Variety Broadcasting is Tough: Exploring the State of Variety Broadcasting on Twitch

Finding success as a variety broadcaster is one of the hardest things you can do on Twitch. Every new and established streamer faces an uphill battle getting noticed and building an audience. Pure variety broadcasters face a unique uphill battle when it comes to attracting regular viewers in an oversaturated and sprawling space on the website. “Winning” that battle usually involves a long and painful slog with slowly growing viewer counts and a ton of regression, or compromising your ideals and leaving variety broadcasting. A lot of what is to follow is likely something a lot of people instinctively understand. However, for those of you who are interested, here are a few of my thoughts on the state of variety broadcasting on Twitch.

Defining Variety Broadcasting

Before we get started, it’s probably worth pointing out what I think a variety broadcast actually is. The term comes about as a reference to variety shows, entertainment programs that were made up of a number of distinct acts. Instead of focusing on a single plotline, variety shows drew on different snippets of story and entertainment medium, carried out by a troop of actors and performers and organized by a common host.

The modern analogue in the world of streaming is a channel where a variety of different games are played from day to day, usually spanning a number of genres and styles. Rather than focusing on a single game that is played nearly every broadcast, variety streamers play what they like, when they like. They act as the host, exposing their audience to a shifting array of games that they choose to play. I’ve seen the extreme of this on Twitch, with broadcasters literally cycling through multiple games over the course of a week or even during an individual day of streaming. But most variety streamers tend to play a game to completion before moving on to the next, or work through a few longer games simultaneously, switching between them as they desire.

Variety streaming is one of five major categories that I tend to group streams into. These are: Single Game Streams, which build into the hype and following of a game, playing it almost exclusively Hype Chase Streams, which jump between popular new releases as they have their heyday on Twitch Speedrun/Professional Streams, where the main attractor is high level play of a game or games Creative Streams, which focus primarily on making art, music and Variety Streams which are primarily focused on playing a different game regularly, with no focus on hype.

I find that these categories cover the vast majority of broadcasts on Twitch. Usually, a broadcast fits into a category or is a hybrid of two or more.

Understanding the Problem

Variety broadcasting is a very natural way to stream. In fact, it mirrors the way a huge number of people play video games in their day to day lives. It shouldn’t be a surprise then that many people are drawn to it.

To an extent, this is wonderful! I am a variety broadcaster and find the experience incredibly rewarding. You have the freedom to play games as you wish. There’s never the danger of getting tired of the game you built your stream around. You’ll build an audience of people who genuinely enjoy watching you play games and this severely mitigates the danger of losing your viewership based on the games you choose to play.

But for all the good there is in variety broadcasting, you are always struggling against three major obstacles:

  • Oversaturation: There are many variety broadcasters on Twitch, especially in the realm of very low viewer count streams. A huge number of new streamers very reasonably end up in variety broadcasting. This may not be as disastrous as when a new streamer gets zero traction playing a very popular and oversaturated game (LoL, Dota, Counter Strike, Hearthstone), but it creates a space where standing out and growing is incredibly difficult. Even if you do break into variety streaming to the point where you have even a small regular viewership, the challenge continues. The number of variety streamers with less than 40 average viewers is overwhelming.
  • Indistinguishability: Distinguishing yourself from your peers is difficult for any stream, and without an edge that makes your channel stand out in the sea of very qualified broadcasters, getting viewership traction is next to impossible. Game choice is one area where a broadcaster can be unique or at least establish a unique aspect of their brand. By committing your channel to a shifting cycle of games, you remove one of the ways your channel has to be its own entity.
  • Limited Growth Potential: Single Game, Hype Chase, and Professional Streams have an extreme advantage. They sacrifice one aspect of the casual gameplay experience, unlimited game choice, in order to tap into the raw growth potential of existing game communities on Twitch. Individual games attract audiences. There are people who care about watching specific games or popular new releases. Tapping into the community of viewers around these games gives them access to a large potential viewership that is largely guaranteed as long as they stick to those games. Variety streamers do not have that benefit. They may temporarily attract viewers by playing one of those games, but are largely unable retain that increased viewership when they ultimately move on to a different game.

Why Addressing the Problem is Hard

In the three years I’ve been on Twitch, I’ve watched many variety broadcasts languish. There are channels I followed years ago with 5-40 average concurrent viewers that have put on decent quality shows and made real attempts to grow, only to be at the same point today. Even among the broadcasts that I’ve seen break out of that viewership range, I’ve witnessed a disproportionate amount of slow growth and viewership stagnation. Ultimately, streaming success for most variety broadcasters has come at the cost of compromises they didn’t realize they were making.

This post is ultimately inspired by a conversation I had with a fellow variety broadcaster the other day. They pulled me aside and asked for a frank opinion about what they were doing wrong. Their channel had broken out of that low, but existent, viewer count range and grew to about 120-150 average concurrent viewers on any given night nearly a year ago. Today, they are sitting around 20-35 average viewers most nights. As expected, this has been a point of some stress and disappointment. After all, they must be doing something wrong to so thoroughly throw away that hard won success, right?

Hardly. The answer is, they are a variety streamer. Or rather, they started out as a variety streamer, they ended up today as a variety streamer, but in the middle, they weren’t quite there. I had watched their streams through that entire period and remember watching it happen. For half a year, their stream time was divided up nearly exclusively between two games. Both happened to be relatively new, they each had a strong following, and the streamer in question happened to be quite good at each. Sure, other games got mixed in occasionally, but hundreds if not thousands of hours were devoted to two games. Eventually, without realizing it, our good variety streamer got tired of their new games, moved on as variety streamers are want to do, and promptly lost the audience tied to both of those game choices.

The majority of variety streaming success stories I see today follow these exact lines. Success as a variety streamer usually comes by moving away from pure variety streaming. One successful variety broadcaster I became friends with managed to gain some traction on playing popular new releases and now has success jumping from hype game to hype as their audience dies down. Another almost exclusively finds success with visual novels and their audience suffers whenever they branch out. Isaac, Terraria, Dark Souls, FTL… take your pick. I’ve seen streamers wander into each of them, finding the success they desire but sometimes becoming pigeonholed into a niche they would love to step out of but can’t.

Even looking at many successful variety broadcasters, you can find the same thing. For two prominent examples, we have LethalFrag and MANvsGAME. Frag’s rise to prominence is built on a very limited selection of games: Super Meat Boy, The Binding of Isaac, FTL, Sim City. MAN is primarily a Dark Souls/Bloodborne streamer (though I definitely recognize the raw variety of games he has played, especially in the past). Both play other games and have been pure variety streamers from time to time. But their current community is largely built around their time playing those games, and you can see the impact when they step outside the realms they are best known for. While variety makes up a part of their repertoire, they have definitely moved outside the realm of being pure variety casters.

Note, none of this is a bad thing. I applaud any streamer finding success in any niche or style of streaming they can manage. I also understand that many people would still classify some of the above examples as variety streams. I don’t necessarily disagree, but it’s important to note that when a significant portion of your regular streaming time is devoted to one game, you’re moving in a direction that isn’t purely variety casting.

It leads to a conflict of understanding when new and aspiring variety streamers look at the state of the community. There are definitely some noteworthy examples of broadcasters that have found success in pure variety streaming thanks to good networking, strong personality, an amazing hook or gimmick, or the raw promotional aid of a larger broadcaster. But in many cases, variety streamers have overwhelmingly found success by finding the right point to jump ship and either leave variety broadcasting entirely or hybridize their style of broadcast to take advantage of both worlds.

Do We Need a Solution?

Despite all this, I would argue that if there actually is a problem, no real solution exists and we honestly don’t need one. Growing as a pure variety streamer is possible. There’s a real slog involved, but it can be done. I’ve seen it happen and I’ve experienced it myself. Unless you are incredibly lucky, and even if you work incredibly hard, you should expect that growth to be intermittent and slow. However, you’ll create a collection of very loyal viewers that will likely participate or lurk whenever you’re broadcasting and their lives allow it.

Of course, that assumes you remain a pure variety broadcaster forever. There’s nothing wrong with branching out and testing another style of streaming. In fact, I would argue that knowing how to do so well is one of the best strengths you can develop on Twitch. Playing a single game popular game or chasing hype for a long period of time exposes your broadcast to a huge audience. It can be great, though I’ve seen it ruin many variety channels. The influx of viewers changes communities. It ties the broadcaster to that game. Moving past that can shatter a channel as a broadcaster realizes their old viewers have left and their newer viewers mostly just care about one game or seeing a new release.

However, I’ve also seen it done well. Knowing how to rotate through multiple popular games helps some streamers pull from different large game communities while satisfying some of that need for variety. Playing a single popular game part of the time while keeping variety as a major part of the cast lets you tap into a preexisting community and gain the exposure to grow your core audience.

And these are the examples that people need to hear about and understand. There’s no either-or that is ever necessary between variety broadcasting and other styles of streaming on Twitch. However, there are pitfalls when you move outside that pure variety arena that desperately need to be avoided unless you want to end with some very difficult choices for your channel.