Of all of Twitch’s non-gaming categories, “Just Chatting” seems to have the most clearly defined purpose. It’s for chatting. That’s it. And yet, after the platform dissolved its ill-defined “IRL” section into 13 different non-gaming categories in 2018, Just Chatting became its catch-all successor. Now it’s a juggernaut—Twitch’s top category. But it’s also clear evidence that Twitch’s category system is busted.
Twitch is organized via a system of categories, most of them dedicated to specific games, that viewers can browse at their leisure. Categories are displayed on a single page that’s populated by more and more categories as you scroll down. These are organized according to either viewer numbers or a relatively new and extremely simple recommendation system, depending on which option users pick. When Just Chatting overtook all other Twitch categories in terms of viewership numbers last year—including big games like Fortnite, League of Legends, and Grand Theft Auto V—it heralded a sea change. Where once Twitch’s rules forbade long periods of game-free dead air and some users jealously gate-kept their precious streaming playground, it had since evolved into a place where creators of all types and stripes could thrive. Mainstream acceptance, many figured, was just around the corner.
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Or at least, things were moving in that direction. In truth, there are still plenty of people who believe (and act on the idea) that women who just hang out with viewers and other non-gamers are Twitch’s biggest problem, a scourge that somehow blots out all others. In addition, Just Chatting houses all sorts of content that would fit more neatly into other categories: art, music, politics, fitness, travel, and especially, video games. It’s not uncommon, for example, to check the Just Chatting page and see Félix “xQc” Lengyel at the top playing a video game, flanked by three or four other streamers playing games in the top 15 or 20. At other times, you might see political streamers like Hasan Piker near the top, despite the existence of a Politics section (that hardly anyone actually uses), or the reality TV-lite stylings of the Austin Show, even though there’s a Talk Shows & Podcasts category.
In recent times, this has led to controversy. During a stream earlier this week, chess grandmaster and burgeoning Twitch megastar Hikaru Nakamura discussed the fact that two of his chess compatriots, the Botez sisters, Alexandra and Andrea, stream chess games into Just Chatting. The Botez sisters regularly pull over 10,000 concurrent viewers on their shared channel, which is a pretty big boost to any Twitch category. Their decision to go with Just Chatting, Nakamura suggested, could be taking a toll on Twitch’s Chess section and events born out of it.
Why Is It A Problem?
“When you have advertisers or sponsors looking to the Chess directory and thinking about, say, sponsoring [Twitch chess tournament] Pogchamps 2 or other possible events, what it does is, the numbers aren’t actually truly reflective of the number of people watching chess,” Nakamura said during his stream. “I do think that when you look at the viewership and you see 7-10k people probably every day who are not showing up in the Chess category when she is streaming chess, it does affect chess as a whole, and it does affect the directory.” (Kotaku reached out to Nakamura and the Botez sisters for more information, but neither replied.)
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There are many reasons streamers pick Just Chatting over other, more fitting categories. In some cases, a streamer might start a broadcast by chatting with viewers for 30 minutes or an hour or so, begin playing a game, and forget to change categories, or not see any real point in doing it. But there’s also a clear benefit to streaming into Just Chatting: At any given moment, it’s likely to have the most viewers on Twitch, putting it at the top of the platform’s “Browse” page and making users more likely to click it. As I discussed in my piece about Fall Guys earlier this week, Twitch lacks the discovery algorithms of other platforms, leaving it nakedly numbers-driven. As a result, the big tend to get bigger and the small tend to wallow in obscurity. This goes for both categories and streamers.
There’s more to it than just that, though. During a recent stream, news-focused streamer Zach Bussey examined Just Chatting’s paradoxical place atop the Twitch hierarchy. Not only does it often have the most viewers, but it also, according to statistics scraped from Twitch by unofficial stat-tracking site Sullygnome, has significantly fewer channels streaming at any given moment than top game categories like Fortnite, Call of Duty, and League of Legends, and streamers broadcasting into the category do so for less time. There are other clear and very important differences as well. In the past 30 days, Just Chatting has gained 240 million viewers and 13.6 million followers. This dedicated growth makes even other top categories look positively glacial by comparison. GTA V’s viewer/follower numbers in the same time period, for example, were 87.5 million and 4.2 million, respectively. League of Legends’ were 159.6 million and 3.5 million. Even Fortnite, Just Chatting’s closest competitor in followers gained, still trailed behind Just Chatting with 114.4 million new viewers and 12.1 million new followers.