Thousands of people, many wearing colorful costumes of characters of their favorite video games, rushed toward a cramped convention center in San Jose Calif. on Friday, several filling the air with plumes of fruit-flavored nicotine vapor to deal with the long lines.
They were here for TwitchCon, the annual event hosted by Twitch, the gaming-centric live-streaming service that Amazon bought in 2014 for nearly a billion dollars. The conference is for Twitch’s so-called creators, who each day broadcast themselves playing popular video games to online viewers who joke with and lampoon one another in the name of “fun.”
And there’s a lot of jokes at TwitchCon. Prior to CEO Emmett Shear’s appearance on stage, the audience joined in singing hits like the 1980’s synthpop classic “Take On Me” by a-ha. When Shear described a new feature for streaming to groups of people, someone sarcastically yelled “Oh my God, yes!” like a life-saving medical breakthrough had just been announced.
The conference marks a milestone for Shear, who co-founded the trailblazing Justin.tv live-streaming service in 2007 that was known for letting people broadcast their daily lives to an online audience. Today, Shear says there’s about 1 million people watching Twitch at any given time (known as concurrent views), putting it on par with television networks like ESPN and CNN.
Justin.tv arrived before the notion of “creators” was popularized by online services like Google’s YouTube and Facebook’s Instagram. And like those services, Twitch has had it’s share of bullying and offensive behavior, which was partly why Sheear announced new content moderation tools.
The new tools are part of Twitch’s efforts to curb rude behavior by users that can occasionally turn cruel, even sometimes veering into sexual harassment as a January report from gaming news website Kotaku details.
In this edited interview with Fortune, Shear discusses how Justin.tv morphed into Twitch, the streaming service’s relationship to Amazon Web Services, and moving beyond video games.
Fortune: Humor seems essential to Twitch.
How would you characterize the humor?
I would characterize Twitch’s humor as sarcastic and extremely clever. At it’s best, it’s like stand-up comedy and at it’s worst it’s a little bit trolly [as in Internet trolls].
How did this tone develop? Was it an extension of your personal taste and humor?
I think it actually developed out of the Justin.tv show. The Twitch chat is a direct descendant of the original Justin.tv chat room that has been running since we launched it in 2007. It’s sort of a continuous chat culture. It’s a decade of organic development.
How did Twitch evolve from Justin.tv?
We built a video streaming service for everyone, but the content that I loved was gaming. A ton of engineering work went into the underlying video technology to deliver bits efficiently and cheaply across the Internet. It was a really big accomplishment, but we pivoted that underlying technology to apply to streaming video games instead. The reason why we did that was I thought the video game stuff was great and I did some underlying research and gaming was huge and no one was serving it. This was 2007 to 2010 when we built up this sophisticated global video distribution system, but it’s only grown since then.
And the popularity of gaming eclipsed the original Justin.tv?
Yeah, we found gaming really outgrew everything else, and that focus on building everything great for gamers led us to build the community really well, because we were focused on one set of people.
Why did you sell to Amazon?
We sold because at some level it was a good offer and because Amazon is one of the very few tech companies that can credibly say that “after we buy you, you can stay independent.” You just have to look at the track record for Amazon. They bought IMDB back in the day and the founders are still there. Audible, Zappos—it is incredible they retained the CEO and founders for those companies when you compare it to other tech companies.
And Google was reportedly bidding as well?
We don’t talk about the negotiations in any sale.
I definitely felt that we had a choice if we wanted to sell to Amazon. We could have gone and raised money, we could have done an IPO, we could have gone and sold to somebody else. I thought Amazon would be a great home —it’s supportive and gives us independence. There’s been lots of great synergy points like Twitch Prime [An extension of Amazon Prime that gives users extra features].
Is Twitch now running on AWS [Amazon’s cloud computing arm]?
We’ve moved everything that isn’t video into AWS, and I’m actually part of the AWS organization.
So Twitch is part of AWS?
That’s right. We’re technically inside of AWS, but we are very independent and still with our own separate company. But that’s the part of Amazon we are closest to.
Why is your video infrastructure not in AWS?
Twitch has built its own live-video system from scratch and it’s globally distributed and it’s a little different than what you normally build. AWS is good for about 99.99% of software. There is no off-the-shelf solution yet that works for something we do.
Why should non-video gamers care about Twitch?
There’s two reasons. The first reason is gaming is going mainstream, and even if you aren’t personally a gamer, there are people in your life who are. For the same reason you might care about movies or sports—by proxy other people in your life are going to be excited.
The other exciting thing we got going on now is we have (the NFL’s) Thursday night football on Twitch, we got Pokémon (cartoon) marathons, we have artists creating sculpture and painting content. There’s cooking. We’ve really felt that what we’ve built for gamers is starting to work outside of gaming. We encourage people to come to see if we have something for your interest.
So you’re going back to Justin.tv?
In a weird way we’ve gone back, but with a much better understanding of customers and streamers. It’s significantly better than what we brought in that era.
What’s different now culturally that’s more conducive to live-streaming taking off?
When we did Justin.tv, we were a pretty typical Internet-consumer website. We were focused on how can we serve this huge audience. When we switched to Twitch, we focused primarily and almost exclusively on creators—the streamers. We care about the audience as well because the streamers care about their audience being happy. It’s not like we don’t care about our viewers, but we focus on how do we make streamers successful.
Where do you want to be a year from now in terms of expanding beyond gaming?
We love to bring on streamers of all kinds. We think there’s a huge opportunity to stream music, to stream sports and the arts with an interactive community experience around that.
How will you distinguish Twitch from Instagram or YouTube that are also focusing on creators?
We don’t think too much of distinguishing ourselves from competitors. We start from what do we do that streamers need. We think in terms of helping streamers grow, helping them acquire an audience, connect, and build relationships with that audience, and helping them thrive and earn a sustainable living. If it’s the same as what a competitor is doing or if it’s different—whatever, that’s what we’re going to do.
I think what really distinguishes Twitch is the focus on long-form, interactive, shared experiences. This isn’t like a 30-second clip, and it’s not one-way broadcast. Traditional media and TV is like this. I produce great content like a TV show and I push it out into the world, and maybe some reviews come out later. It’s not an interactive experience, but Twitch is an interactive experience.
Do you want to take the silly and sarcastic aspects of Twitch’s gaming culture and apply it to other niches? Would it work for someone doing a cooking show to get all these snarky comments?
There are different kinds of communities on Twitch. There’s a Hearthstone (popular video game) streamer who was a life coach, and he is so positive and his community is so positive. If you have a bad day, people lift you up in that community. It wasn’t very funny because it wasn’t a community for people trying to outdo each other by being the funniest person.
And then there are communities where people are ribbing each other. My friends and I do this; we are constantly jabbing each other a little bit. That’s fun too, but it’s a different kind of fun.
What I think is awesome about Twitch is that we empower the streamer to moderate the community. We don’t make a decision for all of Twitch. You can have a positive, inclusive community that is lifting each other up, or you can have a community that’s hilarious but maybe not the place you go after a hard day and need some moral support.
Is Twitch profitable?
We don’t talk about profitability.
How does Twitch make money?
Twitch makes money when our streamers make money. When they make money by showing an ad on their stream or selling a subscription to their stream, we make money alongside them because we get a share of that. [The money] is coming from advertisers, it’s coming from viewers when they subscribe, it’s coming from viewers when they cheer [A way for viewers to “tip” streamers], it’s coming from brands when they run a sponsored campaign and they get influencers to be sponsors of their brand. Our goal is for streamers to make a sustainable living and making enough money for the business so it’s sustainable too.
The underlying goal is to create jobs—to create an entire new kind of job category that’s around streaming. If you look at where the world’s going, it’s important for people that we go and create those jobs. That’s something that gets me out of my bed in the morning.