If you visit Twitch right now and click on the Browse tab, you’ll see a constantly updated list of the most popular games on the site. As I’m writing this, there’s a conspicuous absence from the big three: Fortnite. And its absence may be because two key streamers aren’t on Twitch.
According to the metrics site Twitch Tracker, Fortnite dropped from pole position, where it had been holding steady for months, and has lately been hovering somewhere around third or fourth. Right now, in the early afternoon on a Tuesday, the top three games on Twitch are World of Warcraft: Classic, League of Legends, and Just Chatting (a category that generally features people talking to their viewers directly).
So where’s Fortnite? It’s free and available on every console. It’s also constantly updated, which leaves its developers crunched and keeps its players returning for a fresh hit of the same old drug. On its face there’s no real reason Fortnite should fall in Twitch’s rankings, or become any less generally popular than it has been — barring, of course, new releases like World of Warcraft: Classic. (In gaming, as in life, novelty counts.) That’s why it’s such a drastic example of how influential its streamers are.
In the last month, Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, widely held to be the most popular gamer in the world, traded Twitch for an exclusive deal with Microsoft’s streaming platform Mixer and an undisclosed amount of money. Last week, Turner “Tfue” Tenney took a break from streaming, which he announced in a series of late-night tweets where he declared that though he had everything he wanted, he still wasn’t happy. Before Blevins left Twitch, he had 14 million followers on the platform, which made his the most followed account; on any given day he’d command tens of thousands viewers at the same time. (On the last day he streamed on Twitch, he was live for nearly 7 hours, averaged 48,074 concurrent viewers, and gained 2,035 followers an hour.) Tenney, who has around 7 million followers, reaches similar numbers of people. (In his last broadcast, he averaged 32,436 concurrents.) Because Ninja and Tfue left, in other words, Fortnite fell out of the top spot on Twitch.
Streamers don’t make games, but games do make streamers. Blevins wouldn’t be the globally famous Ninja without Fortnite; he was one of the early adopters of the game’s battle royale mode and began to stream that on Twitch, which meant that anyone searching for streamers playing the game would see his stream.
Other large streamers have similar right place, right time stories. Over time the Fortnite Twitch community grew larger, and its stars became names on first the platform, then the wider world — with all the brand deals and sponsorships that entails. When you’re a larger performer, however, your incentives necessarily change; quality of life becomes more important than being live, and burnout becomes a bigger risk. You might be tired of Fortnite, or the game you play that made you internet famous.
But if you’re big enough, when you take a break it can change the dynamics of an entire site. The audience is there for you, not the game. It’s why big Fornite streamers like Timothy “TimtheTatman” Betar and Benjamin “DrLupo” Lupo — who have 4 million and 3.5 million followers, respectively — can switch over to a game like World of Warcraft: Classic and not totally lose the huge audiences who like to watch them in the first place. And this is where the calculation changes somewhat. Even if a bunch of streamers decided to quit playing Fortnite, either out of boredom or a sense of protest — Blevins joked about it on stream last month, in fact — it would remain the most popular game in the world. It’s fun! People will play it regardless of who’s streaming it. Other, smaller games, though, might not be quite as robust. Games disappear all the time; there’s more choice than ever.
This feels particular to livestreaming. YouTube, for example, isn’t overly concerned with timeliness because its videos aren’t consumed as they’re being made, which means they more or less gain views regardless of whether anything new is uploaded to the channel.
For streamers, however, the calculation is a bit different. If they’re not streaming something, they’re losing followers, subscribers, and potential viewers, who may not return later; keeping a consistent broadcast schedule is clutch. But then again: there’s always people willing to step into a vacancy. Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf, for example, the 16-year-old from Pennsylvania who won this year’s solo Fortnite World Cup has been gaining followers. In the months leading up to the event, which took place this summer, Giersdorf was averaging 40 to 60 concurrent viewers. Last month, he averaged 20,000.
Fortnite is still the most popular game in the world, and it’s hard to see that changing anytime soon — whether or not big streamers get tired of it, and whether or not it’s the most popular game on Twitch. There are other metrics that matter. But Twitch rankings are the most visible, quantified measure of how popular a game is. There’s a lot to be said for being on top.