It's a little bit shocking that you can make real money playing video games all day. For a certain generation, this was the dream: being a "streamer", one of the legion of men and women who live a joyful existence of being likeable while playing games on camera. Against all odds, it's an actual career path, but one that isn't as idyllic as you might think. There's a lot to like about the idea of being a streamer. No degrees or certifications, an office that doubles as a bedroom and an endless supply of new adventures offered free-of-charge by developers and publishers eager for your cursory attention. Outsiders might be flabbergasted that streaming counts as a job, but only because we're jealous. The sage advice encouraged us to make money doing what we love, but this still feels like a loophole.
Once you look deeper, though, the fantasy starts to crumble, especially compared to the lives of celebrities in other fields. Do I really want to live under the astronomical media pressure on LeBron James? Would it be terrifying to watch my public reputation flare up and flicker out as quickly as Jessica Simpson or Pauly Shore? And, naturally, is it really always fun to be playing, editing and thinking about the same video game all day, every day? Or does that begin to feel like drudgery once it becomes a job?
Octavian "Kripparrian" Morosan is the most watched Hearthstone streamer in the world. Every day he logs a solid six hours into a card game and siphons off highlights and commentary into a daily YouTube vlog. Hearthstone is a great game, but I'm not sure anyone on earth can play that consistently without getting burnt out. It's not that streamers like Kripparrian can't play other games, but once they're popular in a specific scene, moving away from that can affect their bottom line. This is evident if you compare the views Kripparrian gets on his Hearthstone videos to, say, Darkest Dungeon. Viewers want more of the same, and it's up to Kripparrian to keep giving it to them.
Much like being a performer in any other field, streaming demands constant engagement with an audience and the pressure to always be in character. "Twitch, unlike Youtube, requires you to be constantly active to maintain a following and have your content out there," said Andrey "Reynad" Yanyuk, a popular streamer and the CEO of the esports company TempoStorm. "One stream won't necessarily be getting views a month later like it would on Youtube for example. If you end up doing it too much, streaming can wear on somebody the way that doing anything for an excessive amount of time would."
Octavian "Kripparrian" Morosan
Reynad also explained how streaming is so much more than just playing games. "It's a lot more mentally taxing than it looks, because you are doing so much more than playing a game for fun. It's a one-man show where you're constantly trying to play off of the audience and maintain a high level of energy. That's hard to do when the natural inclination while playing games is to stare at the monitor silently and think through things in your head. The final product looks like one person playing games for fun, when in reality all the little programs and discussion around the game make it harder to enjoy the game itself."
Reynad is predominantly known for Hearthstone, but he's also constantly scouting and promoting pro squads in games like Heroes of the Storm, Overwatch and Super Smash Bros. He told me eventually he'd like to focus more of his time into his managerial role, though he never wants to quit streaming completely.
"I know many content producers that feel a little trapped," said Sean "Day" Plott, one of the most successful personalities on Twitch and YouTube, and someone who has been around this business a long time. "The ones that do believe that they have created a business model where their audience has an expectation of what's going to happen on the stream every day."
Plott is what you'd call a "variety streamer". In his earlier years he was best known for being a StarCraft professional and commentator, but these days he plays pretty much whatever he wants on his stream and YouTube channel. There's plenty of Hearthstone, but also single player titles like Stardew Valley and The Witness, as well as ancient adventure games like King's Quest and Myst. You're never going to see Myst trending at the top of Twitch, which is a testament to the creative freedom Plott has earned for himself. But not all streamers — especially those just starting out — have earned the ability to take the risks Plott can.
Andrey "Reynad" Yanyuk
"I often joke with people who are just getting their stream started that you just don't get to be a variety streamer. You have to establish something, build a community around you, and then begin to translate that," said Plott. "Around 2012 is when we put together a structured show on Fridays called 'Day's Day Off', which is where I played new games, and those did very well. It's never been about chasing any hot trends, which I actually think is harmful. It's important for it to be something I truly enjoy. The way it works is I'll go to my business partner Eric and say 'I'm thinking of playing either this game or this game on Friday. And he'll say 'I think this one will work better, play the other one in your free time', and I'll reply 'OK, cool!'"
What Plott is describing is much closer to the financial security and emotional fulfilment that streaming appears to offer from the outside, but he's also turning 30 this year and has been a public face in video games since the mid-2000s. Through years of hard work he has developed a flock of fans willing to follow him and his taste wherever it goes.
Meanwhile, League of Legends YouTuber and streamer Gnarsies recently quit his channel after a year of activity out of a combination of drama, boredom and exhaustion. And frankly, it's not hard to understand why.
"While the channel did succeed in changing some things in League of Legends, it became preaching to the choir over time, and there were inevitably less things to talk about," Gnarsies told Kotaku in an email. "There were definitely issues in other games I wanted to cover, but I didn't because they never seemed to get as much interest as my League stuff. When you do videos about one game, you write yourself into a corner unless it's low-quality fluff."
Gnarsies' burnout is understandable. Coming up with constant angles and ideas within one game and one community sounds like a Sisyphean task. He told me that after a while he felt pressured to get videos out on a dependable schedule, which affected the quality of his content. It's enviable to work with fresh games and faith that the views will follow no matter what.
Plott also admitted that even with the flexibility of his format, there are certain days where he's not in a streaming mood. In moments like that, he relies on the mutual adoration he's established with his audience.
"It does require a lot of discipline, and it's important if you're not in the mood to still put yourself out there," said Plott. "The best comparison I can make is that it's like having a child or a pet. I have two cats, and I love my two cats. I mean, some days I don't want to clean out the litter box because it's gross, but I just go and do it. Because I love my two cats! And I feel like an awesome cat dad. When I'm live I'm occasionally going to be tired, but I'm there to hang out with a group of people that are expecting me and that I've known for seven years now. And it's lovely! There are definitely barriers, but you've got to push through that."
Sky Williams, one of the most productive League of Legends personalities on YouTube, agreed with Plott's sentiment. Williams specialises in spitfire bursts of energetic, profane and highly-referential comedy — he's the Bill Burr of MOBAs. In the month of March he uploaded a video a day, each garnering somewhere between 200,000 to 400,000 views, earning quite a bit of money in the process. Williams echoes Plott's dedication to his fans — even when he's not necessarily enjoying the game — and does a remarkable job of staying focused.
"I don't believe in burning out, I think that's a low-key myth," said Williams. "If a content creator wants to make a video every day, they should have an open book of uncoloured pictures. And every day they have to colour in the picture and that's their product. Now, if you're asking a content creator to open up a book and draw a picture every day, then yes they're going to get burnt out because they're not doing it right. On my channel I have a lot of things I can fall back on, like 'five reasons why I hate such-and-such' or 'shit League players don't say'. It makes making videos much less strenuous for me as someone who doesn't do gameplay videos."
Though he enjoys streaming, eventually Williams wants to work in television. He has it all planned out: the hypothetical project is called American Diner, a mocukmentary sitcom about restaurant life, drawing on his own experiences of working in places like Applebee's all throughout his life.
"It's my dream," he said. "It's all I want to do. I don't want to do anything else. In 10 years hopefully I already have five seasons on Netflix. It's my number one goal."
Williams certainly enjoys making League videos and loves his fans, but his candour is also indicative of what streaming and YouTubing is for a lot of people. They see it as a stepping stone, a way to build your brand before moving on to bigger and better things. Some people might want to play games for the rest of their lives, but most hold some other, deeper aspirations in their life. If you feel stuck, it's because deep down, this might not be what you truly want to be doing.
"I have had this conversation with a lot of people, and not just regarding streaming," said Sean Plott. "It comes down to answering this question: 'what do I want?' I know people who say 'I want to stream because I'm really popular right now, and I want to save all the money I'm making so in four years, I have a ton of money for my family.' I know people who say 'I want to stream because I have the opportunity to say and do what I want, and I hate it when people tell me what to do.'
"Why do I stream? Because I want autonomy in my life, and I can say something like 'I want to write a novel', and I have this stream that can flexibly let me do that. What do you really want out of streaming and your life? That baseline can be a really clear guideline. If you're passionate about being the very best at a professional game, and you're still feeling burnt out? Then you ask yourself, 'how do I structure my show in a way that satisfies my longterm goal?' If you ask 'what do I want' you're going to find clarity."
Maybe that's the biggest misconception we have about streaming professionally. Yes, playing video games all day and getting handsomely compensated seems like a hard thing to complain about. But you can't outrun ambition. Sky Williams wants to make a TV show, Sean Plott is developing video games, Gnarsies tells me that he plans on starting a new channel that doesn't have anything to do with League of Legends. There's a generation that might believe that people who love video games are keen on being stationary, but frankly, that couldn't be further from the truth.
"YouTube isn't eternal," said Gnarsies. "The worst thing you can do in your life is shoehorn yourself into something you feel like you're forced to do."
Top image of Sean "Day" Plott