Friday, 01 April 2016 00:00

The Humanity of the Casual Streamer

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 If Amazon is willing to shell out $970 million for's online broadcasting empire , it is pretty safe to say that there is a booming market for live video gaming streams.

Although video services like YouTube have been around for a while and have provided a way for video game players to record themselves playing games, the enormous successes of the video game streaming industry suggest that prerecorded videos of gameplay do not suffice. Much of the surging popularity of video game streaming is centered around eSports, which have become so popular that ESPN recently partnered with DotA 2 to air a live competition. However, other than the occasional event that draws hundreds of thousands to millions of viewers, the vast majority of people on a streaming service like Twitch at any given time of day are watching casual streamers. A casual streamer in the context of Twitch is an individual or a small group of players that stream normal gameplay rather than tournaments or eSport events. A casual streamer can still stream as a full-time job or may even be a well-known tournament champion, but, so long as she is streaming independently, she still counts as a casual streamer. Many video game players don't understand the purpose of watching a casual video game stream. After all, video games are an inherently interactive media, so the idea of relinquishing control over the game seems to contradict the entire paradigm of video gaming. What keeps viewers of casual streams tuning in is rarely the game, though; it is the uniquely human element that few other forms of entertainment provide.

One of the most compelling elements of the live component of streaming is that it enables a streamer to adapt to viewer feedback in real time.

The primary vehicle for this feedback is the chat that accompanies any stream in Twitch. While using the chat function, viewers can ask questions, make commentary, or attempt to engage the streamer in conversation – and the streamer can respond to them immediately. This community of viewers around a streamer ends up being privy to all kinds of mishaps, jokes, and moments of surprising intimacy that all feel exponentially more important due to the fact that viewers were “there when it happened."  These experiences, when shared by enough viewers, have lead to inside jokes that have gone on to change the very language that people use in-game.  Just ask anyone deeply involved with League of Legends whether they have seen someone exclaim "Raise Your Dongers!" –a craze that would not have been were it not for the Twitch stream that started it.

Although it is now viable to make a living as a casual streamer due to the advertisements, subscriptions, and donations made possible on Twitch, money rarely seems like the motivation for most of the popular streams.  There may be a few streamers that stream with the express goal of "making it big," but it is more often the streamers that do it for personal reasons that are the most interesting to watch, whether they stream to counter the loneliness of playing a solitary game, to feel like the focus of an enraptured audience's attention, or to receive positive reinforcement from viewers on their gameplay. Granted, a streamer that is streaming for such reasons will not always find success.  Discouraging feedback, fierce competition, and a lack of viewer interest are common problems for beginning streamers, regardless of their motivations.  To capture the attention of fickle viewers, many streamers try to find ways to distinguish themselves from the myriad other streams available, and it isn't an easy task.  Some rookie streamers resort to cheap gimmicks, like giveaways or raffles, that may garner some viewership in the short-term, but retaining those viewers becomes increasingly difficult over time if a stream lacks any other attractive qualities.  Veteran streamers, on the other hand, try to establish a reputation by providing a more substantial service.  For example, a high-level player of Hearthstone may stream with the purpose of teaching viewers about deck building, and viewers will leap at the chance to learn strategies from an accomplished guru.  Alternatively, a streamer may decide to play every new MMORPG upon release and stream their trials so that viewers can determine whether the games are worth purchasing themselves.  Some streamers only need a magnetic personality to attract viewers and are so entertaining to watch that they could be formatting an Excel spreadsheet and people would still flock to their stream.  Whatever tactics the streamer employs to get viewers and whatever the motivations of the streamer, fostering a strong connection between the streamer and the viewers is the best way for the streamer to ensure that their stream is engaging.

In sports, fans will often feel a sense of ownership over the team with which they affiliate themselves, feeling personal pride when they win and crushed when they lose.

Casual streaming not only fosters a similar appropriation by viewers of their streamers of choice; it refines it.  Rather than rooting for one's team of choice and sharing in the successes of this distant entity, viewers of a casual streamer are rooting for someone who is more like a friend.  Unlike sporting events where any words of encouragement one might have for a struggling player will likely be drowned out in a sea of indistinct yelling (which can indeed happen for streamers if a chat is full of spammers, but many streamers have safeguards against that)or fall deaf on the uncaring ears of the television, the streamer may read a viewer's words of encouragement at any time and may even feel a little extra motivation as a result.  Therefore, viewers can actually have an impact on the way the game is played, and this ultimate ambition of any sports fan is made all the sweeter for having helped out a friend in the process.

Human beings are fundamentally social creatures and video game players are not exempt from that urge for interaction.  This is especially pertinent because gamers are notoriously a selectively social lot.  Casual video game streams provide a much-needed outlet for gamers to both indulge in their love for games and satisfy their desire for human contact.  As casual streaming moves out of its infancy and attracts an increasing number of viewers, the popular perception of gamers as a solitary minority may be replaced by the understanding that playing and watching video games is enjoyed by a diverse majority with ultimately traditional social cravings.

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John Fentiman

John 'LegatoSmash' Fentiman is a recent graduate of Case Western Reserve University School of Law, but don't let that fool you. He has been playing video games for longer than he can remember, so he can pew pew and QQ with the best of them. His current favorite game developers are Amanita Design, Double Fine Productions, CCP Games, and Riot Games. In addition to his deep affection for gaming, John is an avid philosopher and theater attendee.