Twitch, the popular site where people go to watch other people play video games, has lost at least six top employees since the beginning of the year, including the chief operating officer, chief content officer and head of creator development.
The exodus began last year, when more than 300 employees left, and so far 60-plus people have walked out the door in 2022, according to a Bloomberg analysis.
The departures will probably continue, if not accelerate, according to seven current and former employees, because they say Twitch is losing touch with its north star: a community of about 8.5 million streamers whose gaming exploits attract an average of 140 million people to the platform each month.
Long a haven for game streamers to make a living doing what they love, Twitch in recent years has focused on expanding and finding new ways of making money from its streamers, rather than listening to and understanding them, these people say.
That strategy, they say, has alienated some hard-core users and the employees who serve them – the very people whose ingenuity and enthusiasm that made Twitch a success.
Marcus “DJ Wheat” Graham, the head of creator development who departed in late January, faults Twitch’s approach to becoming a mainstream service, which he says included hiring outsiders uninterested in the business or culture. “We went down the Silicon Valley route – hiring from Facebook, from Twitter,” he says, adding that many recruits had little understanding of gaming or livestreaming and were “unwilling to learn what this community was, why it was special”.
Another former employee says, “The customer was the content creator. If you’re not passionate about the product, you’re not really looking at it from the customer’s lens. And so you don’t have the same level of empathy.”
Twitch remains by far the world’s largest game streaming ecosystem and has little meaningful competition, despite attempts by the likes of Facebook and YouTube to build rival services. It’s not clear if the exodus is hurting Twitch operationally, and some people are leaving because they’re tired of the day-to-day grind.
Still, the departures of Graham, COO Sara Clemens and chief content officer Michael Aragon have left a potentially damaging gap in Twitch’s leadership, according to former and current employees. Their exits have solidified the reign of chief executive officer Emmett Shear, whose engineering-first focus has led the company to misread what the streaming community wants, these people say. “It’s really hard to help Emmett understand anything qualitative,” one former employee says. “It has to be quantitative.”
Of particular concern, two former employees say, is a failure to heed warnings that efforts to monetise streamers’ work would fall flat. One product invited viewers to buy extra exposure – 1,000 recommendations for US$0.99 cents, say – for their favourite streamers. The initiative generated a backlash from creators who felt it would advantage streamers with bigger channels.
Another feature, released in late February, offered users who stream at least 40 hours a month financial incentives to run ads on their channels. Employees say they told their bosses that clunking up the experience with these ads would annoy viewers but say their input was ignored.
“Twitch’s leadership is uncomfortable with mid-level and lower level employees pushing for change,” says a former employee who requested anonymity for fear of repercussions from their employer.
In an-emailed statement, a company spokesperson said that streamers’ input guides every aspect of decision-making. “The common thread for all employees is a drive to serve our community – from staff members who started as streamers themselves, to those who integrate themselves into Twitch culture when they start at Twitch,” she said.
“Serving a community as dynamic as Twitch’s means there isn’t always one clear solution or answer, and as a result we have always believed in being experimental and innovative-even when that means launching a bold product or experiment that might have short-term risks, but will ultimately help us build the best possible solution.”
She also touted efforts to hire people with different backgrounds and skillsets, whose “diversity of thought” help Twitch innovate and improve.
Twitch improved employee retention in 2020 and 2021, and both years saw lower attrition than the company has experienced historically, according to the spokesperson. Twitch hired more than 500 people last year, she said, bringing the global workforce to 1,800. In exit surveys during the last two years, a majority said they would recommend working at Twitch but preferred to move on, the spokesperson said.
CEO Shear declined to comment through a spokesperson. Former COO Clemens, who recently joined Blackstone as an adviser, also declined to comment. As did former chief content officer Aragon, who now runs Lululemon Athletica Inc’s Mirror and digital fitness division.
When Shear and his team started Twitch in 2011, they regularly tapped the company’s streaming community for insights. Graham says he and his colleagues joked that Twitch should be paying streamers for their ideas.
Twitch launched with three goals, he recalls: “Having the best gaming creators on their platforms, working with them to figure out the best way to monetise and helping them grow and build communities.” Ben Goldhaber, an early Twitch employee who later co-founded esports platform Juked.GG, says Twitch beat out rival livestreaming platforms by prioritising users. “Twitch’s entire strategy hinged on talking to streamers and learning what they need to succeed,” he says.
The close relationship between the company and streamers is what helped spawn Twitch’s most lasting innovation – the first mainstream creator economy. Twitch made every effort to give streamers what they needed to attract, maintain and monetise their audiences, who paid them a couple of dollars every day, week or month for their content. The business model has since been adopted by everyone from Patreon to TikTok and made Twitch a tempting acquisition target for Amazon.com Inc.
After buying Twitch in 2014 for US$970 million, Amazon left the leadership in place and was largely hands-off – apart from a short-lived attempt to make Twitch into more of a marketplace, where users could buy games advertised to them by streamers. Twitch executives managed to kill the idea but understood that to keep Twitch growing, they needed people who were more experienced in building a business. Such recruits were few and far between in the still nascent gaming industry, so the company began turning to more traditional tech companies for talent.
Twitch had previously recruited much of its talent from the livestreaming community. Early hires understood what it took for streamers to make a living without burning out. They also brought with them a free-wheeling ethos that included Friday drinking sessions, playing DoTA 2 and watching eSports matches together.
After Twitch shut down Friday social drinking, a then employee defecated and spread it on the walls, according to a GamesIndustry.Biz report. As Graham says, the hiring policy “didn’t always work out great, but in a lot of cases, worked out wonderfully”.
Starting around 2017, the company began hiring people from non-gaming companies like Pandora or Amazon, who often didn’t even use the platform. These recruits, in turn, hired former colleagues. Between 2015 and 2018, the workforce expanded from a couple of hundred people to more than 1,000 employees – many of them from outside the gaming and livestreaming industries.
Veteran employees chafed against the notion that newcomers could directly apply marketing or business expertise gleaned at one tech company to Twitch. “I’d stand in meetings and say, ‘I really want you to try to forget everything that you know about, like Twitter’,” Graham says. “Twitch is not Twitter, Facebook, or Pandora. Twitch is its own thing and it’s incredibly magical.”
Jason Maestas, who worked at Twitch between 2012 and 2019 and ran influencer marketing, says many new recruits “wanted to come into Twitch and quote-unquote make it better, make it a household name. They were part of other industries and wanted to lend their amorphous experience to this gaming cultural mainstay.” Before long, tensions arose between the vets and newbies. “Nobody trusted each other or believed their colleagues were capable,” a former employee says.
In 2018, Twitch let go two dozen people from the teams responsible for interacting with creators. The departures included several top and longtime employees, including Goldhaber and Justin Wong, who as vice president of community and partnerships helped create Twitch’s partner programme, which lets streamers sell subscriptions to their channels and earn a percentage of advertising revenue. Two former employees say the people were invited to meetings via calendar invitations while preparing to stream the fourth episode of an original show and then fired.
In 2020, co-founder Kevin Lin retired. In a Medium post, he thanked the Twitch community for “pushing us to do right by you. You keep us honest.” Lin’s departure was widely seen as a turning point. “Kevin was Twitch’s people person,” Graham says. “He was the one we’d turn to when we thought the boat was going off course. Once Kevin left, there were a lot more decisions made with the head rather than with the heart.”
Meanwhile, the disconnect between Twitch and its creators widened. For years, streamers had requested tags to help sort their content and find audiences. Twitch dragged its feet before releasing them in 2018 alongside an apology: “We were wrong not to have done it sooner,” said Tom Verrilli, Twitch’s former VP of viewer experience and current chief product officer, adding that “we realised we were letting great be the enemy of good, and that if we were going to spend many more months getting this right, that the impact on our creators of waiting is just not justifiable.”
Graham says red tape also prevented Twitch from acting quickly last year when Black and marginalised streamers were the victims of hate-raid harassment campaigns. It took two weeks for the company to contact one targeted streamer who goes by RekItRaven. Hashtags, including #TwitchDoBetter, proliferated.
Brandon Ewing, a former content marketing manager, says shipping new products has become more important than fealty to the Twitch community. “You had people who didn’t really use the platform designing products for users they didn’t care about in order to get promoted,” he says. “The understanding was that, if you were on the product side, you had to ship something to get promoted.” Brandon cites a 2017 product called Pulse, which he describes as “a Facebook newsfeed you could have under your stream”. He says Twitch employees who used the platform argued it was more work for creators, who already felt overworked.
Some employees acknowledge that Twitch’s drive to professionalise its operations has had tangible benefits, including making the culture safer and more welcoming for streamers and staff. For example, the company in 2016 introduced AutoMod, a moderation tool that removes hate speech and other forms of harassment, greatly benefiting female and marginalised streamers. Twitch has since invested heavily in its Trust and Safety department, which has in turn improved the livestreaming experience.
The company has also made attempts to create a more equitable workplace, where a casual gaming culture permitted and even condoned racism and sexual misconduct, according to a 2020 GamesIndustry.biz report. Twitch has recruited more women and people of colour for senior positions.
But the prevailing view among employees interviewed by Bloomberg is that Twitch is losing key executives just as competition heats up in the gaming industry. Twitch is determined to expand beyond its initial audience without alienating them. But managing that transition is always tricky, and internal critics say Twitch hasn’t come up with a compelling way to pull that off. “There’s a lack of intention,” says a current employee. “There’s a lack of strategy. There’s an overall lack of leadership.”
Twitch might be better off behaving less like a tech company and more like an entertainment platform, says Joost van Dreunen, who lectures on the business of games at the New York University Stern School of Business. But doing so would require executives to see streamers not as users but as talent.
“They spend a lot of time building buttons but not a lot of time extending their content catalog,” he says. “Whereas an entertainment company will say, ‘let’s fund musicians for 10 years, let’s get this actress to commit to three movies’... They don’t think of their creators that way at all. They want to pay them, of course, but only if they are constantly producing content.” – Bloomberg