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The Twitch streamers who spend years broadcasting to no one

Looking for connections in 2018

Illustration by Alex Castro

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When John Hopstad first descended into the virtual world of Dark Souls in 2013, his mission was to save a decaying world. Famed for its brutal and exacting gameplay, Dark Souls is a popular game to live stream: if you’re going to die hundreds of times, you might as well perish with some digital company to lighten the mood. What Hopstad didn’t know then was that this would be the start of an even more difficult journey to make connections with other people. Hopstad has been streaming to largely nobody for the last five years, and he’s not alone in this pursuit.

Twitch, the leading live streaming platform where people play games, make crafts, and showcase their day-to-day lives, attracts over two million broadcasters every month. The number grows each year, thanks in part to how easy it has become to live stream, and platforms like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube also increasingly encourage people to share and watch live stories. With the push of a button on your game console or phone, you can share whatever you’re doing at that exact moment with friends and strangers alike. The rise of popular (and profitable) influencers on platforms like YouTube and Twitch has also made the idea of being an online influencer aspirational. Some parents note that their children pretend to unbox toys to a nonexistent audience, and teachers report that their students often say they want to pursue YouTubing as a career. But when seemingly everyone wants to record footage or live stream, who ends up watching the content?

When seemingly everyone wants to record footage or live stream, who ends up watching the content?

Starting a career on platforms like Twitch often means spending some time broadcasting to absolutely no one. Discoverability is an issue: when you log into Twitch, the most visible people are those who already have a large following. While there are tools to find lesser-known streamers, most people starting out without built-in audiences from other platforms or supportive friends and family end up staring at a big, fat zero on their viewership counter. This lonely live stream purgatory can last anywhere from a few days, weeks, months, sometimes even years, depending on your luck. According to people who have gone through it, lacking an audience is one of the most demoralizing things you can experience online.

A promotional image for a Twitch post about what makes people come back to the site.
A promotional image for a Twitch post about what makes people come back to the site.

“It’s kind of exhausting playing to an empty room day in and day out with no results,” one Redditor wrote on a now-deleted thread on r/Twitch.

“It’s fucking hard to stay positive when doing this 5 days a week when it feels like nobody drops by,” another Redditor wrote in a different thread, after spending months streaming to nobody. “I’ve come to a realization that streaming just isn’t working for me.”

“Been streaming on and off for 4+ years and everytime I come back I go weeks where the majority of time I’m streaming to no one,” another Redditor wrote. “It’s tough.”  

Sean Burke, a streamer who spent about a month broadcasting popular games like Overwatch without an audience, says that it’s easy to take things personally when nobody turns up to your broadcast. “It was disheartening at times,” says Burke, who nonetheless kept live streaming through it all.

If live streaming is a practice, the person behind the camera is the product. While there are things you can practice and improve, your popularity as a streamer comes down to whether or not people like you or find you interesting. “I [initially] kept internalizing the viewership numbers to mean that I was the problem, that I wasn’t funny enough, that I wasn’t good enough at games.” After a year of hard work, he estimates that he now gets around 10 concurrent viewers per stream.

Lacking an audience is one of the most demoralizing things you can experience online.

Veteran streamers often have a list of talking points on-hand to help out newbies, one I’ve seen repeated many times across social media platforms. It goes like this: be yourself. Have some fun with it. Set a schedule and stick to it. Make sure you have a good technical setup. Practice your commentary, and vocalize your thinking. Play games that aren’t oversaturated with other streamers already. Trick your live stream out with overlays and plug-ins that make the experience more fun for the viewer, such as mini-games where fans have to keep a virtual pet alive. Get on social media and tell people about your stream. Network by joining other people’s streams and becoming their friends. But the toughest advice to follow is the idea that an aspiring streamer needs to be performing at all times, even if nobody is watching, just in case someone happens to show up.

“Think of it like you’re taping a talk show and you’re the host,” Redditor Neon_Nazgul wrote in a thread offering advice to frustrated streamers. “Sometimes there’s a studio audience, and sometimes you’re shooting something the audience will watch later.” While this is absolutely true, that’s also part of what makes streaming without a significant audience so hard in the first place. It’s a solitary practice where you have to pretend someone is listening, with no idea how long it might be before someone shows up, or if they ever will.

Promotional artwork for Twitch’s “IRL” section.
Promotional artwork for Twitch’s “IRL” section.

Broadcasters can follow all the conventional advice and still not gain much of a fan base, lost in a sea of other hopeful streamers. Some end up turning to schemes that give the appearance of success: you can pay for bots to populate your stream, thereby pushing you higher in the Twitch directory, or join forces with other marginal streamers to boost each other’s subscriber numbers in “follow4follow” groups. Streamers even create broadcasts where the only purpose is to let hundreds of other people beg each other for a follow in the chat. More often than not, this method doesn’t work out for anyone involved, as nobody is gaining a real viewer even if the numbers say otherwise.

“I tried the follow4follow technique… but no one ever took the next step and watched my channel,” Twitch user Flummoxkid says. “Nothing but a bunch of hollow follows. Even the streamers that cultivated the F4F channels that I watched pulled a 180 and tried to go legit once they made partner and they barely get any viewers. I was naive enough to believe that people would actually return the favor.”

Despite the sometimes psychologically taxing nature of trying to get noticed on Twitch, some continue to persevere despite the cold indictment of the zero. Their reasons are varied: some people I spoke to feel that sharing gameplay is so straightforward, that they might as well do it if they’re already playing a game. “It’s better than sitting in a dark room by myself in silence,” wrote Twitch user jostlingjoe on a Reddit discussion about how to deal with having no viewers.

Many, though, are looking for something more. One streamer I spoke to who spent three months without an audience, MaverickRPDM, says that they kept live streaming games with zero viewers because they saw it as a form of self-improvement. “Streaming has made me more interesting, more quick witted, more outgoing and extroverted,” MaverickRPDM says. “It has helped make me feel more comfortable being myself, and by virtue of that has made me be more myself, more often, even outside of the stream.”

Perhaps the biggest motivator for people who stream for extended periods of time without a viewer is the possibility of meeting like-minded people.“The reason I started streaming was that I was kind of looking for human connections,” said Richárd Szélesy, a streamer who has spent the last few years mostly broadcasting hardcore games to zero viewers. Szélesy says he grew up feeling isolated, largely spending time in front of the glow of a computer. “[I streamed to] escape loneliness and depression,” he said. While he has mostly been streaming without an audience, every so often an errant person will drop by and stick around. Even if this person never comes back — and they often don’t — the small spark is enough to keep Szélesy going.

“I was kind of looking for human connections.”

“Weirdly as an adult I have an easier time making romantic connections than meeting new friends,” Szélesy says. “I wouldn’t even know where to start! Do I walk up to a random person and go ‘Yo, you like Dark Souls?’”  Twitch also gives a way to eject himself from disagreeable people. “[It’s] way easier to just call out or remove the kind of people who seem cool, but say racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic/etc shit.”

Hopstad, who has spent years streaming mostly to no one, says he is a socialist who cares about the minimum wage, and Twitch gives him an outlet to talk about his beliefs that he doesn’t have in real life. “I’m not a social person so I don’t seek out opportunities to talk about things, like on message boards, especially stuff like politics, I’m comfortable going through a day without talking or interacting with anyone,” Hopstad said. “Twitch certainly helped me attempt to break through my hermit nature, but I think I’m becoming more comfortable with just being alone for the rest of my life.”

While wandering through the wasteland of no viewers on Twitch can be discouraging, some who stick with it are happy that they did. Many streamers actually remember the exact moment their view counter went from zero to one.

“The first viewer felt almost surreal,” Szélesy said. “Twitch is set up to boost those who are already established, so if someone finds you, they were looking and thought you might be the kind of person they wanted to watch. Even though these views or interactions don’t always lead to even follows, let alone deeper connections, it’s always kinda cool, cause hey they found me in my hidden little spot here and decided to hang out.”

A promotional image for Twitch’s celebration of Pride month.
A promotional image for Twitch’s celebration of Pride month.

After months of having no audience, finally getting someone to watch you can be nerve-wracking as well as exciting. You prepare for it, sometimes for dozens of hours, and now it’s showtime. Someone is on the other end. They’re here for you. What do you do?

“I remember my first viewer and when it happened,” said Reddit user TheWhiteLatino69, a streamer who initially started streaming on Twitch to get through a tough time. At first, TheWhiteLatino broadcasted without an audience to help create the illusion he was hanging out with people. “I was streaming Subnautica for 0 viewers of course and I glanced over at the chat to see a ‘hey.’ When I saw that it all the sudden hit me, I wasn’t by myself anymore, I had some eyes watching me. I became increasingly nervous as the stream went on and I nervously chatted with them. It’s one thing to pretend you’re talking to someone and another to actually be talking to a human being … [It] did quite the number on me.”

Based on conversations I’ve had with dozens of streamers, taking that initial plunge when you’re not sure anyone is going to watch can feel like throwing a message in a bottle into the sea. Maybe someone will find it. Maybe the bottle ends up lost in the abyss. We all gamble in our own ways when we reach out online, whether we’re swiping right on Tinder or using a hashtag to look for people with similar interests. Maybe we end up feeling more alienated than ever before, or maybe we find people who make everything worth it.

Lolimdivine, a Redditor who estimates they spent around eight months streaming to no one, says they love the community they’ve built after getting over that initial hump.

A scene from Twitch’s 2016 “year in review.”
A scene from Twitch’s 2016 “year in review.”

“My regulars and I always talk about our lives, and we all know stuff about each other,” lolimdivine said. “It’s like we have our own little internet family honestly. I see these people as my friends and not viewers. We welcome people with open arms from all around the world, and we remember things about the people who can only stop by once a month. It’s really an incredible thing that Twitch can do for people’s loneliness or friend groups.” Many streamers I spoke to said that they initially became interested in Twitch after finding a personality that entertained them through a tough time, such as the loss of a loved one.

Khryn_Tzu, a Twitch streamer who spent weeks with no viewers, is coming up on their one year anniversary on Twitch. It’s an important date, because without Twitch, Khryn_Tzu wouldn’t have met a particular viewer.

“Lots of days with 0 viewers, just did my thing, learned what works, still am,” Khryn_Tzu said. “Then it happened. There was one viewer. And they stayed. They didn’t say anything for a few streams, but they kept coming back. Then one night I had to go AFK so I put on some Metallica. Out pops a ‘Good choice in music. I like Metallica.’ It was such an exhilarating feeling to have someone completely unknown to me to stick around for MY content. It had been a hard push.”

While many dream of having an audience in the thousands, that one person ended up making all the difference in Khryn_Tzu’s life. “We started talking, started chatting, and she made sure to start welcoming people and talking to them too when people would show up,” says Khryn_Tzu. “Soon people started staying… And it became so much more than that too. These viewers that come in? They become your friends. Sometimes more. That first viewer? We are dating now and I couldn’t be happier.”

Most people don’t end up finding a love interest on Twitch, but for plenty of others, that’s not the point.

“Games can be beautiful, clever, goofy and funny and I like to be vocal with my appreciation for them,” Szélesy said. “Even if no one is listening.”