Back in October, Twitch, the dominant platform for live-streaming video games, offered select users access to a beta version of its latest endeavor: a feature called Watch Parties. Although the nearly nine-year-old site has made its name as a haven for gamers, Twitch wanted to adjust its community-building strategy to include the world of movies and television.
Five months later, the coronavirus pandemic put everyday life on pause. As movie theaters closed and such services as Netflix Party, Discord, Kast and TwoSeven became go-to tools for staging virtual movie nights, Twitch realized that Watch Parties was prescient — a perfect fit for the age of social-distancing.
“Because Twitch’s desire is to build communities around interactive experiences, we were already set for success when it came to products like this,” says Erin Wayne, the director of community and creator marketing at Twitch. “We were already on track to launch these types of things ahead of covid-19. It just happened to coincide with all of the things that we were doing.”
Through Watch Parties, Twitch “creators” — users who have logged in and set up broadcasting capability — can also host live streams of content from Amazon Prime’s catalogue of movies and TV. That video is accompanied by a feed of the host’s webcam (capturing his or her real-time commentary), as well as a live-chat feature in which viewers can toss in their own two cents. Although anyone can watch Twitch broadcasts without an account, Watch Parties does require users to have an active Amazon Prime membership. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Although Watch Parties remains a work in progress, it was expanded to all U.S.-based Twitch “partners” — an upper echelon of membership — in April, as the pandemic entered its second month. In early May, Twitch made Watch Parties available to all U.S. creators with Prime memberships. Soon, Twitch hopes to make the service available worldwide.
“We moved the timeline up,” says Michael Aragon, Twitch’s senior vice president of content. “What we’re looking to do is make sure that we continue to evolve this as quickly as we can.”
The roots of Watch Parties go back several years, when Twitch surveyed its network of creators and found that even the platform’s most ardent video game streamers wanted to find different ways to connect with their audience. When the idea of collectively watching movies and TV came up, Twitch — an Amazon subsidiary — turned to the Prime Video library.
“I think that people who are either not familiar with Twitch or familiar with us in a very entry-level [way], they tend to think of Twitch as just gaming, which is core to who we are as a company,” Wayne says. “But gamers as people are very multifaceted in their interests and their hobbies.”
Watch Parties also can be used by Twitch newbies looking to host small-scale movie nights with friends or family, as long as the host and viewers have Twitch accounts and Amazon Prime memberships, and are based in the United States. (Instructions for hosting a watch party are available on Twitch’s website.)
The company’s ambition, however, is for Watch Parties to further grow Twitch’s collection of communities. With mass gatherings appearing unlikely for the foreseeable future, thousands of viewers could theoretically congregate in the virtual arena to trade thoughts on such movies as “The Big Sick” and “Late Night,” or such shows as “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “Making the Cut” and “Upload.”
“If you’ve got a big enough creator, you can be watching with 30,000 other people,” Aragon says. “That is bigger than any movie theater that I’ve ever seen.”
Pandemic or not, Twitch comes naturally to its latest venture, according to Aragon. “We’ve always been about community and bringing people together,” he says.
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