10 years of Twitch: Looking back on the top games

10 years of Twitch: Looking back on the top games

by Mitch Reames

On June 6, 2011, Justin.tv launched TwitchTV. Originally founded in 2006, Justin.tv was the live broadcast answer to YouTube’s video-on-demand service. By 2011, Justin.tv had created the largest competitive video gaming broadcast network in the world, a product that demanded its own branding, so Justin.tv created TwitchTV.

At the time, Justin.tv was launching a new facet of the site's business. By 2014, Twitch had completely overtaken Justin.tv so the company rebranded to Twitch Interactive and shut down the website Justin.tv to focus on Twitch.

“It’s really easy to forget that, back in 2011, being a gamer was not a cool thing,” said Ben Goldhaber, one of the founding employees of Twitch who has since founded Juked.gg. “Streamers did not exist. YouTubers did not exist. No one was making money playing video games. So when Twitch launched, it was basically a beacon out to the gamers of the world who hadn’t had a home, who hadn’t had the status of being cool or culturally relevant.”

Now, 10 years after Twitch was first launched, the site has found itself at the center of cultural moments, a crucial component of esports at large and certainly had its share of controversy as well. To celebrate the 10 year anniversary of the launch of Twitch, Nerd Street Gamers is doing a series of articles throughout June looking at the games, moments and streamers who have helped shape Twitch. Here’s a look back on the top games on the site over the past decade.

2012

Data from the early years of Twitch is hard to find. There is data on total users -- at the time of Twitch’s launch the platform saw 3.2 million unique visitors each month. Now, in 2021, Twitch sees an average of about 3 million viewers at any time on the platform according to TwitchTracker. In 2011, Twitch’s 3.2 million visitors were fantastic, but now the platform has nearly three times that many people going live to broadcast, not just to visit. Simply put, the growth has been absurd.

When trying to get the data from individual games or channels around this time, that becomes harder to find. The best source of game-specific data starts with monthly posts on the Twitch Blog beginning in December of 2012. Here are the top 10 games from that blog post:

  1. League of Legends
  2. StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty
  3. World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria
  4. Dota 2
  5. Minecraft
  6. Call of Duty Black Ops 2
  7. Diablo III
  8. Heroes of Newerth
  9. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
  10. The War Z

Some of those games proved bulletproof for the next decade. For others, the game’s time among the top 10 of Twitch was a brief moment in the sun. That was just one month’s ranking though. Data on the top games from the rest of 2012 or 2011 isn’t publicly accessible, at least to my knowledge.

2013

Starting in 2013, Twitch posted another 10 of these monthly blog posts. By averaging out the rankings on each of these posts, it’s possible to get a fairly accurate sampling of the top five games on Twitch in 2013. Here they are along with the number representing the game’s average ranking over the 10 months of posts in parentheses.

  1. League of Legends (1.00)
  2. Dota 2 (2.11)
  3. Starcraft 2 (3.00)
  4. World of Warcraft (4.22)
  5. Minecraft (6.33)

Call of Duty Black Ops 2 finished in sixth place. Beyond that, sporadic games started appearing in the back half of the top 10 just to fall out the next month creating a jumbled mess of various video games.

Millions of people watched the 2013 League of Legends World Championship online, and it continues to be a big reason why LoL is consistently at the top of Twitch annually. Photo credit: Riot Games

2014

Using the same methodology to find the top games on Twitch for 2014, but with only six months of Twitch blogs posted, here are the results:

  1. League of Legends (1.00)
  2. Dota 2 (2.50)
  3. Hearthstone (3.17)
  4. CS:GO (4.33)
  5. Minecraft (5.50)
  6. World of Warcraft (6.17)
  7. Starcraft 2 (6.67)

From the point Hearthstone released in beta in August 2013, the game was a top five game on Twitch. It continued that momentum throughout the game’s public release in March 2014. CS:GO, on the other hand, was released in 2012, and it just took a few years for the esports scene to develop and the game to then explode on Twitch climbing all the way to No. 4. For World of Warcraft and Starcraft, neither game would climb back into the top five on Twitch again.

“Starcraft 2 streams are why Twitch exists in the first place,” Goldhaber said. “Primarily because of Team Liquid actually. Team Liquid was aggregating all of the beta streams that were happening in the early, early part of the Starcraft 2 beta. Emmett Shear, who would go on to become the CEO, that’s what he was watching the most.”

In June 2021, Starcraft 2 was the 57th most watched game on the platform, but Twitch wouldn’t be what it is today without the title. The decline for Starcraft 2 began in 2014 and continues to this day.

2015

By 2015, Twitch had reached another level. Amazon acquired the platform for just under $1 billion in August 2014. In hindsight, it’s an absolute steal. With that acquisition came newfound attention including by publications who started to get in the business of writing about the numbers on Twitch on a regular basis. Gamasutra, a website that seemingly hasn’t been updated since 2015, published a list of the top 10 most watched games on Twitch that year. The link to the Twitch post it cites is broken, but it beats averaging out the sporadic Twitch blog posts to get the list of the top games on Twitch in 2015:

  1. League of Legends
  2. CS:GO
  3. Dota 2
  4. Hearthstone
  5. Minecraft
  6. H1Z1
  7. Destiny
  8. World of Tanks
  9. World of Warcraft
  10. FIFA 15

With a top five holding steady from 2014, the list in 2015 points to the genre that will shake up the pinnacle of Twitch for the first time: battle royale. H1Z1 is a weird game. Despite a bug-filled launch, the game sold over 1 million copies in the winter of 2015. The history of battle royale is complicated with the first mod creating the mode coming from Minecraft’s Survival Games or PlayerUnknown’s mods in DayZ and Arma III, depending on who you ask.

2016

PlayerUnkown, whose real name is Brendan Greene, also created a mod for H1Z1 which became an official mode in the game. Those mods which would become the battle royale genre created the most significant shift in Twitch’s top games in the last 10 years. But it would take one more year before the top five was cracked as a different new release found its way to the top five in 2016:

  1. League of Legends
  2. CS:GO
  3. Dota 2
  4. Hearthstone
  5. Overwatch

By 2016, more sites were created explicitly to track data on Twitch. From this point on, data is provided by SullyGnome where the top games of every year are listed by hours watched, peak viewers, streamers and many more metrics.

2017

The battle royale craze was coming, but H1Z1 segmented the two sides of the game in 2017 dropping Z1 Battle Royale to ninth on the list for 2016. By 2017, Z1 Battle Royale had official competition from the original creator’s new title:

  1. League of Legends
  2. PlayerUnknowns: Battlegrounds (PUBG)
  3. Dota 2
  4. Hearthstone
  5. CS:GO
  6. Overwatch
  7. IRL
  8. World of Warcraft
  9. GTA V
  10. Z1 Battle Royale
  11. Fortnite

A genre that didn’t even have a true name the year before now has three of the top eleven spots on this list. Fortnite managed to climb all the way to 11th on hours watched even though the game was only released in July 2017. It had half the time of all the other games to rack up hours.

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The Ninja, Drake, Juju Smith-Schuster and Travis Scott Fortnite stream in 2018 catapulted Fortnite into the public consciousness.

2018

All those hours racked up in the earliest days of the game were only a drop in the bucket compared to what would come in 2018:

  1. Fortnite
  2. League of Legends
  3. Dota 2
  4. PUBG
  5. CS:GO
  6. Hearthstone
  7. IRL
  8. Overwatch
  9. World of Warcraft
  10. Grand Theft Auto V
  11. Just Chatting

For the first time, League of Legends does not take the top spot. It’s a remarkable run for the game that slips all the way down to No. 2 in the height of the single biggest gaming craze in North America’s history. Don’t worry, it will be back next year.

But for one year, Fortnite took over everything. New stars were made overnight that still make up many of the most recognizable faces on Twitch. The esports scene saw a flurry of mainstream attention as Epic Games pledged $100 million in total esports prizes. Elementary schools everywhere became filled with Fortnite dances as major entertainment properties fought for any way to bring their brand into the game.

“[Tyler “Ninja” Blevins], broke into the mainstream in a way no other streamer ever had,” Goldhaber said. “He transcended into the mainstream culture of America, of the West, of the world, it was that deep.”

On the back of Fortnite, Ninja became a true celebrity, not just a celebrity in the gaming world. A longtime Twitch streamer, his rise to mainstream stardom ran parallel to Twitch’s own rise into a truly mainstream platform.

2019

Although Fortnite remained near the top of Twitch in 2019, the hottest category for that year was waiting in the wings at No. 11 in 2018, the spot Fortnite held the year before it ascended to the top of Twitch. Maybe it’s good luck.

  1. League of Legends
  2. Fortnite
  3. Just Chatting
  4. Grand Theft Auto V
  5. Dota 2
  6. CS:GO
  7. World of Warcraft
  8. Apex Legends
  9. Overwatch
  10. Hearthstone

By the 2019 rankings, Twitch had become awfully close to how we see it today. Just Chatting climbed eight spots to No. 3 with more climbing in the future the following year. GTA V, which managed to hang around that 10 spot since the game was released in 2013 also starts its climb as the online function continues to expand in options, content and creativity.

“I feel like this year, Grand Theft Auto V is going to be the most watched game,” Goldhaber said. “At any time of day, if you go to Twitch, the top streams are GTA V roleplaying. It’s insane because the game wasn’t even built that way, it’s just modded that way.”

2020

When one game goes up, another must come down. In 2019, two Blizzard titles in Hearthstone and Overwatch began to slide down the rankings. Previously a developer who could count on two titles in the top five games on Twitch between Starcraft, WoW, Hearthstone and Overwatch, Blizzard suddenly found itself without any top five games for two straight years. It’s a worrisome trend that will continue into 2020:

  1. Just Chatting
  2. League of Legends
  3. Fortnite
  4. GTA V
  5. VALORANT
  6. Call of Duty: Warzone
  7. CS:GO
  8. Minecraft
  9. Dota 2
  10. World of Warcraft

Just Chatting was probably the only category that had the firepower to overtake League of Legends. I’m not sure any video game would have been able to do it consistently. Even then, Just Chatting’s rise to the top category could be a result of the pandemic as the category offers added interaction in a year of isolation. As things return to normal, the Twitch status quo might also return with League sitting comfortably back on top. Personally, I think Just Chatting is there to stay.

Read more: The biggest moments from VALORANT’s first year

The two new big additions to this come in the five and six spots. VALORANT’s beta release in April 2020 broke records as over a million people watched VALORANT streams to get keys to the beta while getting the first glimpse at Riot Games first FPS title. Call of Duty: Warzone brought a new style to battle royale games and will likely carry the banner of the genre alongside Fortnite for the years to come.

Last month, the first international VALORANT final peaked at over 1 million viewers on Twitch. Photo credit: Riot Games

2021

Halfway through 2021, here are the top 10 games/categories on Twitch:

  1. Just Chatting
  2. GTA V
  3. League of Legends
  4. Fortnite
  5. Call of Duty: Warzone
  6. Minecraft
  7. VALORANT
  8. CS:GO
  9. Rust
  10. Apex Legends

There’s still plenty of time left for this list to change. Will GTA V be able to hold on to the spot as the top game or will the boost from the annual League of Legends World Championship return the list to the status quo by the end the year? Is Apex Legends’ return to the top 10 a sign of a game with real staying power? Can VALORANT climb into that top five? Where the hell did all the Blizzard games go?

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