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Meet the streamers using Twitch to pay for college

Illustrations by Alex Castro

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As she neared 24 straight hours of playing Dead Space, Kaitlyn Richelle watched in shock as a $250 donation flashed across her screen. “That’s the goal,” she shouted. “That’s the tuition.” She paused her Twitch stream, struggling to get a full sentence out. She had just raised $5,000 to help pay for medical school.

Visibly choked up, she put a hand to her heart as she thanked her fans before wiping tears from her eyes. The Canadian-born streamer had considered the $5,000 goal a pipe dream, a number posted to her live stream just in case a mysterious benefactor swooped in with an open wallet. But the money wasn’t awarded in lump sum; rather it came incrementally from the viewers that tuned in. In fact, $5,000 was just the beginning. By the end of that single stream on Halloween in 2016, she’d raised more than seven grand.

A longtime streamer and competitive StarCraft player, Richelle began attending medical school in Ontario in 2016. Despite providing strangers with a digital window into her life nearly every night in the form of video gaming sessions, she’d kept her student status secret from her viewers until about a month and a half into her first semester. Richelle feared that as soon as she told her fans about her non-game-related ambitions, they’d lose interest in her, or assume she’d no longer be able to keep up with her daily streams. “That's it, they'll go somewhere else,” she says. “It won't be worth their time to sub to me.” It’s been the opposite, she says, and her audience continues to grow.

Platforms like Twitch offer a potentially lucrative alternative to traditional jobs, especially people working around complicated schedules. Naturally, the opportunity appeals to many college students. For a student with a shifting calendar each semester, a 9-to-5 job can seem impractical. Even night shifts can pose challenges as exams, homework, and extracurriculars flood in. But some have found that streaming lets them build a job around the other commitments in their lives.

Before the rise of streaming, the most common path to pro-gaming was competitive. In e-sports, which have existed in different capacities for two decades, a pro is a talented solo player, or a member of a team, and they compete for prize money and corporate sponsorships. It requires serious dedication to a single game or genre. Streaming, which has become possible, thanks to faster internet speeds and platforms like Twitch and YouTube, is an inversion of the e-sports model. A streamer typically plays many different games, tackling new titles as they come out. And much of their income comes directly from fans, who they’re expected to engage with via chat rooms and social media.

For someone like Richelle, paying off college means streaming every day, as she has for the past 400-something days. On a typical day, she spends a couple of hours on-air playing games, in addition to another hour or two on prep and general maintenance. She actually got her start as a StarCraft player, eventually cracking into the Grandmaster league — a competition for the top 200 players in each region.

But a pro background isn’t a requirement for success. Josh Caron, who goes by “BringTheParty” online, is a Rhode Island College student studying marketing and working toward his bachelor’s degree. He came to streaming as a fan, and didn’t begin broadcasting until he was a junior in high school. Eventually, he wound up on Twitch, hoping to combine his love of video games with his chatty nature into a fun way to spend his time. “This is a pretty good opportunity to meet some friends,” he says of his thoughts at the time. “I did not go into it with the intentions of making much money at all. I was like, ‘It's fun, hopefully a few people will like watching me.’ I just happened to fall into a perfect spot for money.”

Caron declined to comment on how much money he currently pulls in each month, citing his contract with Twitch, but says he grossed just over $8,000 in donations in 2016. That was his first year of streaming, and for a young student living at home with little else in the way of expenses, the cash was a huge deal. And he hints at 2017 being markedly better.

The 22-year-old says he’s invested some of his profits into video games and computer equipment, but much of it gets funneled into his savings. His goal is to raise $5,000 a year that will be spent on school. “I think anyone who's a student is pretty dependent on trying to raise money regularly,” Caron says. “If that's through a part-time job or, hopefully, through not having too much college debt. I am putting a lot of money aside. I'm pretty dependent on my viewers to support me.”

The money can come with an emotional cost. During one of Caron’s streams, his grandmother interrupted to deliver some heartbreaking news: his grandfather had passed away. He came back to this stream shortly after, clearly upset.

“I thought he was gonna be there for my college graduation,” Caron says. “I thought he was just going through a rough patch.” He found comfort in his viewers, who sent messages, shared stories, and encouraged him to take a break. “I didn't want to — at the time I was daily streaming, so I wanted to continue doing that,” he says. “The day I had the funeral, the day I had the wake, I still continued doing it. They were there with me the entire way.”

Caron’s game of choice is The Sims 4, though he wanders outside of the series to play games like Warframe or Gigantic. Caron plays the role of narrator in these sessions, bouncing between commentary on what characters are doing and an explanation of his own moves. It’s conversational and breezy, similar to how you’d play with a friend sitting next to you at home. He laughs often and addresses viewers with ease.

Anecdotally, he describes his average viewer as female and between the ages of 20–40. “I have a lot of moms that love watching my stream. I talk to them about their kids,” he says.

“I like being as open and personal with my viewers as possible, sharing my life, sharing my relationships that I have with my family, and sharing all my past stories and stuff. I see them more as friends than viewers, and I think it works for me.”

But as with any relationship, it can get a little exhausting. Recently, he opened his Discord channel to find more than a dozen unread messages. “At times it's a little much, especially when I have stuff going on in my life,” he says. “But it's like having a friend. You have to put your own troubles aside at times to talk to them.”

As Caron’s personal life has gotten busier — he has a girlfriend and a dog he describes as “a handful” — he’s had to get better about managing his time. Streaming in high school was easy; he had no bills to worry about and more time. But in college, the financial burden and growing social schedule have forced him to get organized. He traded his nightly streams for midday affairs, in part to better accommodate his girlfriend’s schedule.

But streaming at the same time every day is also what he calls a business decision. “You want to have something concurrent,” he says. “I want to be like a TV show, I want to be part of a daily schedule. For that to happen, I need to pick a time that works for the majority of my potential viewers, as well as making sure that time is long enough that if other people want to get in, they can.”

Caron says he realized the steady schedule was paying off when he logged on and people were already there, talking in the stream chat. “People were waiting there for me to go live.”

Caron’s discovery is echoed by other streamers, especially those who put in time every day. Austin Community College student Jazmin Tapia, like Caron and Richelle, treats her stream like a full-time job. Although her hours online would drop when school was in full session, her summers were hardly a vacation. “I streamed every day,” she says.

Online Tapia streams under “Jazzzy,” but she doesn’t put on a persona. At best, she tries to maintain a cheery attitude. “I do have to put on a smile on my face and act like everything's fine and I'm not stressed out at school,” she says. “But that's only because people do go to Twitch streams just to get away from the stress feeling.” When she tells people what she does for work, most people think it’s a joke. “You've gotta explain to them what it is,” she says. “But if you mention like, ‘Oh you could make money,’ then they're like ‘Oh?’ And they become more interested.’”

When asked if they’d continue to play for an audience post-college, all three streamers affirmed that they have no intention of quitting. Tapia plans to show off more of her musical talents, but knows that she can’t rely on streaming alone as a full-time job forever. For anyone interested in pursuing this seriously, she advises them to be aware of the inevitable financial lows. “There's no guaranteed amount of money being paid per month to streamers,” she says.

“anything could go wrong on Twitch”

Streaming is a fickle job, and a near impossible one to rely on as your only financial buoy. Many treat it as a hobby, or a springboard into a larger following. Those who gain income from it are putting it toward a variety of goals: paying bills, raising money for charity, buying new equipment or games. The field is open to more than just college students, and most don’t earn enough to make a living — if they make money at all.

“Put school first because, you know, anything could go wrong on Twitch,” says Tapia. “And just have a backup plan.”

Richelle sees her streams as a sort of warm-up exercise for the rigors of being a doctor. Learning how to survive a 24-hour stream has more advantages than just the allure of a financial boost. “When you do surgery, very often you'll be on call, and you might end up doing 48-hour shifts even,” she says. “Being able to stream for 24 hours without caffeine and while keeping up my mood and being entertaining and engaging is great.”

As she continues her education, Richelle wants to show her audience less of her life at a computer, and more of what it’s like to be a doctor. “I never want to stop streaming,” she says. “Some surgeons, they're able to stream their surgeries online. Of course, there's so much consent that's required for that. Maybe in the future, it will be more of a thing.”