It is June 2018, and I am sitting at a table in a needlessly fancy restaurant in LA with a bunch of teenagers. Well, some of them must be over 21 as they are able to order alcohol, but most are sticking to Coke or sparkling water with their overpriced steaks. These are some of the up-and-coming stars of Twitch, the livestreaming platform that now broadcasts about 2bn hours per month from more than 9m channels, most of which involve people filming themselves and chatting while playing video games. Later, there will be a lavish party in a similarly extravagant club, where the streamers with the most views and subscribers will be treated like celebrities in the VIP area.
And, well, they are celebrities. They have millions of followers. They are stopped in the street or at airports by people wanting a selfie and an autograph. Unlike pro gamers, whose job is to be good enough at video games to win tournaments, a streamer’s job is to be entertaining enough – while playing anything from first person shooters to racing games – to win fans. Back in 2018, streaming was already a huge deal; now, bolstered by the pandemic and an ever-growing audience that boosted Twitch’s viewership by 70% in 2020, it is even bigger. To draw a comparison that makes me feel about 4,000 years old, they are their generation’s rock stars.
Unlike rock stars, however, streamers are not really known for hard partying. Talking to the people around that table, I was instead astonished – and, honestly, worried – by how hard they worked. The woman sitting next to me told me that she streams for eight to 10 hours every day, and when she wasn’t live she was curating her social media, responding to fans, scouting for brand partnerships or collaborations with other streamers; throughout our conversation she was visibly resisting the impulse to check her phone, where new stats and fan comments and potential opportunities were presumably stacking up. I asked what she does for fun and she seemed genuinely confused by the question.
Playing video games for an audience for a living sounds like fun – and hell, there are many worse jobs out there – but it is also an ultra-competitive profession that attracts millions of aspiring kids with limitless energy and absolutely no concept of work-life balance. It involves extreme hours and intense pressure to be constantly available to the audience of viewers on whom they depend. And according to recently leaked Twitch data, the top 1% of streamers on its platform received more than half of the $889m (£660m) it