celebrates streaming and streamers with an exhibit hall, panels, meet and greets, concerts (sometimes performed by streamers; other times, Blink 182), and a variety of parties and surrounding activities. This year’s TwitchCon, the fifth since 2015, was one of contradictions: legitimate stardom versus video game streaming’s humble bedroom beginnings, safety and security versus fan-friendly accessibility, and the TwitchCon regular people attended versus a second, red-tape-mummified celebrity TwitchCon running in its shadow.
The second TwitchCon takes place in areas only Twitch partners can access; they’re hidden or surrounded by security. There are levels to this shadow TwitchCon – a VIP area in the convention centre you can only access with a special sticker on your badge, parties and events only for select groups of upper echelon Twitch partners.
Photo: Nathan Grayson
All partners are not created equal. Where once Twitch arbitrarily handed out the designation of partner – basically, somebody with more money-making options on the platform, who Twitch views as a sort of symbolic extension of its brand – to a select few, there’s now a gamified system that’s anointed nearly 30,000 people who make their money performing a variety of activities, from streaming games to broadcasting themselves exploring other countries – or the street outside their house. Some partners, like Fortnite streamer Turner “Tfue” Tenney and variety streamer Imane “Pokimane” Anys, are knocking at the door of mainstream celebrity. They have millions of followers and have appeared at major mainstream events like the Super Bowl. Others streamers barely turn heads at TwitchCon, let alone anywhere else.
What does it mean to only sometimes to be famous, or to be famous largely through chat boxes and Discord messages? How much responsibility do you have to general audiences, versus just to your own? Do you need to take security precautions and, if so, does that somehow diminish your cred as Just Another Regular Person streaming to an audience that sees you as an actual aspirational figure, rather than some Hollywood celebrity living in a walled garden? At this point, I think everybody has a different answer.
I can’t exactly say what celebrity is, but I believe that I’ve ascertained a single, universal truth: It means that, at any given moment, a greater than average number of people want to be wherever you are. This, in part, is the appeal of TwitchCon. Fans show up with the hope of being near people they consider important as their own close friends – or in some cases, more important. Most fans are just regular folks who might attend a meet-and-greet and get something signed. They come away jittery but satisfied, having briefly crossed paths with somebody who takes up large chunks of their screen real estate every day. Some streamers tried to be more accommodating, talking to fans outside meet and greets and other scheduled interactions. This resulted in no small number of growing, Katamari-like crowd clumps in hallways where a sea of fans otherwise shuffled from place to place.
Variety streamer Alexia Raye recognised the need to move through back channels due to the dual spectres of awkward networking attempts and security concerns, but she cast a wistful glance downward while remembering the days before things got so complicated. With tens of thousands of fans roaming a series of jam-packed convention halls, there’s a strong chance someone – or a lot of someones – will recognise her.
“I definitely feel like this was my first TwitchCon where I was overwhelmed by how many people wanted to meet me,” she said. “I kinda feel like I’ve done a shadow of TwitchCon, where I haven’t really actually gotten to explore much of the inside. I can’t just walk around freely.”
Photo: Nathan Grayson
Other streamers seemed to feel the same way. Despite Twitch’s promises of rubbing shoulders with big names, I did not see megastar Tfue at TwitchCon, nor did I see other big names like Summit1g, TimTheTatman, or Dr Disrespect, the latter of whom is 6’8” and should stand out like a sore thumb, even in a crowd. The only time I encountered Pokimane, the most popular female streamer, was at her own pizza party, and even then, it was for two seconds as part of a hundreds-strong procession of people who received the exact same photo opp and little more from a streamer who, during streams, feels like she could be anybody’s cool friend. These big streamers were around the convention – at least, according to the TwitchCon website – but they were extremely judicious about deciding when to appear and when to stick to TwitchCon’s twisting backstage labyrinth. The biggest celebrities, it seems, kept to themselves.
One evening, after TwitchCon itself had shut down for the day, I did a double-take as Ali “Myth” Kabbani, a Fortnite wunderkind with 5.5 million followers, walked past me on a largely empty pavement. I hadn’t seen anybody on his level strolling about out in the open like that – although “strolling” might be the wrong word. He and a couple other people, one of whom had a camera, were power-walking with purpose. I have no idea where they were headed, or why, and there wasn’t time to ask.
The morning of TwitchCon’s second day, I stepped out onto a rooftop bar, unsure of what to expect. I was at a TwitchCon-adjacent event billed as a VIP brunch for big streamers. It looked suitably fancy, with free food and cocktails a plenty. A chill breeze carried the scents of bacon and booze through the air. The balcony was loud and crowded, but the atmosphere was far more relaxed than the rowdy scene in the convention centre.
Photo: Martin Garcia ((ESPAT Media)
For streamers, TwitchCon is a place to both make fans’ days and party all night (and, sometimes, also for part of the day). For some, partner-only events, dinners, and parties are a rare opportunity to spend substantial time with other people who do what they do. It’s a place to break up the lonely monotony of being professionally sequestered away in their rooms all day, a place to vent and joke about the very particular rigours of their careers – or just catch up. Fans are not invited.
Sometimes, those people want to do business with the biggest fish in the increasingly large partner pond. This, however, is generally considered a no-no. I talked to multiple streamers at TwitchCon who maligned the practice of other streamers cornering them at parties to talk shop or beg for a collaboration. “Time and place,” said one. “Time and place.”
Security was a prominent concern. If anybody wanted to get in, they had to go through metal detectors and thorough bag checks first. There were security patrols near entrances, sometimes including bomb-sniffing dogs. Backpacks weren’t allowed, probably due to bomb concerns. It remains to be seen if that level of security could stand up to a truly determined intruder. Let’s hope we never have to find out.
For all the fans who took pictures with their favourite streamers, proudly announced who they were from Twitch chat, or gave quick hugs and then scampered away to geek out to their friends, a handful of fans didn’t seem to know where to draw the line. They stuck around too long, maybe even followed people they idolise from place to place. But for popular streamers, many of whom built their reputations on friendly accessibility – not just streaming on Twitch, but also making clans and guilds in games and talking to subscribers on Discord – it’s not as simple as just telling a clingy, slightly creepy fan at TwitchCon to take a hike.
“As a streamer in general, you’re gonna have some weird ones,” AvaGG, a variety streamer who’s most recently gotten into Grand Theft Auto V role-playing, told Kotaku. “And then as a female, you get the extra weird ones... I had one guy follow me to dinner, but I don’t know how to be like ‘No.’ So I was like ‘OK, I’m gonna eat with my friends now,’ and he just followed me to the restaurant. Most of them aren’t aware of how they’re coming off. Maybe they just don’t understand.”
Photo: Nathan Grayson
It’s not surprising, perhaps, that fans drawn by a streamer’s appearance of accessibility can find it hard to draw the line. Sometimes, things escalate. Ava said she’s dealt with stalkers in the past. Another streamer, Annie, who streams for Overwatch League team The Florida Mayhem, said in a now-deleted tweet that she got followed and catcalled all the way back to where she was staying during TwitchCon.
As streamers amass more and more fame, these sorts of occurrences aren’t just confined to gatherings like TwitchCon. This is especially true of big streamers who have a tendency to be open about their locations, which on one hand aids in creating the impression that they’re chill, accessible people, but on the other, opens them up to impromptu visits from fans who might not regard personal space as the highest priority. Alexia Raye told Kotaku about a time one of Twitch’s most popular streamers, star Fortnite player Turner “Tfue” Tenney, came to visit her and her significant other, Tfue’s former Fortnite partner Dennis “Cloakzy” Lepore.
“I’ve found that, whenever he comes and visits, there’s a lot of people that show up at our house,” she said. “It just becomes kind of a security risk. But then I have to be the bad guy and be like ‘No, you can’t meet him at our house.’ But another example would be, we went to Dick’s Sporting Goods to grab something. I think we were actually getting pepper spray, just in case. One of the employees took a picture of Tfue, and apparently they Snapchatted it. All of the sudden, people just flooded there. It was just this huge ordeal.”
Kitboga, a streamer who’s amassed a following of nearly 500,000 by pretending to be a variety of characters and trolling IRL telephone scammers, showed up to our TwitchCon day two meeting with a large friend in tow. This quiet, intimidating-looking man was there to “escort me around in case something weird happens,” said Kitboga. His concern was understandable. Kitboga, after all, has likely made at least a few enemies by revealing scams for all to see. While he’s yet to face direct reprisal from any of the people orchestrating these scams, you can never be too cautious. As a result, his real name is not public information, and his house is in a trust as opposed to “registering with the state and saying where your exact address is.” Even so, there are cameras on his house.
He thinks that, speaking broadly, streamers still aren’t secure enough in their dealings, despite the gargantuan audiences they stand to attract and eye-opening moments like the time somebody shot out a window in Dr Disrespect’s house last year.
“A lot of people sign up to Twitch, and sometimes their username is their name, or they have a Facebook where people can just friend them,” he said. “And to a degree that’s cool, because you’re friends. But it gets to a point where, if you know somebody’s real name and phone number, you can find out everything about them. It’s about being conscious about it and thinking ahead of time, so you can be safe.”
We talked on the outside patio of a restaurant near the San Diego Convention Centre, where TwitchCon was held. Though the clouds were an uncharacteristically gloomy grey, many people were out on a nearby street. A handful recognised Kitboga and walked up to say hi during our interview. Nobody was angry or threatening. Still, Kitboga’s bodyguard’s focus did not waver.
“Everyone can always do a better job,” Kitboga said of streamer security.
None of the other streamers I talked to at TwitchCon had bodyguards.
As it does every year, Twitch began this year’s TwitchCon with a big opening ceremony in which it made announcements about features to come. Where most companies would trot out a couple suits to give canned speeches about fiscal years and record growth, Twitch turned its keynote into a heavily pre-screened conversation. On a pair of chairs that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a hip 20-something’s living room, Twitch CEO Emmett Shear and long-time variety streamer Ezekiel_III casually bantered back and forth on topics ranging from light-hearted (Shear’s favourite game to play in his spare time) to things that will fundamentally alter the way streamers make money and how Twitch governs its sizable slice of the internet.
Shear made the long-overdue and much-appreciated promise that in the coming year, streamers will finally get precise information on why they’re being suspended, and users will get updates on what happens after they report somebody. The vibe of the moment was odd, though. This important announcement about an Amazon-owned platform that increasingly shapes culture across the world was sandwiched between jokes and digressions.
“There have been a lot of issues around this,” Shear said when asked by Ezekiel_III about suspension and ban inconsistencies, a notorious issue on Twitch. “We’ve heard very clearly from the community about disappointment. We haven’t always been consistent in our enforcement in the past. We used to have a globally de-centralised team running safety ops around the world. Because you have to remember, we have to do this 24/7 in many different languages in many different countries and time zones. You can wind up, when you have these distributed teams, with inconsistent interpretations of what the guidelines are.”
And yet, this long-awaited admission was both preceded and followed by an hour of light-hearted chit-chat. Twitch, it seemed, was trying to ape the casual, down-to-earth feeling of a regular streamer’s broadcast while discussing matters very much outside that scope. It felt almost disingenuous, like the company was trying to put a friendly face on past mistakes.
But Twitch isn’t a plucky little startup. It’s a tech giant owned by a tech leviathan. It butters its gold-encrusted bread with the labour of growing celebrities who, in turn, now struggle with their own dissonance; they aren’t regular people anymore, no matter how hard they try to come across that way. Twitch, like its own streamers, is in the midst of an identity crisis.
The most shocking moment of my TwitchCon occurred at a party I didn’t even attend. The night before the convention’s first day, I saw a tweet from video game streamer Annemunition saying that there was a large table of unattended open beers at a nearby Twitch-hosted party exclusively for partners. Streamers and fans felt it was a disaster waiting to happen.
Disaster did not strike that night. Instead, Twitch’s ill-advised drink table spread, which was thankfully complemented by a more traditional bar, sparked a discussion about safety that left many saddened but unsurprised when, in the following days, two women said they were drugged at TwitchCon-adjacent parties. One of them, a streamer who goes by the handle KTLODO, said she ended up in the hospital and posted pictures of the incident.
“Toxins came back with benzos in my system, which combined with alcohol could’ve meant death,” she wrote on Twitter. “Thankfully my friends were there for me and saved my life. I don’t think I’ll be around the rest of TwitchCon. Hope you understand.”
The other woman, a streamer named Jazzzy, posted a similar message the day after attending a partner party hosted by Discord. “Someone spiked my drink last night,” she said. “I suffered the consequences today. Just woke up from a nap, after throwing up the whole morning and afternoon.” This prompted another streamer, TheFrenchToastt, to say that she noticed something in her drink at the same party and decided to throw it away.
Once word got out about the beers at the Twitch partner party, drugged drinks at multiple other parties, and streamer KTLODO’s hospital trip, streamers I spoke to had trouble looking at the convention the same way. The event had been tarnished with an ugliness that belied its chummy, celebratory vibe. It wasn’t just that companies and party hosts had lapsed in taking care of attendees; it’s that members of the Twitch community were probably the ones spiking drinks.
“To clear things up, I was at a bar with almost solely TwitchCon attendees,” said KTLODO on Twitter. “I wasn’t at the partner party that was poorly handled. I was just unfortunately targeted despite being surrounded by plenty of Twitch friends, which is heart-breaking that it was most likely one of our own.”
Some organisations came prepared. The Online Performers’ Group, which manages around 70 content creators across Twitch and YouTube, handed out roofie test strips to concerned clients and made sure employees had them on hand just in case.
“We’ve had clients roofied in the past – even at industry/official parties,” OPG CEO and founder Omeed Dariani told Kotaku in a Twitter DM. “We try to ensure that we have at least one OPG representative at each party, but some companies refuse to allow our clients to have their support staff on hand, which creates much higher risk situations. Those companies often rationalise this by saying that they will ensure safety at their parties but, too often and including at the Twitch Partner party, we see practices that increase the danger, rather than decrease it.”
He also noted that traditional celebrities OPG manages like musician (and occasional streamer) T-Pain refuse to go anywhere at events like TwitchCon without personal security. In their world, it’s simply not done.
But at TwitchCon, it’s not just what’s lurking inside the walls, but rather, what’s going on all around. Both Twitch and Discord told Kotaku that they’re trying to make their parties safer.
“Whether on stream or in person, the safety of our community is of the utmost priority and we are sorry for any concern this caused,” said Twitch in an emailed statement. “To serve the earliest guests, a few drinks were pre-poured and left on a staffed and monitored table at our closed event. Although we believe this was a controlled set-up, we quickly removed it when a concern was flagged. We will continue to design and adjust our events so that attendees feel secure at all times.”
Photo: Nathan Grayson
Discord, meanwhile, reached out directly to Jazzzy, the streamer who got drugged at their party and is currently “investigating.” “We always have security at our events and prohibit bags from being brought in, but given recent events, we will be reviewing and looking to augment those to help ensure the safety of all of our partners and guests,” a Discord rep said in an email.
It’s not like streamers – popular ones, especially – were expecting to go hog wild all TwitchCon weekend with no regard for their own safety. It’s that they hoped their own communities and the larger Twitch community were maybe a little better than the ones that orbit other creative fields, industries, and celebrities. But Twitch and the community surrounding it remain in flux, and this year’s TwitchCon was a reflection of that. Some of the dynamics are informed by Twitch’s own policies. A lack of clear boundaries and consequences for crossing them can lead to fans not knowing when to stop. Twitch’s inconsistent policing of toxicity against women doesn’t cause, but certainly doesn’t prevent, unsafe situations like what happened at the parties.
Twitch itself wants to be both a global powerhouse and your best friend; is it any wonder streamers struggle to find a balance? TwitchCon is an intermingling of celebrities, regular people, and thousands of others who land somewhere in between. This year’s TwitchCon felt like a hand reaching out and pulling streamers up into the world of more traditional celebrity, where constant vigilance is the norm and nobody’s entirely normal, no matter how hard they try to be.