Play it your way: how Twitch lets disabled gamers earn a living online

Simon Parkin - - Games | Technology | The Guardian

In the summer of 2014, Mackenzie had just started working two minimum-wage jobs in Colorado when she suffered a major epileptic seizure at home, one that left her reeling and disoriented. She was home alone and, following the attack, too bewildered and drowsy to know to call in sick. The infraction was enough to earn Mackenzie, who was 22 at the time, a so-called “no call, no show” blot on her record from each employer – a restaurant, where she worked tables, and a gym. While both companies knew about Mackenzie’s history of severe seizures, this was, they said, grounds for dismissal. She was told not to return to work. “I’m in the process of fighting it,” she tells me. “But both companies have a lot of money … ”
Mackenzie’s seizures are so severe – she was featured earlier this year on MTV’s True Life: I Have Epilepsy – that she is unable to drive (or climb, or swim, or wield a knife, among many other things). Neither will she take the bus to work because, if she suffers a fit on board, well-meaning members of the public inevitably call for an ambulance to take her to the hospital – a costly trip in the US. Indeed, Mackenzie’s medical debts currently total more than $30,000. Jobs that are walking distance from her home are hard to find, and harder still to hold down.
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Around the time she was dismissed, Mackenzie had started watching, the online video streaming service on which you can log in to watch so-called “streamers” present live TV broadcasts. She’d heard that some of these presenters, who usually played video games on air, were popular enough that they were able to earn a living from their broadcasts. Moreover, many of these streamers were unable to work other jobs. There was NoHandsKen , a quadriplegic streamer who is dependent on a ventilator to breathe; Brolylegs , who, despite having no arms, is an expert player of Street Fighter, a game that requires immense dexterity (he describes himself as the “best Chun-Li with no hands”); DHHGamers , which stands for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Gamers, a Twitch community for hearing-impaired gamers who stream and play a variety of online games; and a slew of others. Sensing a problem-solving opportunity, Mackenzie set up an account. Rather than trying to disguise her illness, she instead decided to advertise it via the droll handle Mackenseize .
NoHandsKen plays World of Warcraft In 2014, Amazon bought Twitch for $970m, a seemingly ludicrous amount for a website whose value and appeal might appear, to non-viewers, nebulous and ill-defined. In fact, the pitch is simple: Twitch is a service on which anyone is able to broadcast anything live online, from a live concert to a poetry recital. Broadcasters each have their own channel, and viewers follow their favourite presenters, like radio listeners who track their preferred DJs as they move from station to station. Viewers can channel-hop, leave live comments on what they’re watching, and even donate money to support the broadcasters they enjoy. Twitch is arguably the most democratic broadcasting television service yet devised, even if its subject matter is currently narrow. (Programmes on Twitch’s precursor,, were general interest, but its popularity was immediately surpassed by that of Twitch , which launched as a video game-focused spinoff in June 2011.)
Unlike, for example, YouTube , the videos are not recorded for posterity (though some do end up there). Like live television, the moment passes and is lost. Log on to watch your favourite broadcaster while they are offline and you’ll be greeted with a blank page. This is appointment-viewing, as evidenced by the fact that, as well as individual broadcasters, Twitch also hosts live events, especially increasingly popular eSports tournaments, in which professional video game players compete for growing prize pots. In March, more than a million viewers logged in to watch the Extreme Masters World Championship in Katowice, Poland – the record for the number of concurrent viewers watching a single channel on Twitch to date.
Brolylegs plays Street Fighter IV Twitch’s inscrutability derives from two factors. The audience is predominantly teenage, and the material they watch predominantly footage of people playing and talking about video games. Nevertheless, the numbers involved are extraordinary. A data survey in April 2014 found that Twitch had a 43% share of all live-streaming web traffic in the US. In the same year the site began to attract an average of 100 million unique viewers per month . Viewers watch for an average of 106 minutes per day – which adds up to many billions of minutes watched on Twitch per month. Video games are no longer our species’ ultimate time-waster; that dubious accolade goes, instead, to watching other people play video games.
On a wet Thursday morning, Mackenzie sits at her computer wearing a grey hoody and a pair of bulky headphones, with one can slipped off the ear. Her webcam is positioned flatteringly above one of the two computer screens in front of her. She ping-pongs her head between the two screens, one of which displays the match she’s currently playing over the internet – a competitive card game called Hearthstone – and the other the Twitch chat log, where her viewers leave comments on what she is doing.
Mackenseize having an epileptic seizure during a gaming stream “Eight, nine, 10 … he’s coming up to 11 health and we have eight damage,” she says, leaning in to the monitor at the climax of a match. “So if we get a dark bomb … actually, we can Boom? No, we can’t Boom Hellfire. That’s fine.”
The conversation, which is arcane to anyone who is not versed in the complexities of Hearthstone, appears to be one-way. Mackenzie’s is the only voice we hear, but she routinely responds to questions that her viewers pose in chat, turning the stream into a dialogue – “kenz, whats your favorite vanilla-flavored ice cream flavor?” asks one viewer.
Later, the conversation turns to epilepsy. “I started smoking two years before I had any seizures,” she reports. Another viewer suggests that weed can be useful in controlling epilepsy.
“At first I didn’t know what to do,” Mackenzie tells me, of her Twitch debut. She watched other streamers, studied their techniques and the things they talked to their viewers about while playing their chosen game – usually tips and techniques about what they were doing in the game, mixed in with more general talk about their lives. “If I enjoyed sitting in a particular stream, I’d copy what they did.” It was a steep learning curve. “I knew that this wasn’t going to go anywhere if I only streamed for a few hours each day, or only every other day,” she says. “I had an opportunity, and I wasn’t going to waste it. Almost from the start I was doing 60 hours a week. I’d wake up, get dressed and showered, then start streaming from 11am through to 11pm every single day.”
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The hard work paid off. At first, Mackenzie would have a few dozen players entering her stream. A year later, that figure averages around 350. Mackenzie now has more than 27,000 followers, who are notified every time she starts a broadcast. She is also able to earn a living from this newly minted vocation. “Because I knew I wanted this to become my job, I installed a donation button right from the off.” This allowed viewers to donate money to Mackenzie in one-off payments, but the income was naturally uneven. “One month someone would donate a crazy amount of money,” she recalls. “Then the next month I’d only make $400. The first few months it was random, but I was still making more money than I had made on minimum-wage jobs to which I had to walk or catch the bus.”
After six months, Mackenzie was invited to join Twitch’s partnership programme , which allowed her to add paid subscriptions to her channel. Around 11,000 of Twitch’s 1.5 million streamers are partners. It costs viewers $4.99 per month to subscribe to a channel; half of this goes to Twitch, and the rest goes to the streamer. While Mackenzie’s income is still uneven, it has steadied now, and she has even been able to pay off some of her medical bills.
The reasons for Twitch’s success can be difficult to unpick. Undoubtedly, it’s the latest triumph to rise from the recent seismic shifts in broadcasting. During the past five years, the rise of so-called “casters” has made internet stars of numerous young YouTube and Twitch broadcasters. The 24-year-old Swede Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg has more than 28 million subscribers to his channel, an audience that rivals that of America’s slick-haired talkshow hosts. PewDiePie reportedly earned $7.2m in 2014. The stars of these services share some of the attributes that propelled TV stars to fame in decades past: they are likable, watchable, humorous or insightful – even if they are, usually, laser-focused on a particular niche.
PewDiePie plays Grand Theft Auto V The site’s success is also down to the interactive relationship between streamer and viewer. “The reason why Twitch is so sticky is because it is not just people watching video games; it’s a social video experience,” explains Chase, who helped launch the service in 2011. “The broadcasters are talking to the viewers and the people in chat are interacting with the broadcasters and each other; it is a very dynamic conversation.” Stacey Rebecca , a Twitch streamer from Croydon who suffers from postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome – chronic back pain that makes it difficult for her to leave the house unaided – agrees. “It’s the excitement of it being live,” she says. “It’s more interactive and more personal for that reason. Getting to witness silly and cool things happen live makes it more interesting than YouTube to me.”
Nevertheless, positive communities don’t happen naturally on Twitch, just as they don’t elsewhere on the internet, where the veil of anonymity encourages abusive behaviour. “I had to be strict about who I let in,” says Mackenzie. “That stunted building my audience. It’s easy to get a large audience, especially as a woman, if you don’t moderate your chat at all, and you just let people come in and say whatever they want. A lot of people do drunk streams, or smoke on screen, and I don’t do that. It’s been slow and steady to build, but every time someone comes into the channel and enjoys it, they stay for a long time. I’m proud of that.” Nevertheless, Mackenzie chooses to keep her surname a secret, so as to maintain a certain degree of privacy, even as she lets strangers into her home via a video linkup daily.
Stacey Rebecca, who had a following as a cosplayer (someone who dresses up as characters from films, video games and comics) before she joined Twitch, has also worked hard to cultivate a non-toxic community. “There are things called ‘stream raids’, where a group of bored teens will visit certain channel and post insults in the chat log,” she says. “But it’s copy-and-paste stuff. Because I’ve already done the cosplay stuff, I’ve heard pretty much every insult. Very often it’s not personal. They’re just looking to get a reaction, and if they don’t, they get bored.”
Stacey Rebecca plays Hearthstone Only a relative handful of disabled streamers earn their living from the service, but as well as providing a supplemental income, Twitch offers a support community. “Twitch gives me that feeling of being less isolated,” says Stacey Rebecca. “I have a lot of regulars, and it’s nice to have that kind of friendly group that I can essentially hang out with each day without having to leave the house. And because I’ve been open about my mental health problems, I attract a lot of viewers who are experiencing anxiety. It helps us both feel less isolated. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement.”
As well as providing new jobs, Twitch has proven a powerful fundraising tool. The site claims that it helped raise more than $10m for charity in 2014. When she lost one of her friends to suicide recently, Stacey Rebecca held a 12-hour charity stream, raising more than £6,500 for Mind , the mental health charity. “The charity was a little confused about what I was proposing,” she says. “So I explained it like a telethon – like Comic Relief, but online.”
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Likewise, Mackenseize sees her work as helping to promote understanding about epilepsy. When she had a severe seizure live on air, soon after she first started streaming, she says it only strengthened the bond between her and her viewers (she subsequently uploaded the footage to YouTube , to show people what a seizure looks like). In this way Twitch is helping to foster openness and vulnerability around illness in a way that would have been unthinkable in the past.
Even so, it’s been difficult for Mackenzie to explain to her family what she does. “My mum never says anything positive about the stream,” she says. “She doesn’t want to view it as a positive thing because she just wants me to come home. But yesterday she said on the phone that my stream gives her faith in humanity, because there are so many strangers out there willing to help.”
While the positive aspect to the arrangement is clear in Mackenzie’s case, her schedule is nevertheless gruelling and, as she mainly focuses on a single game – at which she has become an expert – surely repetitive. Is it still fun? “Oh yes,” she says. “Times a million. There will always be challenges in the game because the developer keeps adding new cards and mixing things up. That keeps the game fresh. And I am always so excited to stream. There’s never a day I don’t want to. Well, maybe when I’m feeling lazy, and don’t want to take a shower or do my makeup. But once I start, I always end up loving what I’m doing.”