In May last year, Kevin Conquest — who goes by the alias Yuber online — added a video to YouTube. It was shot quickly on a phone, in the middle of the night, and was simply titled “What streaming on Twitch has done to my life”.
“This is where my life has taken me. Alone, no girlfriend, no friends, nothing … because I devoted so much time to streaming … and staying in the house playing video games,” he says, as the camera pans around a cluttered room.
Online video game streaming is a relatively new phenomenon, and it’s big business. On Twitch, the Amazon-owned streaming site, more than 15 million people tune in via the internet every day to watch charismatic people play video games.
There’s real money to be made, and stories of wild success. Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, who plays Fortnite while a huge audience watches online, claims to make more than half a million US dollars per month.
But reality can be far less glamorous. Many aspiring streamers put in long hours at the expense of their health, real jobs and relationships.
So what happens to all the streamers who don’t make it? What are the costs? And, when it isn’t working out, why do some streamers find it so hard to quit?
Chasing the streaming dream
For Kevin, a 27-year-old now living in Los Angeles, streaming seemed almost too good be true: he loved video games, and it meant he could be paid to play.
Like most streamers, he started playing for fun about four years ago. After he left the army, he started streaming role-playing games like World of Warcraft between his jobs in fast food and retail.
Like YouTubers and Instagram influencers, streamers make money through advertising. But they also get paid through monthly subscription fees and “tips” — small donations from fans for encouragement or congratulation.
Besides the money on offer, Kevin was attracted to the social aspect of streaming. He looked forward to the interaction with his viewers in Twitch’s chat rooms.
“I was home-schooled my whole life, and didn’t have many friends, so to see all the people interacting … on the stream, that was very intriguing at the time,” he says.
About three years after he started streaming, Kevin lost a job at a start-up delivery company. He decided to give full-time streaming a shot, and began treating it like a job.
Four months later, alone, jobless and with his savings gone, Kevin was ready to give up.
“What hurts … [is that] you might have 100 viewers one day, and the next there’s just a few. It’s an up and down battle,” he says.
As things started to fall apart, Kevin became depressed. It was during this time he got his face tattooed. There’s a red love heart, a video game controller, and a “Yuber” above his right eyebrow. Needless to say, it’s the first thing you notice when you look at him.
“I only got the face tattoos because I was going through a major depression. Things weren’t working for me. I didn’t go to college … I didn’t have anything to fall back on,” he says.
“I look back at myself when I was going through that stuff. There’s some pictures and videos [and] I almost cry, because I remember how stressed out I was.”
The streamer who spent 24 hours in virtual reality
In the make-or-break world of streaming, the surest path to success is going viral. Sometimes, it happens through chance, but many up and coming streamers will try anything.
Darcy Slater is a streamer from Brisbane with 36,000 YouTube subscribers, which is enough to make some money, but not enough to support himself.
To market himself, Darcy has organised giveaways and tournaments. In one of his earliest streams, as a gimmick, he had the idea to stream while wearing a virtual reality headset for 24 hours straight.
“I had the headset on, and food and water set up around me, and just stayed in it. I eventually want to do a longer one, like two days in VR, maybe somewhere down the track.”
Darcy enjoys streaming, but it takes a lot of work, and he doesn’t make much money. But he’s also had a taste of success: in one month, he had two videos that had more than 2 million views.
But, as often happens, a week later, things were back to normal, and the new viewers were nowhere to be seen.
“There’s so many tiny streamers who think they can make a living. But they don’t understand how much work is involved,” he says.
“If you are doing it for money, you have to keep doing it. People need to realise that it’s a big commitment and you have to really push yourself to make your way through.”
When more is never enough
Because the best way to increase your audience is to be online, many streamers are reluctant to take breaks. It didn’t matter how successful his videos were or how many hours he was putting in, Darcy always had a feeling that he should be streaming more.
Sally Gainsbury, associate professor at the University of Sydney’s School of Psychology, says the rewards attached to streaming can lead to addictive behaviour, much like problem gambling.
“We know that when people start to develop addictive tendencies, it begins with positive experiences,” she says.
“When you first start in gaming, or getting followers, you get this dopamine hit, which is a rush of positive sensations that you have from doing something and being successful. [You’re getting] external rewards, but also internal rewards — this sense of satisfaction.
“That’s driving streamers to engage more and more to try to increase that sense of satisfaction, but there’s actually a levelling effect.”
But is the technology itself to blame? It’s not that simple, Dr Gainsbury says.
“It’s not to say that there aren’t real problems … [but] we should learn how to engage in these technologies healthily, to remain emotionally detached, to make sure we’ve got a balance in our life so individuals are responsible for their own behaviour.”
Riding the wave
For those lucky enough to have a moment in the spotlight, success can happen quickly. For Kevin, it happened in a funny way.
When the video he made about quitting streaming went viral, he started streaming again off the back of his newfound celebrity. This time around, he’s focusing on “IRL” (in real life) streams instead of playing games, and it’s paying the bills.
“I thought, after four years, I’d give it one last shot. I tried it, went back to it again, and it worked out. It was crazy. I was very shocked,” he says.
“If that video didn’t go viral, I don’t know where I’d be right now.”
Kevin’s IRL streams focus on the bizarre and the salacious. He regularly interviews adult dancers, and in one video online, Kevin and other streamers are filmed getting into a fight while walking amongst the Hollywood Walk of Fame’s stars on Hollywood Boulevard.
Kevin’s teeth are knocked out, and he shows the camera his bloodied gums.
While it’s not work that everyone would enjoy and it isn’t without its issues, Kevin’s happy. But it’s not easy. These days, he gives himself breaks from time to time, but otherwise he’s almost always online.
“I always have to be checking Twitter and [chat service] Discord. It’s a 24-7 thing. It’s a job and it’s also a lifestyle,” he says.
And his advice for those hoping for success? “Don’t take it too seriously.”
The ABC contacted Amazon, Twitch’s parent company, for comment, but did not receive a response.