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Thoughts on Twitch Cheering post-Evo 2016

Thoughts on Twitch Cheering post-Evo 2016

With Evo finished, I wanted to get down a few thoughts about the implementation of Twitch Cheering, and how some questions I had about its future use in competitive events.

By my very loose count, Twitch Cheering added at least $1500 USD to the competitive prize pool of Smash Bros Melee at Evo. It was active for every match of Top 8, and despite its announcement blog stating otherwise, it was unable to be used for Melee on Saturday due to Cheering only being active on /SRKEvo1.

Note: I got these amounts by looking at the widget that Twitch had set up for tracking the amounts, and noted how much the maximum was before the switch to the next match happened. This is why I define it as “loose” math, because there was Cheering happening before and after the widget was updated. I have no way of tracking how much I am missing.

Important to note that this was without Evo taking the 30% cut that was originally announced; they opted to waive the money to the players/commentators. That 30% would’ve put the total down to somewhere near $1000 USD (again, very loose math). It is important to note that not all tournaments will act the same, especially since a main selling point of the system is to support tournament organizers.

These were the individual amounts per match of Top 8:

Some notes:

  • Cheers behaved as intended in the sense that if something crazy happened (S2J’s run), more Cheers were allocated to that specific moment in appreciation. For slower matches (S2J/Hbox), Cheers slowed down.
  • Twitch Staff (denoted by a wrench icon in chat) Cheered, usually in much larger increments than others. I was informed that these Bits were paid for individually and treated as independent actions; they seemed to support their favorite players, rather than pepper them everywhere.
  • Cheering played into the popularity contest that is a community (as, well, had to be expected), but Armada, who was considered a favorite to win this tournament and is relatively well-liked, still pulled in little Cheers. This could be attributed to a perceived regional bias, with prime Euro timezones being asleep. I’d argue, though, that if Smash fans are going to stay up to watch a tournament, it’s likely to be this one.
  • Despite having vocal critics of his playstyle, Juan “Hungrybox” DeBiedma still raked in close to $300 for the Grand Final match due to resetting the bracket with many “clutch” moments. In theory, performance can override popularity.

Some further thoughts and questions I had over the course of the tournament, organized for clarity:

Oversight

Most of my uneasiness about Twitch Cheering came from a similar crowdfunding venture by Valve Software where they paid Dota talent a part of treasures sold with their name at The International. Buying a treasure (or “case” in CS:GO lingo) with a talent’s picture would give you a signature which could be applied to items, and that talent would get a cut.

However, as made evident by James “2GD” Harding during his removal from hosting the Valve-organized Shanghai Major, this led to Valve attempting to remove base pay entirely for some talent (note: click “I host Ti4,” in the sidebar) in favor of having money be solely generated by crowdfunding.

Group Stage I am in a weird mindset for this one. Valve have made a lot of decisions that has taken the event backwards in my opinion, further away from esports and more into sports. including these problems we do not get paid for our time as hosts only signatures…

Remember those? Well basically our pay was 0. but we got money every time someone would buy an item and add our ingame signature. So if you added my signature for a dollar. I think I got 50c or the whole dollar. I cannot remember. So valve turned the talent into signature salesmen and women. Everyone is in a bad mood. Though luckily a lot of talent talk to Valve and we got this changed and had a base payment no matter how many signatures we sold. but If we sold a lot of signatures we get more than our base salary. If we do not they will give us our base pay. So…. they outsourced all talent costs 🙂 gg. But to explain. if I’m paid 10k, and I sale 11k signatures for 1 dollar each. I am paid 11k. If the sigs gave us 1 dollar.

If I’m paid 10k and sale signatures for 2k. I am paid 10k. got it? good!

Due to advocacy by him (and according to other accounts, others), this eventually was rectified for James and other talent. American talent reportedly received different contracts with a base. Russian talent did not know their base fee until they were paid. In more recent examples, Valve has received criticism for further changing systems for designers to make cuts off of their in-game creations and communicated little.

From that post:

No feedback from valve, set’s will rot on the store with no word on if valve has even seen the set, and artists can feel demoralised and stop making new items.

Regardless of the company, bureaucracies can have trouble dealing with small amounts of money among large amounts of recipients, which leads to greater logistical demand, backlog, bloat and frustration for both parties.

Considering esports’ historic problems with paying talent and players on time in general, Cheering led to some questions:

  • Who (in terms of tournaments) qualifies for Cheering?
  • Who turns it on? Twitch or the TO?
  • Who manages it? Twitch or the TO?
  • Who decides which talent or player gets a hashtag?
  • Are Twitch prepared to punish bad actors? Who decides the scope of punishment?
  • Are Twitch prepared to ensure proper treatment of talent to avoid the potential of bad actors?

In a “worst case” scenario, an organizer could do something similar to what Valve almost did: cut costs for talent because the potential for large crowdfunding is there. It then turns into a carrot-on-a-stick game where commentators will be expected to hustle just to make up costs. It also becomes a moral/ethical issue for Twitch to make sure their system isn’t abused, and that comes down to moderation and making sure they have the logistics to handle it.

There’s also the problem of Cheering rewarding bad behavior. Users are still encouraged to cheer for players regardless of whether the stream goes down for three hours on Day 1, and the tournament will still get its cut. What incentive does the TO then have to change, or try harder?

How little is too little?

As mentioned above, Cheering at Evo was only available on /SRKEvo1, which limited the amount of reach it could actually have for games like Melee. Especially as part of the pitching process was supporting all of the players we enjoyed, what happens to someone like Daigo Umehara, who didn’t qualify for Top 32 in Street Fighter V?

Is it simply a “don’t make Top 8? You’re out of luck” situation for some games? Street Fighter had both its Semifinals and Final on /SRKEvo1 — what about Smash Bros for WiiU, who only had a two-hour Top 8 to introduce the concept to fans?

I’m also curious how Twitch plans to pay out non-partnered players, as partnered ones will receive their money as part of their usual fulfillment process. Is there a minimum amount of money that is needed to consider a payment? If so, what happens to the Cheers that are made for that person if they don’t hit it?

Cheering, much like the Dota Signatures, privileges those with better time slots, bigger followings and more time to promote themselves (especially if they’re “full-time esports”). A stage or panel host, for instance, will be visible longer than a Round-of-128 commentator.

Cheer candidates need to be more evident

I had a really hard time knowing the correct hashtag to tag someone, and saw many people in chat truncating usernames or using nicknames, especially for commentators, who did not have the benefit of appearing on the widget. I am curious as to where these misspelled or wrongly-formatted Cheers go: is someone sorting through them manually to correct? Do they have a parser that can figure out “good enough?” Is #IFCYipes the same as #Yipes?

It took me reading the announcement article another time to see that you could click on the Bits icon in the chat box to bring up valid hashtags; this behavior makes it feel like Cheering isn’t something that’s meant to be planned, moreso a “hey, that was cool, here’s money” impulse. It also puts more onus on the commentator (or player, if in lower stages of the tournament) to say “Hey, I’m going to be on this channel at this time/now. Here’s my Cheering hashtag.”

Ethical worries and beneficiaries

I want to make it clear that this following passage isn’t to accuse Twitch of any malfeasance, but more to point out questions and concerns that came up during viewing. I was not the only person to comment on some of these issues, and I believe it’s healthy to speculate in order to give the company an idea of what they need to be transparent about in the future.

As mentioned above, Twitch employees contributing their own Bits to the system looked incredibly questionable from the outside, especially since the circumstances were not made clear. The system could be potentially misused for artificial inflation of the totals and impression of system usage. I was informed after the event that Twitch staff’s contributions were out of their own wallets.

Especially with the recent debacles of multiple instances of corruption in the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive scene around false representations of a system’s success, this echoed the same concerns.

Part of Twitch’s success is largely related to its talent pool: it has a habit of hiring and supporting community figures from respective scenes in order to get a better handle on their communities. Hiring a much-loved persona enamors Twitch to the community, and in return the persona’s network helps with signing new talent or partnerships.

However, employees are still allowed to pursue commentary and tournament organizer positions; this is part of how Twitch maintains close contacts and presence with communities.

When Cheering enters the mix, this gets hazy. There’s nothing specifically wrong with these commentators getting paid to do what they do, but when Melee’s Top 8 has both the project manager for Cheering and a second Twitch employee being the only recipients of Cheers, something feels off. Again, this was the only time that cheering was available to that game.

While this was likely a victim of scheduling, infrastructure, “it’s a beta”, or something else rather than malice, the platform was sold on the principles and altruism of Cheering helping the community. The announcement blog mentioned Twitch was “going to try to get as close as we can to that vision for Evo,” and I imagine they fell short.

Conclusion

Three arguments have come in response to these issues:

  • “Twitch wouldn’t do that”
  • “These specifics are things still being figured out”
  • “At least they’re doing something

None are very satisfactory to me.

To the first: if Valve can make a bad decision with a small team at a large company, Twitch can too. No matter how many people that are community-minded/molded are involved, making a flawed product and having the best intentions are not mutually exclusive.

To the second: if Twitch wants Cheering to become a major source of revenue for tournaments and themselves (as they take a percentage cut from each Bits purchase, starting at $2 out of $7 for $5 of bits), they need to be able to be transparent about how the system works from the start. If I’m contributing money as a consumer, I want to know where my money is going and how that’s decided.

One of the greatest features of the Humble Bundle is being able to choose who gets a cut of what: if the developer has bad practices, I can give that money to charity instead, or vice versa.

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To the third: if Twitch is going to sell us something based on the altruism of fans wanting to support their community it is hard to ignore the elephant in the room of their cut, and how it clashes with the current standard of “hit donation button, send money directly, they (or you choose to) deal with fees.”

If Twitch’s priorities were supporting first, they could add buttons with links to Paypal.me links (which don’t publicize e-mails) that would go directly to talent. They could donate their cut of tournament Bits to a talent payment pool (think pot bonuses for commentators) to ensure proper treatment. They could partner with third-party services like BetterTwitchTV or TwitchAlerts to both promote donations; a similar usecase would be FrankerFaceZ adding buttons to a GamesDoneQuick marathon to make following a runner easier.

If usecases like this exist, and Twitch is primarily selling this as for the fans, the talent and the players under the auspices of “supporting passion”, why does it have to involve a closed system that greatly benefits Twitch and is money-inefficient for the donator?

If cheering becomes ubiquitous, there suddenly becomes a massive advantage for tournaments to partner with Twitch; it essentially out-maneuvers ad blocks and the organizer and talent make more money than they usually would. However, it forces users into a closed system of arbitrary currency, all while taking a bigger cut than a direct donation. Twitch has every right to be able to develop a system as a means to stay unique and competitive — I’d just rather they not resort to appealing to the sentimentality of “help people keep doing what they love,” though.

Cheering isn’t evil, nor is it unfixable; I feel that there needs to be greater transparency to the system from the start in order to increase confidence that this is done “right,” regardless of the people involved.

As many esports fans can attest, crowdfunding has the potential for amazing things, but also huge disappointments — it would be a pity if a poorly-implemented system eroded people’s generosity towards the people who need it most.


Matt Demers writes about esports and lives in Canada. You can follow him on Twitter.

Cheering project manager Robert “Scar” Scarnewman had been contacted via e-mail Sunday evening with many of the questions in this article; I have not received an answer at the time of publishing. This article will be updated with his responses if/when it comes.

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