Chapter 8
Work to Play and Play to Work: Game Streaming and Streamers

The image of a “gamer” as a lone figure, often relegated to the basement or otherwise out of sight of proper society, was never quite correct. Aside from the exhaustive lengths we're going to throughout this book to illustrate a much broader demographic for gaming than most would suspect, sharing gaming experiences with friends or family has always been woven into the practice of playing video games. From arcades to living room couches, watching a game unfold for the pleasure of the viewing experience (even when divorced from a potential competitive element) is a central component to gaming.

In a similar vein to how those more familiar with traditional media should not have been surprised by the rise of esports, given the inherent competitive fields built into gaming, so goes the concept of internet streaming of games. What we are experiencing is a natural media consumption behavior (watching someone game) elevated to the level of media through network effects across the consumer internet. Regardless, internet streaming as a phenomenon has befuddled many in the traditional media world. Whether it be someone playing a video game, talking about a video game, or even giving an opinion on various types of breakfast cereals, the reaction is usually one of incredulous awe and a statement of “someone wants to watch that?”

In a word: Yup. The simple fact is folks like to play games, but they also like watching games … particularly when it's convenient to do so. An estimated 9 billion hours of livestreaming video game content was watched in just Q2 of 2021 (excluding China), a number that has over doubled in just two years.1 An oft‐cited maxim at technology companies is that data wins arguments, and this data seems to say that the miscalibration isn't bizarre preferences among a niche group of individuals, so much as a misunderstanding of what can be considered entertaining video content to legions of fans. The broader industry has considered video gaming and branches such as video game streamers as bizarre out of an ongoing and long‐held misunderstanding and miscalibration of consumer taste rather than a phenomenon that developed overnight.

As such, like so many parts of the overall discussion around the video game ecosystem, livestreaming is a unique window into broader shifts that are happening in popular culture through the lens of technological innovation. Even as services such as Netflix are disrupting the popular media landscape for more traditional TV viewership behaviors, streaming is redefining expectations around broadcast entertainment into a mold that is inherently more attuned to participator media consumption.2 The parallels between other participator factors in the video game industry, such as game modding, should not go unnoticed.

The phenomenon of streaming is often conflated with esports, and I recognize there is risk in including an overview of both phenomena in the same section of the book. While both formats entail the same basic behaviors (a platform through which someone watches a video game being played), and the worlds of game streaming and esports are often interwoven as reciprocal business or marketing strategies, the structure and format of the viewing experience are quite unique. This leads to different motivations for the viewing and performance experience, which we'll illustrate below. In addition, a number of competitive gaming scenes (occasionally considered “esports” but often not) have flourished on streaming platforms, along with the phenomenon of “variety/personality” game streamers.

The discussion of streamers also highlights one of the more fundamental tensions in the world of professionalized video game performances (whether within the context of structured competition or not): the uncomfortable tension arising from making a leisure activity work. In the broader timeline of media formats, livestreaming is still in its infancy, yet promises challenges and opportunities in near‐equal proportions.

Smash That Subscribe Button: Streamer Types and Motivations

Video game content on streaming platforms comes in many forms, and is one of the most popular streaming categories in terms of hours due in part to some factors we outlined above: video gaming in general is pervasive, and coming across content related to gaming is quite scarce outside of specific portals such as streaming platforms. While we have previously addressed streaming platforms only in light of how they created an effective and well‐fit medium for esports, much of the gaming content on streaming platforms such as Twitch or YouTube Gaming is not strictly esports‐related.

Streaming services allow for private play to become public entertainment as a networked broadcast.3 A streamer does not necessarily have to be a direct participant in the esports industry (e.g., a part of a team, professional player) or even all that good at video games to be successful; they must merely be entertaining to a large enough group of people to be successful. It's useful to think of video game streamers in two (and occasionally overlapping) groups: those who stream on the basis of skill and those who stream on the basis of personality.

Skill‐based streamers are exactly what you might expect—streamers who draw in viewers based upon a special level of skill or acumen within a game (occasionally with deep specialization, though some streamers run across a multitude of titles). This is often the category that esports pros fall into, though it is not to say streamers of this type lack personality that keeps viewers engaged; it's simply not the principal draw. For example, Seth “Scump” Abner is a professional Call of Duty player who participates in professional Call of Duty esports at a high level, complete with personal endorsement deals.4 If you're watching Scump, it's almost certainly not by chance—it's because of his notoriety within Call of Duty and your likely interest in both learning more about how to play the game and seeing it done at a professional level (one of the key motivations for watching streaming in general, which we'll address momentarily). While it certainly helps that he is a compelling personality who often weaves humor and trash talk throughout broadcasts to keep viewers engaged, the biggest draw for Scump and similar streamers are their level of skill in gaming.

Unlike more traditional sports, the level of access to pros that platforms provide for fans is unique, and adds to the affective value of esports among dedicated fans. Not all the content is likely to be high‐level play; much of it comes in the form of practice and experimentation. At times tedious or even error prone (though failure can be entertaining in its own right), this allows for a unique purview among fans into part of what it takes to be the best. For the pros, streaming services and cultivating a fandom via streaming provides a potential exit strategy for those wishing to retire from the competitive scene. Though esports requires a different type of physical prowess from traditional sports, physical ability matters in the form of reaction time, eyesight, and potential repetitive‐use injuries around wrists or hands. Like any kind of competition at a high level, there is also an immense mental toll.5 Historically, one of the few directly‐applicable routes to transfer skills among esports pros was professional poker, and the emergence of streaming services allows for professionals to continue to monetize their hard‐earned skills in games in a more direct way.

Skill‐based streamers also extend to areas of competitive video gaming that are popular yet not generally considered esports in the traditional sense. One of the best examples is the concept of “speedrunning.” The act of speedrunning is exceeding simple—individuals compete to complete a game or objective in a game, within a certain set of pre‐determined parameters, as quickly as possible. With roots in the early 1990s via fans of titles like DOOM and Quake, various speedrunning categories and records exist across thousands of games today6 (inclusive of titles that by design might take upwards of 40–100 hours to complete). The modern speedrunning community at times employs a dizzying (and amusing) array of technical glitches combined with precision execution to clear objectives in astounding times—even heating up game consoles on a hot plate to trigger specific glitches (seriously).7 The mix of skill, humor, and convention‐breaking competition allows for ostensibly any game to be competitive, and serve as a cultural touch point for gaming fans more generally.8 Organizations like “Games Done Quick” which organize speedrunning marathons, have raised over $31 million since 2010.9

Conversely, personality‐based streamers are those that draw crowds based primarily on being what is essentially a one‐person (typically, though occasionally more) variety show. Often featuring game play prominently, the point isn't necessarily to view individuals who are at the top of their literal and proverbial game, but rather have amassed a following based more on how they connect with audiences. The most famous example is undoubtedly Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg, who rose to fame streaming Minecraft but has since crafted a streaming empire earning millions of dollars across a variety of different topics.10 Similar to the discussion of skill‐based players, this is not to say that personality‐based streamers are not skilled at the games they showcase (though some occasionally bank on their uneven skills in an endearing way), but rather rely on their capability to entertain more generally through the game play performance.

An example of someone on the higher end of the skill bracket who still likely nonetheless fits more in the personality bucket is perhaps the only video game “celebrity” that you, your (potential) children, and grandmother could all recognize by name: Tyler “Ninja” Blevins. Originally a professional Halo player, Blevins rose to near‐rockstar fame on the crest of Fortnite streaming at the height of its popularity, and gained wide notoriety by smashing the audience record (by over 50 percent) on Twitch by streaming with rapper Drake.11 While Blevins is exceedingly skilled at the games he plays, much of his appeal comes from the family‐friendly nature of his stream and charismatic commentary throughout.12

Because issues of representation are problematic in competitive gaming, this phenomenon is semi‐reflected in the make‐up of game streamers. Though female and minority game fans regularly run into similar problems related to harassment, the relative lack of barriers around these platforms has allowed for a more diverse community of personality and skill‐based streamers than what is reflected through more “official” esports channels or tournaments. This is not to say that streaming platforms are more of a safe haven for those who don't conform to the “traditional gamer” demographic—in recent months Twitch has been under pressure to clamp down on “hate raids,” where streams largely hosted by women or minorities are deluged with slurs.13 Despite the occasionally inhospitable conditions, streamers such as Maria “ChicaLive” Lopez and Rumay “itsHAFU” Wang have accumulated millions of followers based on their prowess in games ranging from first‐person shooters to collectible card games, respectively. The most followed female account on Twitch is among the most followed on the platform in general at well over 8 million followers—Imane “pokimane” Anys (who, as we will discuss in the subsequent chapter, is now in the business of easing barriers around connecting businesses to streaming content creators).

In all cases, it's important to note that the entertainment provided by the streams is typically through the medium of games, but it is the streamers themselves that are the “main act,” so to speak. In some cases, this is advantageous—content creators, including but not limited to larger esports or gaming organizations outside of publishers, can be at the whims of game publishers. Games may suddenly have support withdrawn or changed in a fundamental way that impacts the overall dynamics around game play. Streamers can often successfully navigate from game to game, not entirely unlike esports or gaming orgs that have professionals across multiple titles in part to “diversify” their talent bench (to an extent—if a streamer is particularly well known for game play around a specific title, it can be jarring to their community to switch). It is the affinity for a given personality that keeps subscribers or followers engaged, potentially across a wide variety of IP. Though streamers tend to focus on specific genres, like all UGC, there is an inherent variability in content that can and should be expected, either by fans or potential partners.

Between these two broad types of streamers and innumerable types of content produced, a number of potential entertainment needs can be satiated. T. L. Taylor, an MIT scholar who studies a variety of topics in new media ranging from gaming to online streaming, outlines six motivations behind viewership:14

  1. Aspirational: Those looking to become better game players through any number of potential definitions, though often the default motivation for viewers new to streaming.
  2. Educational: Aspirational usually matures to educational. If you want to be the best, you'll want to learn from the best—watching esports pros or other highly skilled streamers provides tangible benefits to the game play of individuals in addition to their own potential streaming performances.
  3. Inspirational: Those that are deep into a given game fandom (be it a specific title, genre, or otherwise) will seek to watch others who share their level of fandom. As noted, the outlets for gaming content to be consumed are often relatively limited, so game streamers occupy a large overall share of potential content within some fandoms.
  4. Entertainment: Generally the principal draw to any stream is the pleasure of watching it. Though skill and personality‐based streamers may have different styles through which they will entertain an audience, in either case they are producing content that is entertaining by tapping one of the other potential motivations.
  5. Community: Initially the biggest innovation of Twitch relative to incumbent rival YouTube, streaming services incorporate increasingly sophisticated functionality for viewers to communicate with the host of the stream and one another. In‐jokes, memes, and other cultural artifacts can be regularly viewed within the chats of popular streamers.
  6. Ambiance: Have you ever flipped on the TV to have some “noise” in the background, even if you aren't really viewing the show? Same deal—for many individuals (particularly younger generations), streaming services act in the same media use‐case as linear TV (often as a whole‐cloth replacement). As such, sometimes folks just want something on “in the background” even if they are not directly engaged.

An ongoing refrain throughout this book is to understand the motivations not just of the end‐user, but the producer of gaming content. Similar to streaming viewers, streaming creators have a multitude of different reasons and motivations for sharing their forays into gaming in a public space. Taylor15 similarly identifies key motivations (aside from potential revenue) for individuals who stream:

  • Social connections: Streaming is a two‐way street as it pertains to community. As much as viewers are looking for camaraderie from the streaming personality and other viewers, the inverse is true for the content‐creator. One may go so far as to even note that strong connectivity with their fandom is a prerequisite for a successful streamer.
  • Transforming the play experience: Some folks like to have an audience, and some activities are well suited to one. Even among more causal streamers, some of the initial needs that streaming satisfies is a deeper play experience through potentially sharing it with like‐minded others.
  • Creativity and performance: The livestream is a versatile pallet for any number of creative endeavors, including things like “stage presence” or even the craft of on‐screen graphics. Streamers often operate as single‐person businesses of sorts (even those that don't monetize in a serious way), making the experience and act of stage‐craft for their stream its own reward.
  • Professional aspirations: Many streamers start through influence from other streamers with the aspiration of cultivating and growing fandoms of their own, complete with potential financial rewards.
  • Professional expectations: As noted throughout, streaming services serve a key role in the world of esports not simply for the purposes of official tournament broadcast, but as promotional and content creation mechanisms for professional esports organizations. Many esports pros have minimum streaming hours built into their contract as part of their official duties for the organization, ostensibly to construct a robust content series.

Streamers and streaming services thus fulfill a multitude of needs within the overall media ecosystem of increasingly networked generations of consumers, with gaming being a central form of content in this ecosystem. Like all the forms of gaming discussed throughout this book, streaming is a highly affective medium through the occasionally deep personal connections that can form between a streamer and the audience. This level of affect raises potential risks for both the audience and streamer.

The most notable risk among any user‐generated content, but in particular content that is created and largely hinges on the personality of a given person, is that it is created by and promotes a person … and people occasionally do things that are questionable. The world of professional streamers, even those at the apex of the craft, have been subject to any number of controversies. “PewDiePie” Kjellberg, noted above as an exemplar of personality‐based streamers, is unfortunately also an exemplar of problematic streaming personalities. Kjellberg has been routinely accused of anti‐Semitic behaviors and symbols, notably via a bombshell investigation by the Wall Street Journal.16 Streaming mega‐star Hershel “Dr. DisRespect” Beaham IV took his always‐on persona a bit too far by livestreaming in the bathroom of landmark video game industry event E3,17 among a more recent and (at the time of publication) permanent ban from Twitch for reasons unknown. Streamers are human, and humans make mistakes or otherwise exhibit behaviors we don't endorse—this presents a risk to both fans and businesses when there are rifts between the values of the streaming personality and the individual or brand.

For the streamers, though often far from the streets of Hollywood, it is possible to attain a certain level of fame—when viewers and followers on various streaming platforms or social media reach the millions, this is an inevitability. Like any type of celebrity, this comes at a cost—stories of unhealthy fixation on streamers from fans are common, in addition to a threat that is somewhat unique to streaming and sadly present from nearly the onset of the development of streaming platforms: “swatting.” Justin.tv, the progenitor of Twitch, was tested by founder Justin Kan by essentially livestreaming the entirety of his life. This ranged from the mundane (eating lunch) to the highly questionable (going on a date). Viewers soon found that they could “prank” Kan by reporting a police emergency, a phenomenon later dubbed as swatting, and led to the San Francisco police bursting into his apartment and demanding an explanation from Kan (hands in the air)—all live and for the world to see.18 The risk of swatting has become an unfortunately and potentially deadly reality for streamers, where often the most popular streamers have had to reach out to local police departments to establish a working relationship in order to prevent the police from responding to bad‐faith calls for help.

On a more practical basis, the “business” of streaming is one where content creators are the producer, set‐creator, accountant, scheduler, and talent all wrapped into one. This does, of course, speak to one of the key advantages to streaming services—there are low barriers of entry to get started, often only requiring minimal set‐up with regard to specialized software like OBS Studio. However, stream set‐ups can become as involved as incorporating sophisticated cameras and microphones, dedicated computers to run streaming and/or chat software, multiple monitors to assess the product, specialized lighting and props, and so on. While one of the key motivations for streamers often includes the technical and artistic challenges of producing this content, it also represents a potential area of strain, particularly when coupled with real or imagined pressures to keep up with a set “schedule” for streaming.

The net result is that even if a given streamer starts a journey from a more basic desire to enhance their play experience, there remains a fundamental tension between when “play” becomes “work,” as motivations and needs between the “play” state of mind increasingly conflate with the “work” state of mind. Streamers, like esports professionals, have play “contaminated” by reality, obligation, and professionalism, thereby almost certainly altering their relationship to gaming and (potentially) the root cause of bad behaviors or burnout.19

Watch This Space: Conclusions and Implications

As we'll discuss in subsequent chapters around implications for brand integrations, there are a multitude of potential opportunities within streaming platforms beyond “traditional” ad buys, including working directly with streaming personalities in a framework similar to digital influencer marketing. Various platforms have differing mechanisms through which a streamer can interact with their audience and vice versa (via commercial means and otherwise), though the broad pattern for outside parties is that the streamers themselves can carry massive brands that resonate with wide swathes of the gaming fandom.

The type of entertainment these personalities provide ranges from displays of skill to de facto variety shows (or somewhere in between) via the medium of game play, which triggers a number of potential motivations for fans, often with deep affective connections. Understanding the relative motivations of the streaming personalities themselves also allows for a more productive and beneficial dialogue between potential partners—as we've continued to see, exchanges of value, understanding, and displays of authenticity are the bedrock for effective integrations. With all highly affective marketing channels, a deeper level of understanding allows for potential missteps that could amount to a lack of authenticity at best, and to exploitation at worst.

While streaming services offer a number of categories and content types beyond gaming, ranging from the absurd (Jack Dire regularly streams … a jar of peanut butter) to the provocative (such as the controversial world of hot tub streaming20), the foundation of gaming content provides a multitude of benefits within the gaming ecosystem—revenue streams for gaming content creators (inclusive of esports organizations), communities for fandoms across any number of games, effective and creative marketing opportunities for games, and so on. Though any type of personality‐driven marketing (be it influencer, streaming, or the combination of the two) carries potential risks, the payoff is a flexible and creative palette to reach often‐elusive audiences en masse.

Notes

  1. 1. Sara Lebow, “Global Time Spent Watching Livestreaming Video Game Content Has Nearly Doubled Since Q1 2020,” eMarketer Insider Intelligence, September 21, 2021, https://www.emarketer.com/content/time-spent-watching-livestreaming-video-game-content-worldwide.
  2. 2. T. L. Taylor, Watch Me Play: Twitch and the Rise of Game Live Streaming (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018), 33.
  3. 3. Ibid., 22.
  4. 4. Kevin Hitt, “Seth ‘Scump’ Abner Signed by Oakley as Its First Professional Esports Athlete,” Esports Observer, March 2, 2021, https://archive.esportsobserver.com/scump-oakley-partnership.
  5. 5. Chris Baraniuk, “They Dreamed of Esports Glory: Then Their Bodies Broke Down,” Wired, October 27, 2010, https://www.wired.co.uk/article/esports-injuries-mental-health.
  6. 6. William Collis, The Book of Esports (New York: Rosetta Books, 2020), 140.
  7. 7. Ian Walker, “Dragon Quest Speedrunners Are Roasting Their Classic Consoles to Trigger Glitches: Japanese Speedrunners Say Don't Worry, the Consoles Are Fine,” Kotaku, December 28, 2020, https://kotaku.com/dragon-quest-speedrunners-are-roasting-their-classic-co-1845958614.
  8. 8. Erica Lenti, “Why Do Gamers Like Speedrunning So Much Anyway?” Wired, July 10, 2021, https://www.wired.com/story/why-gamers-love-speedrunning.
  9. 9. Alex Miller, “The Games Done Quick Marathon Is More Important than Ever,” Wired, July 2, 2021, https://www.wired.com/story/games-done-quick-gdq-more-important-than-ever.
  10. 10. Paige Leskin, “The Career of PewDiePie, the Controversial 30-Year-Old Video Creator Who Just Returned to YouTube After a 30-Day Hiatus,” Business Insider, updated March 5, 2021, https://www.businessinsider.com/pewdiepie-youtube-felix-kjellberg-life-career-controvery-2019-9.
  11. 11. Lisa Respers France, “Drake and Ninja's ‘Fortnite’ Battle Sets a New Twitch Record,” CNN, updated March 15, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/15/entertainment/drake-ninja-fortnite-twitch-battle/index.html.
  12. 12. David Marchese, “Teenagers Made Ninja a Gaming Superstar: He Has a Message for Parents,” New York Times, January 24, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/01/25/magazine/ninja-interview.html.
  13. 13. Ari Notis, “Twitch Streamers Are Boycotting the Site for a Day to Protest Hate Raids,” Kotaku, August 23, 2021, https://kotaku.com/twitch-streamers-are-boycotting-the-site-for-a-day-to-p-1847538808.
  14. 14. Taylor, Watch Me Play, 40–41.
  15. 15. Ibid., 70–71.
  16. 16. Rolfe Winkler, Jack Nicas, and Ben Fritz, “Disney Severs Ties with YouTube Star PewDiePie After Anti-Semitic Posts,” Wall Street Journal, updated February 14, 2017, https://www.wsj.com/articles/disney-severs-ties-with-youtube-star-pewdiepie-after-anti-semitic-posts-1487034533.
  17. 17. Austen Goslin, “Dr. Disrespect Was Banned from E3 for Streaming Inside a Bathroom,” Polygon, June 12, 2019, https://www.polygon.com/2019/6/12/18662901/dr-disrespect-banned-e3-twitch-bathroom-stream.
  18. 18. Roland Li, Good Luck Have Fun: The Rise of eSports (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2016), 86.
  19. 19. Roger Caillois, Man, Play, and Games, trans. Meyer Barash (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001).
  20. 20. Oscar Gonzalez, “Twitch Hot Tub Streams Explained: Bikinis, Otters, and Controversies,” CNet, May 27, 2021, https://www.cnet.com/news/twitch-hot-tub-streams-explained-bikinis-otters-and-controversy.
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