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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Twitch hack revealed much more than streamer salaries. Here are 4 new takeaways.

(Washington Post illustration)

To say Twitch has been through the wringer recently would be an understatement. Fresh off the still-ongoing controversy surrounding so-called “hate raids,” the live-streaming platform was recently hacked, leading to a massive info dump earlier this week on notorious image board 4chan. This leak contained Twitch source code, an unreleased Amazon gaming client and streamer payouts from subscriptions and other Twitch features dating back to 2019, among many other things. Odds are, avid observers will be sifting through the rubble for months.

While people have fixated on how much money top streamers make, the picture painted by the leaked data goes beyond the platform’s stars. Here are four big takeaways.

Many of the listed top streamers make less than minimum wage

While much of the chatter surrounding the leak has focused on the millions of dollars made by big names on the platform like Félix “xQc” Lengyel, Jaryd “Summit1g” Lazar and Hasan “Hasanabi” Piker, glossy numbers aren’t everything. Further down the list of Twitch’s top 10,000 highest paid streamers, payouts drop off steeply, to the point that many even in that upper echelon are not making a livable wage off Twitch alone. (Twitch is owned by Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)

As streamer and commentator Reepal “Rip” Parbhoo pointed out, 25 percent of the top 10,000 highest paid Twitch streamers don’t make minimum wage — and based on the fact that payout data covers a range of time spanning some point in 2019 to the last handful of months in 2021, 25 percent might actually underestimate the actual figure. For example, if you take what the 8,000th streamer on the list has made since 2019 — $29,396 — and divide it by two, you get $14,698, which is below the annual minimum wage of $15,080. Even that might be a charitable estimate: The numbers likely cover a bit more than two years’ worth of time.

There are around 9 million streamers on Twitch, meaning that 10,000 is a vanishingly small drop in the bucket — just 0.1 percent of all streamers on Twitch. While it’s tempting to believe that streaming video games is a cushy job that’ll turn you into a millionaire, the leaked data paints a significantly bleaker picture.

Massive Twitch hack reveals streamers’ pay, with top stars making millions

There are some caveats to consider. For one, a growing number of streamers do not live in the United States, which means cost of living varies widely. In addition, some streamers have disputed the leaked payout data, and even setting that aside, it only extends to Twitch-specific means of monetization like subscriptions. Increasingly, streamers make money by striking deals with brands and playing select games on behalf of sponsors. These sorts of partnerships are not reflected in Twitch’s numbers, which means things aren’t quite as dire as they look for some streamers. Still, not just anybody gains access to brand deals. On Twitch, success begets success, but the road to that point is long, arduous and, for many, insurmountable.

Only three percent of Twitch’s highest paid streamers are women

Over the years, Twitch has played host to a multitude of controversies surrounding female streamers. In the eyes of many male viewers and streamers — who make up around 65 percent of the platform’s user base — women dominate Twitch by emphasizing their appearances and thereby erode the viewer bases of men. Twitch payout stats, however, reveal an entirely different landscape. Setting aside “Critical Role,” a tabletop role-playing show that includes women but is a collective of talent, the list of the top 100 highest paid streamers on Twitch includes just three women: Imane “Pokimane” Anys, Kaitlyn “Amouranth” Siragusa and Sintica, a German music streamer who has not divulged her real name.

The top of Twitch is not just overwhelmingly male, but also quite white. Anys is the only woman of color in Twitch’s top 100, and while the influence of international streamers continues to grow, white men still make up the majority of the highest paid streamers. This follows years of cries from marginalized streamers for better promotion and protection. Recently, this friction sparked a full-blown house fire in the form of Twitch’s struggles with “hate raids,” a term that describes trolls employing dummy accounts and bots to spam streamers’ chats with slurs and other hateful rhetoric.

Twitch hate raids are more than just a Twitch problem, and they’re only getting worse

Streamers who fall outside of Twitch’s majority want better.

“Give people that are not generic white guy 1-80 a front page slot that’s not tied to Black History Month, the shortest month of the year — or Women’s History Month, or Pride Month,” said Tanya “Cypheroftyr” DePass, who is Black. “We’re here and we make dope content year 'round. … People say, ‘Well, it shouldn’t matter. Don’t ask for views based on skin color.’ I didn’t say give me views based on skin color. I [make] good content.”

Real numbers change the game

In the immediate aftermath of the leak earlier this week, Twitch viewers’ eyes were opened to an inconvenient truth: Some of their favorite streamers — who come across as easygoing, down-to-earth presences during broadcasts — are millionaires. This was not exactly a secret: Many big streamers openly discuss finances, though in vague terms, and some publicly list their subscriber numbers as part of their streams, from which users can approximate at least a floor for their earnings. However, there’s a difference between theoretical numbers and real, concrete ones with dollar signs next to them. For some viewers, a major part of Twitch’s appeal is the imagined notion that the stars they watch every day are just like them or could one day become their friends. Learning that top streamers are nearly as wealthy as traditional celebrities shatters that illusion.

Leftist streaming sensation Hasan “Hasanabi” Piker, especially, has felt the heat, in large part due to his political orientation and stance on taxing the rich. While he’s discussed his personal wealth multiple times on stream in the past year and has regularly pointed out that he advocates for taxing rich people — himself included — he still trended on Twitter more than any other individual streamer the day of the leak.

During a stream that day, he addressed misconceptions about his and other streamers’ incomes. He used Félix “xQc” Lengyel, who, according to the leaks, has made over $8 million since 2019, as an example:

“[He] streams more hours throughout the year than not,” said Piker, who according to leaked numbers has made over $2 million on Twitch since 2019. “In comparison to every other form of entertainment, every other form of celebrity, xQc is making less for the amount of work he puts in. That doesn’t mean he’s poor at all. But streaming [messes] you up. It breaks your back, it [messes] your brain up. I streamed literally 42 percent of the entire year [of 2020]. … As far as YouTube and so many other forms of entertainment, Twitch streamers are on the bottom end. It’s just that you’re seeing it with your own two eyes, and that’s the difference.”

The battle between Twitch and YouTube has only just begun

It’s impossible to say what happens next

While the implications of the Twitch hack are already far reaching, the full extent of damage done remains unknown. Twitch has said that it’s “working with urgency” to investigate, but in the meantime, its source code is out in the wild, and there’s no putting that genie back in the bottle.

Last night, somebody reportedly managed to swap out the backgrounds of several Twitch game directories with a picture of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and while it was ultimately a harmless prank, it speaks to some level of vulnerability. The Post reached out to Twitch to find out more about what happened; Twitch did not respond.

Ex-Twitch employees and industry figures familiar with goings on at Twitch have suggested that Twitch is currently operating with the assumption that everything is compromised. The company is resetting numerous elements of the platform and forbidding employees from discussing the hack externally — or even in potentially compromised internal venues like Slack, according to the former employees, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. Meanwhile, the anonymous individual responsible for the first leak has claimed that more is coming in the future.

In light of all this uncertainty, streamers want better communication than just occasional, vague tweets and blog posts.

“In terms of what happens next, I think it really does come down to Twitch being very, very communicative — abnormally communicative compared to what they traditionally have done — to really stay on top of this,” said news streamer Zach Bussey. “Because this isn’t like the balance of your Air Miles being out there. … This is literally, as Twitch says, a community of communities. It’s a completely different playing field where I think it’s so important that everybody has to be on top of things, kept informed, ready with the latest information as it comes out to keep themselves safe.”

“We don’t know what might be coming next,” said Bussey.

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