Understanding Digital Patronage: Why Do People Subscribe to Streamers on Twitch?

Donghee Yvette Wohn, Peter Jough, Peter Eskander, John Scott Siri Jr., Masaho Shimobayashi, Pradnya Desai,
New Jersey Institute of Technology

Gustavo Tondello
Oct 1 · 8 min read
Photo by Emmanuel on Unsplash

Twitch.tv is a streaming platform where content creators showcase their talents in real-time. The content is available for free, yet there are people who pay streamers by subscribing to their channels. At first, it may seem weird that these people are paying for content that is free. But are they really receiving nothing? This is what our paper Understanding Digital Patronage: Why Do People Subscribe to Streamers on Twitch? explores.

In this study, we define “digital patronage” as the act of giving continuous support via the internet to creators of content. Twitch users engage in this type of patronage by subscribing to their favorite streamers — this involves a monthly payment. However, the motivations behind giving such monetary support have not been thoroughly studied. In this paper, we aimed to further understand their patronage motivations by seeking answers to the following questions:

1. What are the motivational factors that contribute to the variation in the subscription level?

Twitch has four monthly subscription levels — Prime, Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3. Twitch was bought by Amazon in 2014, and the creation of the Prime subscription tier was announced in 2016. This is available only to viewers who have Amazon Prime memberships, and allows them to subscribe to one channel free of cost. The other tiers — 1,2,3 — require users to pay $4.99, $9.99, and $24.99 respectively.

One viewer chooses Tier 1. Another chooses Tier 3. What causes the difference?

We analyzed this phenomenon of variation in subscription levels by studying data from a survey conducted at TwitchCon, an annual conference for Twitch enthusiasts. The survey included questions about subscription motivation and patterns, demographic information, and an option to provide email addresses. We analyzed the survey data and discovered that the following factors are what patrons consider while deciding how much money they give the streamer.

  • The desire to provide monetary support to the streamer: viewers wished to supplement the streamer’s income, help the streamer achieve a financial goal such as paying rent, and help the streamer buy something for the stream itself.
  • Wanting attention: the desire to get others in the stream to notice a viewer, to increase popularity, and to get recognition from the streamer.
  • Personal connection: to become closer with the streamer, to get access to exclusive communication from the streamer, to get the streamer to remember the viewer.
  • Enjoying the content: viewers appreciate the quality and entertainment value of the content and wish to help the streamer continue to produce it.
  • Wanting benefits: to get access to additional content and perks such as emotes, to get a special subscriber’s badge.
  • Educational value: subscriptions were given because the content was educational and viewers wanted tips about it.

2. How are different subscription motivations associated with other types of supportive behavior?

This question built upon the previous one, and served to deepen the understanding of patronage. In addition to subscribing, viewers can also buy the streamer’s merchandize, give “bits” (the currency used on Twitch, which viewers purchase using real money), gifts, and money. They also gift subscriptions to other people, so that others can subscribe to a streamer. We wanted to know whether there was any correlation between the reasons why people subscribe and these other forms of support they give streamers. Each of the motivations discussed in the first question showcased different associations with other supportive behavior. We found that:

  • Viewers who wanted to support the streamer financially were not interested in gifting subscriptions to others. They wanted to buy more merchandise, give gifts, bits, and money to the streamer.
  • People who subscribed to gain attention from the streamer did not engage in other supportive behaviors.
  • Those who sought personal connections with the streamer did not wish to gift subscriptions to others either and were more likely to purchase merchandise.
  • People who enjoyed the content were more likely to buy merchandise and give bits/money, but not physical gifts.
  • Those who wanted benefits for subscribing were more likely to offer bits and give gifts to the streamer.
  • A viewer who appreciated the educational value of the content was more likely to buy merchandise and give gifts to the streamer.

3. What made the viewers subscribe to their favorite streamers in the first place?

This question was aimed at understanding what viewers were looking for when they decided whom to subscribe to. When you open up Twitch, the first thing you see is a window full of different channels with different streamers with different types of content. Even if a viewer is interested in a particular topic, there are a lot of streams offering that type of content. How does a viewer choose whose stream to click on; moreover, how does a viewer decide whom to subscribe to?

We wanted to know what attracted viewers to a particular streamer when they were faced with deciding whom to put money towards. Our research showed that the following factors played a role in their decision-making process.

  • Importance of Genuineness: viewers liked it when streamers appeared to be down-to-earth human beings and gravitated towards streamers who didn’t exude a celebrity-like persona. The way streamers interacted with the chat also was important to viewers — they appreciated it when streamers responded live. Viewers also felt rewarded when their payment was genuinely appreciated.
  • One of the viewers said: “Like he’s not like, you know, someone entirely like an actor you see in like a movie or something like that? Like you can interact with him and feel like you’re just interacting with like a real person.”
  • Quality content: More than half of the surveyed viewers said that entertainment was a selling point; they supported streamers if they were able to make the viewers laugh, or if they were exceptionally skilled at their game. Streamers’ work ethics were also a factor viewers took into account when they chose to subscribe.
  • Sense of Community: viewers appreciated streamers who provided a personal community. Some viewers felt that streamers with large fan followings would not be interested in the individuality of each viewer, so they turned away. Others chose to use the popularity of the streamers to their advantage and supported creators who had large communities and higher status.

4. What makes the viewers continue to subscribe to their favorite streamers?

Through this question, we wanted to study a similar phenomenon — the difference between factors that cause viewers to subscribe and those which result in them remaining subscribed. Twitch users may subscribe to a streamer once, but what makes them stick around for longer, especially when there are so many more streamers on the platform? Although viewers were initially attracted to the genuine personalities of streamers and the entertainment value of the stream, they remained subscribed because of their relationships with the streamers, perpetuity in the content, and the feeling of making an impact. The following points discuss these factors in detail.

  • The Relationship Between Viewer-Streamer: there were three levels of viewer-streamer relationships — casual fan, celebrity fan, emotionally attached. Casual fans were those who enjoyed their time on the stream without getting too invested in it. They didn’t put much effort into the stream. Celebrity fans idolized the streamers and blindly supported them in everything they did. Emotionally attached fans gained a deeper level of satisfaction and happiness through subscribing to their favorite streamers; they often considered the streamers to be more like friends than online personalities.
  • Perceived Impact of Subscription: viewers were more likely to continue supporting streamers when they felt that their contribution would make a real difference in the lives of those streamers.
  • The intensity of Loyalty: Viewers tended to continue supporting a particular streamer when they had a history with the streamer. In a nutshell, such viewers started valuing the streamer’s brand more than his/her content. They would continue supporting the streamer as long as they kept streaming.
  • Content Persistence: There was a clear need for consistency in the content produced by the streamer. Viewers who continued to support a streamer wanted the streamer’s content to remain the same. They didn’t want the streamer to change in any way.

5. What is the difference between a single time donation and a subscription

When viewers are watching a stream, there will be times when the chat goes crazy due to a huge donation made by one of the viewers. This kind of impromptu action generally creates a lot of noise in the stream, even though there is no guarantee that the viewer will show up again. On the other hand, subscribers consistently support the streamers in the background; their subscription might have a lower monetary value than the one-time donation, but it may add up over time.

When questioned on what mode of support they preferred, viewers reported that they valued time over everything else. They would look more favorably at someone who supports the streamer with a long-time subscription than someone who gives a donation and disappears. The reasons for this attitude have been evaluated using the factors discussed below.

  • Return on Investment: Viewers valued time over money because unlike time, money could be regenerated. The duration of subscription was more meaningful to viewers than one-time donations. A viewer stated, “…anybody could really donate 50 bucks if they had it like, but not everyone will take time out of the day to watch your four-hour stream.”
  • Legacy and Loyalty Towards Streamer: Loyalty was more meaningful to viewers than money and people who just donated a large sum of money and never returned to the stream came off as attention-seekers. Viewers who gave their time and money to the streamer felt that they contributed to the streamer’s success.
  • Recognition: Viewers felt that streamers were more likely to remember people who subscribed for a long time than those who donated a lump sum and left.

Subscriptions provided more return on investment, symbolized loyalty, and offered a greater chance of recognition, which is why they were considered more meaningful than one-time donations.

This paper presents research on the psychology of patrons; it helps inform content creators of what patrons expect. On analyzing the results obtained, it seems that people aren’t paying money for nothing after all. Even if the rewards are not obvious to others, viewers who subscribe do seem to get some sort of satisfaction from being a part of the streamer’s growth and success. These patrons value time and loyalty over monetary support, and the returns they receive are emotional and tangible in the form of virtual items (emotes).


Contact author: Donghee Yvette Wohn

CHI PLAY session:
Streaming and the Crowd
Wednesday, 23 October 2019, 14:00–15:30

Please feel free to also write comments or questions for the authors in the space below!

Gustavo Tondello

Written by

Instructional support coordinator, University of Waterloo. Researcher, HCI Games Group. Logosophy student.

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