One Streamer’s Emotional Return Highlights the Interactive and Voyeuristic Allure of Twitch TV

     August 2, 2018

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After three weeks of silence, the popular Twitch streamer MANvsGame suddenly reappeared. Dressed in his regular uniform of a white button-down and skinny black tie, the typically confident and charismatic MAN seemed nervous and exhausted. He was trembling slightly. “You look sad,” a viewer commented in chat, as more and more people (around 2,500 at that time, out of about 500k followers) switched over to his stream to see what was up. MAN read that comment out loud and laughed: “It’s because I am.”

For those unfamiliar, Twitch.tv is a hugely successful live-streaming service that was originally a gamer-focused offshoot of Justin.tv (Justin.tv has since been shut down, and Amazon now owns Twitch). According to one data report, the site has 2.2 million broadcasters monthly and 15 million daily active users, growing alongside the massive expansion of interest in eSports. It also means that while Twitch can be oversaturated with streamers looking for an audience — and most crucially, subscribers — there are some popular streamers who make playing video games for people a very lucrative full-time job. (There are also channels devoted entirely to playing old episodes of Bob Ross — it runs a gamut).

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Image via Twitch

Successful Twitch streamers take many forms, but for the most part, they appear to be white and male and around 30 years old. Some play old games while others are more cutting-edge, debuting games that viewers can’t buy yet. (One of the reasons the gaming industry allows their wares to be showcased like this without getting a cut is because the exposure is priceless). Streamers may do speed runs for side-scrollers, grind through every quest for RPGs, or pick up a new game and immediately put it on the hardest setting to show off their skills. Some appear as a super-imposed cutout in the bottom corner of the screen, and others crowd their casts with announcements and information.

It sounds fun, it looks fun, but successful streamers usually sign on every day of the week (or most days of the week) for 8-10 hour sessions. It can become a grind, which is something MAN addressed in his emotionally raw return on July 31st. “I’ve lost my confidence,” he said. “I don’t believe my own hype anymore.” He went on to discuss, thoughtfully, about how he had had trouble getting out of his bed over the last few weeks. He’s sought professional help. He’s trying to get outside more. But nothing seems to be helping.

The chat, meanwhile, is flooded with love and support. Armchair doctors also appear with advice, which he chuckles at and says he will consider. Then there are the inevitable questions about when he’ll get back to actually gaming. “When are you going to return to No Man’s Sky?” is a popular refrain. MAN sighs and says that while he’s finding some joy in playing video games again on his own (like Breath of the Wild, set on “Normal” this time), he’s lost his joy for streaming. Part of that, he said, is the schedule (especially problematic since his streams tend to start late in the evening and go until dawn), but also that, “I’ve told all of my stories tens of hundreds of times, and answered the same questions over and over again.”

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Image via Twitch

Elsewhere on Twitch, MAN’s friend ezekiel_iii is streaming a playthrough of RimWorld. Zeke (as he is called) is more of a niche streamer (170,000 followers), though one who has steadily been growing his following and catching the attention of the larger Twitch community (he recently sat as a panelist for official Twitch coverage of the gaming conference E3). Like MAN, Zeke is a performer. He’s loud, funny, and genuine. While many streamers can gain followings from playing popular new games (like Fortnite) and offering their expertise (like Zeke’s uber-popular streamer friends CohhCarnage and Sacriel do), Zeke often plays obscure or indie games, or plays popular games badly, mostly on purpose. His time playing RimWorld has often been hysterical to watch, especially because as someone who is known for rage-quitting, he’s become especially invested in his Sims-like characters. “Didi had her baby!?” he exclaimed in pure excitement over one of the animals in his colony delivering her calf. “I’m such a proud papa.”

Both Zeke and MAN hail from Billings, Montana, and have known each other for a long time. Concern for MAN after his disappearance bled over into Zeke’s chat, with viewers wanting to know if he had heard from him or if he’s ok. Zeke didn’t speak much about it — that’s not his style — but he has occasionally said that MAN is fine. When MAN finally signed back on July 31st, Zeke’s chat lit up with the news, and Zeke himself was happy to hear it. It speaks to the fraternity that seems to surround Twitch streamers, many of whom show up in each other’s chats, send viewers to friend’s channels as “raids,” and who come together for talk show broadcasts like “Dropped Frames.”

And yet, one of MAN’s major complaints on his recent stream was how alienated he has felt from the Twitch streamer community, especially since his public battle with drug use in 2015, where he was using speed to keep him going. It’s typical to see streamers chugging energy drinks while they sit and play, but MAN suggested that many have deeper problems like his that aren’t being addressed. The World Health Organization has recognized “Gaming Disorder” as a mental health condition, and it stands to reason that at least some portion of those signing on day after day for hours and hours to play these games may fall into this category. But after saying all of that, MAN opened up a gift from a subscriber called Knives that made him laugh: an acid-yellow shirt that says “Speed for Days.” He cracks up, as do those in chat, and he darkly jokes he should wear it to TwitchCon.

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Image via Twitch

For me, switching from Zeke’s jovial stream to MAN’s emotionally intense one was an exercise in whiplash. It also felt like a peculiar type of voyeurism, especially as a lurker (most streamers love their lurkers — as long as they follow and/or subscribe, participating in chat is certainly not required; especially since the chat can, though not always, be a toxic place). I’m not much of a gamer, and I don’t have plans to play most of the games that are broadcast on Twitch, which is part of its appeal. But MAN was one of the first streamers I followed because he was so entertaining. It didn’t matter what the game was, I was watching for MAN’s commentary and reactions. To see him hit this low point and look so sad was difficult, and yet, I couldn’t turn it off. It felt like a friend struggling to confide something you’ve known for a long time, and yet, he was doing this in front of thousands of viewers.

In many ways, Twitch is just a different form of cable TV — you turn on MAN’s channel for his commentary, you flip over to Zeke for hijinks and laughs, you watch Cohh or Sacriel for expert play and gaming tips, and you check out how King Gothalion is doing in his playthrough of Destiny 2 with his streamer friends. And yes, there is certainly a darker and weirder side of Twitch that most casual viewers avoid. But MAN’s emotional return was a reminder that these are real people, not characters. It’s easy to get caught up in the lives of streamers, especially those who share a bit about their world (Zeke has been on a weight-loss journey, Sacriel recently got engaged, Cohh talks a lot about his farm), but mostly these are positive updates from people who have, bizarrely, come to feel like real friends. But we don’t actually know them, or what they go through, which is one reason MAN’s openness about his struggles with depression are so potent. It resonates with an audience who watches him as he sits alone in a room, broadcasting his inner demons. Some people genuinely care, others genuinely don’t. Both make their opinions known.

“I don’t have any plans to share, I’m just living in the moment,” he tells the chat when asked if he will be back on a regular schedule. Almost on cue, one of the first questions asked after that is “will you return to Witcher 2?” MAN doesn’t reply, he’s busy setting up a Trials Fusion run. His chat answers for him: He is living in the moment. And we’re living it with him.

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Image via Twitch

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