So You Want To Be A Streamer


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Streaming video James is quite a craze -- it's all the rage; everyone is doing it, especially now that the new consoles have dropped into the ring, it's so easy to get started. ...but you: you're not just anyone. You've watched some streamers, and thought: I can do that. ...or maybe you're not quite so bold, but still thought on an occasion or two that you'd like to give it a try anyway, maybe just for fun. I was once like you (both of you!)... *sigh*

In the wake of some conversations I had over the weekend, I felt inspired to condense some of my thoughts and experiences as a streamer. As a matter of context, my perspective below is not exhaustive -- it's not even my full opinion (but it was already getting long enough; gotta stop somewhere). Oh, as a note: I also wrote this in second person: as if I'm having a pretty one-sided conversation with you, but not pausing in my speech quite enough to let you get a word in edgewise. To be completely honest though, the conversation does not include you. This "conversation" is really just a letter from my present to my past self, but I'm inviting you to read it too.

Take it from me...

I just get the feeling that you're taking it more seriously than you say you are...

Ok, here's how I see it -- and this is based on first-hand experience, as well as a lot of observation and "investigation" of others doing similar things (perhaps with different starting intentions, but taking it "seriously" all the same). If you truly enjoy video games; meaning, if it is really something you love -- and this can even apply to things beside just games -- don't cheapen it for yourself by transforming it into work. Inevitably, no matter how much you resist or tell yourself you won't fall into the trap, you can, and there's a fair chance you will.

Assuming as much, you will start to think of games in the context of work, because every time you go to play something, you will either change your behavior with that game, or perhaps even whether or not you play a certain game (or any game at all), based on having an audience. Games will become just a thing you'll condition yourself to do in a specific context, delivering the entertainment, that you should be receiving, to others.

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As with anything, no one size fits all -- there's no hard and fast single rule; there is context -- there are exceptions. However, I have to warn you, no matter how your intentions start off, the glamour of getting some attention -- by happenstance, or solicitation -- will likely transform those intentions, and you'll be unlikely to realize it until it has taken shape. To draw an analogy, I liken the experience to having depression; you are genuinely unaware that you are under a malicious influence (in the case of depression: that is the disease). To expand the analogy: generally speaking, when you've considered your perspective on a given matter introspectively, and settled on your ideal attitude or standpoint, you wouldn't see the resemblance between that original intention and the reality of it (in an unbiased comparison). Depression masks your true self; it colors your intentions in a context of hopelessness -- the actual choices you would normally make are replaced or even revoked, and the danger there is that you don't know that it's happening. Obviously, the case of an evolving attitude that comes with the "glamour" of entertaining an audience is not as dangerous or severe as depression (I hope), but the analogy works. You will not notice that you're altering your behavior to be "successful" until a fairly significant transformation has already taken place.

Oh, well I guess you know what you're doing then.

Ok, so you've streamed a few times, and feel like you're not susceptible to this kind of influence, or that you've got a handle on it; it's no big deal, right? Hang on a second. Stop, and honestly evaluate what you're doing for a moment -- think about it: just go back over some past broadcasts and listen to yourself. Is that what your inner-monologue sounds like? It's doubtful to be similar to how you're projecting to an audience while you play. This is already the beginning of a transformation in your behavior and attitude toward games -- a favorite hobby that you genuinely enjoy. At some point, especially if you get lucky and bring in an unexpected number of viewers, you will (probably unconsciously) consider how it could lead to some kind of success if you just put in "a little effort". It's seductive to think that you could gain some notoriety, success, or even some money by playing a video game. It can become quickly and unexpectedly intoxicating.

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I want you to think about what it must be like to be Jeff Gerstmann. I love Jeff; the content this web site produces occupies a significant portion of the time I devote to being entertained; I'm a life-long fan. ...but, consider his situation analytically. Consider he has practically a best-case scenario for feeding a video game habit/hobby-- he doesn't have a wife or family to look after or provide for; that already frees up a significant portion of time. In addition to that, it's his JOB to play games. ...but, look at the quality of the time he gets to spend. Yes, Giant Bomb has some flexibility that other professional game review sites may not: they don't really seem to have a strict content output or review quota or anything like that.

Liken it to binge-watching a full season of your favorite show on Netflix, and later examine how much nuance in the events you can recall.

So, Jeff likely gets a lot of freedom to choose what he's spending his time playing professionally. It was pretty clear that he was excited for the release of Titanfall. He took on the responsibility of treating that game in a professional capacity -- he pumped something like 25-30 hours into it before it was even released. That was compressed into -- what, a week? Every time Jeff reviews a game, it's likely he has to force himself through it and burn out on it in the name of his profession. Continue that practice enough, and it just becomes habit -- even when you don't mean it to. I would expect a person becomes conditioned, to be more apt to rushing, or condensing their experience, instead of taking the time to fully appreciate it and let it sink in. What about games for leisure? Does Jeff internally separate the context anymore? Surely he sits down and plays something casually, on his own time, here and there. ...but, he's not an independent streamer. His full-time job is playing games. He has the luxury to separate the context, assuming he's still able. You may not. You, with your limited time and experience, will have to sacrifice your hobby into a task.

Really, think about this in your context. You are not a professional gamer -- you don't have a plethora of time to throw away trying to balance video games as both a hobby and pursue it as a means to success, or personal gain (while also maintaining the rest of your lifestyle and livelihood). Even if you did, I maintain that you can't truly separate the two – games as a hobby vs. games as a task. To me, it feels a lot like the saying, "It's not personal; it's business." That’s easy to say when you're not on the receiving end, but for the person affected, it tends to feel pretty personal. You may start out streaming casually as you've convinced yourself, but will you truly be able to limit it to that, or will your favorite hobby be unknowingly exploited by the very person that loves it the most: you. How long before you've turned a passion into chore? Will you be able to just relax and play a game by yourself without thinking about how to "#monetize" it?

What is it like trying to entertain others?

  • It's really quite thankless. If you gain some random, anonymous viewers, they are not nearly as invested in what you're doing as you think/hope they are (I assure you); certainly nowhere near as invested as YOU are. At the end of the day, any "loyalty" you think you've earned is pretty fleeting. It's easy to "move on" on the Internet -- there are already a LOT of other people doing pretty much the same thing you are – and those among them that are already well-established.

  • You are being judged at all times, sometimes silently, sometimes quite aggressively, sometimes positively, sometimes negatively -- usually all of the above, in aggregate, by any given person. Even a fan won't like or appreciate everything you do, and won't consider all the time, planning, and effort that you've put into making them happy. The inherent shield of anonymity of the Internet really encourages the worst in some people, as you're no doubt aware from the observations you've made when witnessing it happen to others... but have you been the target before? Are you hardened enough to let any criticism, meaningful or insignificant, true or false, roll off your back? You may think so, but I assure you that you're not prepared – how will you react? You'll tell yourself that you can handle it. Maybe you can... for awhile, but even if you don't realize it, it will have an impact, and that impact will require an outlet sooner or later, whether that's tangible, or is suppressed as stress; it’s up to fate*. (*I don't believe in voodoo or magic, and certainly not fate or destiny, but the meaning is understood.)

  • The competition is fierce. Twitch is saturated with streamers, especially in the wake of the console streams that have cluttered the list of any given channel browser. There is not a high enough viewer population to go around -- if you get noticed at all, you're likely to see people just diving in and out of your channel as they immediately size you up as unworthy of their precious time and move on.

  • Even if you eventually "earn" a follow from a viewer, unless you're streaming on a very consistent schedule, and for long stretches, the chance that you'll see them again is pretty low. Given time differences, lack of overlap in schedules, and interest in what you're doing, the odds are heavily against you. Unless you're doing the very thing they want to see -- especially if they followed you because of a certain game -- they might duck in and out pretty quickly, and even rescind that kind follow you thought you'd earned.

  • Even in my case, where I had close to 200 followers at one point, I'd see maybe one or two viewers show up at a given time, while the rest were random strangers ducking in and out. Yeah, you'll get the occasional fan/supporter that will linger on your channel regardless, but it's rare that they're actually devoting their full attention to you either. What’s more likely is that they're listening to you in the background, or maybe even just idling in your chat room (with you on mute, while scoping out other streams, or playing a game, watching a movie, doing homework, etc.). This multitasking behavior is a lot more common than you might think.

  • The bar to entry is not low. Setting up a quality stream is not easy, or cheap. It takes a lot of planning, time, probably some money, and a bit of know-how. Are people going to watch your stream if they're having a hard time understanding you because your audio/mic quality is poor? What if your computer struggles to run a game smoothly -- you're dropping frames because your machine or Internet connection can't keep up -- assuming you've even properly configured everything -- people probably aren't going to watch that, and it's unrealistic to expect a second chance from most people. How about if you're just another console stream, with the same dull overlay, mediocre microphone and tiny webcam in the corner that every other console streamer has? Then, what really sets you apart from the thousands of other people doing the same thing you are? At first, the commodities will; no matter how good your voice or personality is (ironically, the thing that truly sets you apart), people probably won't stick around and put up with a poor production if your tech isn’t up to the task.

  • So, what are you going to do and say? Are you going to read on-screen text to your viewers? What is your playstyle even like? Do you just skip all the story and cutscenes? What if your viewers' preferences don't align? Are you going to make up dumb character voices and act out every scene of dialog? (Please don't do this, by the way.) What about when you're starting out and NOBODY is watching? Are you going to still pretend like you have an audience, or will you suddenly turn on the charm the moment a viewer arrives? Will you interact with your audience, or ignore them and play? Will you be able to multitask your attention to coddle an audience while also playing a game with some reasonable level of skill so your viewers don't get bored? Are you going to be so interactive that it takes you 45 minutes just to decide on the name of your character because you've granted too much agency to your audience and the consensus is chaos? (Yeah, I've witnessed this exact thing.) What's the focus? What makes you special? Why should someone watch you play a video game? What if you run out of things to say? Insecurities like this will run through your mind; it can poison your attitude, and the self worth you need to be projecting to the very audience that instilled that fear.

  • What about all of the logistics? Are you going to make some shitty artwork for the transition scenes in your stream? (Say you have the art skills needed to make something good -- so, how much time are you going to spend on this now? ...and why?) When you need to AFK quick, are you going to just idle your game, and walk away without leaving some message on the screen? If a new viewer pops in, hears nothing, and sees an idle screen, they were gone before you even noticed them join. What about music? Copyrighted music is rampant on livestreams -- the average person doesn't really seem to know or care a whole lot about the law, and many hide behind ambiguous and unclear justifications of "fair use". YouTube is already cracking down on this ("content ID match") -- Twitch isn't far behind getting a lot whole more aggressive about it either. So, are you going to have music on your stream, or just rely on your charm and good looks? Are you going to use a web cam? This fact alone is a pivotal preference to many viewers -- they want to see you. Many times, people are looking for a new friend, or someone they can identify with. Is that you? Your appearance is often their first impression. Do you have the humility to take on unfair criticism over how you sound, look, and the quality of your character all while trying to produce entertainment for an audience? Don't forget the thousands of other streams who are already doing it better than you are.

  • How long can you reasonably maintain this? What, you're going to quit your job and become a full-time streamer? Cut your benefits -- health/life insurance, HSA, 401K, PTO, etc. -- and hire an accountant to make sure you're legally reporting all of your taxable earnings appropriately? What if you want to write-off taxed expenses? Do you need a small business license? Say you even do gain enough fame and concurrent viewers to become "partnered" with Twitch, and earn that Subscription button: how long did that take you? A year or two of streaming every day for hours on end... ? Cool, so now you're taking a ~50% cut of your followers' subscription fees (Twitch takes at least half), assuming they keep forking over the $5/month. You probably have the option to run some ads too. Cool, so all those supportive viewers get to sit through advertisements too now, so you can earn a few extra pennies. Now the pressure is really on. Think you can handle 12-16 hour days of "playing video games for a living"? Yeah, this is getting pretty extreme, but the point is: what is your endgame? Are you really just out to stream for a little fun? Are you sure?

Okay, then why bother?

Credit: Floatharr |
Credit: Floatharr |

In contrast, it's not all bad -- ironic, I know, given the message so far. I realize the tone has been pretty discriminatory. I'm not here to crush any dreams, just to deliver a bit of reality coupled with some first-hand observations... and the truth is: it's really hard. It takes a LOT of hard work and time just to get going (far more than you'd expect), and even then there are no guarantees. From there, it's a lot of luck. Even if you adopt a strategy similar to someone like LethalFrag, who essentially entered into a contract of heavy self-discipline when he got started, vowing to stream every single day for at least two hours, that's only a strategy: it's not a recipe for success, and is in no way representative of an expected outcome. (LethalFrag is a fascinating case study, by the way, one which I recommend taking a look at.)

...but, really: there's good that can come out of it if you can just keep a little perspective, and accept it not as a means to an end, but as another method of entertainment for YOURSELF. If you are not the one having the most fun -- if you are catering just to your viewers -- I think you're just susceptible to all of the potential fallout I've already described (and then some); I'd even go so far as to say you're approaching it all wrong.

First and foremost: if you're just occasionally looking to make some of your personal game time a little more social (in the form of chatting up a random stranger or two; perhaps you’re lonely – I don’t know you!), and don't want to get into some kind of competitive multiplayer thing (or lack a consistent friend for some cooperative games or something), this can be an interesting alternative experience. Like I said though, it's very easy to get caught-up in the moment of trying to entertain [potential] viewers over having your own fun -- always be mindful of this. If you're going to do it, treat it as a weird social experiment or something and don't hesitate to cut the cord if your fun factor drops.

Inevitably, if you stream often enough, or long enough, viewers will start putting demands on you -- they'll make suggestions to play other games, or do things you wouldn't normally do. Do not give in to any kind of pressure to adapt to their needs. Like I said earlier, if there is something specific a viewer wants to see, it's almost certain someone is already streaming that, and they can simply go find it. You don't need to fabricate loyalty to a stranger on the Internet and sacrifice the value of your entertainment for their benefit. If you fall into the trap of trying to appease anyone, you'll inherently try to appease everyone, and nobody will be happy (especially you). If you’re not being yourself, then you’re being someone else, and chances are that person is already a more successful streamer than you are. Besides, viewers will know if you’re having fun – it’s infectious. If you’re not having fun, they sure as hell won’t be either. Do what you want to do; no more and no less.

"Viewers will know if you're having fun -- it's infectious."

I feel like I could go on and on, but this is already approaching excessive length in contrast to just how interesting this topic is. So, why make this amount of effort stating a colorful opinion on something so seemingly insignificant in the first place? ...because I submit that life is about sharing experiences with those you respect; ideally leading them astray of your own mistakes, and delivering the benefit of your experience. At the same time, life is foremost about experiences, so I'm not exactly mandating anything here, but perhaps the voice of my experience will echo enough to positively improve your own outcome, should you choose to experiment.

Either way, good luck! ...and remember: the time you spend with games should be for you.