Twitch hack reveals multi-million-dollar sums top streamers earn from playing computer games

By technology reporter James Purtill
Twitch fiercely guards the earnings figures of its top streamers. Now the information is online. (Getty: Pavlo Gonchar)

The top earner on game-streaming platform Twitch made $US9.6 million from August 2019 to October 2021, according to leaked data obtained in a massive hack.

The top-five earners grossed about $US35 million between them, the data shows.

Twitch is an interactive live streaming service especially popular with gamers and gaming audiences; at its most basic level, people pay to watch other people play games. At any one time, it has millions of viewers watching millions of streamers.

But how much the top streamers earn has been a closely guarded secret — up to now.

More than 100GB of compressed text files were posted online on Wednesday night, showing the salary details of thousands of streamers, as well as the site's source code and technical details for yet to be released products.

A squad of gamers streaming on Twitch, with fans in the chat forum on the right-hand side. (Supplied: Twitch)

The Amazon-owned company has confirmed a data breach has taken place, though did not say if the earnings figures were accurate.

Several streamers, however, have publicly confirmed their own leaked earnings figures are accurate. 

James Williams, a Melbourne-based streamer who goes by the username CrispyTV online, told the ABC his earnings figure listed in the data breach is "close". 

"I'm lower than what that number says — it's not pinpoint, but it's close," he said.

Scott Hellyer, a popular Canadian streamer with the username "tehMorag", said the leaked data had the exact figures for the money he earned, down to the cent.

"People are going to be harassed for this info as it now fully confirms what some sites have been trying to figure out through bots scanning channels," he told the ABC.

How to make millions from playing computer games

Most streamers who make money from the platform rely on subscriptions.

Viewers can subscribe to a channel to unlock perks, such as exclusive chat rooms, emoticons and merchandise discounts.

Another source of income is what basically amounts to tips: viewers buy Twitch's in-game currency, "bits", which they then dole out to their favourite streamers.

One-hundred bits costs $US1.40, and the streamer receives about 70 per cent of every bit used in their chat (that is, they receive $US0.01 for every bit).

James Williams, aka CrispyTV, earns tens of thousands from streaming. (Instagram: James Williams)

The very top streamers, known as Twitch Partners, also receive a share of ad revenue generated from their page. 

They're also likely to get endorsement deals and brand sponsorships — and these amounts wouldn't be listed in the Twitch hack, so the top earners could be earning significantly more than what appears in the leaked figures.

The most-streamed games on Twitch include Fortnite, Call of Duty, and NBA 2K21.

Mr Williams (aka CrispyTV) streams himself playing the soccer game FIFA 22 every day.

With 350-400 subscribers, he's made about $US30,000 over the past year.

"Most of the revenue for streamers such as myself comes through people subscribing," he said.

"It works a bit like Netflix. They get the content they want, and if they don't they unsubscribe."

Why do people like to watch others playing video games?

For three main reasons: entertainment, community, and to improve their own performance in the video game they're watching someone else play.

The top earner on Twitch, Critical Role, doesn't even involve a video game; several voice actors play the tabletop role-playing game "Dungeons and Dragons". It's more like a soap opera, with a cast of characters and dramatic narrative arcs.

The highest individual earner on Twitch is Canadian Félix Lengyel, who has the username "xQcOW".

Twitch streamer Félix Lengyel also has lucrative sponsorship and endorsement deals. (Instagram: Félix Lengyel)

He streams a variety of games, including chess, for an average of 9 hours a day and has a viewer count that regularly exceeds 60,000

He pocketed $US8.4 million over the past year, according to the leaked data.

"It wouldn't surprise me someone is earning nine million bucks," Mr Williams said. 

Mr Williams says he understands "there are people out there who are upset" having learned how much their favourite streamers earn.

"The response to that is, 'OK then, stop watching TV, because the ads they make would be making more than that'."

But Mr Hellyer was concerned about a backlash from viewers.

He said he had been wanting to tell his subscribers what he earned, but a contract with Twitch has prevented him from doing so.

Twitch fiercely guards operational details such as how much its streamers are paid; competitors such as YouTube Gaming are offering huge salaries to snap up gaming talent.

In 2019, Microsoft reportedly paid the most popular streamer on Twitch, Tyler "Ninja" Blevins, up to $US30 million to exclusively stream on Microsoft's Mixer platform.

The leaked documents are labelled "part one", suggesting there may be more unreleased material.

"I really hope that no major personal info, including full names, emails, address, phone number, banking info, gets out in the rumoured next part of the leak," Mr Hellyer said.

I have a Twitch account. Has my data been stolen?

Security research Troy Hunt said he had been hearing unsubstantiated rumours of a second trove of stolen data that could contain email addresses.

"Whoever broke into Twitch has dumped all this data [in the first trove], but might be sitting on many millions of customer details, looking to monetise that," he said.

There's also a risk that hackers managed to steal password data, meaning Twitch users should change their password, just in case.

Tyler "Ninja" Blevins plays Call of Duty at TwitchCon 2018. (Getty: Robert Reiners)

"It's a pretty damning leak," Mr Hunt said.

"For a platform to have all its source code exposed is very significant.

It's not known who was responsible for the hack, or their motivations.

In the earliest known online post linking to the data, on the chat board 4chan, an anonymous poster labelled the Twitch community "a disgusting toxic cesspool" and claimed the leak was being posted "to foster more disruption and competition" in video streaming.

Twitch streamers from minority or marginalised communities have been battling a surge in trolling, known as "hate raids", in recent months.

Creators boycotted the platform for a day in September in protest at Twitch's lack of action on hate raids.


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