It was one in the morning when the Twitch streamer Ellohime heard a knock at his front door.
Illustration by Jim Cooke
He had been grinding away at a PC game that night in December 2015 while his infant daughter and fiancée slept. His 22-year-old brother was crashing in the central Florida home, too, and it wasn't unheard of for him to invite friends over at odd hours. Ellohime left his desk and went downstairs to the door.
"Hello?" came a voice from outside.
"Hello," Ellohime responded. "Hello?" the stranger said, his voice shaky and thin. It took a few more back-and-forth responses before Ellohime realised the guy at the door wasn't saying "Hello." He was saying "Ello." This was a fan.
By now, his fiancée was awake. Ellohime ran up the stairs to the second floor, where he could see down to the front porch. "I saw a very small, skinny kid," he says. "His face was all red." He walked downstairs again and, speaking through the door, asked him where he came from and what he wanted. Nervous, his fiancée stood behind him.
The fan had flown in from Singapore that night. He walked the 40km to the house, with his luggage, in the cool December weather. He wanted to stay there, with his favourite streamer.
Ellohime, who asked that Kotaku not use his real name, tells his 400,000 followers a great deal about his personal life. Details about his time in police academy or his infant daughter come out between climbing robot dinosaurs in Horizon Zero Dawn and sliding down the mountains of Steep. Over the course of three or four years live-gaming on Twitch, he says he's spent more time with his online community than his real-life family.
"You can't help but get to know me when you watch me game," says Ellohime. But with his fans, it isn't a one-way relationship. Every day, he's conversant with his Twitch chat. His Twitter DMs are open. On Discord, he's available to his subscribers. On Skype, he confers with his moderators. Being a relatable streaming personality means more than simple, one-sided charisma; he must offer a more interactive type of company to the hundreds of viewers who tune in daily.
Sometimes, for Twitch streamers, that company is mistaken for friendship, or something more intimate. And then there are problems.
Twitch streamers are like digital-age geisha. They host, they entertain, they listen, they respond. They perform their skill -- gaming, in most cases -- from behind a thick veneer of familiarity. Maybe it's because they let viewers into their homes, or because the live-streaming format feels candid, or because of their unprecedented accessibility, but there's something about being an entertainer on Twitch that blurs the line between viewer and friend. It can be hard to keep a healthy distance from fans. And, for fans, it can occasionally be hard to tell the difference between entertainer and companion.
Anthony (not his real name) was 19, depressed and scared. He hadn't gotten into the university of his choice. His parents were divorcing. He was desperate to get away from his life. Ellohime was the only one he could turn to, he thought. "Watching him at his home, you really know he's a kind and genuine guy," Anthony would say later about his decision to show up at Ellohime's front door. "He cares about his community."
Anthony did some digging and figured out what he thought must be Ellohime's home address. He saved up the equivalent of $2000, just enough for a one-way ticket on the 21-hour flight from Singapore to Florida. Ellohime would help him press the reset button on his life.
All this spilled out of him as he spoke through the door to Ellohime. Even hearing this, though, Ellohime didn't open the door. He wasn't scared for his own physical safety, thanks to his police training. But he wasn't about to take any risks with his fiancée and baby girl. The two spoke through the door for about 20 minutes before Ellohime finally opened it.
He saw a small, shaking Indonesian teen with puffy eyes. Anthony could barely stammer the words out, but with each increasingly plaintive entreaty he started to cry more and more. Ellohime told the fan he'd pay for an Uber ride and a night at a hotel.
No, Anthony said. It was stay with Ello, or nothing. He walked off the property into the night.
"I've always thought that the thing that makes Twitch really special is how it can give the broadcaster a direct link to its audience via Twitch chat," says Kaceytron, a pioneering full-time streamer. But there are strings attached. "Having such a direct link to your audience can make streamers feel almost more indebted to them," she says. "It makes the fear of disappointing your audience more real."
Unlike traditional celebrity entertainers, streamers' brands don't benefit from aloofness. Making it as a full-time streamer means spending eight hours a day, at least, online and accessible. That means talking to your fans, responding to their praise or criticisms, asking them questions back.
It also means that, even after the camera's off, streamers are still grinding away, answering emails or messages in their private chat channels. Friendliness and relatability draw in viewers, and, of course, paid subscribers and donations. Ideally, fans feel like they're planted on their favourite streamer's living room couch, trading stories and playing the latest games with a pseudo-celebrity.
Katharine Hodgdon, a graduate student in Communication at Texas A&M University, is researching how streamers perform friendship to keep their viewers interested. There's a term called "parasocial interaction," she says, which is "when a person, typically a consumer, develops a one-sided relationship with a media persona." Many people might believe that if they met, say, Jennifer Lawrence, they'd totally be BFFs, "even though they have never met her personally or even know what she is like outside of interviews."
That's existed ever since there were celebrities to moon over, but social media has evolved it to a new level, Hodgdon says. "Now consumers can interact with their celebrity BFFs, in hopes they ever get a response back. Twitch streamers, in many ways, are like celebrities. They are recognised and beloved, but it comes with a price, which unlike A-list celebrities, [they] do not have the support to handle."
John "TotalBiscuit" Bain, a major YouTube and Twitch personality, made a public exit from social media last year when he learned that he had terminal cancer (which doctors later determined was curable). "The expectation that everyone who ever made it on the internet's gotta be constantly connected to their fans all the time 24 hours a day... is insane," he said. "It's unreasonable. Nobody can fucking handle it. Nobody. God. You have no idea how many of my friends are in therapy just because of this job."
Some streamers take a firm stance against sharing personal information with fans. It's a matter of safety, but also calibrating fans' expectations. If your brand is built on empathy and familiarity, it can be challenging to reassess your streaming philosophy after something goes wrong. One fail-safe way is to simply never start confiding.
Kaceytron admits that other streamers are more open about their day-to-day than she is. When she first started streaming, she says, she was going through a hard time in real life, so she set up some fairly rigid boundaries. But as her channel took off, fans demanded more access to her personal life. Some meticulously catalogued her day. She says it felt "invasive". Years later, she still hasn't opened up to fans about most personal matters.
A few months ago, Kaceytron had to file a police report when a fan discovered some of her identifying information. "They just wanted to know who I was, or what I was like in real life," she says.
Fans regularly fall in love -- their words -- with streamers. They can tune in, for several hours a day, to the streamer's most charismatic portrayal of themselves hanging out at home. It's an intimate, familiar zone reflected in a funhouse mirror of mass appeal and endless excitement -- the perfect recipe for a one-sided romance.
Chrissy, a 24-year-old student, has been watching her favourite retro games streamer almost daily for four years. At night, she says she falls asleep listening to his "cool and calm" voice. She and the streamer communicate regularly, talking about everything from cats to exes. "He was just supportive, honestly," Chrissy told me. "Falling for a streamer, it's really weird at first, and after a while, you become so interested and wanting to hang out there all the time."
Michael, a 24-year-old who works for a temp agency, told me he's in love with the streamer Elspeth Eastman. In a pink-backed chair, Eastman streams any and all games with a candid enthusiasm and humour. Michael says her corny jokes wash away his anxiety. "She didn't hide who she was," Michael said. "I wish I could have just one date with her. Play games with her." It's been three years now, and he's had two girlfriends in the interim. Like all passionate Twitch fans I interviewed, Michael cites Eastman's communicativeness as a reason why he fell for her.
"I am 100 per cent not on Twitch to find dates or be anyone's confidant," Elspeth told Kotaku via email. "I am definitely here to provide a laugh or two and a (hopefully) good show."
"There is an understood relationship between the streamer and the viewer," she said. "I encourage friendliness and honesty in my chat, but I'm not a therapist, and even though I want to be supportive, I am not mentally equipped or trained to deal with fans who cross boundaries."
Recently, a few enamoured Twitch fans have written into Kotaku's Dr Nerdlove advice column. One, who signed his letter "Lost and Confused Soul", wrote that, amid some pretty serious depression, he fell in love with a lesser-known female streamer. After he came on a little strong, he noticed that the streamer didn't greet him when he logged on with as much enthusiasm as she had in the past. It devastated him.
Columnist Harris O'Malley did not mince words, calling the writer's actions "creepy" and advising him to see a therapist. "Streaming is as much about the performance as it is about the games they stream, and part of that performance is to be appealing and approachable to their audience. Like a cam-girl, Twitch streamers interact with their audience to help keep them watching," he said.
As with all things, the situation gets much more complicated when money enters the equation. It's not uncommon for streamers to feel like they owe deep-pocketed fans more earnest interactions.
A.G., another streamer, wrote in to O'Malley earlier this year about a fan who donated over $US6000 ($7966) to her stream over the course of several months. She appreciated (and could really use) the money, but not the emotional strings attached. She asked him to stop, but he wouldn't. When he was in her hometown on military business, he asked to meet up. She felt guilty about his donations and agreed. Several times afterwards, he went out of his way to visit.
"He insists that I'm genuine and real," she wrote. "I see he's a lonely nerd whose life experience at 22 is limited to military life and who was crushing hard on the girl he saw on stream."
Early in his streaming career, Ellohime too had a particularly spendy fan who donated in chunks of $US100 ($133), and eventually $US300 ($398). Ellohime accepted the cash, he said, because he believed the fan was simply well-off. One night, the fan asked for his phone number so they could chat. Ellohime gave it to him because he felt that the fan should "get his money's worth".
A rookie mistake, he admitted later. The fan kept calling and calling until Ellohime had to put his foot down. "Hey man, listen, I care about you, but this is getting to be a little much for me," he recalls saying. The fan stopped calling. Ellohime was worried, but gave him space. A year later, he got back in touch with Ellohime, saying that he's sought professional help, and was doing much better: He'd gotten himself into debt, he said, with all those donations.
Ellohime had never heard of Anthony before the night he showed up at his door. Sure, on reflection, maybe the kid had spoken up in chat about once a month. But he was one out of several thousand.
The day after Anthony stalked away from his house, Ellohime agonised over where his fan was and whether he was safe. That night, he got the answer when his brother was letting the dogs into the backyard.
"Hello," Ellohime's brother heard from the shadows. Dashing inside, he banged on his brother's bedroom door. Anthony was camping out behind the house.
Not knowing what to do, Ellohime took to Twitter, describing the heartbreak he felt seeing the kid on his back porch. His followers were less empathetic. Send him home, they said. Call the cops. Soon, a solution presented itself -- ironically, by another anonymous fan with deep pockets. An online stranger said he would donate $US1500 ($1992), the cost of the plane ticket home to Singapore, if Anthony promised to leave first thing in the morning. Eventually, after some tense negotiations, Ellohime convinced Anthony to take the deal.
Ellohime worries a lot less these days about disappointing his mega-fans. And he certainly wouldn't play out a similar incident the same way today. "My go-to protocol now is that I'm gonna straight up call the cops," he said. "I'm not gonna give them a chance or hear their story. I'll call the cops."
"It was reckless," Anthony says today of his behaviour. "At the time, I was really depressed... but I thought maybe he would sympathise." Now 21, Anthony says he's gotten his life back together. He's currently doing the mandatory two-year stint in the military that's required of all adult male Singaporean citizens, so he has more structure in his life. He's less depressed, he says, more stable, and still watches Twitch regularly.
Today, Anthony still believes that, if he got to know some of his favourite streamers in real life, they'd become close. He's just not quite sure how. "Not by showing up without telling them," he says, laughing.
"They are entertainers, but they can be more than that -- friends -- definitely."