Game stream­ing stars

Rick Lane in­ves­ti­gates how peo­ple all over the world are earn­ing a liv­ing from broad­cast­ing them­selves play­ing games on­line

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Rick Lane in­ves­ti­gates how peo­ple all over the world are earn­ing a liv­ing from broad­cast­ing them­selves play­ing games on­line, thanks to Twitch.

Kate Stark was a bar­tender when she de­cided she wanted to turn her love of games into a liv­ing. For over a decade, she had been in­volved with the char­ity fundrais­ing or­gan­i­sa­tion Desert Bus for Hope. Cre­ated by the com­edy troupe Load­ingReadyRun, Desert Bus for Hope in­volves play­ing marathon ses­sions of the game Desert Bus, of­ten re­garded as the dullest video game ever made.

It was through Desert Bus for Hope that Stark be­came ac­quainted with Twitch, the so­cial me­dia plat­form that en­ables users to stream live video of them­selves to a world­wide au­di­ence. ‘I found this in­cred­i­ble com­mu­nity of kind, car­ing and com­pas­sion­ate peo­ple,’ Stark says, ‘so I de­cided af­ter many years of do­ing this, and hav­ing friends and fam­ily stream­ing as well, that I would start up my own chan­nel for fun.’

In Jan­uary 2016, Stark ran her first ever stream. ‘ It was a com­plete dis­as­ter,’ she says. ‘I broad­cast my au­dio and I couldn’t hear the game au­dio, but the au­di­ence could hear the game au­dio and some­times not my au­dio, be­cause I didn’t un­der­stand the pro­gram yet. I played Border­lands 2 and I couldn’t hear a damn thing that was hap­pen­ing, but for some rea­son peo­ple came back.’

What’s more, peo­ple kept com­ing back. Al­most ev­ery night Stark streamed for sev­eral hours af­ter re­turn­ing from her night shift at the bar,play­ing games such as Over­watch. Soon she be­gan re­ceiv­ing do­na­tions from her view­ers, and the money en­abled her to start shav­ing off bar shifts from her sched­ule. By Septem­ber 2016, she de­cided to quit her job and have a go at stream­ing full-time. ‘It got to the point where I

re­alised I was just wast­ing my time bar­tend­ing,’ she says. ‘I was much hap­pier stream­ing; I was mak­ing more money, I was cre­atively ful­filled. I felt like any time I was bar­tend­ing, not only was I not en­joy­ing it, but I was ac­tively tak­ing time away from me be­ing at home.’

In De­cem­ber last year, Stark was ac­cepted for a Twitch part­ner­ship, the Holy Grail for any­one who wants to stream games pro­fes­sion­ally.

Now she’s a full-time streamer, with al­most 6,000 fol­low­ers on her Twitch chan­nel, and 150,000 life­time views .‘I’m sched­uled to do this for five days a week, but I gen­er­ally do it for six or seven days a week be­cause I like it so much.’

Stark is one of a grow­ing num­ber of young men and women who have taken to Twitch to earn a liv­ing and make a name for them­selves. There’s a vast and hun­gry au­di­ence of in­di­vid­u­als on­line who love to watch other peo­ple play games, and stream­ers such as Stark cater di­rectly to those view­ers.

As of Fe­bru­ary 2017, Twitch re­ceived over 100 mil­lion monthly unique users watch­ing over two mil­lion monthly broad­cast­ers – 17,000 of these broad­cast­ers are ‘part­nered’ chan­nels, of which Stark is one.

TWITCH’S ORI­GINS

Twitch was founded in 2011 as a spinoff web­site from Justin. tv. Orig­i­nally a site on which Justin Kan broad­cast his own life, in 2007 Justin. tv re­launched as a net­work where any­one could es­tab­lish their own ‘chan­nel’ and broad­cast (or ‘stream’) what­ever video they wanted on­line.

Af­ter the re­launch, the founders of Justin.tv dis­cov­ered that the site was par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar with gamers, who would stream videos of them­selves play­ing games. In fact, game stream­ing be­came so pop­u­lar that the com­pany launched a ded­i­cated gam­ing site called Twitch. Over the next three years, Twitch’s user base ex­ploded, and in 2014, the com­pany was ac­quired by Ama­zon and re­branded as Twitch.tv, shut­ting down Justin.tv and fo­cus­ing en­tirely on the gam­ing side.

Now, we’re fa­mil­iar with peo­ple find­ing fame and for­tune play­ing games – it’s been a phe­nom­e­non on YouTube for at least half a decade. But Twitch is dif­fer­ent from YouTube in lots of ways, and these dif­fer­ences are see­ing young game en­thu­si­asts flock­ing to Twitch, with many pre­fer­ring it as their way of cre­at­ing and shar­ing ideas about games over and above Google’s video plat­form.

The key dif­fer­ence be­tween Twitch and YouTube is that Twitch is all about live broad­cast­ing, which makes it im­me­di­ately more ap­peal­ing as a cre­ative plat­form in sev­eral ways. Twitch doesn’t re­quire its users to learn video edit­ing or even think about struc­ture to cre­ate a video that peo­ple will watch. ‘If you’re mak­ing a YouTube video, I find that you need to have at least an over­ar­ch­ing story or theme for your video,’Stark says. With Twitch, on the other hand, you just need a cam­era, a PC pow­er­ful enough to run the stream and an idea you want to show peo­ple.

Twitch is all about in­ter­act­ing di­rectly with your au­di­ence. View­ers

come to Twitch not only to watch some­one else play games, but also to chat with the streamer, and con­verse with like-minded in­di­vid­u­als who are watch­ing the stream. ‘ I treat stream­ing like hang­ing out with some­body you get along with,’ says Stark. ‘The stream­ers that I tend to grav­i­tate to­wards are ones that are ei­ther just crazy-good at game­play, or ones that I think are friendly, per­son­able or that I just en­joy.’

Find­ing your au­di­ence

How­ever, the fact that Twitch is live and game-cen­tric doesn’t mean ev­ery streamer is us­ing it the same way. Far from it, in fact. There’s a wide va­ri­ety of stream­ers, all of whom have dif­fer­ent skills and in­ter­ests. Stark con­sid­ers her­self a ‘va­ri­ety caster’ – some­one who streams what­ever they’re in­ter­ested in play­ing at the time, and view­ers come specif­i­cally to watch them play the game. How­ever, other view­ers want to watch spe­cific games be played by peo­ple who ex­cel at play­ing them, and there are stream­ers who cater for that as well.

Mark Purdy, known on­line as Valkia, is a UK-based streamer who spe­cialises in Over­watch. For­merly em­ployed by the hard­ware re­tailer Over­clock­ers UK, Purdy worked with var­i­ous stream­ers, han­dling spon­sor­ship and part­ner­ship deals with them. ‘I was just look­ing at all these peo­ple and all these big­ger stream­ers and ask­ing why I couldn’t do that my­self, so I de­cided that one day I would just give it my best and get into stream­ing.’

Like Kate Stark, Purdy started off as a va­ri­ety caster, but found his viewer base stopped grow­ing af­ter a cer­tain point. ‘It’s a much harder way of grow­ing a com­mu­nity,’ says Purdy. ‘There are peo­ple who want to watch just the game, and as soon as you switch to an­other game, they go off and watch some­one else play­ing the orig­i­nal game you were play­ing.’ As a re­sult, Purdy de­cided to change tac­tics and spe­cialise. The game he se­lected is Over­watch, Bliz­zard’s char­ac­ter­ful mul­ti­player shooter, and one of Twitch’s most-watched games.

‘I just wanted a com­pet­i­tive game I could sink my teeth back into, and I felt I’d en­joy,’ Purdy ex­plains. ‘Within the game there are the dif­fer­ent he­roes. One of them re­minded me of when I played Quake with the rocket launcher and I loved that. It be­came my niche to play that hero and get very good with that hero, and peo­ple caught on.’ Af­ter spe­cial­is­ing in Over­watch ,Purdy saw a mas­sive boost in his view­er­ship, from 50-100 view­ers of his va­ri­ety cast­ing, to 800-1,300 view­ers per Over­watch stream.

Go­ing pro

Un­like Stark, who got into stream­ing as a ca­sual, cre­ative hobby and pur­sued it as a ca­reer when it proved

lu­cra­tive, Purdy in­tended to stream pro­fes­sion­ally from the start. Prior to Over­watch’s launch, he es­tab­lished a plan of ac­tion to find a niche for him­self be­fore any­one else once the game came out. Along­side his Twitch stream, Purdy started mak­ing YouTube videos tu­tor­ing how to play as Pharah (Over­watch’s Quake-like hero). Purdy’s idea was to make high­qual­ity, in­for­ma­tive YouTube videos on Pharah, and then his view­ers on YouTube would be at­tracted to his Twitch chan­nel.

‘If you teach some­body some­thing, then you’re likely to gain subs or view­ers,’ he says. ‘ I have 64,000 sub­scribers now on YouTube.’

Although Purdy finds YouTube a use­ful tool to boost his Twitch stream, it’s very much a sec­ondary out­let for him. ‘YouTube is, like, ten years old, right? It’s very sat­u­rated; had its day,’ he says.‘ There’s more op­por­tu­nity on Twitch. I could go out and buy a bill­board and pro­mote my chan­nel on there, and I would be the first per­son on Twitch in the en­tire world to do that.’

What’s more, Twitch has a very dif­fer­ent ap­proach to work­ing with its stream­ers, par­tic­u­larly Twitch part­ners. The main ad­van­tage of a part­ner­ship is that it en­ables the streamer to run a sub­scrip­tion ser­vice to their chan­nel, where view­ers can pay a monthly fee to gain cer­tain bonus fea­tures, such as cus­tom emotes to use in chat, bet­ter broad­cast qual­ity and the abil­ity to cir­cum­vent ad­verts (at the streamer’s dis­cre­tion). But Twitch also tends to work closely with its part­ners, of­ten deal­ing with them on an in­di­vid­ual ba­sis to of­fer pro­mo­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties or even work to­gether on ideas.

‘I have a per­sonal re­la­tion­ship with Twitch,’ says Purdy. ‘The way I see it, com­pared with YouTube, is that Twitch is a com­pany you can ap­proach – there are rep­re­sen­ta­tives who in­vite you to shows … There are peo­ple who can make a de­ci­sion on a lo­cal scale, or on a global scale.’

In­deed, Purdy reck­ons he’s in reg­u­lar con­tact with 15-20 Twitch em­ploy­ees, and of­ten works with them di­rectly on events such as MacMil­lan Can­cer Sup­port Game He­roes, an an­nual char­ity event which brings to­gether many high- pro­file stream­ers to play. By com­par­i­son, Purdy’s re­la­tion­ship with YouTube is dif­fer­ent. ‘I don’t have any con­tact with YouTube. I just up­load videos, I do have ad rev­enue, but it’s not amaz­ing.’

Mod­er­a­tion

As well as work­ing proac­tively with many of its part­ners, Twitch also takes pains to ad­dress any of their is­sues. Like any so­cial me­dia plat­form, for ex­am­ple, one of the main prob­lems Twitch en­coun­ters is on­line abuse and ha­rass­ment, par­tic­u­larly of women and eth­nic mi­nori­ties. ‘Some­times you get trolls click­ing on your stream and then say­ing in­cred­i­bly sex­ist things to­wards you,’ Kate Stark says. ‘I’ve come up with ways to deal with it – work­ing as a fe­male bar­tender, you get your rap­port and lit­tle quips down when peo­ple treat you badly, so it was kind of a lesser ver­sion of that, al­most.’

Overall, Stark doesn’t be­lieve that Twitch is any more or less safe than other so­cial me­dia sites in terms of avoid­ing such abuse. How­ever, she does be­lieve that Twitch is mak­ing a con­certed ef­fort to com­bat it. ‘I think Twitch is do­ing a re­ally good job of try­ing to make it safer – it’s in­tro­duced au­to­mod, so if cer­tain words come up in your chat, it just auto-picks the mes­sage and lets one of your mod­er­a­tors ap­prove or dis­ap­prove it.’

Fur­ther­more, Twitch also pro­vides a list of words that stream­ers are al­lowed to ban in chat, and pro­motes events such as in­clu­siv­ity day, which is fo­cused on women, trans­gen­der and eth­nic mi­nor­ity stream­ers. ‘It’s not where they need to be, but it’s a step to­wards that, and as one of the mi­nor­ity fe­male stream­ers on Twitch, that delights me,’ Stark says.

Be­yond game stream­ing

Stream­ing is now an in­dus­try in its own right, but you don’t need to be a full-time or pro­fes­sional streamer to en­joy it or even be­come suc­cess­ful through it. Dy­lan Beck is a New Zealand-based game de­vel­oper who streams three evenings a week un­der the alias Rudeism. How­ever, Beck isn’t a typ­i­cal streamer. In­stead of play­ing games the tra­di­tional way, he de­signs his own bizarre con­trollers out of house­hold ob­jects, and streams him­self play­ing with them.

This cu­ri­ous style of stream­ing evolved out of Beck’s stu­dent days, when he spent a lot of time play­ing Gui­tar Hero. ‘I was ba­si­cally the guy who, if there was a party that had

Gui­tar Hero there, I would make that party not fun,’ Beck says.

‘I was play­ing Rocket League one day, and a good friend of mine with whom I went to school and was in my Twitch chat, said, “You should try play­ing Rocket League with a Gui­tar Hero con­troller, Hur hur hur.”

‘And I just started think­ing about it out loud. I thought: “If I had to do it, I’d use the whammy bar for mov­ing, the strum bar for turn­ing and the but­tons on the neck. I could do this, that and the other, and then by the end of the stream I had an ac­tual plan for it.”’

Beck gave it a try the fol­low­ing night, and man­aged to score an aerial goal (one of the hard­est tricks in Rocket League) with the Gui­tar Hero con­troller. ‘I went to bed that night, feel­ing very proud of my­self. I woke in the morn­ing and checked Red­dit, as I nor­mally do. I saw a link at the top of my Red­dit, say­ing, “Guy gets an aerial with a gui­tar con­troller.”’

Beck re­alised that peo­ple en­joyed see­ing games played with un­con­ven­tional con­trol schemes, and be­gan to try other odd com­bi­na­tions. He played Coun­terStrike with the gui­tar con­troller, and even got to level 100 in World of War­craft us­ing a dance mat.

‘Even­tu­ally, it got to the point where I was build­ing my own con­trollers with cir­cuitry, wires and ran­dom crap I found ly­ing around the place.’ Beck’s own de­signs make his pre­vi­ous game/ con­troller mashups look un­am­bi­tious by com­par­i­son.

They range from play­ing Over­watch us­ing a rocking horse to move and a NERF gun to fire, to play­ing Civ VI with six sieves. In one stream, he wired to­gether around a dozen ba­nanas and used them to play as Over­watch’s apechar­ac­ter Win­ston.

It may sound silly, but a fair amount of in­ge­nu­ity goes into mak­ing the con­trollers work. Most of Beck’s con­trollers are con­structed us­ing a Makey Makey cir­cuit-board, nor­mally used to teach chil­dren elec­tron­ics, to which he con­nects the ob­jects us­ing alligator clips. Fig­ur­ing out how to make the game in ques­tion playable us­ing his cus­tom con­trollers of­ten re­quires care­ful nav­i­ga­tion. ‘Makey Makey only has a cer­tain amount of in­puts I can use – I think it has a max­i­mum of 18, so I have to try to boil down a game to ide­ally 12 in­puts, but in the worst case, I can ex­pand it to 18.’ Aim­ing in first-per­son games is also

an is­sue, be­cause Makey Makey repli­cates mouse move­ments in a bi­nary fash­ion. ‘It’s like us­ing WASD to aim, and that sucks. It’s hor­ri­ble.’

Beck’s con­trollers lend his stream a unique ap­peal, but it goes be­yond the nov­elty fac­tor. As Beck’s de­signs are highly unusual and ad hoc, he of­ten doesn’t know how well a con­troller will func­tion, or whether it will work at all. ‘I think peo­ple en­joy see­ing things mess up ev­ery now and then, as long as it doesn’t go for too long, be­cause even­tu­ally it has to work – it’s the kind of en­ter­tain­ment that just oc­curs nat­u­rally.’

On the flip side, there are mo­ments when Beck pulls off an im­pos­si­ble-seem­ing move with his con­trollers, which can make an en­tire stream worth­while. ‘I built a con­troller out of a NERF bow, and I played Hanzo (Over­watch’s no­to­ri­ous bow-wield­ing char­ac­ter). I got one clip where I man­aged to get a dou­ble-kill – ‘ bang head­shot, bang head­shot’ – two con­sec­u­tive shots in a row. I was grab­bing the string of the bow pulling back and let­ting go to fire. It was the full move­ment … those two kills were the only two kills I got out of 20 hours of game­play, but that’s the kind of video that does the rounds.’

With over 30,000 fol­low­ers on his chan­nel, Beck is un­doubt­edly a pop­u­lar streamer. How­ever, while he be­lieves he could go full-time if he wanted, it’s ul­ti­mately just a hobby for him. ‘I think if I put in the hours of a full-time streamer, I think I could def­i­nitely get there,’ he says. ‘I’ve en­ter­tained the thought be­fore, but I en­joy my job too much.’

Hard­ware needs

The point, though, is that any­one can get in­volved in Twitch, and there’s no limit on what may or may not lead to suc­cess. But if you were to give it a go, what kind of equip­ment would you need to get started?

‘A good CPU,’ says Mark Purdy. ‘You need a pro­ces­sor that’s good enough to en­code at what­ever res­o­lu­tion you’re up­load­ing. So, for ex­am­ple, I en­code at 720p, 60fps, but I also need my CPU to be good enough to play the game at the same time.’ To be spe­cific, Purdy runs a 6-core In­tel Core i7-6850K CPU. A pow­er­ful GPU can help to im­prove stream­ing ef­fi­ciency as well, as well as mak­ing the game look good, but a good multi-core CPU is the es­sen­tial part of the mix. A good broad­band con­nec­tion is also im­por­tant – Purdy sug­gests an up­load speed of at least 3Mb/sec.

Kate Stark, mean­while, points out that PC hard­ware isn’t the only im­por­tant con­sid­er­a­tion when stream­ing. ‘It’s in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant to have good light­ing. You can have good sound and a good cam­era, but if you have crap light­ing your en­tire stream is just go­ing to look like trash,’ she says. ‘I have two LED panel lights that have dif­fer­ent colour set­tings on them, so you can set dif­fer­ent warmths and in­ten­si­ties – they sit at 45-de­gree an­gles on my face to pro­vide a good, even fill-light.’

Com­fort too, is im­por­tant, as many pro­fes­sional stream­ers will stream for any­where be­tween two and eight hours at a time. ‘Get a good chair, and set your mon­i­tor at a height that means you’re not look­ing down at it, be­cause that can re­ally goof up your neck and your back,’ Stark says. ‘And get your­self a proper head­set. I use the SteelSeries Arc­tis 5. It has a spe­cial elas­tic head­band, so the top of the head­set isn’t dig­ging into your head.’

The fu­ture

There’s one other point to con­sider when get­ting into Twitch stream­ing, which is that Twitch is cur­rently in an­other process of meta­mor­pho­sis. Although the plat­form was de­signed purely with gam­ing in mind, it’s no longer just about video games.

‘It’s started to branch out again – you’ve now got peo­ple do­ing cre­ative stuff, cook­ing, just sit­ting talk­ing to peo­ple, play­ing board games and all these other ideas,’says Dy­lan Beck.‘It’s just start­ing to blow up. You’ve got Mr Rogers be­ing streamed – ev­ery sin­gle episode of it – you can just jump in and watch kids’ TV from the 1960s with 5,000 peo­ple. It’s great. I love it.’

Kate Stark is now a full-time streamer, with 150,000 views

Mark Purdy de­cided to spe­cialise in Over­watch, rather than stream­ing a va­ri­ety of games

Stark con­sid­ers her­self a ‘va­ri­ety­caster’ – some­one who streams what­ever they’re in­ter­ested in play­ing at the time

Mark Purdy in­tended to stream pro­fes­sion­ally from the start

Beck’s early ex­per­i­ments in­volved us­ing a Gui­tar Hero con­troller in other games

Beck even got to level 100 in World of War­craft us­ing a dance mat

Most of Beck’s con­trollers are con­structed us­ing a Makey Makey cir­cuit­board, nor­mally used to teach chil­dren elec­tron­ics

You’ll need good light­ing, a comfy chair and a de­cent head­set, ad­vises Kate Stark

Ev­ery episode of Mr Rogers is cur­rently be­ing streamed in a bizarre Twitch marathon

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