If you want to avoid spoilers, stay current, or participate in social media conversations, you have to watch Game of Thrones the moment it airs. If you have cable, you probably don’t think twice about it. But if you’re looking for an alternative method, one site always seems to have people covered: Twitch.
On Twitch, streamers are regularly servicing Game of Thrones fans who want to watch the latest episode for free as it airs — and it’s not exactly with HBO’s approval. With just a few seconds of browsing Twitch’s “Just Chatting” category each Sunday night, it’s easy to come across an assortment of streams showing the new episode. There seemed to be more people streaming the premiere a couple of weeks ago than there were streaming the most recent episode, “The Long Night.” But “Long Night” streams still weren’t scarce. No search is required; just scroll down until a stream pops up.
Twitch has a history of its creators streaming copyrighted content. The big pay-per-view fight last summer between YouTubers Logan Paul and KSI got more pirate streams on Twitch than legitimate views on YouTube. World Cup games in 2018 were streamed on Twitch, and it’s easy to find marathons of TV shows like South Park or random accounts streaming full-length movies. People can even get away with streaming full UFC pay-per-view matches by pretending to be playing a video game.
Season 8’s Game of Thrones episodes have been no exception. One of the top videos that appeared the week of the premiere ran without issues. It was in English, and the channel’s host was chilling in the corner of the screen. The title of his video included “Game of Thrones season 8 premiere.” Over 500 people watched. The host didn’t seem concerned that Twitch moderators and administrators might shut down his channel if they discovered what he was doing. But people participating in his chat did. People repeatedly asked him to change his streaming category and video title to make the stream harder to find.
“Dude, Twitch mods are on the hunt,” one message read.
“Change the name of your video! Twitch mods are shutting down channels,” another chatter wrote.
Viewers of these pirated streams have different reasons for tuning in. Some are HBO Now subscribers dealing with laggy service, while others don’t want to pay $15 a month for HBO. Some people just wanted to watch the show with a community of like-minded viewers on Twitch. People have asked for a shared television watching experience on Twitch for years, though it remains prohibited.
“I really wish they could start doing that for sports and favorite TV shows as well,” one Twitch user wrote in 2017 on Reddit. “Can you imagine tens of thousands of people watching The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones together? I think that would be pretty damn amazing!”
Having people host Game of Thrones content could land Twitch in serious trouble, and the company’s attempts to take down pirated streams lead to a less-than-perfect viewing experience. During the season 8 premiere, chat messages from Twitch users suggested that they were watching streams get taken down in real time, sending them back to the “Just Chatting” section to search for another option. Plenty of options remained, but many people were streaming the show in Russian, Portuguese, Spanish, or other languages.
There were streams with commentary from people hosting the episode and streams without anyone talking at all. There were streams with active chats and in-house jokes, but there were also streams where people were mostly silent. There was something for everyone. And for every stream Twitch took down, another three or four seemed to populate. Moderators were acting quickly, but it seemed like they couldn’t keep up.
Some streamers put considerable effort into not being caught. One streamer on the night of the season 8 premiere paused his stream and minimized the channel every once in a while and swapped VPN locations to mask his connection. He would also switch back and forth from the Game of Thrones stream to a random Reddit page from time to time. He changed the name of the stream to something Fortnite-related after viewers started leaving helpful strategy tips in his chat.
All of these things combined seemed to keep his channel off the radar of Twitch moderators, but it’s unclear why. It could be that his “Fortnite” stream wasn’t popular enough to surface on the main Fortnite category page. It could be that his constant VPN changes made it difficult for moderators to pin down his pirated stream. Or it could just be that by 9:30PM ET on Sunday night, there were too many Game of Thrones streams popping up for Twitch moderators to handle.
Game of Thrones is the perfect example of a show where illicit Twitch streams are popular. It’s a show that has to be experienced in real time. In order for people to join in on the conversation on Twitter and Reddit — or simply feel free to use the internet without worrying about coming across spoilers — they have to watch it as soon as it airs. This is different from your average Netflix show; finding a way to watch Game of Thrones immediately is crucial to living online. Part of the enjoyment that comes with being a Game of Thrones fan is that ongoing online experience. This is where Twitch comes in handy.
Live-streaming poses different moderation challenges than standard on-demand video. Platforms likely aren’t able to automatically recognize brand-new material since it’s unlikely to have been cataloged in a copyright check database yet, especially when it’s actively being masked by streamers. That means it’s on human moderators to identify the streams as they see them. It wasn’t like they were ignoring the issue — there were just too many people streaming the show over the course of an hour for moderators to take down.
Still, Twitch has developed a reputation as the go-to place to stream copyrighted entertainment. The company has struggled to deal with this issue, and being able to find a Game of Thrones stream every week proves that people are still using Twitch as a first resort for getting around paying for content. The Verge has reached out to the company for comment.
Although it was slightly more difficult to find streams this week compared to the premiere, it wasn’t a tedious affair. There are only a few episodes left before Game of Thrones comes to an end, but the issue of people using the platform to stream copyrighted content is likely to continue. As more networks begin pushing their own paid streaming services that leave people without access to popular shows, it could become even more of a problem for platforms like Twitch.