I don’t know if I’ve ever been fully conscious for an entire David “Dog” Caero Twitch stream. The Hearthstone personality (and now inaugural Masters Tour champion) lives in Nevada, which means that when he hits the internet, it’s already twilight in my Brooklyn apartment. There’s nothing to blame but human chemistry; Hearthstone is a sedate viewing experience, and Caero maintains a placid, even-tempered tone through any curveballs the game throws his way. It can be downright narcotising, if you’re already horizontal.
Caero, of course, never intended to serve as a bedtime siren for a sizable portion of his audience, but they still thank him for his soothing generosity every day. You can understand why, initially, the streamer didn’t know how to respond to those who celebrated his ability to knock them out more efficiently than anyone else on Twitch.
“I used to find it insulting. When I first heard about it like, ‘You fall asleep to me, OK? Thanks dude.’ But I’ve started to fall asleep to streams myself in the past year or so,” he explains. “I’m good with it now. After all, it [leaves the stream] on.”
There are ASMR Twitch channels, piloted by ASMR auteurs, who gently massage velvet patches and crinkle plastic bags in order to trigger all the delicate, aestheticising comforts perfected by the corresponding ASMR YouTube scene. Dog’s stream is not that. He is who he always wanted to be: a man who plays video games professionally. But as Twitch continues to usurp traditional entertainment venues, our own personal rituals have begun to morph. A generation of Americans nodded off to Johnny Carson every night, and while Twitch streamers haven’t yet breached that level of monoculture ubiquity, they are, increasingly, the only thing worth watching at midnight.
“It’s definitely something I’ve done as long as I’ve owned an iPad,” says Will Bindloss, a fellow Hearthstone streamer, pro, and journalist. “I like how certain Twitch streams are quite calming, offering just enough stimulation to take your mind off whatever’s been keeping you awake but not enough to prevent you from nodding off.”
The people I spoke to who use Twitch as auditory diphenhydramine all have their own tastes and proclivities for what conks them out. I prefer Hearthstone, for its metronomic pacing and thorough lack of heated gamer moments. Bindloss, on the other hand, says he normally tunes into speedruns. “Pokémon speedruns, specifically,” he clarifies. It’s an interesting dichotomy, considering the massive amount of intensity and virtuosity necessary to stick the landing on a GDQ-level performance, but there is a magic in the repetition of the craft that he finds spellbinding. “What I shoot for generally is a womb-like atmosphere,” he explains. The serene precision of the speedrunner imbues the viewer with a shared outside-the-Matrix euphoria, and I understand how nice that feeling can be at bedtime.
More surprising are the streamers who play games on the complete opposite end of the tonal spectrum: first-person shooters, MOBAs, and battles royales, which are filled to the brimmed with explosions and ammunition. They too report plenty of fans who use their craft to fall asleep, which is vexing for Brian “Kephrii” St. Pierre, a Twitch personality known best for his professional-level Widowmaker play. Like Caero, St. Pierre operates in the witching hours, and he wasn’t sure how to process the fact that people were coming to his stream to pass out. How do you nod off in the middle of an Overwatch match, when the fireworks are blaring and 12 different Ultimates are popping off at once? St. Pierre says he has never altered his posture on camera to be more adaptable to those who are already comatose, which can lead to some rude awakenings around 3 a.m.
“I find sometimes when a jumpscare happens in a game, I’ll yell or shout and a handful of viewers will mention how I woke them up and scared the hell out of them,” says St. Pierre. “They always come back though.”
It’s a reality that gets funnier and more surreal toward the end of his stream, when the clock strikes bleak digits. On Twitch, streamers often “host” other Twitch streams after they themselves go offline. Essentially, they redirect their viewership directly into another personality’s feed as a way to give them a free boost in viewership—similar to how CBS might slap a nascent sitcom at the end of their Super Bowl broadcast. St. Pierre is happy to host, but he always makes sure to give whoever he’s working with a disclaimer. “I have to warn them that 70 per cent of the viewers are probably asleep,” he explains.
Monte “Dreads” Doebel-Hickok, a Los Angeles native who streams Hearthstone in his current home of Canada, tells me the anaesthesia-streamer gimmick can be a useful tool in any streamer’s arsenal. The later the show goes, he says, the more sedentary the people tuned into the broadcast become—simply because it’s difficult to exit a browser when you’re already asleep. That can be a powerful ruse on Twitch, where metrics are king no matter where they come from. The fellow streamers he hosts have absolutely no qualms about performing to the audience’s subconscious, as long as the red number in the corner of the screen stays high.
“When I host someone at 10 p.m., those viewers are going to be way more active than if I host at 1 or 2 a.m. There might be more viewers in the channel at 2 a.m., but some people have passed out at that point,” he says. “I don’t think [the people I host] really mind. Anything that props up their total viewer count is a positive.”
Doebel-Hickok thinks that streamers have some version of the absentee advantage no matter what time they’re on air; Twitch is passive entertainment, and it’s easy for someone to forget to close a tab before leaving for work. He is more than OK with being anyone’s white noise—as Bindloss said, there’s value in being a personality that’s interesting enough to enjoy watching, and boring enough to ignore when you’re distracted by something else. Doebel-Hickok says that while he likes to wind down at night by watching Netflix, he tends to mark bedtime with a Twitch stream. “If I miss five or 10 minutes because I’m zoning out, it’s not a big deal. You can jump back into a Twitch stream at any time,” he says. “If they have a peaceful voice, it just allows you to get into that zone before going to sleep.”
St. Pierre thinks the appeal is the idea that there’s someone else in the room. A comforting sense of presence, the feeling of not being alone, which is one of the core things most human beings need from bedtime. Doebel-Hickok agrees with that and mentions the tight-knit communities in Twitch chat, explaining that collective hibernation could begin to feel routine.
As a generation, our sleep habits have been weaned on video games. Before I discovered ASMR, Zzzquil, or any other sleep aid, I had my friend Ryan, marathoning his way through Metal Gear Solid 4 till the hint of dawn peaked through our windows. Sometimes, I recall our legendary World of Warcraft benders, endless juvenile summer nights carving through a campaign, cemented to the bedroom floor. To this day, I associate a delectable, stress-free drowsiness from the sound of a Warrior stance change. It was my favourite way to kill a night and, for a very long time, my favourite way to fall asleep. It only makes sense that we’ve created a system that captures that feeling in its fundamental essence. Twitch is so many different things, but elementally, it’s a guarantee that someone, somewhere, will be playing Goldeneye all night long.
Luke Winkie is a writer and former pizza maker from San Diego, currently living in Brooklyn. In addition to Kotaku, he contributes to Vice, PC Gamer, Variety, Rolling Stone, and Polygon.