I love those New Yorker pieces that open up a niche slice of society. Strange, teeming subcultures that operate under the surface for most of us. Earlier this year, there was Rachel Monroe’s fascinating article on #vanlife, about people with social media followings and lucrative sponsorships who live out of vans, albeit glamorously photographed ones.
This time, the focus is Twitch. It’s a platform where gamers stream their gameplay so that anyone can watch. And when there’s a captive audience, there’s money to be made. The article’s writer, Taylor Clark, peers over the shoulder of a man who started a company solely focused on managing Twitch talent. He’s making a boatload of money.
(An aside. This article has special interest for me because — full disclosure — I play video games. Not at the Twitch level, which I hadn’t heard of, but I have a second TV the sole purpose for which is my Xbox One. It sits on the floor of my bedroom. Unusual for a female in her 30s, but I highly recommend it as a stress reliever. Shooting zombies is very cathartic.)
Clark’s article is peppered with the sorts of characters that make Twitch-world even more bizarre than its premise. There’s Kongphan, the former soap opera actor who broadcasts every night from early evening to 4 a.m. After his gaming star skyrocketed he hired his older sister as his personal assistant, and she makes more than double what she made at an insurance company. And there’s Twitch’s spokesman, who for some reason goes only by the unimoniker Chase and makes the case that streaming Twitch is no different from watching the Food Network. “People enjoy watching others who are good at what they do.”
When a gamer, or “streamer,” makes it, they make it big. Some Twitch stars earn seven figures.
Cassell now has four full-time employees, along with a squad of contractors: artists, coders, sound technicians. The graphics on his channel, from the splashy title sequence to the customized overlays for each game, wouldn’t be out of place on cable television. Paid moderators scrub any toxicity from his chat window. While he streams, he monitors a variety of applications so that every decision is optimized.
What’s the appeal of Twitch? Why are these streamers able to draw so many viewers, making them celebrities who demand $50,000 appearance fees? Like any good slice-of-society piece, the article doesn’t just report, it reflects.
In the end, despite all its high-tech trappings, Twitch may be fueled by something simple: The need for connection.
Gaming began, decades ago, as a social experience, in arcades and on living-room sofas. But as games have become more lushly immersive and complex—often designed to reward thousands of hours of play—they have in many ways become more isolating, encouraging solitude and, for some gamers, loneliness. Twitch has succeeded because it made gaming feel communal again. As Chase, Twitch’s spokesman, told me, “We’re essentially a social network for the gaming age.”
Read it: Taylor Clark, How to Get Rich Playing Video Games Online, The New Yorker (Nov. 20, 2017)
[Image via Vice.]