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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

By signing stars, YouTube aims to replicate Twitch’s secret weapon: culture

(Washington Post illustration; Twitch, YouTube; iStock)
6 min

Where once the departure of Twitch stars for YouTube Gaming elicited shock and awe, announcements now come in at a regular clip, like falling dominoes. Last week, Twitch mainstay Lily “LilyPichu” Ki dropped a video saying that she’d be making YouTube her exclusive home. Mere days later, fellow live-streaming household name Ali “Myth” Kabbani told viewers he’d be doing the same.

In their respective first streams on YouTube, Ki and Kabbani explained why they decided to leave behind the platform that in many ways made them. (Twitch is owned by Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)

Unsurprisingly, money played a big role.

“I felt like I wasn’t really going anywhere on Twitch,” said Ki. “Financial stability, change of space — if I’m going to fall off, I might as well fall off on YouTube, where I get paid.”

Kabbani similarly said YouTube offered “an amount that would have been stupid of me to turn down.” But he also joined in a refrain that’s become common among streamers who’ve made the jump: YouTube, unlike Twitch, seemed authentically interested in him as a creator.

“In general, I just felt like they were a team that was genuinely invested in who I am and what I could bring to the table in terms of content creation and personality,” Kabbani said.

The battle between Twitch and YouTube has only just begun

This continues a strategy of signing Twitch streamers that YouTube began in 2019 by striking an exclusive deal with 100 Thieves co-owner Jack “CouRage” Dunlop, but which really kicked into high gear last year. When YouTube’s global head of gaming Ryan Wyatt left the company at the beginning of 2022, questions circulated about whether that strategy would continue. The answer appears to be a resounding yes.

Ki and Kabbani join an increasingly deep bench of ex-Twitch talent that includes Rachell “Valkyrae” Hofstetter, Ludwig Ahgren, Ben “DrLupo” Lupo, Tim “TimTheTatman” Betar and Sykkuno — the latter of whom made the move to YouTube just a couple of months ago (and who has kept his real name private). In response, Twitch has hyped its high-profile re-signings like Nick “Nickmercs” Kolcheff and Imane “Pokimane” Anys.

Nonetheless, streamers and pundits have deemed these increasingly frequent moves “the Twitch exodus.”

“The overall direction signals that we are heading toward a landscape where multiple creator platforms can thrive in the same way Prime Video, Netflix, Hulu and HBO coexist and compete,” Jason Krebs, chief business officer of online creator tools and services provider StreamElements, told The Washington Post.

But Krebs also pointed to another constant in this slow tug-of-war to move the live-streaming needle: Twitch remains dominant. Despite stacking its deck with big names, YouTube accounted for just 14 percent of streaming hours watched in the first quarter of this year according to a report published by analytics firms Streamlabs and Stream Hatchet. Twitch, a vastly smaller platform than YouTube overall, nonetheless claimed 76 percent.

“While LilyPichu and Myth are incredibly popular, the majority of their viewers are also fans of other creators on Twitch, which enables [Twitch] to retain a good chunk of their audiences,” said Krebs. “What’s still far from settled is any shift of the viewing habits for those who watch live-streaming creators.”

It is also worth noting that Ki and Kabbani currently fall outside of Twitch’s top 400 most-watched streamers, having earned their star status during previous eras of the platform.

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Why, then, is YouTube so preoccupied with lassoing every star that falls off the Twitch bandwagon? Nick Allen, president and COO of Ahgren’s Mogul Moves brand, believes YouTube isn’t going for raw growth in live-streaming hours watched just yet. Instead, Allen sees YouTube’s moves as an acknowledgment of where the winds have been blowing since “Among Us” blew up in late 2020: collaboration.

“They’re looking at folks who are collaborative, right? That have a network of creators that they play with, engage with and hang out with,” said Allen. “Look at Myth, right? He’s seen a bit of a decline in his overall viewership on Twitch, but he’s everywhere. He’s in everything, right? He’s at all the parties and in all the content.

“He’s a glue person,” Allen said, referring to Kabbani.

YouTube’s list of recent signings bristles with Kabbani collaborators like Sykkuno and Ahgren, Additionally, OfflineTV — one of the most popular streamer collectives, which includes Ki as an official member — is a tie that binds Kabbani, Ki, Hofstetter, Ahgren and just about any other Twitch star you can think of in some form or fashion. These personalities have history, in other words, and they bring that history with them no matter where they go.

“Twitch has a culture that has developed over 10 years that is very unique to it,” said Allen. “YouTube’s approach seems to be a development of that community in hopes of developing its own culture. I don’t think they want to be exactly like Twitch; I think they want to have their own identity. A good way to do that is bring over a core set of creators that can stimulate community and generate that culture.”

As far as major creators are concerned, at least, that collaborative approach seems to be paying off. Allen said that after Ahgren hosted a live, cameo-packed version of his “Mogul Money” game show earlier this month, his livestreams have consistently drawn over 30,000 concurrent viewers — putting him well above all but the highest highs of his Twitch run. With a growing number of big-name streamers leaning into a new streaming “meta” that favors game shows and other live events, collaborations will likely continue to take center stage.

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YouTube is also working to make up for its lack of streaming-focused features, something stars like Ahgren have publicly criticized. But at a time when communities dictate the ebbs and flows of platforms and there’s an influencer for everything, tools are only part of the battle. Community is what other companies — not just YouTube — are after.

“Since I’ve left Twitch, most of my work that I’ve been doing has been with companies that can clearly see that Twitch has a really special community — that something magical happened there — and they want in on it,” former Twitch director of creator development Marcus “DJWheat” Graham told The Washington Post in May. “They want to understand it. They want to learn more.”

Allen concurs with that assessment.

“I actually think the culture is more important than the feature set,” he said. “As more and more creators move to YouTube, I think more people are comfortable making the switch knowing that there’s a community there and that other people have made the move and are generally happy with it.”