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What it takes to play video games for a living: Insane hours and tons of stress

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor

Seven days a week, 12 to 16 hours a day for two years straight. That’s how often 31-year old Ben Bowman, a professional streamer, livestreamed video games on Amazon’s (AMZN) Twitch from 2013 to 2015. Today, with an audience of more than 640,000 followers, Bowman has cut back on his streaming … to six days a week.

It turns out, streaming video games for a living isn’t all fun and, well, games. And the medium, which is supported by heavyweights like Twitch, Google’s (GOOG, GOOGL) YouTube Gaming and Microsoft’s (MSFT) Mixer is only growing.

According to Lewis Ward, research director for gaming and augmented and virtual reality at Gartner, Inc., a third of mobile gamers said they have created video or livestreamed content in the past month. And that doesn’t take into account the huge number of streamers on consoles and PCs.

The demand justifies this supply. According to a recent survey conducted by Piper Jaffray, 61% of teenagers said they watch other people play video games on YouTube, Twitch or other sites.

But becoming a successful streamer is incredibly difficult, time consuming and, for most people, just about impossible.

Living off of a game

According to Ward, the number of streamers who can support themselves by streaming is in the hundreds worldwide. “That’s out of a gamer base of over a billion people globally,” he said.

Top streamers can earn anywhere from thousands to millions of dollars a year in subscription fees, tips and sponsorships from gaming peripheral makers. Of course, becoming one of the lucky few who make millions isn’t easy.

It’s almost as hard to break into this top tier as to win the lottery,” Ward said. “It’s a one-in-a-million type thing. You can do everything right and invest tons of time and effort and get nowhere for no particular reason.”

He added, “It’s probably easier to break through as a band or rap group. It’s that hard, partly because the barrier to entry is so low.”

How low exactly? If you’ve got a camera and a game to play, you’re more or less set to stream. What’s more, the demands of the job can have a serious impact on streamers’ lives.

How they make their cash

Successful streamers don’t simply play games for 20 minutes at a time and call it a day. Violet Miller, who goes by DistractedElf on Twitch, streams 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, while LucyMae, IAmLucyMae on Microsoft’s Mixer, streams 8 to 10 hours a day.

Streaming for that long means streamers have to both play the games, usually well, and perform for their audiences. “Your living is inherent in your ability to entertain and to keep people interested in your content,” Miller explained.

Streamers make their cash in a number of ways. Twitch allows streamers with an “established and steady growing audience and chat” who broadcast three times a week or more to join the service’s Partner Program. Partners split ad revenue with Twitch and earn cash through subscriptions from viewers. Subscribers can opt for $4.99, $9.99 or $24.99 per month subscriptions for access to special perks available in their favorite streamers’ feeds.

A subscription can, for example, net you access to subscriber-only chat, custom emoticons and chat badges, ad-free viewing and more. Viewers can also make direct donations. Then there are sites like Patreon that allow fans to pay streamers directly for rewards like behind-the-scenes video.

Beyond the time streaming requires, being a full-time streamer has a number of other drawbacks. Professionals have to regularly deal with the seedier side of online life in the form of trolls who are more interested in harassing the streamer than watching the game they’re playing. To that end, streamers employ friends and, in some instances, professional moderators to keep their chats clean.

A toxic chat environment can turn off followers. And since streamers depend on their subscribers and followers to make ends meet, trolls can have an impact on a streamer’s earnings.

Keeping up subscriber numbers is integral to being a successful streamer.

“It’s a stressful lifestyle, I’ve got to say,” Miller said.

If subscriber numbers drop, so too will a streamer’s monthly income.

“One month you might get a huge tip from someone and you’re walking on air the rest of the month, and then the next month might be really tight and super worrying,” Miller said. “It’s super variable and you’re always worried the next [month] is going to be the one you’re not going to be able to pay your rent on time.”

Some streamers will even abuse their bodies to prevent their numbers from retreating or to get a short-term boost. Miller says she’s seen streamers take shots of alcohol each time they get a certain number of subscribers.

To be clear, Twitch’s Community Guidelines specifically state that streamers are prohibited from using illegal drugs or drinking excessively during streams. YouTube Gaming and Mixer have similar guidelines. In fact, Microsoft specifically calls out asking for donations for alcohol in its Rules of User Conduct.

Building your personal brand

To be successful, full-time streamers need a personal brand that viewers can connect with—something that makes fans want to come back to over and over again. Miller keeps her fans hooked by playing slower-paced games that allow her to chat with subscribers without losing focus like she would in faster games. She also streams tabletop games like “Dungeons and Dragons.”

Bowman got started by streaming his own speed runs, which require a player to attempt to beat a game as quickly as possible. But after experiencing pain in his wrists and hands due to the precision needed to complete speed runs, Bowman decided to jump to the then-new game “Destiny.” Since then, Bowman has seen his followers grow from 42,000 to more than 600,000.

Of course, one of the biggest issues when it comes to streaming is consistency. To build an audience of loyal followers, streamers need a set schedule that they follow religiously. If they’re not streaming when their viewers expect them to, they can choose to simply find another streamer and never look back.

The end game

For some streamers, the thrill of being able to do what they love — play video games for adoring fans — is enough to keep them streaming for for the foreseeable future. Miller says she’ll continue performing for as long as streaming is popular.

“My fervent hope is that I can continue doing this for quite a bit longer. And if it turns into something, I hope it turns into something within the industry, the game industry,” she said.

Bowman has used his streaming success to launch a charity similar to the one that initially peaked his interest in streaming. Dubbed GuardianCon, the charity is a multi-day event for fans of the game “Destiny” that raises money for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. Last year, Bowman said, GuardianCon raked in $1.3 million for the hospital.

“I’m very much focused on creating a personal brand and working with the people that I work with already on Twitch and turning it into something good,” he said.

For the rest of the streamers out there, there’s always the next game.

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Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.