Inside Twitch’s Wildest Talk Show

It’s the beginning of another episode of the Rajj Show, a livestreamed reality show with what may euphemistically be described as 13 of Twitch’s strongest personalities, and already, it’s on a waterslide straight to hell’s navel.

A new guest is immediately cut off after introducing himself as a lawyer who streams at night. “Can you shut the fuck up?” said a guest named WesBTW. “You’re already trying to leech? Fuck off.”

Another guest refers to herself as a “discount Amouranth,” a famous so-called “titty streamer,” while a third, a blonde co-ed wearing a Trump shirt, says, “If you guys don’t like what I’m saying, maybe my thighs can eventually win you over.”

Speaking from inside adjacent squares, a la “The Brady Bunch,” Rajj Patel’s guests appear from across the world, together and live on camera to an average audience of 20,000, who prolifically spam emotes like Omegalul and KEKW, known also as the “Spanish laughing guy.” Looking at his fellow guests from his home monitor, WesBTW, a trollish character with a military-style buzz cut, makes a declaration in lieu of introducing himself: His compatriots are, in his words, “two angry soyboys,” “a handful of whos” and “four wannabe Amouranths who,” he says in cruder terms, aren’t brave enough to show more skin for clout.

It’s a mess. It’s sordid, it’s “cringe,” and, at times, objectionable. The show’s typical debate format, mediated by Rajj Show host Rajj Patel—real first name Austin, last name kept secret, he says, citing privacy concerns—unravels as they discuss two famous livestreamers who are allegedly sleeping together. While the 12 guests debate the personal lives of these microcelebrities, suddenly, the people belonging to those personal lives pop into the stream audio. Instead of immediately defending themselves or dispelling the drama, one of them says this: “Hey. Hey, hey, hey, hey. I have something really important to say, Rajj. I just need everyone to follow my Twitter.”

Austin has been hosting this show for almost two years. One of the many reasons why it’s among Twitch’s most popular programming is the fact that it’s a magnet for a fresh, wholly digital breed of celebrity, plenty of them controversial. Austin’s show gathers the faces of Twitch—Pokimane, Sodapoppin, Kaceytron, Hasan Piker, Destiny, XQC, TrainwrecksTV—and pits them against each other in his Bachelorette-style Twitch dating show, the Rajjchelor and Rajjchelorette, and his debate show, the Rajj Royale, for a macrodose of pandemonium. Both shows are elimination-style, with live chat viewers contributing to the contestants’ fate. Behind the scenes, Austin’s team of producers scopes out new talent and organizes streams using the gaming chat app Discord.

Austin, 26, sits at the centre of all this Twitch fame, and like a traffic conductor in Times Square, efforts to prevent all those opposing velocities from crashing into each other and clogging traffic. “I would like to push and develop the non-gaming reality TV side of Twitch,” he said. “It has the potential to be bigger than gaming one day. Who knows.”

For all the attention his show gets, Austin himself has been dodging the spotlight for years in an increasingly precarious balancing act between privacy and entertainment industry success. “I keep a pretty low profile,” he told Kotaku, admitting he was nervous about doing an interview. “Once I’m done streaming, I’m off the grid.”

Early reality television and talent shows like American Idol and MTV’s Next, X Factor were always playing in Austin’s central Oregon home growing up. “They’re dramatic,” he said. “You have Ryan Seacrest on the stage with the intense music and everyone’s nervous. They step forward, step back. You’re safe. That sort of thing.”

He says he always intended to be an entertainer of some sort, though he fantasized as a teenager in central Oregon about being a commercial airline pilot. “I’d study charts and online, I’d watch planes that were FAA certified and fly on virtual professional flight simming servers,” he said. When he found out that not all pilots pull in six figures, his position on the pilot’s life flipped. It wasn’t worth it.

Fit and with clean-cut, styled hair, Austin now has the bearing of a freshly-graduated, fair-skinned frat guy, which, he says, he never was: “I didn’t have much of a social life in college,” he says. Most of his time, he said, he spent on the computer. That’s how he discovered Twitch. It was 2013, and he started streaming the massively multiplayer online role-playing game Runescape. He didn’t know people made careers out of this. Then, the snowball started rolling: “I was making money and doing better than I could have with my degree,” he said.

Austin’s Runescape (and now Twitch) handle “Rajj” is a character from his childhood. Back then, he says, most of his friends were from an Indian background, and together, they all conjured the character Rajj Patel. “He was made to be a rambunctious, suave, smooth talking, charismatic badass Indian man that didn’t take shit from anyone,” said Austin.

At the time, Runescape streamer “Rajj Patel” spoke in a phony Indian accent. It was something he was playing with, he says, when he “wasn’t entirely confident in my own ability to be the host I needed to be.” He says that, “As Rajj, I was able to gather the confidence and personality I needed to host a great show.”

Regardless, the character was preposterously out of place in a 2019 where white people’s mock Indian accents are both not funny and racially insensitive. Asked whether he was cognisant of how the phony Indian accent came off, or whether he’d seen “The Problem With Apu,” a documentary exposing the racist undertones of The Simpsons’ stereotype of an Indian American, Austin says that he dropped the character earlier this year once he realised how offensive it was.

“I hope it goes without saying that that was never the intention behind the show or the character,” says Austin. “I believe that now more than ever creators like myself need to be acutely aware of how our actions may be perceived and the influence that they carry. . . I don’t want my channel to be insensitive or promote discrimination in any sense of the word, and I will always do my best to remove any possibility that someone would not feel understood or included in my community.”

Austin has since removed the “Patel” from the show’s name and says he’s currently working on removing it from his channel’s name, too. Without the porcelain mask of “Rajj Patel,” he says, it was “extremely freeing” to reveal who he was and let himself ascend to the mantle as host—despite his clear fixation on keeping his personal life offline. (Among the few personal facts Austin told Kotaku is that he and his family are diehard fans of the Minnesota Vikings.)

Twitch launched in 2011 as a digital directory and technology for people livestreaming themselves gaming, and six years later, after some fiery pushback from the platform’s games-purists, Twitch would introduce its IRL section—a place for people to just chat with their fanbases, cook in front of a live audience, show off their workout routine, trick scammers as performance art, whatever. Now its descendent, Twitch’s “Just Chatting” section, is consistently Twitch’s second most popular category, and home-grown inside it are a cast of microcelebrities whose sense of humour, wit or aesthetics has drawn hundreds of thousands of fans. Now, they sit inside Austin’s digital Rolodex

Twitch is already reality TV in that it is, as the Cambridge Dictionary states, “television programmes about ordinary people who are filmed in real situations, rather than actors.” Of course, with the rise of professional reality TV stars and million-dollar reality TV sets, that strict definition has bent a little, even fractured. Now, reality TV is all about “unscripted” encounters, “authentic” feelings. The “rawness.”

It’s well-documented that people behave like animals when there’s a camera in front of them and a significant sum of money at stake. And it’s hard to say what “rawness” truly is when “drama”—an exaggeration of human conflict—makes headlines. The Rajj show is, probably, the post-truth future of this, where nobody enters into the show with the assumption that reality is at play, and all the personal positioning is happening live and out in the open. Most of all, what gives the Rajj Show its whiff of realness is simply the fact of its being livestreamed.

“I think everyone on Twitch, when they get on camera, is themselves but they’re an up-tempo version of themselves. And there’s a tremendous amount of natural performers on Twitch,” said Austin.

It’s hard not to view these shows as exercises in online branding. In a recent Rajjchelorette, Austin tells the handsome politics streamer Hasan Piker that the “woman of your dreams is in this room,” as the cast preens themselves in the corner, or leans casually on their beds. One by one, they get eliminated, and when they are, they must reveal whether they chose in the beginning to go on a date or have their stream hosted by the contestant, which would boost their notoriety. The final woman remaining would get her wish—“love or host.” After four hours, Piker chooses the streamer and ex-pornstar Mia Malkova, who herself chose “love.” He reacts euphorically, and weeks later, live on another Twitch stream, meets Malkova in person at Twitchcon.

In the beginning of the over three-hour video, Austin, who is present for and livestreams the date, claims that the two had never met— “zero preparation,” “completely organic, unscripted.” Austin encounters them standing together on the show floor, looking a little stilted outside of the confines of their home streaming habitats.

Piker describes the date he’s about to take Malkova on—a walk through TwitchCon and then some games of cornhole. Austin keeps insisting he tell this to Malkova directly. Malkova then takes a selfie video of herself and Piker for her Instagram fanbase. Piker says, “Good plug.”

In another Rajj Royale show, 11 streamers debate Twitch’s sexuality guidelines and whether a streamer might get banned for wearing an insufficiently thick bra and inadvertently showing her nipples. A few minutes in, the conversation moves to whether a streamer would get banned for showing their foot, specifically, as the streamer Gross Gore asks, “in a sexualized way.” It was lighthearted, but weirdly illuminating. In another from earlier this year, in which Austin is still using his phony accent, Jon Zherka, a streamer fuelled by memes and controversy, lifts up a McDonald’s soda and says of his political rival, a much higher-profile named streamer named Destiny, “This is Destiny’s meal plan right here!” Destiny quipps, “How’d you convince your mum to stop buying you the kids’ meal?” Zherka blows what looks like either cigarette or weed smoke in the camera and yells, “I’m the Ashton Kutcher of Twitch, bitch!”

It’s fascinating to watch Twitch stars collide, and amusing to watch them troll each other. It’s fun to watch over-the-top flirting, embarrassing questions, catfights. And it’s surprisingly easy to deprogram yourself from the easy-watching of mainstream reality television, which is famously over-edited, and sink into chaos mode. The drama often trickles down into the Twitch controversy subreddit LivestreamFail. Austin says he doesn’t enjoy that: “Part of the conversation my team has is, ‘How can we avoid Livestreamfail?’ . . . Maybe you reap what you sow, it’s what you get from having a lot of creators on it, but nobody likes to hear bad things said about them.

Sometimes, though, too many strong brands together on these shows make them unwatchable, with two streamers yelling over a third until a fourth cuts in with their own high-octane take. Hours in, someone may be scrolling through Instagram on their phone or checking their Twitter mentions. But people don’t watch Twitch like they watch MTV’s Next. There aren’t engineered cliffhangers demanding your rapt attention; A lot of the time, Twitch is just “on in the background.” Maybe, for the streamers on the Rajj show, we are sometimes in the background, too.

Critics of the Rajj Show sometimes describe the show as “content overload” or “cringe.” People who like the show might just call it “content,” internet shorthand for “good content.” Many of viewers’ more negative reactions are charged comments about the women who appear on it. One Reddit commenter a year ago attempted to explain the show to someone else under a clip titled “Scuffed Ron Jeremy”: “Raj [sic] is a white guy that fakes an Indian accent and is almost never on stream but instead delegates 4 thots for content. I don’t get the allure. He doesn’t even fake the accent when appearing as a guest on talk shows.”

In another recent Rajjchelorette, eleven sexy women, dolled up or with push-up bras or bodycon dresses, compete for a date with the redheaded CallMeCarson, who, according to his entry, “is best known for his emotional breakdown playing Minecraft after falling for a trapped chest in [the ‘Drama YouTuber] Keemstar’s Minecraft Monday tournament.” (On Twitter, where he has 638,000 followers, he writes, “talking to women for the first time today. wish me luck.”)

Austin prompts one woman, Sereda, an IRL streamer who is at risk of being eliminated, to sing a song. She sings about CallMeCarson and is eliminated anyway. It is revealed that she chose love, and as she explains, unconvincingly, “I wanted to believe that you could be something for me.” She shouts out her channel, and chat spams “PepeHands”—an emote of Pepe the Frog crying.

Austin says his show has resulted in some hook-ups, some dates, some short-term flings.

“I wouldn’t say people are playing a character,” he says. “In fact, I will say that when it’s clear someone is playing a character the audience doesn’t respond well. Twitch is built on an organic relationship between broadcaster and audience, and when you’re playing a character—with the exception of Dr. Disrespect—it especially in my show because it’s reality TV, the audience doesn’t like it because it’s too fake.”

It’s hard to say whether having a brand is the same as playing a character in 2019, and on Twitch, branding is everything. After a couple of episodes of the Rajj Royale show, it’s not hard to guess who’s going to fight with whom about the legitimacy of the Trump presidency, why “flat Earth” isn’t a conspiracy theory, whether “lefties dryjack more.” Two guests might have American flags in the background, one might have pink kitty gaming headphones, another, a muscle shirt. Then, there’s the consistently hilarious, and unpredictable, presence of longtime Twitch streamer Kaceytron, who might appear in nun garb, as an aspiring restaurateur, or as a far-flung nobody streaming from a laundry room piled high with junk.

It’s not unusual for top Twitch personalities to have baggage of various sizes. Austin himself has the accent issue. Others have records of extreme political views, casual use of racial slurs, bans for sexually explicit behaviour. Amid all this, Austin casts his shows full of Twitch’s big names and therefore is constantly operating amid the debate of who should or shouldn’t get a platform. “If I bring on Republicans, the Democrats say, ‘You’re irresponsible for bringing on Republicans,” and vice versa, he says. “All these people feel righteous in their case and feel their cause is the right cause and, ‘Oh, I know they’re saying you’re irresponsible for platforming me, but I’m right!’”

To find his guests, Austin sifts off the top of Twitch metrics charts and brands his streams as open forums. He says he doesn’t keep track of people’s personal lives and hasn’t always been scrupulous about who he platforms. He describes himself as “fairly liberal,” and over time, has shifted his moderation strategy from no-holds-barred to some-holds-barred-but-not-many. One regular, he says, has admitted that he’s just trying to come up with the most controversial thing to say. When I brought up that Kotaku has interviewed women who say that MethodJosh, also a regular who has appeared on the Rajjchelor, has aggressively flirted with or preyed on young, female fans, he was taken aback. (MethodJosh did not respond to Kotaku’s request for comment at the time.) “We don’t necessarily do background checks,” he said. “Surely, if we were aware of something like that we’d not platform them. I had no idea, if I’m being honest.”

“Maybe we lean on Twitch a little too much,” he says. “Maybe we trust Twitch saying, ‘Hey, this person has a partnership so they must be ok.’”

After Destiny defended his private use of the “N” word in October, Rajj Royale was the forum where his friend, the speedrunner Trihex, confronted him. “It’s really disingenuous for me to continue to conversate with you if you privately still use ‘hard “r,’” the most contextually offensive word in modern American English language.” Austin says he will continue hosting Destiny on the show.

Austin says he’s helped launch careers from his channel, tracing streamers’ brand narratives from one thing to another over each appearance. He acts embarrassed to say it, even though there’s a whole talent-wrangling ecosystem funelling him new characters from smaller, more unknown livestreams. (Recently, he announced a $US25,000 ($36,666) reward for a talent show, but would not clarify where the money came from.) “There is no set path or way to achieve Twitch fame or Twitch success in my opinion,” he says.

If anything, these shows are exhibitions of who’s on top and what it takes to claw your way up there. Beauty? Charisma? Jokes? Relatability? Gameplay isn’t a factor here. The common denominator is hyperactivity—at least, when they’re not spaced out and on their phones on hour two of the Rajj Royale.

Austin thinks the best way to keep your head above water on the highly competitive platform is “to expose yourself to an audience—not in a negative way, but show your personality off— and do so consistently and create a character for yourself”—meaning a caricature of your true self— “And over time, things will start to stick.” He adds, “Everyone has to create their own unique path and if one has been travelled, that’s not one you want to go on.”

As word of the Rajj Show spreads through Twitch clips and Reddit, it’s commenters, not Austin, who do most of the work explaining what it is. Under a clip of a Rajj show guest, referred to as a “Twitch thot,” one Redditer asks what the show is. “This generation’s version of a VH1 reality show,” someone replied, adding, “except those hoes don’t hold a candle to the characters from ‘Flavour of Love.’”

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