The new.TV: Making a living as a video game streamer


This could be the future of television.

Twitch.TV is a live video streaming platform where anyone with a camera and an idea can start a channel and start streaming about anything. Seriously, anything–from cooking shows to a University of Utah professor’s accordion practice.

What really drives people to Twitch, however, is live video game streaming. It’s even given rise to a new profession: the video game streamer.

While getting started as a video game streamer is relatively simple, getting “gud?” It’s a grind.

There’s a huge gap between someone who’s just getting started and a streamer who’s racking in thousands of dollars per stream. And the hard part isn’t over once a streamer “makes it.” The lifestyle of a pro streamer is demanding, and the job comes with unique challenges and dangers.

Lis Caper started streaming as a way to interact with people online who liked the same video games she did. She said she found playing alone on her Xbox isolating, but while streaming, “we can talk about it and be fans of it together,” said Caper.

It’s another key feature that separates Twitch from conventional live television: viewers can interact with streamers in real-time during the stream through chat.

Caper said it’s not just about watching someone with a personality, “we’ve had reality TV forever, but a personality you can actually talk to back and forth, and interact with and build a connection with.”

Caper’s channel did not take off immediately. According to her, “I didn’t see anybody for a while. I would be streaming to zero.”

So when someone did come across one of her streams and start talking about the game she was playing, it was a big deal. “If I’m playing, for example, an old Tomb Raider game and they’re like, ‘oh, I remember this puzzle!’ That was always so much fun.”

“After several months it just exploded.” Caper was able to make streaming video games her full-time job.

“It’s like drinking from a firehose.”

Twitch has exploded since its inception as well.

“It’s not a huge secret anymore,” said Caper. Although, she said she still meets some people who tell her they have no idea what a Twitch streamer is.

What those people might not realize, more than 2 million streamers are broadcasting their content, live, every month on Twitch.TV, and as many as 15 million people are watching every day. Those are the numbers reported by Twitch. Sites like twitchtracker.com reported as many as 4 million monthly streamers.

For many of those streamers, what Caper had was a dream come true: the ability to support herself financially by streaming video games online. It was her fulltime job.

“It’s like drinking from a firehose,” said Caper. “I don’t think anyone can fully appreciate just how time-consuming content creation is.”

There was a lot for her to manage outside of the streamed content itself, “making overlays and uploading stuff to youtube, generating social media content, monetizing your youtube channel, all your branding, and sponsorships.”

As frustrating as it might be, none of that was or is any guarantee of a successful stream. “You have to be in the right place at the right time,” admitted Caper. “And there are certain factors you have no control over.”

One of those factors: viewer volatility. A streamer might be on top one month and lose thousands of subscribers the next.

Caper admitted, “You’re kind of at the people’s mercy.”

“Every hour I spend away from my stream is money that is lost, and that can really feel like a lot of pressure.”

Twitch uses an affiliate program to allow streamers to monetize their channels. The requirements for streamers to apply:

At least 500 total minutes broadcast in the last 30 daysAt least 7 unique broadcast days in the last 30 daysAn average of 3 concurrent viewers or more over the last 30 daysAt least 50 Followers

Twitch affiliates can apply to become partners, which offers more ways to monetize and has more amorphous requirements concerning concurrent viewers, cultivating a community, and consistent streaming.

The number of Twitch affiliates likely hovers around 150,000. There are only 27,000 Twitch partners.

Those streamers rely on subscriber numbers and high engagement to make money on each stream.

Twitch gives users with Amazon Prime memberships one free subscription every month. So, if a streamer isn’t putting out content consistently, users will take their free subscription to a different channel. Any drop off in streaming can mean a dip in subscribers.

That’s why streamers often find they are giving more of themselves to maintain their followings. Caper said streamers are often afraid to take any time off. “What if you want to go to Yosemite for a week? You feel like you can’t. Every hour I spend away from my stream is money that is lost, and that can really feel like a lot of pressure. ”

For a professional streamer, there’s no safety net and no benefits. Caper said she would never recommend someone drop everything to stream full-time without a backup.

Caper also detailed possible health problems associated with stress, sitting at a computer for hours on end, streaming for 24+ hours straight and poor dietary habits of many streamers.

The irony is, Caper explained, devoting that much time to your stream can actually hurt your chances. “If it is that all the time, every day, and you never give yourself a break. your content will suffer. You have to have moments of breathing room.”

It’s also important to maintain a life outside of streaming. “Your personhood is not defined by you as a streamer. It is common to define ourselves by the profession that we have and by the accomplishments,” said Caper. “How successful you are or how many followers you have is not going to determine the worth you have.”

“I get to go online and connect with people, and sometimes I make money doing it.”

Caper had beat the odds with her channel, but the high visibility and endless engagement necessary for a successful stream come with other risks.

“Part of our selling point is that people get to know us,” said Caper, and part of that accessibility also means, “whether you are creating content or commenting on someone’s content, nothing is private anymore.”

And with a chat built into every stream, criticism, trolling, and harassment are inevitable. “It’s not an if question. It’s a when question,” said Caper, and that behavior can escalate to online stalking.

Everything compounded, what starts out as a dream come true can become a nightmare.

“To be good at something takes a lot of work, but that doesn’t mean you do that at the expense of your health,” explained Caper. “Those are the moments it’s okay to step away.”

Eventually, that was what Caper had to do herself–step away.

She shut down all of her social media accounts as well and anything tied to her old channel. She signed off, packed up, and went to grad school.

“When I did that, I thought I wasn’t ever going to go back to Twitch or any other platform,” said Caper. She finished grad school. She’s a teacher and a writer.

But years later, armed with the lessons she learned the first time around, Caper did go back, starting a new channel on Twitch. It’s called TheWriteGame, where she combines her skills as a gamer and writer to analyze video game narratives.

To anyone looking to stream, Caper advised, “protect your private information. There are personal details that people don’t need to know online.”

As far as dealing with harassment in the future, “I don’t think the internet community has figured out the best way to handle those situations,” she said. “It comes with the gig. Hopefully, one day it won’t.”

She said online platforms like twitch could be doing more to protect their creators, and creators have a responsibility as well. “What you say does influence people. You do have a responsibility to the people who choose to engage with you and develop relationships with you.” 

In the end, it’s those relationships that make it all worth it.

“I get to go online and connect with people, and sometimes I make money doing it. It’s great.”

You can find Lis Caper on her Twitch.TV channel: twitch.tv/thewritegame

The Entertainment Arts & Engineering school at the University of Utah is offering its first class on Twitch.

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