Let’s say you’re an up-and-coming streamer. You’ve done it for a while and you make decent money, although you’re no Tyler “Ninja” Blevins. But you’re on your way there, or so you hope. A while back, you got the opportunity to sign with an agency that promised to help you set up deals to advertise brands on your streams. Today, that’s finally paying off. The agency calls you to offer a $10,000 deal. You don’t think twice. That’s a handsome chunk of change. Time to pop a bottle of champagne and celebrate. There’s just one problem. Turns out the agency pocketed $90,000.
The above hypothetical scenario is based on a true story told by former CEO of esports organisation CLG and current CMO of streaming company N3rdfusion Devin Nash, who opted to keep the streamer and agency’s identities anonymous. According to Nash’s story, which echoes others that Kotaku heard in the course of reporting, the initial deal was $100,000 for a single streamer to represent a big brand. But the agency was in full control of negotiations, so it just conveniently omitted the part about the remaining $90,000, because hey, $10,000 sounds pretty good in isolation, right? So the agency drew up a limited partnership agreement, and that was that. Nash went on to tell Kotaku that the streamer didn’t even get to keep the full $10,000.
“[The agency] also took the ten percent they had contractually,” Nash said in a Discord voice call. “So they took $1,000 and also pocketed the $90,000. They made $91,000, the streamer made $9,000, and nobody was the wiser.”
Streaming is big business now, and that means big money. But it also means that the world of streaming is transforming, and streamers are having to learn on the fly how to do more than just entertain. They’re having to strike deals with companies, agencies, and now entire platforms. Toward the end of last year, the deals grew bigger than ever, with blue-haired Fortnite megastar Tyler “Ninja” Blevins jumping ship from Twitch to Microsoft-owned streaming platform Mixer in a high-profile exclusivity deal that was soon followed by countless others. The business of video game streaming is rapidly evolving into something that echoes Hollywood, with agents and managers negotiating on behalf of streamers who are increasingly treated like actors or TV shows, and who wind up on platforms that stand in for more traditional networks.
It’s a new era for streaming, one that stands to benefit streamers by giving them more career stability—at least, in the short term. But first they have to learn how to navigate these uncharted and sometimes treacherous waters.
On August 1 of last year, Tyler “Ninja” Blevins made an announcement.
“I know this may come as a shock to many of you, but as of today, I will be streaming exclusively on Mixer,” said Blevins, then Twitch’s biggest star with 15 million followers, in a video. “I feel like this is a really good chance to get back in touch with my roots and really remember why I fell in love with streaming in the first place.”
This immediately gave rise to all sorts of questions. Would Mixer, a relative small-timer in Twitch’s scene-eclipsing shadow, finally be able to muscle in on Twitch’s turf? Would Blevins be able to maintain his star power and bring his viewers over to a less popular platform? Most of all, people wondered why. Blevins had a good thing going on Twitch. His time there had led to collaborations with mainstream celebrities like Drake, a Super Bowl commercial appearance, and countless other unprecedented opportunities. Why jump ship?
Initially, Blevins said on his stream that it wasn’t about money. His wife and manager, Jessica Blevins, later clarified in an interview with Business Insider that a “toxic” Twitch chat and an overly limiting Twitch contract had forced their hand.
“With the wording of how that contract was going, he wouldn’t have been able to grow his brand much outside of gaming,” Jessica Blevins told Business Insider. “There were already conflicts with his current sponsors and re-signing with that platform. And we were like, ‘Straight up, guys, we’ve worked so, so hard to grow the Ninja brand to license things and get his name out there. We can’t go backwards with it.’”
Since then, the Ninja brand has signed deals with the Adidas brand, among other brands, leading credence to that motivation.
At the time, Jessica Blevins added that “money was the last thing on our mind.” But growing one’s brand is typically a means to the end of making money, and a substantial amount of money did change hands at the time of Tyler Blevins’ signing. Speaking to Kotaku, three sources with knowledge of the deal who chose to remain anonymous suggested that Twitch wanted to keep Blevins, but the company had to balance this against the fact that it had already extracted most of the streaming superstar’s “earned media”—an industry term that refers to the “free” publicity that Blevins was providing to Twitch, for which the platform wasn’t directly paying. Twitch’s offer to keep Blevins, sources said, topped out at around $15 million per year for three years. Mixer and Facebook offered him more, with Mixer upping the ante to something in the neighborhood of $20 million per year. Mixer also offered other incentives like channel subscriptions fans could redeem for free for one month, as well as promotional placement opportunities on the site.
Mixer had a good reason to pursue Blevins so aggressively; he’s a former professional Halo player, and Microsoft is launching a new Xbox and Halo game, Halo Infinite, next year. Two sources close to Mixer told Kotaku that a portion of the money used to tempt Blevins away from Twitch—a much more sizable amount than any Mixer had negotiated with a streamer before—came from Microsoft’s Xbox division. In an email to Kotaku, a Microsoft spokesperson said that while the company does not disclose specific terms of the agreements it has made with creators, “Ninja shared that his roots as a gamer started with Halo, so working with Microsoft felt like a natural next step.”
Blevins’ deal is easily one of the biggest, if not the biggest, a single streamer has struck, but it’s far from the only one. A couple months after Blevins departed Twitch for Mixer, first-person shooter aim monster Michael “Shroud” Grzesiek, who also ranked among the five biggest names on Twitch, followed in his footsteps. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Where once it was a given that video game streamers would set up shop on Twitch, platforms—Twitch included—are now having to roll out the red carpet to entice stars. “These are seven and eight figure deals, no doubt,” said Omeed Dariani, CEO and founder of content creator management company Online Performers Group, to Kotaku. Streamers have backed up this assertion. For example, Zizaran, a Path of Exile streamer with just under 250,000 followers on Twitch, said during a stream in December that Facebook offered him $1.2 million to move over, but he turned down the offer in order to stick with his Twitch community.
Talent agencies and management companies aren’t the only middlemen who are striking deals on behalf of streamers. Some streamers have signed with esports organisations that employ and manage professional gaming teams. These organisations frequently sign streamers who aren’t competitors but promote teams’ brands and bring in significant amounts of money through sponsorship deals, partially making up for esports organisations’ inability to mirror the business models of traditional sports teams via tried-and-true sporting moneymakers like stadiums and broadcast revenue.
“What many people don’t know is that Twitch had a deal with most esports organizations,” Ryan Morrison, head of esports and influencer talent agency Evolved Talent, told Kotaku over the phone. Many big streamers were, for years, affiliated with esports organisations, he explained. For the most part, those organisations chose the platforms where streamers would do their thing, and because Twitch has been the esports platform of choice pretty much since its inception, it was Twitch. “So what that means is, a lot of the players, if they’re signed to Luminosity or they’re signed to NRG or whatever, they don’t pick where they stream,” said Morrison. “The org does.”
An ex-Twitch source who chose to remain anonymous told Kotaku that this also made it difficult for Twitch to negotiate individual exclusivity deals with streamers who were signed with esports organizations. “Guys like DrLupo and Seagull were also included under team deals, and team deals had bonus structures for total minutes watched that included anyone we allowed on their rosters, so we were already spending significant money there,” said the source. “It’s when Twitch decided to pull back from numerous team deals that the individual deals started to make sense.”
Many of those deals with esports organisations expired recently, which freed up both streamers and money. According to several sources Kotaku spoke to, one management agency called Loaded, which is headed up by former Twitch employees, started renegotiating streamers’ contracts with Twitch as their previous deals ran out. Tyler “Ninja” Blevins just so happened to be one of Loaded’s clients, and he managed to get a deal larger than anybody could have imagined. “Once Ninja gets the absolutely crazy Mixer deal, Loaded puts pressure on Twitch by offering up their roster to any takers,” an ex-Twitch source told Kotaku. “Talent and management have the upper hand right now; it’s a buyer’s market.” In an email, a Loaded spokesperson told Kotaku that it does not disclose terms of its agreements with any talent.
Other agencies proceeded to follow suit, realising that there was gold in them thar hills—not to mention in the pathways, valleys, and even the dang trees leading to them. In October, another Loaded client, Michael “Shroud” Grzesiek, also jumped ship to Mixer for a deal that two sources told Kotaku was worth less than Blevins’ but still in the tens of millions. Destiny streamer Cory “King Gothalion” Michael, managed by OPG, moved to Mixer not long after. Other shifts happened in rapid succession: Jeremy “DisguisedToast” Wang, managed by United Talent Agency, moved from Twitch to Facebook. Jack “CouRage” Dunlop, managed by Loaded, went from Twitch to YouTube. Gonzalo “Zero” Barrios, managed by Creative Artists Agency, went from Twitch to Facebook. All of those moves happened in the month or so following Blevin’ high-profile Twitch departure. Even more have occurred since.
In retaliation, Twitch began signing streamers to exclusivity deals as well, only some of which have been publicly announced. Loaded struck a deal to keep Ben “DrLupo” Lupo, Saqib “Lirik” Zahid, and Timothy “TimTheTatman” Betar on Twitch, while Guy “Dr Disrespect” Beahm strongly implied during a stream in October that he’s being paid to stay as well. Meanwhile, two sources told Kotaku that Imane “Pokimane” Anys, the most popular female streamer on Twitch, has also cut a deal with Twitch that’s worth around $4.5 million. Kotaku reached out to Twitch and Anys for more information but did not hear back.
Twitch is now on the defensive, with other platforms—each with massive war chests—mounting different offensives.
“So Facebook and YouTube, for example, are super not picky when they’re considering influencers,” said N3rdfusion’s Devin Nash. “They’re literally just pitching everyone. But Mixer is going for a brand-friendly strategy. That’s why if you look at like a Gothalion or a Ninja or Shroud, they’re people that can keep it relatively P.C. and aren’t going to go off the rails.”
“Twitch isn’t profitable (far from it).”
Nash noted that for Mixer, this makes sense. Microsoft, he said, can’t beat Twitch in terms of sheer audience size, so it has instead assembled a roster of brand-friendly faces it can pair with the new Xbox or even “certain sections of Windows.” YouTube, meanwhile, has an obvious path towards taking over the streaming world: It’s a video platform built around ad revenue with an algorithm and interface already suited to this kind of content. Streaming just bolsters YouTube’s stranglehold on online video and gives Google yet another source of money. Facebook’s motivation and potential to monetise streaming is similar. As a result, both of these companies are making sizable strides. According to an end-of-year report from streaming utility company StreamElements and analytics tool Arsenal.gg, YouTube now accounts for 27.9% of streaming hours watched, while Facebook is sitting at 8.5%. Twitch, by comparison, is still the undisputed champ with around 61%, but YouTube had a strong 2019, and Facebook, especially, experienced big growth, more than doubling its percentage since 2018.
Compare all of that to Amazon, Twitch’s parent company, which makes most of its money off an online store that’s separate from its livestreaming platform. Nash said that Twitch Prime subscriptions, which tie into Amazon Prime subscriptions, do good business for Amazon, but otherwise, the operation doesn’t tie neatly into livestreaming. An ex-Twitch source told Kotaku that Twitch “isn’t profitable (far from it), and their only hopes to close the gap on a scalable basis are ads and tipping/donations,” the former of which is the company’s best bet, because “individual streamers haven’t successfully negotiated strong ad rates because they hate running ads.” So, said the source, partnered Twitch streamers are only getting “7%-14% rev share at most.” But that alone has not been enough to put Twitch in the black. This leaves Twitch in a surprisingly awkward spot—one that makes it harder to justify big expenditures on individual streamers. One ex-Twitch source told Kotaku that they’d tried to improve things on that front by suggesting more ideas for merchandising tie-ins, an increasingly large source of income for top streamers like Anys, but couldn’t make it happen.
“I was trying to get people to talk to Amazon to unlock greater sponsorship and product opportunities to make the Twitch deals more palatable,” the source said. “Imagine Amazon Fashion doing business with Pokimane and guaranteeing both annual sponsorships and product deals into the contract. Twitch and Amazon should be doing this, but it’s just not happening.”
In addition, Twitch is having some growing pains. According to Nash’s research, the number of streamers on the platform is increasing at a greater rate than the number of viewers (the ratio was 50 viewers to 1 streamer in 2012, now it’s 27 to 1), and the top 1,000 channels account for more than half of the entire platform’s hours watched. Twitch is on unsteady footing, making it a less appealing option for streamers than its dominance might suggest.
Tyler “Ninja” Blevins was not the first streamer to sign a platform exclusivity deal. Not by a long shot. Until 2017, League of Legends esports godking Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok—possibly the best-known esports player in the world—streamed exclusively on a now-defunct platform called Azubu, for example. More pertinently, Mixer signed a selection of smaller streamers to far less expensive exclusive deals beginning in 2016. But in 2019, the platform’s strategy changed.
Siefe Awade says he was among the first streamers to sign exclusivity deals with Mixer back in 2016. The contract guaranteed him money, which “definitely took weight off,” he told Kotaku over the phone, because at the time, “the platform’s largest streamer probably had 60 concurrent viewers.” In addition, Mixer offered streamers incentives like free Sparks, a site-wide currency. Awade stayed on Mixer for three years and was in line to stay on the platform for a fourth heading into 2020. Last year, his management was hammering out a new agreement with Mixer. Then, while Awade was attending a Call of Duty event in Los Angeles, Mixer announced that it’d signed Blevins. After that, Mixer became “very, very quiet” about re-signing Awade.
“They said they wanted me to stay, but the terms that they had were not something that I was comfortable with,” said Awade, who now streams on Facebook. “My team really tried, to the point where I was taking possibly less [money]. I wanted to be there with my community, but Mixer just wasn’t very receptive to it.”
Other streamers who had spent years on Mixer also felt a change in Mixer’s priorities around that time. Renée, a variety streamer who moved to Mixer in 2018, told Kotaku that she had worked out a plan with the company that would have seen her transition into a hybrid streamer-consultant role over time. She and her boyfriend, streamer Derek “Punjistick” Mallon, were both looking to provide guidance to Mixer on the platform side of things, and Renée said that Mixer was “totally on board” with the idea in 2018. But then 2019 rolled around.
“After a year, a lot of people shifted, and then people who were totally on board with us for that thing ended up either leaving the company or moved into places that couldn’t help us,” Renée said in a Discord voice call. “And now we were basically just left as just streamers who are there. And then eventually they decided that they didn’t want us there as streamers anymore, either.” So, due to the relatively small audience sizes available to them on Mixer, they decided to go back to Twitch: “It’s just a pure numbers thing, at that point,” said Renée. “We weren’t making enough money to survive there.”
Kevin “Kmagic101” Murray also moved from Twitch to Mixer in 2018. The deal he signed, he told Kotaku over the phone, was “nothing remotely close” to the sorts of deals the Ninjas and Shrouds of the world are now making, but it was enough to stabilize his streaming income for “14 or 15 months.” But in November of last year, he ended up cancelling his contract early to return to Twitch because he was “very unhappy” with the way the platform had progressed. Initially, he said, Mixer felt like its own thing, but over time, it transformed into a Twitch copycat. The platform’s future goals, meanwhile, began to feel like pies in an increasingly distant sky. “There were a lot of these plans, things they’d tell you were gonna happen,” Murray said. “A lot of it either never came to fruition or hasn’t come to fruition yet.”
These days, streamers make large portions of their money off brand deals, but viewership size is still key to making those deals. Many brands won’t touch streamers with small audiences—or, in the case of Mixer streamers, smaller potential audiences. “When I’d do sponsored work, they would always want to pay less for Mixer, and it was more infrequent,” said Murray. “A lot of what I heard was ‘Why would we spend money when this is what your views look like, when we can just put all our money into Twitch?’”
“It’s so worth it for Microsoft to pay that money, because how much would that have cost in owned media? How much would you have to spend on advertising minutes, on billboards, on internet ads, and digital to get there? It would have been way more.”
Initially, Mixer streamers thought all of this would change when Blevins and Grzesiek came on board. Both streamers had gargantuan audiences on Twitch, so you’d think those viewers would follow them and trickle down to other streamers on the platform. So far, however, that’s not really what’s happened. While Mixer’s total concurrent viewer numbers increased by 55.1% in 2019 compared to 2018, and the platform more than doubled its number of hours watched, it now, according to a report from livestreaming service StreamLabs and analytics company Newzoo, has nearly the same number of unique channels as Twitch. However, in 2019, according to the same report, Twitch accounted for 75.1% of streaming hours watched while Mixer boasted just 2.7%.
Microsoft’s approach to Mixer seems to be about quality (for its brand, anyway) over quantity. Despite Mixer’s small stature, relatively speaking, people are talking about it as though it’s just as big as Twitch, YouTube, and Facebook. Mixer did spend a lot on securing Blevins’ contract, but N3rdfusion CEO Devin Nash believes it would have cost Microsoft significantly more to achieve the same ends through traditional marketing.
“It’s so worth it for Microsoft to pay that money,” he said, “because how much would that have cost in owned media? How much would you have to spend on advertising minutes, on billboards, on internet ads, and digital to get there? It would have been way more.”
Mixer still has a significantly smaller audience than Twitch, though, and it’s one that isn’t growing fast enough to keep up with streamers migrating over to pan gold from the streams of big names like Blevins and Grzesiek, whose concurrent viewer counts are large by Mixer standards, but still far smaller than their 100,000+ highs on Twitch.
Will Mixer streamers stick around? Awade doubts it.
“A lot of people saw a huge streamer coming over, and they thought ‘Oh my god, we’re about to blow up,’” he said. “I think when that growth didn’t happen, people started wondering ‘Is this all I can get here? Maybe my content is good enough to be somewhere else and get more.’”
More now than ever, streamers’ services are in demand. Brands want to plaster their faces on product ads, agencies and management groups want to represent them, and platforms want to lock them down. Unfortunately, none of these entities are altruistic, and some are more than happy to take advantage of streamers’ relative naivete when it comes to doing business in the cutthroat world of celebrity. As exemplified in the story about the streamer whose agency swindled them out of $91,000, some streamers are still uneducated about their prospects and the contracts they’re signing.
“I’ve heard of some streamers where their managers took a flat fee plus a commission,” said Mike Lee, an agent at United Talent Agency who represents streamers like Jeremy “DisguisedToast” Wang, to Kotaku over the phone. “There’s a lot of, I would say, bad players in this space. I think a lot of people misconstrue what the term ‘agent’ is because you have so many different types of agencies... There’s really young kids who are seeing more money than their parents ever have. It’s a really important decision for a lot of these young content creators, [to] find a licensed and bonded talent agent.”
Other types of managers, explained Lee, are not regulated by the state, and thus have more latitude to make sketchy deals. This, according to sources on the agency and management side of things Kotaku spoke to, makes it tempting for brands and platforms to extend questionable offers to whomever is managing a streamer, such that the manager or agent makes a decent chunk of change themselves and is then incentivised to persuade the streamer to take the deal.
“The way that agencies justify this is they say ‘Oh, well you know, we’ve got operating costs,’” said N3rdfusion’s Nash, noting that he’s seen multiple deals in which agencies skimmed 80 per cent or more off the top. “But the streamers don’t care enough [to investigate], and they don’t have any contact with the actual brand... So the only communication that’s going on is on the account management side of the agency and the company itself.”
Experienced streamers, too, say that this is an issue: “I know two instances of that,” said Siefe Awade in response to Kotaku’s recounting of Nash’s story about a streamer getting paid $9,000 on an ad deal while his agency got $91,000. “It’s happened a lot. But people don’t know. It makes you start wondering about everything. That’s what I hate about it. I’m like ‘Jesus Christ, what if I have $6 million somewhere that I don’t even know about?’”
Platforms also have a lot of power to make or break a streamer’s career. In addition to offering money to streamers, companies have also taken to offering promotion—some of which happens on platforms where they pull all the levers.
“You might be at the mercy of the platform, too,” said Awade. “If their stability is really bad or they’re not helping promote you or channels aren’t growing organically, your channel doesn’t look very good. And then all of the sudden, that company is actually saying that you’re not worth as much anymore, when it’s mostly their fault.”
“It makes you start wondering about everything. That’s what I hate about it. I’m like ‘Jesus Christ, what if I have $6 million somewhere that I don’t even know about?’”
With costly contracts in the mix, platforms could even be incentivised to purposefully do this in order to temporarily drive down the cost of particular streamers. It is all, once again, akin to more traditional broadcasting, where networks sometimes under-promote promising shows or even place them in so-called “graveyard” time slots. Difference is, on streaming platforms, that type of maneuvering is less visible and, therefore, harder to prove. Streaming culture places the onus on individuals, not platforms, to do the bulk of the promotion, but platforms very much have the power to surface content as they please—especially with algorithmically-driven companies like Facebook and YouTube charging headlong into the streaming space.
“It’s a scary, scary thing,” said Awade.
There are plenty of upsides for streamers in this new world of exclusivity contracts and big money brand deals. These new contracts, as treacherous as their fine print can sometimes be, still offer a more solid career path than most streamers had in the early unregulated days of YouTube and Twitch. Consistent pay and new horizons mean that some streamers can now do the job on their own terms, rather than whatever Twitch’s hyper-competitive meatgrinder of an ecosystem demands. It’s been a welcome reprieve for streamers like Jeremy “DisguisedToast” Wang, who moved from Twitch to Facebook late last year in part to attract a wider audience from places like Southeast Asia and in part to give himself a fresh start.
“I was doing 12-hour streams for, like, a month straight, every day,” Wang told Kotaku over the phone. “At the end of it, I was thinking to myself, ‘What’s the purpose? Tomorrow I’ll get on here for 12 hours and maintain my 10,000 viewers. But is that really what I want to spend my entire day doing?’ But if I didn’t do it, then other Teamfight Tactics streamers would overtake me—take my audience, because they’re working just as hard as I am. And in this streaming scene, you can’t really take breaks. You can’t really let up off that gas pedal. You’ve got to grind, grind, grind, grind, grind.”
This sentiment was echoed by people Kotaku spoke to on both the industry and agency side, some of whom went so far as to suggest that some bigger streamers are signing exclusivity deals to lock down their income and build up retirement funds.
“A lot of these top streamers are using this as a retirement plan, or an ‘I’m tired of grinding’ plan,” said Evolved Talent’s Ryan Morrison. “So you can look at creators who have hit the ceiling on places like Twitch and they can go make what they’re making now plus some more to go stream on a different platform. I think every study shows that most of their audience will not go with them. But when these guys go, they know they have secure income, they know they’re going to pay their bills, they’re going to make what they can. And they can still do stuff on the side and chase other passions.”
Although it’s not entirely accurate to say that streamers were never under contract before, because even regular Twitch partners technically are, it used to be true that Twitch could count on skimming sizable chunks of change off the top of their content—their labour—more or less for free. That’s no longer the case. But it’s not like streaming platforms’ backs are suddenly against the wall as a result of this new arrangement. All of these companies are mind-bogglingly colossal. They can play this game for a long, long time. And for Facebook, YouTube, and Microsoft, initial returns look awfully promising.
“These companies are extremely powerful and extremely patient,” said Nash. “They’re not failing. And then the other thing you can look at is how Twitch is growing against other platforms. The short of it is that YouTube and Facebook—not really Mixer, but YouTube and Facebook—are growing insanely fast.” He pointed to YouTube, especially, noting that its gaming section has 200 million daily active users compared to Twitch’s 15 million and algorithms that can point more of those users to livestreaming content. On top of that, YouTube recently made what might be the single biggest deal of the livestream wars so far, becoming the exclusive host of Overwatch League, Call of Duty League, Hearthstone esports, and other Activision Blizzard events. Esports events often pull bigger numbers than individual streamers and have been a backbone of Twitch’s offerings for years. YouTube is playing for keeps. Twitch got a head start, but it may soon find itself having trouble staying ahead of the curve.
For now, then, it makes sense for companies like Facebook, YouTube, and Microsoft to continue snatching up big names to make their streaming platforms more visible. But the trend may not last.
“I expect another year or two of big long-term streamer deals, and then some kind of drop off in gamer signings because businesses will want to know what they are getting for these expensive investments,” an ex-Twitch source told Kotaku.
“A lot of these top streamers are using this as a retirement plan, or an ‘I’m tired of grinding’ plan.”
Many streamers have reported losing large portions of their audiences as the result of uprooting and moving to other platforms. While the Ninjas and Shrouds of the world will be fine pretty much no matter what, even they aren’t gazing down from the same untouchable, ethereal god-planes they used to. There’s a reason for this: For audiences weaned on Twitch, it’s like television. All of television. In one place.
“Twitch users treat Twitch as their television set,” said Morrison. “It’s not the internet anymore; it’s Twitch. And every different channel on Twitch is a different channel like it would be on TV. The thing here is, OK, so your favorite show was Ninja? Well, that show got cancelled. You don’t throw out your TV and get another one that he’s on. You just find another show.”
It’s not just a convenience thing, either. People have communities on Twitch—friends, in-jokes, memes, and a broader culture they feel like they’re part of. A large part of that culture is genuineness, or at the very least, performative genuineness. Streamers, in contrast to traditional celebrities, present themselves as regular, down-to-earth people fans can imagine chilling out with. And so, while it makes sense for more traditional celebrities or shows to move between networks every couple years, streamers can’t just close their eyes and leap without considering what they’re leaving behind. Because after a while, fans will start to doubt if they’re really about what they say they’re about. This puts mid-sized and smaller streamers whose communities are more tight-knit in an especially awkward spot.
“I think it’s gonna create a larger gap between larger channels and smaller channels,” said Awade, who started out on Twitch before moving to Mixer and now Facebook. “Because the people who keep going back and forth, your hardcore community—the people who like spending time with you—when you keep leaving platforms, it’s almost like telling them that they’re not enough. I’ve had people come to me in private and be like ‘Are we not good enough for you?’ The more you do that, the more people start wondering ‘Is this streamer genuine?’”
The biggest beneficiaries of this shift in the livestreaming business, then, seem to be larger streamers—the cream of the crop who’ve already, to some extent, gotten theirs and could be thinking about getting out—and, of course, streaming platforms. Smaller streamers, on the other hand, can either continue to swim upstream on Twitch—where upward mobility has become increasingly limited—or try their luck on platforms with smaller audiences for livestreaming content, platforms where trickle-down from an influx of shiny new top streamers is hardly guaranteed. Audiences, meanwhile, can no longer be certain that their favorite streamers will continue to chill out in the same old haunts, forming the heart of communities they’ve frequented for years.
For the past handful of years, people have viewed video game livestreaming as a vast new career field brimming with possibilities. If you put in the hours, so went the conventional wisdom, you could make it to the top. Like so many other competitive spaces, it’s never been anything remotely resembling a true meritocracy, but it was a scene in which an uncommon number of nobodies were able to become somebodies. For the past couple years, though, it’s been transforming into something more traditional. This is the next big step in that transformation. Now more than ever, livestreaming is business, where people wheel, deal, and even take advantage of others, and where there’s a vast gap between the haves and the have-nots. This is an upheaval, one that became inevitable when more and more money started flowing into livestreaming. Problem with upheavals is, they rarely end with everybody on equal footing.