This month, a $5 indie game that released in 2018 cracked into the all-time, record-setting peak player club on Steam. According to Steamcharts, 388,385 people played Among Us (opens in new tab) simultaneously, more than Grand Theft Auto 5 on its Steam debut. Every day it sits just underneath Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Dota 2 for active players. And that's not counting the ones who are playing on iOS and Android—or the ones who quickly give up and close the game when the servers buckle under the strain.
How did Among Us become such a sudden phenomenon, nearly two years after it launched? So big that it became the most-streamed game on Twitch in September, and its developers canceled plans for a sequel to keep working on it? The quick, simple answer is: Twitch streamers. But there's more to it than that, because people aren't just watching Among Us. They're playing it in droves thanks to a few key things: Free mobile apps, extremely low PC system requirements that make it one of the best laptop games, and the Mafia.
Let me explain that last one first.
Classic game, right time
Among Us is not a new game. Obviously—it came out in 2018. But at heart it's much older than that. Among Us is the latest popular adaptation of Mafia, aka Werewolf, aka The Resistance, aka Secret Hitler. This social deception game, about a group of players trying to identify the traitor(s) in their midst, actually dates all the way back to the 1980s. An internet message board I posted on in 2005 ran regular games of Mafia, played out in hundreds of posts of strategizing and accusation, and countless backchannel DMs of dastardly plans.
Like some of the board game adaptations of Mafia, Among Us adds some structure to the basic experience of traitors killing the "good" players one-by-one, and everyone voting on who to execute. In Secret Hitler, there's an election system that helps players gather more information about who's who. In Among Us, players have a chance to win by completing a set of objectives around the map, like repairing a spaceship engine or blasting asteroids, which inevitably spreads out the crowd and gives the impostors a chance to strike.
A big part of Among Us's success is simply that Mafia is a fun, endlessly playable game. It scales well to big groups. Trying to decide who to trust is always tense. Getting away with murder and turning the whole team against an innocent player is always a thrill.
But in 2020, at least in the US where coronavirus still rages, getting together to play games like Werewolf in-person isn't really an option. Right now we're primed for most of our social interactions to play out over Zoom and voice chats, and Among Us is an easy laugh generator with friends.(opens in new tab)
The smartphone apps open up Among Us to a massive (and young) audience beyond PC gaming, and crucially, Among Us is a more videogamey adaptation of Mafia than other ones I've seen. There was Town of Salem in 2014 and Ubisoft's Werewolves Within in 2016, for example, but both of these just add an online interface for the basic Werewolf rules, and depict players sitting in a circle just like you would in person. Among Us adds things to do in between accusations, making it a more active experience and building more tension.
Those goals easily could've been overcomplicated, distracting from the paranoia that drives the social core of the game. But Among Us keeps them simple enough to add strategy—and ways for the good guys to win—while still keeping it approachable for anyone. It's simple enough to work on both PCs and smartphones with just a few basic buttons for input (you can even make do without a keyboard). And it'll run on basically any PC dating back to 2010.
The barrier to entry is extremely low. These are all reasons for Among Us to be a popular game right now, but they don't explain why it blew up—how it went from unknown to the biggest game on Twitch and one of the biggest on Steam. For that, we have to go back to July.
The Twitch pop-off: July and August(opens in new tab)
At the start of July, Among Us averaged just a couple hundred viewers on Twitch, according to tracking site SullyGnome. By the end of August, it averaged over 100,000. Early bursts of exposure on Twitch rapidly snowballed into a huge increase in viewers, and that translated into more and more players. It's even more striking if you look at the growth over the past 365 days.
If you just look at raw viewer numbers on Twitch streams, though, the stats can be misleading. You can't tell at a glance when a stream is sponsored, or if viewers are just tuning in for item drops. You also can't tell if a small indie game is truly becoming popular, or if one big-name streamer happens to be playing it for a hundred thousand viewers, while the next streamer down plays for an audience of 11. But that's not the case with Among Us—if you look at the breakdown of which channels are getting viewers, it's trending towards a fairly even distribution. The top 100 streamers are all pulling in good numbers.
The most successful Among Us streamer in the past three months is xQc by a longshot. The former pro Overwatch player was let go from his team Dallas Fuel in 2018 for code of conduct violations and has since become more of a variety streamer, playing lots of Fall Guys and Among Us on top of Valorant and Overwatch. His watch time dwarfs other streamers at more than 11 million hours over the past three months; streamer auronplay is a distant second at almost four million.
But who kicked it off? If we look back over 2020, streamer SR_Kaif, who has about 136,000 followers, has been playing Among Us consistently, often to an audience of more than 2,000. Starting in May, a pair of bigger streamers named AdmiralBulldog (with almost 700,000 followers) and singsing (with almost 600,000) started playing a few hours of Among Us, giving it a big boost—though nothing compared to July.
By the end of July, Among Us had rocketed 400 positions in average viewers into the top 50 on Twitch thanks largely to:
- Massively popular streams by sodapoppin and xQc, who brought in tens of thousands of simultaneous viewers
- The combined viewerships of eight Korean streamers, who otherwise owned the top 10. In August English streamers would completely take over, but Among Us's real breakthrough started in Korea.
During a long Just Chatting stream session on July 15th, we can actually see the moment sodapoppin first tried Among Us. "What is that game I wanted to play?" he says out loud.
Sodapoppin doesn't just jump into the game with random players; he gets friends and fellow streamers to play, which seems like a key ingredient in Among Us's future stratospheric viewer growth. It's a game that any streamer can play, without the expertise needed to be good at Fortnite or League of Legends. And putting 10 streamers in one room just magnifies the celebrity power—truly the Avengers of yelling into a microphone that you didn't do it.
By the end of the month, sodapoppin had racked up 631,000 hours of Among Us watch time. Korean streamer d_obby was next, with 360,000 hours. An underappreciated part of Among Us's success is its language support—it's available in English, Portuguese, Spanish, and Korean.(opens in new tab)
It took surprisingly long for Among Us's activity on Steam to catch up with the rising interest in streams. It was discounted in the Steam Summer sale from June 25 to July 9, but that didn't cause a massive jump in players. The player count grew slowly through the first half of July—at least on PC—and then it was off like a rocket. Looking at Steam reviews, we can see reviews start to uptick at the very end of July, but the last week of August is the really huge jump. After massively popular streams from xQc and others, PC gamers were starting to play Among Us en masse.
It's still hard to put into perspective how quickly Among Us has grown. Even though it was gaining thousands of players and many more Twitch viewers over July and August, September has been on another level. Using recent snapshots from the Wayback Machine, we can track how many times the game was downloaded from Android's Google Play store. On September 3, it had more than 10 million—already a huge number. By September 8, more than 50 million. By September 21, more than 100 million.
Steam can only give us a narrow picture of how many people are actually playing Among Us.(opens in new tab)
Looking back over the game's life, it's not like Among Us was ever a failure. It hit a million downloads in August 2019, certainly a success for an indie game made by only three developers. It's a perfect social game for 2020, a cute-but-devious counterpart to Fall Guys, the year's other runaway hit.
Tracing Among Us's rise back throughout the year, I think streamer SR_Kaif is the one who primed Among Us for its big moment. He's been streaming it every month since January, pulling in more and more viewers. The rest of the PC gaming world just finally started paying attention.