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TwitchCon made me a Twitch convert

I'm going to admit this right up front: I wasn't looking forward to covering the first-ever TwitchCon. Sure, I co-host our weekly Playdate broadcasts and absolutely adore talking with our community of regulars who show up three times per week to watch us play games, but outside of that, I didn't spend time on Twitch. My worry for TwitchCon was that I'd be trapped inside Moscone West in San Francisco with thousands of screaming "personalities" -- like the guy I'd watched (for approximately 45 seconds, max) shout and swear his way through Choice Chamber, for an entire weekend. That all changed after attending a number of panels and talking with some of the biggest broadcasters on the service. This first show was one of the best events I've been to for work, period. And I recently found myself doing something I never thought: watching Twitch for fun.

Community is the bedrock of Twitch. Over 20,000 fans made their pilgrimage to San Francisco for a weekend in September without a clue of what to expect from TwitchCon. What they got was an event that catered specifically to them. But somehow, it didn't seem pandering; it felt earnest. The overt fan focus of the show was all too evident: From the opening keynote where Twitch Director of Programming Marcus "djWHEAT" Graham self-deprecatingly recounted his history of broadcasting to the final moments of Deadmau5's thumping set at the official after-party.

Flush with cash from Amazon's $970 million acquisition, Twitch could've gotten practically anyone to play its after-party at San Francisco's Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. Instead, the company hired electronic artists Darude and Deadmau5. The former likely because his 1999 track "Sandstorm" got a second life thanks to feature placement ahead of League of Legends streams, and the latter because he's an incredibly active broadcaster on the service and a massive gamer in his own right.

Both artists seemed incredibly happy to be there, and the audience responded in kind. Chants of "We love TwitchCon" filled the gaps in Darude's beats while Twitch-specific emoticons flashed on the massive video screen above the stage. "Way to restore my faith in the gaming community," Deadmau5 later exclaimed from his LED-packed dais. "Way fucking better crowd than at the Dota 2 International." Oh, and those tickets? $25 apiece, plus the $85 weekend con pass. Not a bad deal considering festival shows that he plays can cost $70 to get into, minimum.

That feeling of gratitude for the community was a running theme throughout the entire weekend. Panels and shows took place on the Kappa stage (the "main" Twitch emoticon), and in the Sandstorm, BibleThump and FrankerZ theaters -- each name a heartfelt wink to the Twitch user-base. The talks themselves were largely focused on every facet of how to become a better broadcaster. I showed up a few minutes late to the "Broadcasting on a Budget" panel and had a hard time finding a seat. Near the end of that talk, there were people standing along the sides of the theater and snaking through the doorway.

When the floor opened for a question-and-answer session, six people immediately jumped up to the mic, asking everything from how to stream from a Mac (use Boot Camp), how to get discovered on the service (persistence) and how much to spend on a streaming setup (around $800 for your computer). The "Women in Gaming" panel was even more popular, with BibleThump (one of the bigger theaters) at capacity, and at least 20 folks in line for the open-mic question session.

Even at their most tired, the people I ran into were all smiles. As I sat at San Francisco International Airport at 3AM on Sunday to catch my early flight home, I noticed a small group of TwitchCon attendees draped in the company's trademark shade of purple. They were parting ways, heading back to their respective corners of the country, hugging, laughing and promising to come back next year. Almost every person I talked to that weekend was friendly and more than willing to give advice or just talk for a few minutes. Hell, I even had a chance to meet up with one of our Playdate regulars, Austin "Yauddle" Busch, take him out for drinks and break his five-year Taco Bell abstinence.

This, sadly, was as close as I got to my scheduled interview with Fred Durst at TwitchCon.

All of this goodwill culminated in the heretofore unthinkable: I now watch Twitch instead of, you know, playing video games myself. For the past few months, Engadget features editor and gaming overlord Joseph Volpe has been raving about a channel called Excessive Profanity. I'd followed the channel a while back, but never actually tuned in for a stream. When the email ping came through indicating the channel had gone live late that Saturday, unlike every time before it, I heeded its suggestion and Chromecasted the show to my TV. The streamer "EXP" (real name: Cody Hargreaves), was playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, a game I've been miserably stuck in since our own Playdate broadcast.

A few minutes into his stream, it finally all made sense to me; I "got" why people watched Twitch instead of playing a game for themselves. It was like TV, but something I could participate in, in real time. Having Hargreaves give me and around 700 other viewers at the time a guided tour -- replete with some seriously funny, curse-laden Australian commentary -- was the perfect way to experience a few hours of Hideo Kojima's latest title.

I got wrapped up in the chat, sharing my glee with everyone else when Hargreaves manned a mini-mech and fled the scene as a skyscraper-sized bipedal weapon chased him down. I even dropped a RalpherZ emoticon. I'll likely never beat The Phantom Pain, or sadly even get past the "Honeybee" mission (I've tried multiple times since), but now I know why people love it so much. I don't have time to devote to beating every game that's released, but I do have an hour or so to watch others play and comment on them.

I've even done some late-night Destiny streaming on my personal Twitch channel since returning home; something that wouldn't have happened were it not for TwitchCon. And if that was the mission of the show -- to bolster the Twitch community and invite others in -- it worked. I'm a believer. I'm a streamer. And now, I'm a viewer.

All of this goodwill culminated in the unthinkable: I now watch Twitch instead of playing video games myself.