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Alex Castro

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The show must go on: here’s how Twitch streamers are handling quarantine

Viewership is up, but so is the sense of having a responsibility to the people watching

Twitch is bigger than it’s ever been before. The site’s viewership increased a full 31 percent between March 8th and March 22nd, growing to 43 million hours watched from 33 million hours, according to data from StreamElements and Arsenal.gg. There’s also been a concurrent growth in streamers joining the platform: musicians joined en masse after their tours were canceled in a search for replacement revenue, and now, over the same period of time, hours watched of the music and performing arts category on Twitch soared to more than 574,000 hours, up from 92,000 hours. Something is happening.

Of course, this something is happening against the backdrop of a worldwide pandemic that’s forced the entire globe to shelter in place. Just yesterday, New York City, where I live, crossed 1,000 deaths from the virus, and over 10,000 more across the state are hospitalized; a recent viral TikTok shows Manhattan utterly deserted, even as its lights stay on. Everyone has to live with these two realities: internet culture is flourishing, but it has come as a consequence of a disease that’s afflicted the entire planet.

It’s made working different, too. (And I don’t just mean because everyone who can work remotely is doing that right now.) For Twitch streamers, this mass lockdown hasn’t really changed much, at least not physically — to stream as a job, even part time, means spending most of your time inside near your computer(s) anyway. But still, they say, things have changed. I got in touch with a few by email who graciously agreed to answer my questions.

“The situation is definitely unnerving,” says Cara “Cheratomo” Hillstock, a narrative designer and narrative games streamer who lives near Seattle. She’s seen a lot of confusion about the pandemic from her viewers and has had to do additional work to moderate it. “There was a ton of mixed messaging from the government about how seriously to take the pandemic,” she writes. “Even within my stream community, there was confusion, misinformation and conspiracy theories being brought up. The mods and I had to institute new rules in our Discord about how to talk about the virus to try and prevent the spread of misinformation and an influx of infectious panic.”

That said, her day-to-day life hasn’t changed a whole lot. “I have a few chronic illnesses that make it difficult for me to go outside normally. So I stay inside a lot, and can’t do things as freely as my more able-bodied friends,” she writes. “Oddly enough, I’ve seen a drastic increase in how much I’m seeing and talking to my friends, as their lifestyles are now more in line with what mine has been because of my health. I’ve felt closer to people now than at any other time since my health failed and I was diagnosed,” Hillstock writes. “Talk about a bizarre silver lining.”

“For me it was really weird,” writes Henri “Hardisk” Griesmar, a French streamer who works out of a studio in Paris with three other people. “Literally from one day to another I had to have everyone work from home, cancel all of our out of studio shoots and create new workflows (I literally drove off the studio the last day with my backpack full of video equipment and our NAS that contained all our current video projects, felt like fleeing forever),” he says. “The hardest thing for me has been brands canceling planned sponsored content, I still have people to pay at the end of the month and if the situation is to continue for the upcoming weeks and months It’s going to be really hard to keep the company together.”

Mychal “Trihex” Jefferson, who is a Mario speedrunner (among other things), says that quarantine hasn’t really affected his life much, because as a full-time Twitch streamer he’s already rarely leaving the house. (He’s had a home gym for a while.) His numbers are up, too — “200 percent,” on average, he says. But social distancing has been difficult. “Even if I wasn’t super exuberant about going outside and being among the public, it’s always difficult having a previously un-rationed activity now limited to essentially zero,” he says. “It’s on your mind.” The Trump administration’s response to the outbreak has also radically changed his content — he now talks far more politics on his stream.

“I worry about my 81-year-old grandmother in the nursing home I can’t visit. I worry about my audience because I know statistically one-third of them are laid off or had their hours reduced,” he says. And he feels a responsibility to use his platform to educate people. “I feel providing escapism entertainment is irresponsible of me when I know there is a profit-driven agenda being pushed by corporate elites that comes at the expense of my audience. They deserve better. They deserve dignity and human rights. And I will happily fight for those I don’t know personally, in my community and outside it,” he says. “I still do my Trihex-staple content of high-octane gameplay, but it does come between inevitable discussions of how nationalized healthcare would totally have USA better prepared for a pandemic,” Jefferson says.

Veronica “Nikatine” Ripley, a Twitch roleplayer, says she’s also seen an influx of new viewers, though not quite as many as Jefferson has; her time at home hasn’t really changed either, except in its tenor. “The quarantine got me to set up new introductory chat commands, and gotten me to introduce myself and my content more often,” she writes. “It’s hard for anyone to donate or subscribe right now, with work scarce as it is. I’ve been working from home full time for years now, and my partner works in an essential field, so things have basically been the same for my work day,” Ripley continues. “But I’ve definitely had to set up the old home gym to let us blow off steam at the end of the day.”

David “GrandPooBear” Hunt, a Mario speedrunner, agrees with Ripley’s take — the mass lockdowns haven’t really affected him personally, at least not yet. “Viewership is slightly up, while paid subs are slightly down, which is to be expected in this situation,” he writes. His cross-country Speedrun Sessions tour, however, has been canceled, and so has the rest of his travel. And now, Hunt says, he’s getting restless. “I have only gotten busier as I try to provide a few extra hours of stream a day for people who are going crazy, but I can’t do any of the normal unwind things like go to dinner with my wife or to an NBA game or a pro wrestling event,” he says.

“Like most streamers, I am used to being in my home for long stretches of time, but I think being forced to be here has made the walls feel a bit smaller, if that makes sense,” Hunt continues. “I just want to do whatever I can to ensure I’m taking the proper precautions and taking the responsibility to just do my part in this. It’s a time where everyone is being asked to sacrifice for the greater good of just keeping people alive, and me being a little restless at home is nothing compared to what the doctors, nurses, and families, who will be affected by this, are going through.”

Like the other streamers I got in touch with, Thom “F.” Badinger has also seen a small uptick in the number of people watching his streams. But, he says, they’re different. “Seems like more people are home watching (obviously), but are using the time to watch many things instead of sinking into one streamer,” he writes. “Usually people pick a streamer and watch them a LOT, now it seems like people are ‘channel surfing’ a bit more. I think that speaks to the personal level of streams — you can feel like you’re party hopping — different streams have different communities and vibes, in addition to the different content.” They’re filling a social void, in other words.

Badinger’s life has changed more than a little because of the quarantine. Before the country went on lockdown he’d just accepted a contract with Rocket League and he was flying cross-country from Atlanta, where he lives, to LA, where they have their studios, twice a week. “I had JUST settled in to it when the company put a stop to all travel. Honestly, shouts to Rocket League, because they were one of the earlier communities to cease travel—the first week of March we had already shifted to online broadcast,” he writes. The adjustment has been tough. “Moving to cloud ops has created challenges for everyone, from the production side of things, to the player side of things,” he says. “Instead of being in a Hollywood studio with lighting and sound and makeup and craft services, I’m inviting 50,000 people into my living room via Skype while sitting on a pillow to fix my headroom since I have a bad monopod for my camera.”

All of what I heard from the streamers has been validated by the data. According to Apptopia, a mobile data analytics firm, both Twitch and Discord set revenue records in March — Twitch brought in $8.2 million from its mobile app, and Discord made $890,000. Time spent in those apps is up, too: Discord’s time spent in app has increased by 27.5 percent as compared to last March, while Twitch is up a full 36.5 percent. And that’s just on mobile.

Those numbers, as large as they are, mean that people are looking for places online where they can have a social, communal connection. As an occasional streamer myself, I’ve noticed the trends these much larger broadcasters have highlighted even within my own very small community: the uptick both in numbers and new usernames. I’ve started streaming more regularly just to keep a schedule as everything else feels like it’s in flux, and I’ve heard from some people in my community that my streams have helped them feel / be more social because not a whole lot else is scheduled. The days blur together.

Though, they don’t have to. Last weekend, I heard from a viewer that their prom, scheduled for that night, had been canceled; so my guests and I decided to dress up and throw them a virtual prom on Twitch. (Shouts to JQBX for the tunes.) It was a great party — the first one I’ve felt like I’ve gone to since this lockdown began. And the people in my community agree; for everyone, it was a necessary moment of catharsis. Prom was important, they say.

What I really mean to say is that entertaining people stuck at home has become a kind of responsibility for me, and something that I genuinely treasure. The streamers I spoke to agreed.

It’s a strange thing to feel responsible for being entertaining — to feel like that’s really doing the best you can during this global crisis. “I believe that power comes with responsibilities, and it’s a meaningful way I can directly help everyone who has supported me for the past three years,” writes Hillstock. “I think it would be selfish of me not to use the power I’ve been given to try and support people through this.”

Everyone else seemed to agree, albeit in different words. They want to give back to their viewers, who support them; they want to be there and present in the small ways they can. For some, like Jefferson and Badinger, it’s turned their streams into sites of political commentary. “I didn’t quite feel the need to make an Imagine video, but I totally understand why those people did that sort of thing,” says Badinger. Hunt is planning a charity drive on his channel and coordinating it with other members of the Mario Maker community.

But Griesmar may have said it best. “I feel more responsible than ever to be a positive light through all of this, like all other influencers we have to provide entertainment to people that are more anxious and frustrated than ever,” says Griesmar. “It’s a weird time but thank god for the internet.”

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