Game streaming stars
Rick Lane investigates how people all over the world are earning a living from broadcasting themselves playing games online
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 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.
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.’
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.’
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.’
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