Platforms such as Twitch.tv and YouTube Gaming have turned gaming into a popular and profitable spectator sport. Last year alone, viewers collectively watched 292 billion minutes of content on Twitch. But will India's young gaming stars learn from the risks run by global giants?
I want to promote gaming in India," says Faridabad-based Ajey Nagar. Nagar’s two-month-old YouTube channel CarryIsLive already has over 150,000 fans. Part gamer, part stand-up comic and wholly irreverent, the 17-year-old shot to fame through his original YouTube channel, CarryMinati, which has been active since 2014, and has a subscriber count of close to 850,000.
What makes Nagar so popular? On CarryIsLive, Nagar live-streams himself playing video games, adding his unique style of commentary. His appeal is, quite possibly, a combination of his geeky demeanour—thick-framed rectangular glasses and bushy eyebrows—and typically north Indian trucker Hindi coloured with profanity. “I have been a gamer my whole life. I always wanted to do something like this, I just didn’t have an audience for it before," he says.
Last year, Nagar dropped out of school to pursue live-streaming. He plans to study further, but through open schooling. When asked how much he earns from live-streaming, he is reluctant to give figures, but says the “pocket money" is several times that of people his age. “For now, it’s enough to keep it going. But I need to hit one million subscribers to really make this profitable," he says.
This format of video-gaming to live audiences has actually been one of the Internet’s big success stories in the past few years. Take a wild guess as to who has the highest subscriptions on YouTube. Singers Rihanna and Justin Bieber are at No.5 and No.3, respectively. Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg, known more commonly by his alias “PewDiePie", occupies the hallowed No.1 spot with more than 54 million followers. That’s twice the number of followers Bieber has. And what does Kjellberg broadcast? He plays video games live, for the whole world to see.
According to Sameer Pitalwalla, co-founder and chief executive officer of digital media company Culture Machine, the bulk of these viewers are gamers themselves, often looking to improve their skills by learning from the best. “Gaming is a bona-fide sport now. Gamers derive as much fun from watching pro-athletes play Defence Of The Ancients or Starcraft as others would from watching football," he says. An erstwhile diehard gamer, Pitalwalla’s entry into entrepreneurship has put an end to his gaming days. Well, almost. “I play Clash Royale (a mobile strategy game) whenever I find the time," he admits, adding, “I also watch the occasional stream on how to get better."
Subculture goes mainstream
Twitch.tv, which was bought in 2014 by Amazon for nearly $1 billion (around Rs6,500 crore now), and, more recently, YouTube Gaming, have turned this form of entertainment into a popular and profitable spectator sport. Last year alone, viewers collectively watched 292 billion minutes of content on Twitch.
“It’s a vicarious experience," says Mumbai-based gaming journalist Rishi Alwani. “You’re living a game from someone else’s perspective. It’s also useful for consumers who want to know if a particular game is worth their money or not."
Internationally, it can be surprising to hear just how much successful streamers have been able to earn. In an interview with Dotesports.com in April 2015, Steve Bonnell, who goes by his alias “Destiny" on Twitch, reported earnings of $5,000 a month just from the platform’s paid subscribers. This figure did not include online ad revenue, donations, sponsorships or any other source of income.
For the uninitiated, Twitch segregates its viewers into two categories: followers and subscribers. Anyone, for instance, can follow Destiny’s videos on Twitch. But subscribers pay $5 each month as a form of patronage, to support the streamer. Not everyone can earn revenue through Twitch immediately, though. Only approved streamers get “partner" status, which then allows subscribers to support them monetarily. While the criteria are not specific, Twitch looks at the stream frequency and concurrent viewership (average number of viewers per second) before signing streamers on to the partner programme. Globally, Twitch has a broadcaster database of over two million streamers. Only around 17,000 of these, i.e. less than 1%, are partners. India contributes only a few names to this list, including Mumbai-based NihaNovacaine and Secunderabad-based Dinu.
Lirik (real name undisclosed), another popular streamer on Twitch, has 1.6 million followers and over 2,500 videos to his credit. In April 2015, Lirik tweeted that he had 10,000 monthly subscribers. If you do the math, even with Twitch keeping an average of 50% of the subscriber revenue (that is how it makes its money), it’s still a lot of income.
As things stand, it’s an open playing field, the equivalent of the Wild West, and everyone’s a pioneer pushing the boundaries. Sometimes, however, it can backfire. Twitch streamer Ben Bowman (ProfessorBroman, over 580,000 followers) says that whether this treasure hunt is worth it in the long run can be disputed. “I have been streaming full-time on Twitch as my career for four years. Growing my channel at the start involved a mind-crushing 12-16 hours of streaming every day, seven days a week, all year, for two years. This was the only way I could maintain growth," he says in his column, published in January on Polygon.com.
Finding the balance
On 19 February, Brian Vigneault, a game streamer from Virginia, US, died mysteriously mid-stream. The streaming session was a charity fund-raiser for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Apparently, he took a smoke break 22 hours into his live stream, and never returned to his seat. Just days after this incident, Joe Marino—“Geekdomo" on Twitch, with over 40,000 followers—published an open letter on Medium.com that has since been shared across the community.
Marino mentions that he would stream himself live for 18 hours a day, seven days a week, earning “mid to high five figures (in US dollars) every year". But Vigneault’s death, the second amongst Marino’s peers (the first being Brandon Lane a.k.a. Dalsarius82, who was found dead under similar circumstances in April 2016), and his own failing health, forced him to re-evaluate whether it was worth it in the long run. “Streaming is hard. ... Your mind and body cannot keep that up for too long without consequences," he wrote. Marino has since decided to find the right balance and even pursue other hobbies such as photography—he wants to make it to the ripe old age of 80.
The streaming world’s veritable bad boy, Jayson Love (“ManVsGame"), admitted on his own Twitch channel in December 2015 that his absurdly long live-streams, occasionally spanning 50-80 hours, could not have been possible without abusing stimulant medication. “This right now is the first time you’ve probably seen me in the last year where I’m not on drugs. Every single time you’ve seen me, I’ve been pretty much saturated with amphetamines like Adderall," he told his audience, live.
But it’s not always about misguided gamers, there are grandmothers too. Shirley Curry, 80, endearingly referred to as Grandma Curry by her 238,000 YouTube followers, has over 300 videos of herself playing 2011’s well-received game, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. A far cry from the frenetic world of pop culture and gags, Curry’s soothing voice and languid pace have a meditative quality. Her fans often get emotional, requesting her to adopt them. She starts all her videos with, “Hi, grandkids."
Zooming back to India, there’s 23-year-old Dinesh Bishnoi, who is from an army family. His father served in the armed forces, and his sister aspires to become an army officer. In 2015, he convinced his father that streaming was his choice of career. Though a strict disciplinarian, his father agreed to support him, and gave him two years to do whatever he wanted. “After that, if you don’t make it, it’ll be what I want (for you)," his father told him.
Bishnoi’s upbringing reflects in his diligent approach to “making it". He has moved out of his family home in Jodhpur, and now lives by himself in Secunderabad. “The Internet is blazing fast, which is crucial for my streams. I also have relatives in Hyderabad, which keeps my family appeased," he says. Inspired by international streamers such as Matt McKnight, who goes by the name Lethalfrag, Bishnoi has taken up a one-year live-streaming challenge on Twitch. He will broadcast himself through his alias “Dinu" for at least 3 hours a day, for a whole year. During our interview, Bishnoi is on Episode 73, and hasn’t taken a single day off. “My family’s support comes with one caveat that I’m happy to oblige: adequate sleep and exercise."
His daily routine begins with his live-stream at 11.30pm; This usually ends at sunrise. “Then I go to the gym for a couple of hours, come back home and cook my own breakfast, as I live alone," he says. After that, he catches up on emails and watches other streams. He calls it a day around midday, and aims for 8 hours of sleep. He has started making money, but does not want to disclose the amount. “Initially, I would stress out because of my sleeping habits. Constantly turning down lunch plans with friends got me a bit depressed, but now I’m used to it. If I don’t sleep properly, I won’t be fresh for my next session," he adds. Bishnoi is currently at over 400 followers, and is an official Twitch partner. “This is the year to prove myself. I’m going to make it happen," he says.
A generational feature?
At this point, you will probably want to question how any of this could even be thought of as entertainment. What makes tens of thousands of people watch other people play video games? Arguably, this could very much be a generational feature—a “meme" in the true sense of the word. Most millennials from a certain socio-economic strata were initiated into gaming as children. And watching their friends play was a legitimate form of entertainment back then.
It was certainly an important part of my childhood. I would regularly go over to my Anglo-Indian neighbour’s house and watch her family take turns at Prince Of Persia. “Noobs" (short for newbies) existed then too, we just didn’t know the word for it. I was decidedly one, for I was never offered a shot, nor did I ever ask. Even after getting my first gaming console, the Nintendo Entertainment System, in the early 1990s, spectatorship was vital to the experience. When friends got together in front of a television or computer, one simply had to wait for one’s turn at Street Fighter. Sometimes, it was a sublime experience watching a skilled player breeze through a game level. Other times, back-seat driving would take over, making it a collective effort and providing a shared sense of victory.
“Video-game-streaming is like a mix of sports and entertainment—it’s Bollywood-meets-cricket," says 21-year-old blogger and gaming enthusiast Aman Biswas. “It’s also one of the few modes of entertainment where the user base can directly engage with the entertainer in real time. It’s much more direct and personal than, say, using Twitter to engage with fans." Both Biswas and Alwani feel that once a creator achieves some sort of celebrity, viewers come less for the content and more for the entertainer.
For instance, Mumbai-based Twitch streamer Niharika Patil, 24, is already an established costume-play (cosplay) artiste and celebrity gamer. A fashion design graduate, Patil ventured into cosplay in her teens, and today, alternates between cosplay modelling and hosting/judging cosplay events across the world. She also streams herself live via her Twitch channel NihaNovacaine for several hours every day to her 1,000 followers. “It’s a great way for my fans to keep in touch with me," she says. “You might think that we’re just playing games, but it’s not at all easy. It’s like doing stand-up comedy for 10 straight hours. In the end, it’s all about dogged perseverance, luck and personality." Just recently, one of her followers gave her a $2,500 donation, so she could attend BlizzCon 2017, an international gaming convention, in California in November.
“Wouldn’t you want to see Shah Rukh Khan live, playing a video game?" asks Nagar, reinforcing the idea that celebrity often supersedes the content itself. Nagar is alluding to Conan O’Brien’s popular Web series Clueless Gamer, where O’Brien regularly invites celebrities to his show and plays video games with them. “That is what I plan to do. Live-streaming is just a baby step, I want to get actors to play Mortal Kombat with me live," he exclaims.
For the sake of India’s nascent gaming community, I hope he gets there (without amphetamines).
Streaming live, now
YouTube account: CarryIslive
Ajey Nagar’s channel has lots of profanity, slapstick humour and horror games. Gauging from the number of followers, it’s a successful combination.
Twitch account: Dinu
Dinesh Bishnoi has taken on the one-year Twitch challenge—meaning he will broadcast himself playing games like ‘H1Z1: King Of The Hill’, and ‘Overwatch’ for 3-6 hours each night, every day of the year.
Twitch account: NihaNovacaine
Niharika Patil’s streams tend to be much longer and relatively more serious. She plays a variety of games, including ‘DOTA 2’ and ‘The Elder Scrolls’. She also occasionally shows off her cosplay attire.