Art by Jim Cooke
The booming industry of live-streaming yourself gaming is a largely unregulated one. Streamers are weed-whacking their way through the industry's nascent years, struggling to find a work-life balance for a job that they can technically never stop doing. Launching a streaming career is like launching a cable network — a reliable, sustained source of entertainment — but on Twitch, streamers are working with a staff of one.
Career streamers I spoke with recounted pulling nightly marathon streams, on top of day jobs, to draw attention to their channels. Several said that, starting out, depression, anxiety and sleep deprivation plagued them, all stemming from the nagging fear that fans would forget about their channel as soon as it went off-line. Many streamers see it as the nature of the job, a perfect storm of vanity and fear. Twitch has provided them a platform for living out their dreams, and it's up to them to do so responsibly.
It's a laughable notion, that there's a labour problem for streamers, and especially for ones breaking in. Gaming all day sounds pretty cushy. But streamers can't turn to the person to their left and ask how much overtime they're clocking. On Twitch, overtime isn't a real concept. There isn't centuries' worth of labour standards. In an email, Jason Maestas, Twitch's senior director of Community and Education, compared professional creators to "bootstrapped entertainment startups."
"The pressure on creators is enormous and the job is not an easy one — no matter the platform of choice," he added. "We admire the grit it takes to succeed, and appreciate the trust put in us by the creator community."
— littlesiha (@littlesiha) February 13, 2017
Little Siha, who has about 40,000 Twitch followers, was working 50 hours a week as a customer service representative for an internet service provider when she started streaming. Siha streams herself playing Just Dance, Ubisoft's rhythm game named after Lady Gaga's eponymous song. It's a euphoric stream, bright and full of energy, in part because she's actually dancing. After just six months, Twitch offered her a coveted partnership. That's when she felt the pressure to up the ante.
For months, she'd wake up at the crack of dawn, dance on stream, and then rush to her day job. At her work desk, she'd be customising her channel, planning streams and interacting with viewers. Afterwards, she'd dance more. Working on her stream added 25 extra hours of labour to her week, but she was focused on breaking in. "It really took a toll on my relationships," she told me. "I lived with my boyfriend and never saw him, and I saw my friends maybe once every few months because I was so focused on making streaming a career." Now she streams for eight hours a day, most of which are Mass Effect 2 run-throughs or cute indie games, and three hours of which are dancing.
"It's exhausting physically because I dance much more than I did before, so my body is almost constantly sore," Siha said. "It's mentally exhausting because you can beat yourself up so hard for losing however many subscribers in just one day off. It really makes you want to stream constantly so that your channel can only go upwards. And any free time I have goes towards fixing the stream, improving the stream, or getting groceries so that I don't die of starvation at my desk."
After a while, her viewers donated enough for her to get a bed, since she was sleeping on a couch.
Siha was adamant that she loves what she does, regardless of how stressful it is. "At the end of a long day," she told me, "I have to remind myself that my job is to play video games and that it could be so much worse."
Renee Reyosa, from her Twitter
Long hours sunk into attracting an audience is commonplace for any rising star. Maestas acknowledges that Twitch facilitates a "wholly new kind of entertainment business — the parameters of which are up to creators to define." On Twitch, though, there's a whirlwind of pressures: the false sense of "easiness," or the pretense that gaming in a chair for eight hours isn't really "work;" fans, who can communicate with you whenever they want; the constant fluctuation of "popularity" numbers, which streamers can view whenever; and, finally, the fact that nothing is stopping streamers from streaming forever except themselves.
In January, full-time Twitch streamer Ben Bowman ("Professor Broman") published an essay on Polygon about his taxing "always on" lifestyle. "There are 168 hours in each week," he wrote. "As a full-time Twitch streamer, I'm expected to be live for as many of them as possible." Bowman went on to detail how, to grow his channel back 2013, he pulled 12 to 16-hour streams seven days a week. He didn't believe he'd "earned" a day off until his follower count hit 400,000.
For two years, he did this. His mantra was "Always Be Casting." "The only one who can turn the camera off is the person who benefits the most from keeping it on," he said.
Thinking about making Friday the new day off so I actually have a weekday to do things ?
— ProfessorBroman (@Professorbroman) February 10, 2017
In December, 2016, Twitch added a feature that made Bowman's mantra a distinct possibility. Twitch's IRL platform "is a new category that lets your Twitch community see who you are in real-life," Twitch explains. Streamers will fold laundry, take walks or cook dinner for their fans in a sort of safe, money-generating panopticon.
Soon, Twitch will launch a mobile app for IRL. "The once-acceptable answer of 'I just can't broadcast right now' because of travel, family or the need for personal non-gaming time might disappear, leaving yet another avenue for attack from trolls or disappointed fans," Bowman wrote. "Will it be an expectation of every broadcaster to take their community everywhere in a few months or years? Will they feel the need to go out on a date and make sure it's on IRL because they know that will get views?"
Renee Reynosa ("lolRenaynay"), who has garnered over 280,000 followers since her Twitch debut in 2011, finds Bowman's vision a bit dramatic. IRL is a convenient platform for her to keep up with viewers while on trips or doing chores. She says that the impulse to work long hours doesn't come from Twitch, and that the new IRL platform "should be treated as bonus content not content you add onto your day to day schedule." Twitch streamers, for the most part, do it to themselves.
"I think the pressures of being live all the time are dictated by the individual not necessarily Twitch itself, or the IRL category," she told me. "It's more so just this human concept that we're always in competition with one another. When you're a career broadcaster, it goes from 'It's a fun little hobby' to 'I have to do this to pay my bills.' Then you become Professor Broman, where you're obsessed with it."
In fact, she said, Twitch tries to bring broadcasters together instead of pitting them against each other. Twitch branded content often involves several streamers gaming online, collaborating and chatting. She thinks the pressure to be live all the time comes from an individual, not the platform. "We are all inherently competitive and trying to improve ourselves," she said.
When Reyosa first started streaming, she pulled 8-hour days, which, on top of channel maintenance, made even the task of laundry difficult. Soon, she fell into a depression. "I wasn't seeing my friends or making myself dinner or keeping my house clean," Reynosa told me. She was fixated on how her numbers rose and fell, apparently in connection to how present she was. One day, she returned from a trip and realised her house was in a dire state of mess. That's when she decided she needed to treat Twitch like any other job.
Now, her schedule is firm and consistent, and she manages to cook all her own meals and keep her home sparkling clean. "We're in an industry that's brand new. We're all pioneers in this thing and trying to figure it out," Reyosa explained.
workin' it for them followers pic.twitter.com/gtJbYrRX4s
— kaceytron (@kaceytron) February 13, 2017
Career streamer Kaceytron, one of the industry's early pioneers, struck a work-life balance early on by making strict guidelines for herself. Hundreds of her 500,000 Twitch followers tune in nearly every day for her satirical gaming stream. Her fans are passionate, often as trolls or as admirers, and she's famous for engaging them. But fans demand more of her time than she can give, and because of Twitch's live chat feature, they can tell her directly.
"I think that since the perspective from a lot of fans is that full time streamers have it so easy," Kaceytron told me in an email. "They feel that streamers should be doing more, or they see being constantly connected to their fanbase as being a part of the 'full time streamer' job title, so it's the least they could do."
Over 9 billion messages were sent through Twitch's chat in 2015 to its 2 million broadcasters. And, on Twitch, viewer engagement is a great strategy for getting fans to donate. When view count is directly tied to income, and a longer stream could elicit more donations, turning off the camera can be a challenge. Reyosa, for her part, says that marathon streams can backfire pretty dramatically. Even they you can catch viewers from more time zones, streamers can easily get burnt out.
— BurkeBlack (@0BurkeBlack0) January 6, 2017
Since the fan-to-streamer distance is so insignificant, several fans turn to streaming themselves. How hard can streaming full-time be for gamers who'd love nothing more than to grind on World of Warcraft for ten hours a day?
On June 29th, 2016, BurkeBlack plugged in his Microsoft iCamera and went live on Twitch. He's 37, and before he started steaming, he worked seven-hour days in a cafeteria. Much newer than Kaceytron, Reyosa or Siha, he's a rising sensation on Twitch for his pirate-themed streaming persona. "I thought, 'Oh, this is cool. You just stream and then get famous on Twitch.'"
"Yeah," he said. "That didn't happen at all."
For months, he'd average one or two viewers until he loaded up some Fallout 4 DLC right after its release, bringing his average up to about 100 viewers. One night, he picked up Stellaris, a game he says streamers don't generally choose. That's what shot him into the big leagues. The day before I talked to him, he'd hit 96,000 followers. He streams for ten hours every day.
"I kept adding hours," he told me. "I started from 10pm to 8am." For a while, he was worried about losing his following. "It's just like opening a store," he said. "Streamers don't know if it could be over by tomorrow."
According to Reyosa, it's a relatively new thing that career streamers take weekends off. She describes it as a "trend." Streamers can quickly burn out on marathons, which takes a toll on the charisma that drew viewers there in the first place. Like with any job with 10-hour days, career streaming can lose its appeal quickly when it becomes the only thing you do.
But BurkeBlack has his cafeteria job as a point of comparison. He doesn't mind his daily marathons. He says he's never sat in front of the camera and thought, I don't feel like doing this today. It's the highlight of his day, and still, he feels blessed and humbled that hundreds of viewers want to watch him game every day. And, he reasons, he doesn't have a girlfriend, wife, or anyone who'd be upset with him over his lifestyle. When he's not streaming, he says, he's just eating food and watching Game of Thrones.
"I don't have much to complain about. I play video games for 10 hours and talk to people about it," he explained proudly. "It's a lot of work, but in my mind, I'm thinking, 'It's either this or stacking boxes at WalMart.'"