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John Howell Interview

Posted May 27th, 2012

"That's one of the most impressive things about the e-sports community. These guys want to support the broadcasters and the players."

Today I have the immense opportunity of being joined by John Howell, employee for TwitchTV, the pioneer video-game broadcasting platform. A passionate gamer, whose dream of working in the industry has come true. A successful editor, with a Youtube channel that has reached the 70,000 subscribers mark. A person with an incredibly humorous character. I would suggest to prepare a few toasts and a cup of your favorite beverage, because you're about to jump in what I'd call a “complete” read, as we've been able to cover a relatively significant amount of subjects.

All right John thanks for sparing a bit of your time for us. Let's kick off the interview with a little introduction of yourself from your own insight, shall we?

First off, I'm John. An avid gamer and huge supporter of e-sports. I've been a passionate gamer my entire life, and was recently fortunate enough to land a job in the Industry. I work for TwitchTV and my title is "strategy". I handle a lot of network development stuff (managing relationships) and outreach, as well as side projects here and there. We have some awesome new things coming down the pipeline that we're very excited about. E-sports is growing quickly, as seen with large media outlets like CBS getting involved, and I’m super excited to be a part of it.

And what does this deal with CBS consist of? I recently read that it was some sort of partnership program you've developed with them, but in what way does this benefit you, or e-sports in general?

CBS is selling ads for TwitchTV - which is why we're able to offer the highest CPMs in the industry. The partnership is huge for e-sports, because it shows that a multi-billion dollar multimedia conglomerate is willing to invest their time and money into something that was once seen as very niche. Now we have players making 6 figures per year, just by broadcasting their gameplay over TwitchTV. Some of the bigger events like IPL, MLG or Dreamhack draw larger audiences than a standard Major League Baseball game. That's saying something. This community has been super supportive and passionate, and now we're all being rewarded for it.

We've seen other big companies of the same industry investing in e-sports, such as DIRECTV, but that turned out to be a complete fiasco. What ensures you that this time we'll not see a similar scenario?

I think a lot of that was rushed. It seems that a lot of these larger media companies are too focused on getting to televisions as quickly as possible. Online video is growing at an absurdly fast rate. CBS interactive understands the value of the online audience. At some point, it would be awesome to see e-sports events on TV outside of Asia - but I don't see a rush for that right now. In fact, I'd prefer to have all of my video viewed online. I honestly believe that at some point we will do away with cable television entirely and everything will be viewed online. The internet is not just for porn.

You've just ruined all my perception of life with that last statement! By the way, you've mentioned above that some players get into the six digits salary and that with the help of your amazing platform. For the few skeptical people, could you explain how is this even possible?

A lot of larger organizations will pay players some pretty hefty salaries. Tournament winnings these days are larger than ever. The LoL world championships have a 3 million dollar prize pool this year. That's a good amount of money. On top of winnings and salaries, a lot of top players are streaming their gameplay and earning a fairly healthy amount of cash that way. It's possible to make 5 digits a month if you stream frequently, resulting in a 6 figure a year salary just from broadcasting your gameplay.

With the colleagues. 

How does that system work?

Most streaming platforms have a partnership program in which the larger broadcasters can get paid for advertisements. TwitchTV has the highest CPMs in the industry, with a flat rate of 3.50 per 1k ad impressions. Upon joining a stream, viewers are showed a pre-roll ad. After that, the broadcaster has the ability to run commercials as his or her discretion. It's generally accepted to do so between matches, as interrupting gameplay will rub your audience the wrong way and will likely turn them away from future broadcasts.

To get into the partner program, a broadcaster must show dedication, effort, and quality content. We require a streamer to have roughly 300 average concurrent viewers to be considered for the partnership program, but there are obviously exceptions that can be made.

On top of the standard advertising revenue, we offer a premium subscription program to our largest broadcasters. For 4.99 a month, a viewer gets a sweet chat badge for the chat in the stream they are subscribed to, as well as zero ads. A lot of the broadcasters do events and giveaways that are only for the people subscribed to their channel. The revenue from subscriptions is split between us and the broadcaster 50/50.

Is the income affected by any sort of external obstruction, such as the viewer's use of an ad-blocker?

I'm sure it is. That's one of the most impressive things about the e-sports community. These guys WANT to support the broadcasters and the players. They know that the players are paid based on advertisements, and the community is more than willing to sit through an ad once in a while to help support the players they love.

It's possible for us to make streams unwatchable with ad-blocker on, but it seems like the community is more than happy watching ads to support everyone, so we haven't done that.

Well we can all agree that ad-blockers were solely made to prevent the annoying Youtube ads from popping-up.

Of course, there are the viewers that complain about the from time to time, but that's to be expected. A lot of people don't realize the amount of effort and time that a lot of these broadcasters put into streaming.

I used to use ad-blocker. Now I don't mind sitting through ads at all. I've learned alot about the advertising world since I've started working here. It's very uncommon for somebody to be in a position in which their mind is beaten, stretched and abused some more, but they still love it. I wake up every day feeling blessed.

While on subject, what does it require to be one of those "exceptions" you've named earlier? To become a partnered streamer, obviously.

Our main metric is viewer minutes. Essentially, if you have a lot of people watching you stream at once and you stream for a long time, you'll get a lot of viewer minutes. We do have partners who don't stream that often but pull very high concurrent viewerships (think tournaments) and also partners who stream for 12 hours a day but pull middle-of-the-road average concurrent viewership. At the end of the day, people want to watch quality content.

TwitchTV has made its presence notable in a really short period, and seems to be growing at an extremely fast rate. All this, mainly because you've brought in a revolutionary idea on the table, which completely changed e-sports in general. What are your thoughts on this?

I think a lot of our success has been due to our transparency. We're willing to admit our flaws and we work hard to correct them. We invest a lot of time and money into sorting out any issues we may have with our platform. On top of that, we're all die hard gamers. Our CEO and COO love gaming, and that's not something that's very common with folks that are running successful companies. In fact, I just built a high end gaming PC for our COO last week. Glorious PC gaming master race, Kevin! We also throw killer parties at events. If you ever come to an event, let me know. We'll show you how to party.

By party you mean bootcamps, right? Anyway, does this money you're talking about solely comes from the adverts appearing on the website or is there some outside investments being made? How are you able to sponsors big events, afford the recent office you've acquired, and many other stuff along the lines? Do you follow the standard internet procedure or is there something else to it?

All advertising is done with a revenue split. We split the revenue with our partners. I won't go into the numbers there, but like I've said - our CPM is the highest in the industry. Our fill rate is also quite a bit better than our competition.

Where does our money go? Expanding the platform. We're currently building out more data-centers to help with our growth. It's an expensive, time consuming process, but it will be well worth it in the end. Our goal is to have TwitchTV viewable with zero lag everywhere in the world.

There's a similar business running around the interwebz, and here I'm hinting at Own3d.tv. I'm not entirely sure, but I believe they were founded a little bit earlier than you guys. Do you think that you were inspired by this website's concept? Is there any competition going on between you both, seeing as you two are the biggest gaming streaming platforms around?

Own3d.tv is definitely our biggest competitor. However, TwitchTV was a thing long before own3d was around. If you're familiar with Justin.tv - it's the same company. We've been around for quite a long time. When we were Justin.tv, we noticed a large trend in people broadcasting gaming content, and the idea of Twitch was developed from that.

How does this rivalry affect the company itself? 

There's always going to be competition. That's what makes this industry grow. If anything, it feeds us more motivation to improve our platform. I already feel that our platform is the best out there. We offer the best monetization options as well as some of the best customer service you will find anywhere. We're on top of everything and we will make an effort to help anybody grow their stream. If you have good content, we want to expose it.

What was the logic behind starting a new branch of Justin.tv with a focus on games?

We noticed an increasing trend in people broadcasting gameplay. With everybody at the company being gamers - it was a pretty easy decision (I didn't work here prior to TwitchTV. I started in January). Like I said, our CEO and COO are both avid gamers. They both play Starcraft, and we've recently been getting our COO into LoL. He's actually quite good.

Does the project meet your expectations so far? Did you think that the project would grow as fast as it has?

I don't think anybody could have seen this coming, no. It's been a wild ride (I spent the early part of Twitch just watching it grow. I became an employee in January), We're reaching over 16 million unique users per month. That's pretty insane when you consider Twitch wasn't started until June last year.

Do you think that a particular title has helped increasing the popularity of Twitch? You constantly give to the gaming community, but has it giving you something back?

I think that SC2 was definitely what really got Twitch going. As an avid SC2 fan (notice I said fan, not player) - there was something incredible about watching the best players go at it for a ton of cash. I suck at the game, but I can easily understand everything that is going on. It's just like watching any other sport for me. Now, it's awesome to see League of Legends growing so rapidly. I'd say right now it's probably the most popular e-sports title in the Americas and alot of the EU. Riot has done everything right when it comes to their game. They're passionate about it and it's very easy to see that.

The gaming community has given us a lot! On top of the countless hours I've spent wishing I was as good as some of these players, I've made a lot of great friends along the way. Without the support of the community, we wouldn't be able to have such an awesome platform. The feedback and support they give us is incredible. The best part about traveling to all of these events is meeting our community.

Just posing. 

And how valuable is the community to the major companies that publicize themselves via TwitchTV?

Very. If advertisers didn't like what they were seeing, why would they advertise there? Our community produces some awesome content and features some extremely talented individuals. Advertisers see everything.

Were there any remarkable actions taken by the company that were extremely rewarding eventually?

I feel like the deal with CBS was extremely rewarding for both us as a company as well as the e-sports community. It shows that larger companies are extremely interested in what we are doing as a community.

You've helped a countless amount of gamers from all across the world to realize their dreams - morphing a hobby into a source of income. However, a lot of people give you an incredibly negative feedback for offering them this unique opportunity, from those who actually disregard playing video-games as a decent and reasonable way of earning money to be precise. What's your stance on this?

To each his own. There are more people playing video games than there are playing sports these days. If an exceptional athlete can make millions of dollars a year for being one of the best at something, why can't a gamer?

You're one of the few lucky people in this world who have a job in the gaming industry. I'm sure you were confronted to the standard situation where you have to explain one of your friends or relatives what you do for a living. How difficult is it to get out of the situation without any misinterpretations or negative emotions?

I have a very supportive family and a strong group of friends. I've done the whole "normal" job thing. I worked at a university hospital for 5 or 6 years prior to moving here. It was painful, because I wasn't passionate about it. If you're passionate about something, do it. Also, I make a pretty decent living doing this, so I'm sure my family is much more comfortable with it now.

Do you think the day will come where you won't have to use those quotations marks, and society will have a totally different approach to video-games?

That's the goal for everyone. It's hard to understand why society looks at gamers as a bunch of nerds living in their mother's basements. This industry makes more money than the movie industry.

So from your previous answer we can conclude that your job is definitely marked by a rather high degree of passion.

I think a lot of my passion for my work comes from being a gamer my entire life. However, being a part of something growing so quickly, and feeling like you're helping it happen is definitely a contributing factor. It also doesn't hurt that I work with some of the most incredible human beings on the planet. Everything about this job, this industry.. this culture. It's not even real. I'm pretty confident that everybody that works in this industry feels the same way I do, too. If anybody can say they don't feel blessed to be in the gaming industry, then they should probably shoot themselves in the foot.

Okay let's move on to a personality-related matter now. You're a gamer. How did that happen?

I think I was kind of forced into it, to be honest. My brother used to make me play games with him when I was like 4 or 5 so he could beat the crap out of me.

What about the competitive side of gaming? When did you first acknowledge its existence?

I learned about it in Brood War, but I didn't take part in it until Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. That was my first real experience with competitive gaming. It's been in my blood ever since.

What's the aspect of video-games that you love the most?

I love the community aspect of games. The first community I had ever gotten really into was Deus Ex MP, and I still maintain a lot of the friendships I've made from those days. (This is like 10 years ago.)

At one point you started your own Youtube channel that became quite successful subsequently. What pushed you into starting making gaming videos?

I found a random video on Youtube from a guy named Hutch. It was really cool to see somebody just.. breaking down their gameplay and why they made the decisions they made. I realized that I was also a fairly good player, so I thought I might be able to help somebody learn. After I realized that teaching wasn't really for me - I moved on to a more humorous approach, as well as discussing serious topics. I feel like you can be successful on Youtube if you're willing to share your life with people.

I'm also leading what we're calling the PC gaming revolution with some of my real life friends. We're all invested into the Youtube gaming community in one way or another, and we launched a PC gaming site about a year ago called Keyboard + Mouse or Die. (www.kbmod.com)

I respect what console players do, and I support console e-sports just as much as I support everything else. However, FPS games are meant for PC.

Later on you received a partnership with Machinima, which is an incredible achievement for any editor out there. However, recent events have revealed doubtful points in their contracts, such as the one precising that every content produced by their partners belongs to them. There's also no way to terminate the contract. Were you aware of this detail?

My opinion is that you should f*cking read what you are signing before you sign it. I don't agree with perpetuity, but it's your own fault for signing something like that.

The Machinima drama.

But do you concur with the point in question?

I'm not going to comment on another companies decisions on how to handle contracts. Everything is negotiable. People need to read before they sign it. If they don't like something, go back and discuss it.

Your channel has been inactive lately, obviously because of your job's commitments. Do you plan on changing that somehow?

At some point I do. Hopefully soon. It's the season of events and alot of big things have been happening here at Twitch. It's taken up alot of my time. One project I'd like to put in front of everything else is my idea of having a community "play with the pros night" - which I'd love to start getting organized like ASAP.

Is there any scene for which you feel a particular affection?

CoD Promod, definitely.

That's really pleasant to hear! As an ex-player of the game I share the same feelings. What do you find special in it though?

I've played pretty much every FPS. I've played quake at a high level, I've played TF2 at a high level and I've played CS at invite level. Something about CoD Promod has me hanging on to it. The learning curve is crazy. It incorporates tactical gameplay, twitch based gunplay, map knowledge and movement all into a perfect little package. One mistake, you're dead. I love how unforgiving it is.

That's an interesting interpretation. I might sound blunt here, but I'll admit that you don't have to be a god's gift to video-games in order play COD4 on a decent level. Perhaps it's different from other games, but once you start understanding what's going, it's pretty straight forward. I'll even say that the skill-gap between the lower tier teams and the invite ones is minimal compared to almost all the other competitive FPS titles.

Completely disagree with that. Then again, I find quake to be very easy. To each his own. Mind you, I'm no Stermy or Strenx. I can hold my own in quake just fine. When I play against players like Phantasy (He's bad) - I get absolutely dominated. It might be from my lack of playing the game in a competitive setting outside of mixes/pugs - but I find it to be much more difficult than anything else I've played.

Why though? I'm sort of confused by your answer, because from all gamers I've met, everyone criticizes the game for its easiness, and this includes people who currently represent the "elite" of its community.

I think it's very easy to get into, yes. However, there's so many little things that people don't see. To those watching it, it looks like a simple point and click FPS. However, to those that play it, some of the little things going unnoticed. Silent areas on the map, certain uncommonly used jumps, wall bang spots, proper rushing routes, etc. It's little things that make a game what it is. When there's so many intricate details to a game, the skill ceiling is very, very high. Also, lean. I wish more FPS games had lean. Makes me miss MoH. So I guess I love it so much because it's so simple to the naked eye. However, when you really get into it, the details start to come out and you're always able to learn something new.

Giving the current state of the decline the game is in, do you think that it can last for any longer? What are your thoughts on the community itself, and their main portal (TEK9)? 

I think the game can last, and even grow if people put forth the effort to expose it to the masses. There's still a ton of people playing CoD4. I don't understand how promod can still go unnoticed to a lot of people. I'd like to start up a weekly stream/community event where random folks (via Twitter, Youtube, etc.) can join in and play with myself and some of the pro players. The best way to grow a scene is to have some of the larger names in the community get involved. Tek-9 is awesome. They do really cool stuff like the yearly awards and such. Having a central hub is always a good thing, and they've been doing what they're doing for a long time - and doing it well.

You are a crucial figure in terms of promotion of the game. The game has appealed to a larger audience thanks to you, but for some reason a lot of its players ignore your existence, let alone of course the colossal role you've played. Also, without your help, many of the communities most respected names, including our very own Mark "Phantasy" Pinney, wouldn't be in their current position. Little recognition, yet so much being done; why do you even bother?

If I cared about people's perception of me, I'd be in a lot of trouble, wouldn't I? Sure, I'm a CoD4 pub star (star is pushing it, as I'm not that good at the game at all). However, you can be very passionate about something without being good at it. I feel that CoD promod deserves to be a successful e-sports title. Some of the top players can bash me and say what they wish. I've met some awesome people trying to help the cause, and that's more than made it worth it for me (Phantasy, Ch00bs, etc). I helped Mark [phantasy] because he's a good person. He wants the game to grow just as I do. He's also incredibly good looking.

I didn't start trying to help the scene to get acknowledgment from some of the top players. I don't really care if they acknowledge me. I play and support the game because I love it. I do it for the right reasons (I've been slacking on that, actually. I should play more.. but Diablo 3).

Why didn't you chose to become a professional gaming career rather than getting involved in “the office side of e-sports”?

Being a professional gamer won't last forever. If you have the opportunity to get involved in a career you love - it's always best to think logically about it. Unless you’re playing SC2 or LoL. Then you can make the big bucks.

Career > a few years as a professional gamer.

Also, I suck at video games.

Do you have any other projects coming up besides the ones you've mentioned already?

I'm not really sure, to be honest. I need to set aside a weekend and really brainstorm on ideas. Right now my two biggest focuses are work, and trying to help grow the promod scene in some way. I guess that means I should be more active with it on my Youtube channel as well as bringing in some of the top players to convince people that it's still a game worth playing.

You're mainly known under the alias of Johnsfatcock. Original. I'd classify it as an outstanding display of the human mind at its finest. How did you come up with this genius creation? Perhaps influenced by a strong fondness of the male reproductive organ?

The dick thing actually started as a joke and kind of took off. My favorite game type in CoD has always been Search and Destroy. When people abbreviate it and say it out loud - it "ess n dee" .. One day I was sitting there and somebody said it, and I immediately thought of how I'd always tell my buddies to S my D if they did something stupid. So the name essindees was formed from that. At some point, the majority of the people started referring to me as John rather than essindees. (I prefer this, it's more personal and I like to maintain a more friendly relationship with people that watch my youtube content/follow my social media.) I decided that I wanted to use the name John instead of essindees, but figured I should probably keep the dicks thing in there somehow - so John's fat cock seemed like a great idea. It stuck and alot of people seemed to think it was awesome. I still use other aliases when playing alot. Lately I've been playing as Dorse Hick. If you see me in a server, say hi.

Is there any particular advice you'd like to give for those who are willing to follow your steps?

Be yourself. Don't be some bland guy on the internet that tries to be socially acceptable. Be crude, be funny, be whatever is natural. Don't try to hide who you are as a person to generate internet "fame". It's not important. What's important is expressing yourself and doing right by your actions. Lead by example. Be a good person. Do what you're passionate about and people will notice. Also, dicks. Dicks are very important.

John wearing his prom outfit. 

I agree. Penises are so underrated by kids these days, they don't even realize its importance. Do you have any other interests in life besides admiring these majestic sticks of the male anatomy?

I'm an avid outdoors-man. I like fishing, hiking, camping and talking about weiners when doing all of these things. I'm also a huge beer fan and I love to try new beers. (Expensive beer only, please.) Recently I've been trying to learn as much as I can about wine. I've always thought I might like it - but recently I've been experimenting alot to figure out what I like best.

Favorite beer brand?

Dogfish head. 120 minute IPA is incredible.

Any particular idols or mentors you'd like to give shouthouts to?

Hutch, for sure. He's recently left the community to get out of the limelight. He's helped me a lot in getting me to where I am today and I'm extremely happy to call him a friend. Also Phantasy. He's taught me a lot and made me a much better player. Some day I'd like to head on across the pond to play and ace match of footy on the pitch with him. He's such a lad. Maybe afterward we could sit down for some tea and crumpets, mate!

All right, thanks a lot for sparing a piece of your time with us John. It's been a pleasure. All the remaining words belong to you.

Thanks for having me. It's been a pleasure. Excited to see the Wolves destroy the scene, because this roster is absolutely insane! WOOO PHANTASY AND CHOOBIEEEE!

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2 Comments

May 27th, 2012
Really well conducted interview with honest answers! I hope many people take John's words / advice seriously, can be very helpful in gaming, let alone life :)
May 28th, 2012
Loved it and hope Wolves and Twitch are better than ever :)