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In esports, it’s almost certain at one point or another you’ve come across the magical word “meta.”
Be it an angry social media user wielding an anime avatar complaining about how the meta is ruining their favorite game or a paid analyst on Twitch breaking down the current meta for League of Legends, the word has become a staple of the esports world. It’s inescapable.
To explain in the fastest and least boring way possible: The meta (or metagame for the fancy folks out there) in competitive gaming describes the strategies at any given time that most people agree are the most optimal way to achieve victory. It can be as straightforward as one character just being statistically stronger than another character. The metagame can also be as complex as an overall ideology of how to play the game and what style, executed at its best, is the correct way to pilot a competitive game.
For a game like the aforementioned League of Legends, the meta changes on a dime, the developers at Riot Games actively tinkering with the game throughout the year to switch up the strongest characters and items. At the start of a year, a certain champion can be wreaking havoc in the professional scene with every team either picking up or banning the character. By the end, though, that same character might be as useful as a paperweight through constant balance changes to keep them from becoming an omnipresent figure.
In complete contrast, there are competitive titles such as Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. Melee. Although the game hasn’t received a single update in its 20-year history, that hasn’t produced a stagnant metagame. The players themselves have continued pushing the title to new limits, dissecting and revolutionizing specific matchups that many thought were long since figured out.
Metas don’t just apply to games either. Even Twitch streamers come together to build the best way to grow followings and entertain viewers.
While esports thrive on the gaming streamer platform, the word itself has taken on new meaning through the years. Twitch has evolved from simply a way to watch your favorite game or view the big esports tournament of the week to now being a place where personalities almost draw above all else. Twitch has become its own pseudo-TV network since allowing streamers the freedom to do more than play games on their website with the unveiling the “Just Chatting” section in 2018.
This has opened up an entirely new door for fans that will consume the content of their favorite creator regardless of what activity or game they’re playing.
As a result, many streamers have become less beholden to singular games and transformed more into daily two-to-six (or, in the case of popular political streamer Hasan Piker, 12) hour online performers. The change has forced creators to fill out these expansive timeslots and created an era of collaborative content on the website, where at times Twitch can resemble more of a reality show than a platform that was created to solely showcase video games.
The need for content from these daily streamers has created a metagame of viewership on Twitch. When a viral game or trend comes along that can fill those streaming hours, a wave of the platform’s most popular streamers enter that world for the foreseeable future, making it the meta of the platform. That game then becomes stapled to the top of all Twitch directories until, like everything else, the content becomes stale, and everyone begins searching for the next big thing.
This ever-changing metagame has never been more apparent than in the past year, as top streamers leapfrogged from game to game in the never-ending pursuit of being the first to find the next trend that will set Twitch ablaze. Millions have tried; few have succeeded.
Here are some of the marquee metas that defined the year that was 2020.
Arguably one of the biggest Twitch metas of 2020, the Ninja-Warrior-meets-jelly bean game was released in the early summer and quickly saw its average viewership top 100,000. Once the game became the end-all, be-all on Twitch, tournaments started to sprout up, though the meta peaked with the story of Timothy “timthetatman” John Betar.
A 30-year-old with seemingly the worst luck in the world, timthetatman struggled through the early days of the Fall Guys meta without a win, narrowly missing the children’s game’s crown on numerous occasions as he failed to run the gauntlet from start to finish. Finally, as 300,000 live viewers tuned in, Tim defied all the odds to capture his inaugural victory and stuck it to the game’s social media account that had been mercilessly goading him for days on end.
Though the game has released numerous expansion packs since its initial launch and maintained a strong, loyal fanbase, Fall Guys has failed to truly recapture the magic of Tim’s chase.
Enjoyment rating: 7/10
Tim’s race for the crown was a perfect end to the game’s meta on Twitch. As a whole, the game could get repetitive even during its heyday, but the variety of ways a player could throw their keyboard after losing kept me coming back for more. It never gets old to see grown adults get mad at a game featuring customizable jelly beans.
The successor of Fall Guys on Twitch, Among Us, was the perfect game for the worldwide pandemic everyone on Twitch found themselves in during 2020.
At a time when millions were stuck inside across the globe due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Among Us provided much-needed social interaction, not only to viewers missing their daily socializing but for the streamers themselves. The fast-paced, talkative nature of the murder mystery game was a much-needed break from the marathon of tedious trying days.
The simplicity of Among Us worked to its advantage. It allowed players from all backgrounds to jump onto the hype train, including mobile users, and took Twitch by storm overnight. Before anyone could react, the game was everywhere and the only thing that anyone was playing on Twitch (except for Tyler “Tyler1” Steinkamp, who was in the middle of his 40th hour of playing League of Legends).
Even U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined in on the fun and took part in her first Twitch stream, playing Among Us with popular variety streamers such as Hasan Piker and Imane “Pokimane” Anys. AOC’s first broadcast drew more than 400,000 concurrent viewers.
Enjoyment rating: 9/10
Sure, by the third month of seeing its endless modded variations, I would rather watch a streamer commentate paint dry than play another map of Among Us. But for the majority of its peak, Among Us was one of the better metas to hit Twitch. It was a game created two years ago that found the right streamers at the perfect time when people needed a communal, socializing game, and from it, numerous friendships and new Twitch stars were made. And hey, with a new expanded map expected to come this year and a lot of the world still in lockdown, don’t be too surprised if Among Us once again finds itself as the No. 1 game on Twitch.
Opening Pokémon boxes
No, no, we’re not talking about the new mainline Pokémon games, Sword and Shield, which came out in 2019. Those were released and mostly forgotten about on Twitch by the next day. We’re talking about the Pokémon Trading Card Game, which was first released to the public in Japan in 1996 before making its way overseas with an English version in 1998. And when I say we’re talking about the trading card game becoming a meta on Twitch, I mean the cards themselves and not the actual game you’re supposed to play with them. I’m actually pretty sure almost no one who partook in this meta on Twitch knows how to play the card game.
The meta itself was the unboxing of these cards, from their set-related boxes down to the cards inside the packs sealed inside. Although opening packs on Twitch isn’t anything new, the stampede of popular streamers catching on to the madness started when YouTuber Logan Paul opened up an original first-edition box of the first-ever English cards printed.
The price Paul paid? $200,000.
The card everyone tuned in to see if it would be pulled? The mint condition first-edition Charizard, a card that has skyrocketed in value since Paul opened his initial box on YouTube. Former rapper and current streamer Logic spent $220,574 on the holy grail of anime card collectibles in October.
Paul’s spectacle spurred a slew of Twitch streamers, including Pokimane, Ludwig Ahgren and Matthew “Mizkif” Rinaudo, to go out and purchase boxes. It almost became a daily occurrence where an ultra-rare card box worth over $20,000 would be opened by a notable face on Twitch, with a swarm of viewers tuning in to see what they got. Either the streamer would get lucky by pulling an expensive card that could cover their hefty investment or fail miserably, spending what some of their fans make in a year with nothing but colorful cardboard to show for it.
Some call it gambling. Others call it gambling that makes money back through donations and Twitch subscriptions.
This phenomenon peaked on Twitch when Ludwig crafted the aptly named “Pokémon Week,” during which seven big-name streamers would each open a different box on stream each day as the others watched. The event turned out to be a gigantic success, culminating in Mizkif pulling the second-most expensive Pokémon card following the mint Charizard: Lugia, a card that if rated mint condition by a certified card grader could bring in over $100,000 on the current market.
Those seven days taught us all the most important, wholesome and unexpected message of them all: It’s fun having a lot of money to blow on cardboard.
Enjoyment rating: 3/10
Shoutout to Chance “Sodapoppin” Morris for his special stream where he opened expensive packs and then routinely tortured the cards, be it through dipping them in lube or blowtorching their value to death. Overall, though, after seeing the third successful Twitch streamer pull a card that may or may not be worth a lot depending on the grade it gets, the content became stale. It was a welcome surge of nostalgia and produced some memorable scenes, but the Pokémon meta isn’t something I hope comes back into flavor anytime soon.
It’s impossible to talk about the VALORANT meta without bringing up beta keys.
Once Riot Games revealed its new first-person tactical shooter to the public in March 2020, a closed beta began with only a select few influencers and players allowed in by the developer. It was an exclusive VIP night club where only the cool kids could hang out, and everyone else, the unlucky, stood longingly on the outside looking in.
That’s when Riot announced beta key giveaways, an ingenious method of bringing as many eyeballs as possible to their new title, as those poor souls left outside of the VIP suite could win their way into the cool kids club. If the unincluded watched one of the streamers given access to VALORANT, they had a chance of receiving a randomly generated beta key that would be dropped into their Twitch account. This resulted in a surge of viewers for anyone given access to the game, tripling and even quadrupling (or more) viewership for some marquee personalities.
It was the Gamestop boom for streamers — everyone’s stocks were up, big.
The plan by Riot Games broke records, with VALORANT’s debut smashing the single-day hours watched in a single game category with 34 million hours consumed by the masses attempting to sneak their way into the most exclusive club on the internet. Once the days and weeks went by, the coolness of VALORANT’s exclusivity started to fade and numbers returned to normalcy, ending the meta in full.
Enjoyment rating: 5/10
The VALORANT closed beta will never be forgotten, but as a whole, the game’s current state on Twitch is much healthier. The drawback of Riot Games boosting the numbers of every streamer that touched the game meant that streamers almost felt forced to play it. This led to some epically awkward situations where some top personalities showed a desire to put down VALORANT but trudged forward because playing anything else would be like burning money.
A year after VALORANT’s closed beta, the game is in a much better place than when it was the hottest ticket in town. Now fully released, the game has been polished and upgraded with a budding esports scene starting to bring in major viewers. Riot’s FPS has bounced back from a lull period following the craziness of its launch to solidify itself as one of the premier titles on Twitch.
It’s always fun when a game invented more than 1,000 years ago becomes the meta in the 2020s.
It would be disingenuous to say chess came out of nowhere on Twitch. Diehard fans and regular streamers have populated the category for years. But everything changed for chess on Twitch when one of the best chess players in the world, Hikaru Nakamura, crossed paths with former Overwatch professional Félix “xQc” Lengyel. The meeting between the two and the coaching of the former to the latter hit as streamers were searching for the next trend to take over. Nakamura and xQc’s collaboration started a widespread boom of the classic board game across Twitch as streamers from all over started picking up and playing chess.
As it turned out, chess was the perfect game for Twitch: quick enough that streamers could play it in-between other games and, depending on personality, non-intensive enough where the competitors could make it a social affair. The popularity came to a head with the creation of Pog Champs by Chess.com, which brought streaming personalities together to put their practice to the test in a big-money tournament as the world watched.
In what would turn out to be a whopping success for everyone involved, xQc, Ludwig, Leslie “fuslie” Fu and others vied for the first-ever championship; however, it was League of Legends stalwart Joedat “Voyboy” Esfahani who emerged victorious as the first-ever champion. The tournament turned out to be such a prosperous event for all involved that Chess.com returned with Pog Champs 2 and 3, and a fourth iteration will almost certainly be scheduled for the near future.
Enjoyment rating: 10/10
Aside from Grand Theft Auto V roleplay that regularly is the meta on Twitch due to its expansive world and a tight-knit cast of streamers, chess is the best trend that took over Twitch in 2020. It combined the social aspect of Among Us with streamers from different worlds interacting with one another and threw in the sweaty gameplay that added stakes to watching these personalities become better at a game that is more than 1,500 years old.
What started as two ships passing in the night, a chess legend and a gaming warlord, could result in thousands of kids picking up a board game they would have otherwise disregarded.
Sometimes a Twitch meta, while fleeting, can create a boom that lasts a lifetime.
Tyler Erzberger is entering a decade of covering esports. When not traveling around the world telling stories about people shouting over video games, he’s probably arguing with an anime avatar on Twitter about North American esports.