Gamers are making millions by playing in front of audiences on platforms like Twitch. But when fame and money counts on you always being on, can you ever switch off?
It is June 2018, and I am sitting at a table in a needlessly fancy restaurant in LA with a bunch of teenagers. Well, some of them must be over 21 as they are able to order alcohol, but most are sticking to Coke or sparkling water with their overpriced steaks. These are some of the up-and-coming stars of Twitch, the livestreaming platform that now broadcasts about 2bn hours per month from more than 9m channels, most of which involve people filming themselves and chatting while playing video games. Later, there will be a lavish party in a similarly extravagant club, where the streamers with the most views and subscribers will be treated like celebrities in the VIP area.
And, well, they are celebrities. They have millions of followers. They are stopped in the street or at airports by people wanting a selfie and an autograph. Unlike pro gamers, whose job is to be good enough at video games to win tournaments, a streamer’s job is to be entertaining enough – while playing anything from first person shooters to racing games – to win fans. Back in 2018, streaming was already a huge deal; now, bolstered by the pandemic and an ever-growing audience that boosted Twitch’s viewership by 70% in 2020, it is even bigger. To draw a comparison that makes me feel about 4,000 years old, they are their generation’s rock stars.
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Unlike rock stars, however, streamers are not really known for hard partying. Talking to the people around that table, I was instead astonished – and, honestly, worried – by how hard they worked. The woman sitting next to me told me that she streams for eight to 10 hours every day, and when she wasn’t live she was curating her social media, responding to fans, scouting for brand partnerships or collaborations with other streamers; throughout our conversation she was visibly resisting the impulse to check her phone, where new stats and fan comments and potential opportunities were presumably stacking up. I asked what she does for fun and she seemed genuinely confused by the question.
Playing video games for an audience for a living sounds like fun – and hell, there are many worse jobs out there – but it is also an ultra-competitive profession that attracts millions of aspiring kids with limitless energy and absolutely no concept of work-life balance. It involves extreme hours and intense pressure to be constantly available to the audience of viewers on whom they depend. And according to recently leaked Twitch data, the top 1% of streamers on its platform received more than half of the $889m (£660m) it paid out to creators last year; three quarters of the rest made $120 (£89) or less. Millions made nothing at all.
I was not surprised, over the following years, to read story after story about these energetic young people – with what must have seemed like the best job in the world – burning out. When you are broadcasting yourself so much of the time, when your hobby becomes your job and your job becomes your hobby, and when your personality becomes your brand and your brand becomes your personality, what does life offline look like for you? Who are you when the camera is off?
The fact is that, especially for up-and-coming streamers trying to make it in the crowded world of playing video games on the internet, the camera is almost never off. Sticking to a regular schedule is the best way to build an audience on Twitch, and those schedules regularly involve at least eight hours of continuous streaming, five days a week or more. “My sleep schedule shifted into the North American time zone because most of the people who were viewing my channel at the time were there,” says 36-year-old Cassie, a founder of the Black Twitch UK network, who has been streaming for five years under the name GeekyCassie. “I would do my day at work, nap a bit, and then stream for up to eight to 12 hours at night-time. I’d be absolutely beat, and then get up and do my work again … People burn out and then they don’t enjoy it any more.”
At that time Cassie was living at home with her mum, whose cooking and care enabled these ridiculous hours. “There’s absolutely no way that I would do that now. I don’t really feel like we should be encouraging it,” she says. “I see [young streamers] do things like 24‑hour live gaming marathons, then have an hour’s sleep, and then later that day I’ll see photos of them skating outside on Insta. I’m like: ‘How are you doing this? What is going on!?’”
“Burnout is an incredibly real thing in gaming,” says Imane Anys, AKA Pokimane, who has put in thousands of hours to become the most popular female streamer on Twitch, with 8.4 million subscribers. “A streamer sets their own work hours and it can be easy to fall into the trap of streaming eight to 12 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s frightening because people grind crazy long hours, and see results – hence why so many do it. I’ve veered away from doing extreme hours of livestreaming in an effort to upkeep my mental health and I’ve found that it aids in the longevity of my career.” Now she streams in shorter bursts, but even so, she only “usually” takes a day off a week to spend with friends or relaxing.
The reasons for these ultra-demanding hours are simple: the more you broadcast, the greater your chances of being featured on Twitch’s homepage, the more followers you accrue, and the more money you might eventually make. The chances of achieving the kind of success seen by the world’s most popular gamers, who earn millions a year from sponsorship deals, fan subscriptions and merchandise, are vanishingly small – think of how many keen footballers ever go pro, let alone play at a Premier League club – but tens of thousands of creators make at least a livable wage. It is no wonder, then, that many streamers end up obsessed with the numbers and graphs and invisible algorithms that determine their fate.
The flavour of fame that comes with playing video games on the internet is a particularly intense one, too. Viewers on both Twitch and YouTube form close, and entirely one-sided, relationships with their favourite stars. As in the influencer world, stalking is a big problem. Some, such as the US streamer Ellohime, have had fans turn up at their doors in the middle of the night. These parasocial relationships can grow unhealthy on both sides, as viewers start to feel entitled to access the people on the other side of the camera, and creators feel obliged to give them more of their time. When Ninja – who is by most standards the world’s most successful video game streamer, with an estimated $10m in yearly earnings and 17 million followers – took two days off to attend a tournament in 2018, he lost 40,000 subscribers. And despite the fact that he could absolutely do without those subs, he was furious about it.
“While creators face the same challenges as the rest of the digital generation, stress and burnout occurs more often in this community because of the pressure of expectation from their audiences,” says Kruti Kanojia, the CEO of Healthy Gamer, an organisation that provides mental health services for the digital generation, including specific wellbeing coaching for streamers. “They started streaming because of a love of gaming and the community that comes with it, but the hyper-competitive nature of content creation can make creators feel like they can never take a day off … Everything from burnout to stress and impostor syndrome can make streamers consider quitting.”
These brutal schedules are one reason Twitch is very much a young person’s game: it is surely impossible to stick to those hours if you are, say, a mother of three. Many of the most successful – most of whom are young men – have partners, parents or even paid staff helping to look after them. Earlier this year, Nokokopuffs, a pro player of battle royale game Apex Legends, attracted a potent mixture of derision and envy for proudly admitting that he pays a personal chef $1,000 a month to make him food. (He claims he’s still saving $400 on what he used to spend on food delivery.)
But this career has now existed for long enough that some of its first stars have grown up. For example, 29-year-old Daniel Middleton – much better known as DanTDM, a name that most parents will probably recognise – rose to global fame playing Minecraft on YouTube in his early 20s, before Twitch came on the scene. He began recording gaming videos in sixth form, fitting it around school and later university; now he has a one-year-old son, and his working life has changed drastically.
“When you’re building it up, that’s the most intense part,” he says. “I was doing two videos every single day; my channel was a priority and then normal life would have to try to fit in around it. If I had the offer to go out for the afternoon I just wouldn’t do it; I’d record, edit, upload, record, edit, upload, have my evening, then rinse and repeat literally every day for two years. When you’re growing, it really is a massive grind … It’s relentless, non-stop, no days off, no holidays. That’s actually pretty common in the people who have been really successful and have big platforms.”
Dan has been fortunate enough to reach a point that few gaming influencers ever do: with a big subscriber base and a few other businesses that he’s launched off the back of it, he can pull back without his career disappearing. “I only work maybe three to four hours a day now in the morning, and then spend the rest of the day with family. Before, I would wake up, make videos and go to sleep. Even if I had any free time I’d be thinking about videos, how it’s going, what I’m making next, keeping an eye on trends and stuff; that doesn’t fill my brain space any more.”
Like me, Dan worries a little about the current generation of teenage gamer stars, both on Twitch and YouTube. “It’s really intense now. The new generation of Minecraft YouTubers are way more popular but that comes with a lot more negativity,” he says. “They’re so much younger than I was when I started. When I had success I was 22, 23; these guys are 17, which is mad. I wouldn’t have been able to handle that kind of fame and success at that age. For the Justin Biebers or Disney Channel stars or Ariana Grandes, they have people helping them with that, but now there are kids getting that kind of attention just by themselves in their bedrooms. That’s wild.”
Of course, almost anyone who attains immense success has spent years working extremely hard. Wannabe athletes spend their entire youth in practice and shuttling between tournaments. Successful musicians and artists spend years fixating on their passions before breaking through. In this way, Twitch and YouTube are no different from other passion careers: the people who become wildly successful are extremely rare, and often have an extraordinary work ethic.
“Maybe I’d still be doing something similar as a job if I hadn’t done those years of ridiculous work, but not to this kind of scale,” says Dan. “I’m not saying that if you put in the work it’s definitely gonna happen, because that’s not the case. But I think you’ll find that in almost every job where someone’s super-successful, they’ve ground it out for at least a few years.”
For Cassie, finding a way to make streaming work has meant reconceptualising what success means. “Being a Black woman, you end up working three times harder to get maybe half of what someone else has got. Success is being able to have an impact, to get paid for the work you’re doing. Success is not being at the Ninja level … These days, if I’m tired, you’re not gonna see me, because I am not gonna die on the internet for you!” she laughs.
“I don’t necessarily like saying: ‘Go outside and touch some grass,’ but … definitely go outside! Actually seeing people and doing things away from streaming is so essential. I’m so much happier now.”
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