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Hyper Mode: Help the Rich Get Richer by Streaming Games on Twitch

May 30, 2014  |  8:00am
Hyper Mode: Help the Rich Get Richer by Streaming Games on Twitch

It’s been over a week since Variety reported on the rumored acquisition of Twitch by the two-headed monster that is Google-YouTube. That rumor still has yet to be confirmed, although it’s been closely followed by a proposal by Nintendo to get in on YouTube’s ad revenue from videogame streaming. Speculation abounds as to what Twitch will grow into next—beyond just a place to watch people play games while commentating on them.

While everyone’s parents grumpily ask why anyone would want to watch videogames instead of playing them, fans of gaming commentary know there’s more to it. A good streamer needs to be so talented at games that their skill alone makes them an entertaining watch. Or, they need to be hilarious and quick with a quip about every in-game interaction. Or, they need to have cutting, incisive commentary that illuminates hidden facets to the game at hand. Or, they need to seem as familiar as your best friend, your sibling or your childhood arcade’s friendliest patron. Preferably, they’re all of the above.

The normalization of games-as-spectator-sport in America has been gradual but undeniable. We’ve gone from laughing at the very idea of, say, South Korea’s highly publicized esports tournaments to hosting our own. You wouldn’t ask a packed stadium of sports fans why they’re watching a ball game instead of playing it themselves; and even if you did, you’d likely find that many of them enjoy playing sports, anyway, even if they can’t do so professionally. Heck, the continued televising of sports has been the only thing that keeps most of us from canceling our cable packages. Similarly, esports has the potential to become a big business, in spite of the fact that commentating on videogames doesn’t yet sound like a “real job” to the average person.

Games journalism has come of age during a time when “user-generated content” is the standard, and when getting to write articles is considered a privilege rather than a job with a necessary skill set. By extension, videogame commentators on Twitch, YouTube, and elsewhere have seen an example set by “real” sports broadcasters that they may never be able to reach. There isn’t currently a structure for videogame commentators to get a “real job,” even if that’s what some of them deserve.

What’s more, the phrase “user-generated content” often hints at a drop in quality. For example, if I find myself reading an article on a reputable news site and I notice typos, inaccuracies or poor reporting, I’ll click on the byline and discover that I haven’t been reading the work of a staff writer. Yet if the work is good but it isn’t by a staff writer, I’ll reap all the benefits as a reader and the writer will reap none of the reward.

A complete lack of barriers to post creative work has meant that the internet features content created by folks who would never have been picked up by major institutions or networks, but the prevailing theory that “the cream will rise to the top” doesn’t necessarily hold out. With hundreds of thousands of videos, blog posts and songs being thrown onto the internet per day, finding the good stuff becomes almost impossible.

Most websites that run on “user-generated content” have settled on page-views as their metric for pay-outs; YouTube, for example, kicks a couple of bucks into users’ pockets per one thousand views. It’s better than nothing, but it seems a bit odd to base payment entirely upon views rather than quality, especially given that virality is almost impossible to predict or control. Getting rich off of YouTube or Twitch ad revenue is, thus, not that different from winning a lottery. A handful of super-popular streamers on YouTube and Twitch have managed to make a living off of their ad earnings. But for every success story, there are thousands of nobodies—some desperate hopefuls, some mere hobbyists who could care less if they make it big. Whether or not your work actually does go viral has little to do with what you’ve produced or how hard you’ve worked.

I don’t know for sure whether the guys at the Twitch offices will soon have $1 billion Google-bucks in their pockets, but I can bet that those guys are going to be just fine. It’s the streamers’ wallets that worry me. The presence of the words “user-generated content” in the context of, say, articles like this one that instruct folks to buy, buy, buy stocks in Twitch’s future make me feel a little concerned about where the money that’s currently exchanging hands will end up.

Thriving on “user-generated content” has filled YouTube’s coffers in the past—enough to make them a successful acquisition for Google, and enough for Nintendo to crave a piece of their ad revenue pie. It’s painfully clear who benefits from this structure; very little of this money is “trickling down” to content creators.

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The presence of Google might change Twitch streamers’ finances for the better, but it’s not yet clear to what extent. Many Twitch streamers currently use systems like Patreon or Paypal to solicit donations from their viewers rather than simply relying upon ad revenue. Merging with YouTube might help, given YouTube’s experience with video monetization, but even the most popular YouTube stars often use crowdfunding to supplement their income, as well.

The entire concept of, y’know, getting hired by a media corporation has apparently become a thing of the past; the future is all independent contractors, freelancers and content creators. But is it even possible to become successful off of the revenue from an independently-produced YouTube or Twitch channel without constantly asking your fans to click a “donate” button? Has begging for donations become a necessity for all “content creators”?

Right now, we’re getting excellent game-streaming broadcasts, often provided for little-to-no income by people who deserve more. We get free entertainment provided to us by people who have day jobs and do this creative work in their “off time.” If the users generating this free content figure out that they’re getting stiffed on paychecks that YouTube/Google have been collecting, what’s to stop them from going elsewhere? The fact that there’s nowhere else to go, I suppose.

Here’s my dream: I want to see competitive game-streaming networks emerge from all sides. I want Netflix and Hulu to pick up a variety of top streamers and give them real paying gigs. I want Google/YouTube to get scared and do the same thing. Ideally, other networks would emerge elsewhere, too. Above all, I want to see game-streaming rise in quality due to the presence of editors and structured networks—plus benefits for the streamers themselves. I want to see more meaningful ways for content to be curated beyond just “this gets the most page-views.” I want institutional, organized, comprehensive support for quality broadcasting.

As cable subscriptions go the way of the dinosaur and viewers invest in other streaming-based subscription options, it’ll be interesting to see if esports networks emerge as well. Patreon has been a band-aid for streamers, but it’s not a complete solution, given that it forces individuals to battle one another rather than work together within structured networks. Expecting streamers to subsist full-time solely on the strength of their Patreons alone seems unfair to me as well, considering that most of the Patreons I’ve seen average out to less than minimum wage per hour (plus, being an independent contractor results in higher taxes than you’d guess). Whatever happened to offices, W2s and health insurance? Is contract work via crowdfunding still the best possible end-goal that a successful videogame commentator can hope to achieve?

I hope to see a future that involves actual broadcast journalism jobs for videogame commentators. The potential of the institutional presence of Google might aid in making that happen—provided we put some pressure on them. They deserve it.

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