As a semi-sequel to that Snapchat explainer I wrote recently, I have decided to explain Twitch.tv. This was never my plan.
But then Bob Ross happened.
Twitch is equal parts cesspit, social experiment, and wave-of-the-future. It combines decades old IRC-style chat with bandwidth hogging video streams of people playing video games. It's where millions of gamers go to watch professional e-sports played in stadiums, or to watch some girl in a basement play the latest MMO. And every permutation in-between. Twitch trades on one weird little quirk of humans: we enjoy watching other people play video games about as much as we enjoy playing them.
Video games are culture. In the first 24 hours of retail sales, Fallout 4 sold 12 million copies. $750 million in one day. That makes a movie blockbuster like Jurassic Park seem a flop in comparison.
Video games are culture.
And if video games are culture, Twitch is where gamers go to rub that culture all over each other. Twitch makes gamer culture more communicable than any other platform. YouTube is even feels the threat: it recently launched "YouTube Gaming," which closely imitates the Twitch experience.
There are two core elements to the Twitch experience: the stream, and chat.
The stream is exactly what you'd expect: a live video stream of a video game, typically accompanied by a small picture-in-picture video of the streamer human playing the game — referred to as a "facecam".
The chat sits next to the stream, and it's what makes Twitch special. Viewers can comment in realtime on what they're watching, or simply talk amongst themselves, and most streamers keep a chat window open offscreen so they can interact verbally with chat.
But that's what the chat is. It's hard to describe what it's like. Here's a little homework: go to twitch.tv, and click on whatever game is the most popular at the moment (probably League of Legends), and then click on the most popular stream (usually a professional e-sports League of Legends player, with 20,000 or so people watching). Now watch the chat scroll by.
Terrifying, isn't it?
Who are all these people? And what are these bizarre emoticons? And did someone just post sexually explicit ASCII art?
Quite often you'll see someone say something like:
best riven na
The "Kappa" face denotes sarcasm, and is easily the most frequently used emote on the site. "Riven" is one of 127 playable "champions" in *League of Legend*s. And "na" refers to North America as an e-sports region (almost always used sarcastically, even in reference to actual professionals). Translated, that sentence roughly means: "This guy is not the best Riven player in North America, despite claims to the contrary."
Here's a little context from the chat I pulled this quote from:
See, "chat" is kind of the wrong word for Twitch chat. On popular streams, conversation is basically impossible. Instead, chat becomes a mob of sorts. A murmuration. It propagates memes and in-jokes, experiences wild and rapid shifts in mood — mostly prompted by the ongoing gameplay — and gels into a single organism that boos, cheers, berates, and encourages the streamer in the same breath. 20,000 gamers, yelling in unison but not in harmony.
Naturally, different games and different streamers attract different crowds. Streamers can also moderate chat — to exclude all ASCII penises, for instance — or lock chat down to subscribers-only. The result is a thick layer of gamer culture, under a layer of Twitch culture, under a layer of League of Legends culture, under a layer of Dyrus culture.
(Dyrus is a recently-retired League of Legends player, who played Top Lane for the ultra-successful Team SoloMid team in North America. This is something literally every League of Legends fan in the world knows, and something literally nobody else does.)
But then Bob Ross happened.
Twitch is a site for video game streams. But they've branched out just slightly in recent years: you can now find streams of people making music, people programming video games, and people making art related to video games.
To introduce its new "Twitch Creative" umbrella, Twitch streamed all 403 episodes of Bob Ross's The Joy of Painting in an epic back-to-back marathon.
Bob Ross, who died in 1995, and to my knowledge has never had any significant crossover with gamer culture, became an overnight sensation on Twitch. For days his stream topped the charts, beating out the stalwart League of Legends and the ultra-hot beta of Blizzard's new Overwatch shooter. Bob Ross, painting his "happy little trees" and idyllic landscapes, became the gravity well at the heart of the Twitch solar system.
Bob Ross, to my knowledge, has never had any significant crossover with gamer culture.
Against all odds, Bob Ross became the perfect Twitch stream. Every in-joke and emote had new life in the context of Bob Ross. Each painting became a perfect rollercoaster of emotions for the chat mob to experience in unison while they yelled their appreciation.
Here is a brief list of Bob Ross moments, seen through the eyes of Twitch:
Every painting starts with a blank canvas. In gaming parlance (to my knowledge, popularized by StarCraft) each player types "glhf" (Good Luck Have Fun) to each other before the game begins.
Magic white is OP
Bob Ross usually primes his canvas with what he calls "Magic White" as a base, and paints on top of it before it dries. Calling something "OP" means it's "overpowered" or "unfair" in the context of a video game. "OP" is usually used sarcastically, but is also responsible for half of all online conversations about StarCraft.
wtf he isn't even responding to chat
Bob Ross, as I already pointed out, is no longer with us. Twitch is a place for livestreams, and pre-recorded content is rare. Additionally, "chat interaction" by the streamer is valued by some viewers. Additionally, this joke was probably made a dozen times a minute for the entire eight day marathon by all the various assholes who still thought it was funny, which is quintessential Twitch chat.
Van Dyke Brown
Twitch chat is all about yelling the obvious thing quickly and repeatedly. If Bob Ross says one of his delightful color names out loud, Twitch chat must shout it back at him.
Sometimes, Bob Ross Kappa is the only way to express your true feelings.
Telling a streamer his mic is muted is a delightful troll that I never grow tired of, because I'm 12 years old. Inexperienced streamers frequently check to make sure their mic is in fact not muted, Bob Ross never broke his stride.
Each new thing Bob Ross adds to his painting looks completely out of place and incorrect. It's the dramatic genius of The Joy of Painting: vandalize a perfectly good landscape with a questionable brush stroke, and then turn that brush stroke into a beautiful tree. "RUINED" is a reference to speed runs, where players race to complete a video game in record time. Any small mistake can result in lost time, causing the run to be "RUINED" and requiring a "RESET" (starting the game over to try again).
BIG BRUSH VAC
Bob Ross frequently uses a large brush that seems more appropriate for house painting than fine detail work, and proceeds to make magic with it. "VAC" stands for Valve Anti-Cheat, which is software used by the game company Valve to detect and punish cheaters in its online competitive games. VAC can be used as an adjective, as in this case; a verb ("VAC him!"); or noun.
"Hacks." A more generic version of VAC.
The positive counterpart to RUINED, also used in speedrun chats. This is what we're all here for, the moment Bob Ross turns blobs of paint into recognizable and aesthetically pleasing landscape features. Against all odds. This is when chat really starts freaking out.
Used half-sarcastically, "MLG" refers to Major League Gaming, a professional e-sports league. "MLG" is a superlative, implying professional-caliber gameplay, but typically reserved for flashy slam dunk-style moves. Half-sarcastic or not, "MLG" is some of the highest praise given by the Twitch community. Bob Ross got a thousand for every "happy little tree."
"Good game. Easy." It's polite at the end of a competitive game to type "gg" to your counterpart, win or lose. If you want to be extra-polite, you can type "ggwp," standing for "Good game, well played. "ggez" is an ultra-rude method of rubbing your opponent's face in it after they lose.
The perfect ending to any Bob Ross episode.
Streamer DizzyKitten streams herself watching Bob Ross’s stream
Of course, like every delicious 27 minute The Joy of Painting episode, all good things must come to an end. The Bob Ross marathon ended, and we all went back to our respective video games and favorite streamers.
But, somehow, we left wiser. Bob Ross brought the Twitch community together and taught us what he knew about painting, but also about gentleness, patience, self control, and the happy little accidents that make up every moment in this life. It seems to me that the Twitch community has been infused with a new kindness. It's hard to put my finger on. All the in-jokes, all the vitriol, all the ASCII penises are still there. But now they're mixed with just a little more love.