Twitch CEO on War for Streaming Talent, Transparent Moderation Plans

Courtesy of Twitch
Emmett Shear

"Surprisingly, not everybody knows about Twitch yet," Emmett Shear says as the company embarks on its first ad campaign.

On Friday, Twitch CEO Emmett Shear took the main stage at his company's fifth annual convention, TwitchCon, at the San Diego Convention Center. Eschewing the more traditional address he's delivered at prior opening night events, Shear sat down for a lengthy, wide-ranging chat with one of his platform's stars, Ezekiel_III, during which he addressed two major concerns from fans and creators on the streaming service: an increased focus on enforcing community guidelines and updates to in-stream ads.

Following concerns and confusion over the implementation of the site's policy guidelines, Shear announced an increase of personnel for Twitch's safety operations team, as well as new moderation tools for streamer's channels and a promise of "more transparency" of how the platform enforces its rules. The exec also revealed an overhaul to the platform's approach to advertising, allowing verified "Partner" creators to keep an increased amount of the shared ad revenue on their channels.

The chat, which Shear later admitted ran much longer than planned, was an opportunity for the head of Twitch to address his community directly. It was also strategically timed to the launch of Twitch's first official marketing campaign, a major push for the steamer to lure in new users, as well as a sweeping redesign to the site.

Shear sat down with The Hollywood Reporter the day after the keynote to further discuss the plans he has for TwitchCon moving forward, why he believes its important to be transparent about moderation on the platform, and the current "war" to sign exclusive stars.

How does this year’s event compare to past TwitchCons?

It’s bigger. It’s better. I did an interview for the keynote instead of a speech, which I thought was a lot better. It was more in line with how Twitch streams actually work where there are some points you want to make but, actually, the whole thing is improvised.

You answered some tougher questions during that chat. How was that, being in a room full of people that those issues directly affect?

I’m glad we got the tough questions because if you just get a lot of softballs, it’s not a real interview. I thought it was good and gave me a chance to talk about a lot of the stuff that we’re doing and how we thought about it and address some of the issues of the day. That’s part of why I was on stage.

We’re in the San Diego Convention Center. Naturally, that draws comparisons to Comic-Con. Is that a goal, to get to that level?

I think Comic-Con is a reasonable model. I don’t think we want to quite do — the reason for our event is different than Comic-Con. People come to Twitch not to connect with brands —although there are brands here and people like that — they come to Twitch to interact with each other. It’s specifically about hanging out with the people you hang out with on Twitch in person: the other streamers you stream with, the viewers from your community, your moderators that you’ve never met before in real life. It’s not so much driven by, does the expo floor have the booth from the brand you’re looking for, it’s are the people here? It changes what kind of event it is. But, in terms of scale, I’d love to see us scale TwitchCon up over time.

Is it important to have a permanent home for TwitchCon?

From a pure logistic standpoint, repeating the same city more than once in a row might be easier on the team. I hope at some point we stop moving it. But, the upside of moving it around is you get more people access. I think, hopefully, we’ll settle down but keep finding ways to give people access.

Why have so many users had issues with Twitch's community guidelines? 

I think there’s two reasons for that. This is the issue of our times, and if you work in social media and you’re not thinking about moderation and safety and trust on your platform, I don’t know what you’re doing. Obviously, it’s for the whole industry, not just for Twitch. I think partly it’s just in the air and so, of course, people are interested. And then, I think our community feels really passionately about Twitch. When they think there’s been an injustice, they’re upset not because they don’t care but because they do. They deeply want Twitch to be a fair and just place. As I was saying [onstage], I think the key to creating that trust is transparency. No matter how good your decision-making process is, if people can’t understand it they can’t fully trust it. We’re going to really focus on increasing that transparency so people can trust the process.

How closely do you listen to your community?

I would say we listen extremely carefully. I think the community doesn’t recognize how much we are listening to them. We read what they say, we listen to them, we reach out and we talk to people, we interview them. We listen to our community every day. Literally, every day. That doesn’t mean we do the thing they suggest. It’s their job to recognize where there are problems but it’s our job to come up with and stand by the solutions. Those are two different things. It’s true for moderation but it’s also true for product changes, program changes. The best thing about customers, and users and streamers and viewers, is that they have delightfully high expectations that keep going up every year. It’s wonderful because it gives us this amazingly high target to shoot for and it means that we don’t just say, oh good, we’re done, and go home. Just because you know this isn’t good enough and I want better doesn’t mean you know what will work to make better. We listen for ideas and problems but we don’t necessarily take all the suggestions.

You mentioned the safety operations team onstage. How big is that team?

We don’t disclose that number, but we’ve doubled the size of it over the past year.

There seems to be an increase in the need to sign exclusive deals with streamers. Is it accurate to say there’s more of a war to sign stars now? 

We’ve been signing exclusive deals with our streamers — not all of them, but some of them — since we started the Twitch partnership program in 2011. One of the biggest differences between Justin.tv and Twitch was that I gave Kevin Lin the job of building our partnerships team. Justin.tv never had a partnerships team. We never had people whose job it was to connect to streamers, convince them to use the platform, help support them if something is going wrong, make sure they had a great experience and grow them. We built that when we were starting Twitch. From my point of view, we’ve literally just been scaling that the entire time. I think that what’s really happened is not that there’s some big change in the dynamics of the industry but rather that live-streaming has gotten big enough that when individual live-streaming deals happen they’re now media-worthy. This isn’t really new.

What’s the pitch for someone to be on Twitch?

When we started Twitch we had a ton of customers trying to figure out, at its heart, what are we giving these streamers? We walked away with three things. They want connection. They want to grow their audience. And they would like to make money. They would like to have a sustainable income from it, hopefully, but they mostly — and this was surprising to me — they didn’t necessarily want to make a living, that would be great, but they were happy to earn just a small amount of money to get started. That felt very meaningful to them. So, the pitch is: Come to Twitch and you’ll be more connected to the community, we have a better set of tools and we’re here for you. We’re the best place to grow your audience and, if you want to make money, we have the best tools of that, too.  You put that package together and we meet all your core needs. That’s been the pitch since 2011 and it’s still the same core pitch today. I don’t anticipate that changing.

How important are ad sales to Twitch’s overall revenue model?

It’s one leg of the stool. As I said [onstage] you have all the “non-spendees” [viewers who don’t pay for subscriptions or make donations on the platform]. A minority of people are going to spend money in a system like Twitch, where it’s sort of a crowd patronage model. You’re not spending money because you have to to get access to the content. You’re spending because you want to support the community and be a part of it. But that’s always going to be a minority. There’s an entire other group of people that are never going to be any monetization without advertising. Both advertising and transactional community support are very important.

Is it important to get those “non-spendees” to spend?

We obviously would love for everyone to have a channel subscription and I think we’ve made great strides. The percentage of viewers who have subscribed to at least one channel keeps going up. But, we’re not going to get to 100 percent of people. It’s not realistic. There’s always going to be a huge number of people — if it’s not the majority of monthly visitors I would be shocked — who are not spending money on Twitch. That’s OK. You should be able to participate in Twitch as a free customer. Twitch is all about having a community and communities need to be inclusionary as much as they can be.

Why wait eight years to launch your first ad campaign?

When we started, we were hyper-focused on helping our streamers onboard their audiences. For the first five years of Twitch, our primary goal was, how do we make it effective for you who already have an audience to bring that to your Twitch channel? Which, coincidentally, works great for growth for us as well. As you get more and more streamers, and you’ve reached more and more people, the bigger Twitch gets, the higher percentage of people for any new streamer are already Twitch viewers. That’s great for that streamer because it’s an easy transition to get their people on, but it’s harder for us to grow things for everyone and supply that growth that every streamer is looking for. We’ve come to a point in Twitch’s history where we want to reach out to people who may not have heard of us yet and let them know.

Who are those people? Older users?

Surprisingly, not everybody knows about Twitch yet. I know it seems incredible, to me, that anyone wouldn’t know about Twitch, but it turns out, there’s actually a bunch of enthusiastic gamers, the core segment you would expect to know about Twitch, that aren’t aware of or haven’t used Twitch. They’re the first people we want to reach. But I think we’re also excited to reach people who are interested in a broad variety of things. People are interested in music, sports. We want to get the message out that we have an incredible array of gaming and also a bunch of stuff that isn’t gaming.

How important is it to have a star on the platform, like a Ninja or a Shroud, with millions of followers?

It’s incredibly important for us to have stars. Any media community needs its stars, but I don’t think of it so much as having the ones that exist because neither Shroud nor Ninja were huge celebrity stars four years ago. They were Twitch streamers. What I’m excited about is the ability to build up tomorrow’s stars and to really figure out how Twitch can help people find their audience as streamers. I think we’ve found this way that we can connect people to a whole new set of audience and create celebrities. If you asked me when I thought we’d be creating celebrities, I don’t know if we’d ever do that.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.