Everything you ever wanted to know about Twitch but were too afraid to ask your 13-year-old

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A gamer plays
A gamer plays Credit: Epic Games

No platform is more confounding to the uninitiated than Twitch. To adults, it's ridiculous. To millions of young people, it's just everyday life.

With the live-streaming video platform's weekend-long festival, TwitchCon, taking place this month in San Francisco, there's no better time to answer some of the questions often heard from Twitch newbies.

Why watch someone else play video games?

Users get more than gaming. It's connection. A survey of 55,000 people conducted by the BBC in September found that the loneliest age group is 16- to 24-year-olds: More than 40 percent of those surveyed in that group feel lonely. The 15 million monthly Twitch users are mostly young males, itching for human connection.

That feeling of connection comes in part from the host of the stream. But the host is merely the anchor and springboard for conversation. It's the chat, the scrolling conversation and close-knit group of loyal viewers that makes Twitch users feel so connected to each other. Any popular streamer's chat is incredibly lively, idiosyncratic and home to fiercely committed viewers. It's filled with in-jokes. It's fast-paced. And it never turns off. In this way, Twitch reflects the reality of 21st-century relationships: dispersed geographically, virtual and always on.

Do you really just watch people play video games?

No. Sometimes it feels like gaming is beside the point. Making the host say something just to you, or do something because of something you said, is deeply satisfying and addicting. What users do on Twitch is interact.

They take part in the stream. They try, hope and nearly beg to influence the stream. It's as if the most loyal and passionate TV fans could get their idols on screen to react just to them, giving individual fans the power to change the course of the night's broadcast or gain recognition from the star.

This drive for recognition in the chat has led to a creative and competitive interactivity economy on Twitch. Users buy their way to recognition with cheers called subs, bits, badges and emotes. It sounds crass, but think of it as modern-day patronage. Like a streamer? Give her five bucks. She'll shout you out! Everyone wins.

Why are some streamers so popular?

Twitch has minted genuine superstars. Games are the monolith of youth culture. When the streamer Ninja broke the record for concurrent views on a single stream in May with 628,000 viewers, it was proof that Twitch streamers are the latest, and maybe last, generation of mainstream stars.

What makes a Twitch star is the power to create a world where users want to hang out. Some stars attract users through skill, but only a small fraction can turn game play into something entertaining to interact with and to watch. Some stars like Dr. DisRespect or Ninja are skilled at game play, but more important, they're adept at creating a feeling of intimacy.

The other type of star is pure personality, like the wildly funny and inventive comedy stream "Go Off Kings." These types are basically amateur gamers who captivate for reasons that have nothing to do with skilled gaming. Part podcast, part reality show and part friends chilling on the couch, this type of streamer's world is so inviting and fun it sucks you in.

How can brands capitalize on Twitch?

These stars are cultivating huge audiences of young people who are way more devoted and passionate than any TV show viewer. Of course, brands want in. Success for marketers on Twitch lies in integration.

Pre-roll or mid-roll spots just feel like interruptions from some far-off algorithm. But partnering with a streamer can feel real. One effective strategy is to involve the chat: Offer giveaways in the chat if a streamer completes a given set of tasks, or allow the chat to control the streamer's action in some way that leads to a big payoff courtesy of a brand's product.

Product placement can feel genuine too, if the product-streamer fit is right. On-screen placement can be fun and even creative, while real-life product integration—a streamer trying a new soda while streaming, say, or wearing a specific brand's T-shirt while playing—can pay off. The key is to let the streamers do what they do best: hang out and let their friends into their world.

Matthew Gardner is co-founder of Highfield.

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