10 years of Twitch: Streaming goes mainstream

by Mitch Reames

Prior to 2015, data on the most watched streamers is rare. Around the time that Amazon acquired Twitch in late 2014, a group of different third-party companies all started actually tracking Twitch data. Places like SullyGnome, Twitchmetrics, Esports Charts and others were made during this time with the primary function of quantifying what games, channels and content was most popular on the platform.

To learn about the streamers who helped mold Twitch during the platform’s first few years in operation, check out our article on the early pioneers of Twitch.tv. This article will look at how the top individual streamers (so not the esports channels like ESL and Riot Games) have shifted over the last six years.

2015

Starting in 2015 some stats start to become available for the channels receiving the most views. Other cumulative stats exist counting up total followers or total views but year-by-year data showing the fluctuations of Twitch is scarce to nonexistent pre-2015. SullyGnome’s data starts in 2016 but a post on LinkedIn recaps the top 10 channels of 2015 in total hours watched.

Photo Credit: Twitch

Riot Games got plenty of shine on our list of the biggest games so we are ignoring the crazy anomaly that League of Legends represents on the viewership front. This list gives us five channels not tied to esports events.

Saqib “LIRIK” Zahib is in the top spot. LIRIK also is the only one of our list of five pioneers of Twitch whose popularity extended to recent years. RocketBeans TV, a German comedy channel, falls into second place if you want to count that as an individual channel. Then three big names hit the seventh, eighth and ninth spots.

Rabia “NightBlue3” Yazbek is a popular League of Legends player turned variety streamer. Jaryd “Summit1G” Lazar, a former CS:GO player, is still one of the most popular channels on Twitch and will certainly appear in lists for subsequent years. Finally, we see Chance “Sodapoppin” Morris, a World of Warcraft player who was instrumental in the rise of gambling content on Twitch.

With the slots category only growing on Twitch recently, Sodapoppin was one of the first major creators to embrace the massive swings of Twitch gambling, and his viewers ate it up.

Read more: Inside the Twitch meta in May: xQc is the meta as gambling content rises

2016

Moving to 2016, data switches over to SullyGnome, which provides comprehensive year-by-year stats in a variety of categories. The choice for this article was total hours watched, as that gives the best overall impression of where viewers were at during any moment of the year. Here’s the top five for 2016:

  1. Michael “IMAQTPIE” Santana
  2. LIRIK
  3. Octavian “Kripp” Morosan
  4. Summit1g
  5. Sodapoppin

IMAQTPIE shoots to the top of the list in 2016 as League of Legends content remains incredibly popular. Best known for his time on Dignitas from 2011 to 2014, IMAQTPIE played alongside William “Scarra” Li. Both would go on to have incredibly successful streaming and content careers after retiring from competitive League of Legends.

The other big addition to the list is Kripp. The Romanian quickly became the most popular streamer in Hearthstone, a mainstay in the top five games on Twitch during this time period. Kripp is especially notable because he primarily played the Arena Mode in Hearthstone, which wasn’t the main mode that esports competitions were held in.

While streamers weren’t always pro players at this point, Kripp’s success was one of the first indications that esports content wasn’t always going to be the most dominant form of content on the site. Kripp was still extremely good at Arena but the formula of great player + entertaining content would only get more pronounced in the upcoming battle royale era.

“People want to learn from the best, even if it's not strictly esports,” said Ben Goldhaber, one of the founding employees of Twitch who has since founded Juked.gg. “That’s what drove so many people to watch Kripp. No offense to the guy, but he’s not the most explosive guy. He’s the anti-xQc. He was quiet, subdued, not a massive personality, but he was very good. And again, a common trend, he streamed 10 hours a day.”

2017

In 2017, Hearthstone was still popular, but the creation of the battle royale genre sent games leapfrogging over other popular titles like Overwatch, Dota 2 and Hearthstone. The impact can be seen on the top five channels for that year as well:

  1. Summit1g
  2. LIRIK
  3. IMAQTPIE
  4. Michael “shroud” Grzesiek
  5. Sodapoppin

In 2017, from out of nowhere, Twitch’s second-most-watched game was PlayerUnknown’s BattleGrounds. Only trailing League of Legends, which was rarely supplanted from the top spot, PUBG’s rise marked battle royales’ arrival to Twitch. The genre was perfect for the platform.

Battle royale provides heated moments of competition but also downtime to farm resources. The open nature of the game allows for funnier moments or unique plays. Having a squad gives content creators the ability to develop friendships and camaraderie, sharing audiences around funny moments. Audiences responded in droves.

Summit1g became the early leader in battle royale content where he commanded a solid average audience of over 20,000 viewers almost all the time he was playing. That might not sound like a ton in the current age of Twitch, but in 2017, the average viewers at any given time on Twitch was about 730,000. In 2021 that number is about 3 million according to TwitchTracker. So if the total traffic has quadrupled, Summit1g holding 20,000 viewers in 2017 would be like holding about 80,000 average viewers in 2021.

Read more: Average Jonas on the value of co-streaming during VCT’s Stage 2 Masters

Summit was the early leader, but another former CS:GO pro also makes his first appearance in the top five with the rise of BR. Fresh off commanding six-figure audiences during the entire duration of VALORANT’s Stage 2 Masters, shroud really needs no introduction. He’s the third-most-followed Twitch streamer with nearly 10 million total followers only trailing Tyler “Ninja” Blevins and Turner “Tfue” Tenney in that category. With neither one of those streamers coming back to pre-Fortnite highs, Shroud is arguably the single most important streamer in Twitch’s history.

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2018

In 2018 Shroud continues to climb but there’s a new king on top.

  1. Ninja
  2. shroud
  3. Sodapoppin
  4. Brett “dakotaz” Hoffman
  5. Tfue

It’s the Fortnite boom. Basically Twitch’s version of the California Gold Rush. The faces who got onto Fortnite in the first few days experienced growth of individual channels never before seen on the platform in short time periods. Only nine months passed between Fortnite’s release and Ninja streaming with Drake to set the Twitch record for concurrent viewers at the time.

“He was on the front page of ESPN The Magazine, Hollywood Reporter, he was everywhere,” Goldhaber said. “Ninja broke into the mainstream in a way no other streamer ever had. He transcended into the mainstream culture of North America, of the West, of the world. Like, it was that deep.”

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Ever since Ninja chose to hop over to the ill-fated Mixer, his channel hasn’t received nearly the same level of viewership. Luckily, he likely doesn’t lose sleep over it given the piles of Microsoft money, reportedly between $20 and $20 million, he can fall back on. Even after leaving the platform and coming back to reduced viewership, he still has 6 million more followers than Tfue and shroud to easily hold the top spot via that metric. He’s also the most likely name to come out of your parent’s mouth if you ask them to name a streamer on Twitch. That value is hard to quantify, but Ninja’s roster of Fortune 500 companies as brand partners says plenty.

Dakotaz was another star minted by Fortnite. Part of TSM’s loaded Fortnite roster that also included Ali “Myth” Kabbani, Darryle “Hamlinz” Hamlin and Daequan “Daequan” Loco, dakotaz became arguably the biggest star of all of them besides maybe Myth. Unlike some of the other Fortnite players who struggled to keep audiences when the game began to decline, dakotaz has successfully transitioned into a variety streamer with a big focus on Among Us most recently.

2019

Tfue had a peak even higher than Ninja during the Fortnite craze as he takes over in 2019:

  1. Tfue
  2. Summit1g
  3. Shroud
  4. Felix “xQc” Lengyel
  5. Asmongold

A talented competitive player, Tfue reached high viewership in his attempts to qualify for the Fortnite World Cup. Tfue became a hallmark of the dangers of contracts in esports when the streamer got into a messy legal battle with FaZe Clan just one year into his three-year contract. The lawsuit took a long time to settle, and in that time Tfue has fallen back down the streamer leaderboards without the mainstream recognition captured by Ninja.

After dropping out of the top five in 2018, Summit1g makes his return while being a massive force for marketing Sea of Thieves, highlighting the power streamers can hold for developers. Shroud maintains his spot in the top three once again. Asmongold, thanks to the release of WoW Classic, sees his popularity explode with the return of the beloved game. His popularity has fallen back a bit, but there’s no question he has become the biggest face of WoW content right now.

The most notable addition, however, is xQc. After being expelled from the Overwatch League in the esports’ inaugural season due to, well, saying xQc things, the streamer likely was happy to move over to Twitch. He has climbed the rankings from 2019 to now with no other streamer commanding nearly as much market share. He has been responsible for plenty of drama and was crucial in the explosion of GTA roleplaying.

But there’s another trend that xQc highlights more than anything. It’s the shift from pro player to content creator. He’s certainly not the first nor the last former esports pro to make the transition, but his content differs so much from his esports background. Those League of Legends players mentioned earlier all shifted but kept making LoL content. Shroud stopped playing CS:GO but kept making FPS content. XQc, while a talented player, represented a big part of the shift from a focus on top skill to the biggest entertainers.

“In the cultural zeitgeist, esports isn’t actually where it used to be,” Goldhaber said. “That’s because streaming and influencers have grown way faster than esports has grown. Back in the early days, esports was literally 75% of Twitch’s streaming viewership. Now, I think esports is less than 10% of Twitch’s overall traffic. Because of Just Chatting and because influencers have just grown so, so much. When we first started Twitch it was this cultural moment. Five years later, kids were growing up wanting to be esports players. Now, kids grow up wanting to be an influencer.”

2020

The shift to more of an emphasis on content creation is happening across the industry including in esports organizations. More and more orgs are choosing a more diversified collection of talent like FaZe Clan or 100 Thieves. XQc was one of the pivotal figures of that shift, which is reflected in 2020:

  1. xQc
  2. Alexandre “Gaules” Borba
  3. Summit1g
  4. Nicholas “NICKMERCS” Kolcheff
  5. Tyler “Tyler1” Steinkamp

XQc completes his rise, but international challengers begin to pop up. Gaules, a Brazilian streamer who speaks Portuguese primarily on his streams, quickly became one of the biggest channels on Twitch. At the same time, LOUD, an esports organization in Brazil, absolutely demolished records on YouTube held by FaZe Clan. It’s officially time to recognize Twitch’s true global nature as streamers across a wide variety of languages are starting to find success.

NICKMERCS, after a public falling out with 100 Thieves founder and CEO Nadeshot, joins FaZe Clan and reaches a new level of popularity. Even though 100T is certainly a powerful media brand, FaZe Clan is a star-maker like no other esports org. Tfue was a big benefactor of that (although his lawyers would argue differently) and NICKMERCS also has received a strong boost. Just recently he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated alongside a pair of FaZe Clan’s sports investors and other stars within the organization.

Speaking of public falling outs, Tyler1’s was a bit different. Instead of falling out with an org, Tyler1 fell out with Riot Games. Considering he’s best known for League of Legends content, that was pretty detrimental to his career. Well-known as a toxic player, Riot decided to ban Tyler1 indefinitely in 2016.

The streamer tried to make a boatload of new accounts to circumvent the ban, but Riot just kept swatting them down. In 2018, Riot Games reversed the decision and reinstated Tyler1. He’s more calm now than he once was, but he’s still Tyler1, and now he’s back to being one of the most recognizable faces on Twitch.

Halfway through 2021, English-speaking streamers just can’t compete internationally.

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2021 (so far)

  1. xQc
  2. Gaules
  3. Summit1g
  4. Ibai “Ibai” Llanos Garatea
  5. Raul “AuronPlay” Alvarez

Because we are only halfway through the year, the top three actually haven’t changed. Just based on precedent, I’d be surprised if that held throughout the year as there was never a previous year with the exact same top three, much less in the same order.

Underneath them, two Spanish streamers join the list. Spanish streamers, not English-speaking ones, are quickly becoming some of the biggest voices in gaming in the Western world. Not only are Ibai and AuronPlay now in the top five, the region as a whole has a monopoly on the 1 million cumulative viewer mark on streaming platforms.

Ibai, thanks to a boxing extravaganza with himself as the host, was able to top 1 million concurrent viewers on Twitch for a single stream in May. At this point, only three streamers on either Twitch or YouTube have been able to hit the 1 million concurrent viewer mark. They all speak Spanish. Ibai joined Ruben “Rubiu5” Doblas Gundersen who accomplished the feat on YouTube in 2018 and the world-record holder David “TheGrefG” Canovas Martinez who reached a comical 2.5 million concurrent viewers on Twitch in January.

Spanish streamers have proven they can reach marks no English-speaking individual streamer has ever reached. With the consistent success of Ibai and AuronPlay, it’s not just a flash in the pan either.

Looking toward the future of Twitch, two trends become clear. One, the move away from streamers who are successful due to their esports background and toward streamers who are extremely entertaining regardless of background. And two, Twitch becoming a truly international platform where the most popular streamers can speak a variety of languages. Given how those audiences are segmented, English-speaking streamers will likely never hold all top five spots on Twitch ever again.

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