Getting Paid To Play: Thanks to Live-Streaming, Video Games are a Massive Spectator Sport

Getting Paid To Play: Thanks to Live-Streaming, Video Games are a Massive Spectator Sport
Photos by Marco Torres

When most people play FIFA 15 on Xbox One or PlayStation 4 and beat another player, they get a sense of accomplishment. When Houstonians Michael LaBelle and Aman Seddiqi beat other players, they get five-figure checks. Only if they are the best of the best, that is.

LaBelle started his life playing a more conventional style of soccer out on the fields from an early age. At Hightower High School in Missouri City, he played varsity soccer, basketball and cross-country as well as club soccer and continued to compete in college. “Most of the eSports guys are also big sports guys who play,” says LaBelle. “It’s rarely the stereotype you’re thinking of. I played all throughout college and still do in local indoor leagues. Aman, too, played soccer all throughout high school.”

It was in high school that LaBelle discovered he was better than most of his friends who were playing video games. This was back when having a competitive match in Halo involved hauling out giant Ethernet cables. It was a natural fit for him to drift into sports games, particularly the FIFA series.

His career as a video player took off when he was a teenager. First a local tournament, then one in Dallas, then Los Angeles and then across the ocean to Amsterdam. Sponsors like Phillips and FIFA itself (the actual sports league, not the video game) started courting him at the age of 18, sending him off to Europe at a moment’s notice to try his luck against the world’s best players for big cash prizes. The glory was there, but so was the intense pressure. The money drops off rapidly after first place in the eSports world. Either win big or barely win at all.

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“Several times I’ve won more than $10,000 in a single tournament,” says LaBelle. “But there’s a lot of stress and pressure in competition. You need to be in first place constantly. Second place is significantly less. People only like you as much as you win. You keep winning and your sponsors will send you anywhere you want to go. If you don’t come first, they’re a lot stingier.”

In one case, organizers of a South Korean exposition brought in top-ranked players like LaBelle to compete on a non-standard, regionally generated version of FIFA that local players were familiar with but that international players were not.

“They basically flew us in to lose,” says LaBelle. “This is the problem with competitive playing. You might waste months of honing skills in a particular game only to watch it fall apart at the last minute.”

This inconsistency led Midtown roommates LaBelle and Seddiqi to start transitioning some of their focus to content created on YouTube such as FIFA tutorials, matches against prominent personalities and the showcasing of elaborate trick shots to build an audience of 135,000 subscribers.

For nearly 30 years, no matter how good a player was at a particular game, there simply was no way to show that off to a national or international audience as elite gamers like LaBelle and Seddiqi now do. But the widespread availability of gaming videos on YouTube, streaming video services like Twitch.tv and the increasingly more affordable equipment to record and stream gameplay have changed all that. Both the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One were clearly designed to cater to gamers who want to demonstrate their skills, with both systems having the built-in ability to record and share videos of gameplay.

Twitch.tv, owned by Amazon, saw its 45 million users watch more than 12 billion minutes of video in 2013 alone. Converting minutes to years, that means they watched more content on Twitch.tv than four times the length of recorded human history, and the vast majority of that content was game—related, with League of Legends, Dota 2, World of Warcraft, Call of Duty, Starcraft and Minecraft dominating.

Major media companies like ESPN and DirecTV now have dedicated divisions that broadcast eSports gaming to millions. Gaming made history in 2013 when the League of Legends World Championship Final sold out the Staples Center in Los Angeles, which usually hosts the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers. And big audiences mean big money to the right player.

It’s impossible to overestimate how much gaming dominates YouTube content. The most popular channel on YouTube is a Swedish gamer named Felix Kjellberg, better known as PewDiePie. His video-game videos have netted him 37 million subscribers, which is higher than YouTube’s own channel. He has racked up more than 8 billion views for his content, and Forbes reports that his income from ad sales on YouTube is $4 million a year.

In fact, as of this writing, five of the 20 most subscribed channels on YouTube are video-game-centric. More than that, while musician Vevos and clips from The Ellen Show are all top-rated channels, most of the video game content is just regular people playing on regular equipment without any Hollywood production. Video game watching has sparked a vast consumer media empire full of self-made success stories, and gamers like LaBelle and Seddiqi can build careers around their monetized content.

*****
Sarah Belham of Sarah Plays a Thing builds her audience on YouTube playing the popular creation game Minecraft.
Sarah Belham of Sarah Plays a Thing builds her audience on YouTube playing the popular creation game Minecraft.


Becoming a video game celebrity on YouTube

comes with its own grind. You have to be constantly creating to build an audience. Most of these videos are guided walk-throughs of games in chapter form called Let’s Plays, as if you’re telling a viewer, “Let’s Play

Slender

” or “Let’s Play

The Last of Us

.”

Sarah Belham (a stage name; she doesn’t use her real name online) is a Let’s Player who operates under the handle Sarah Plays a Thing. Belham comes from a heavy-gaming household; her parents were huge Atari enthusiasts who settled some of their domestic arguments with Missile Command matches. The first thing she ever saved up to buy was a Super NES.

It was just a hobby for her until she started following popular YouTube gaming channels like The Yogscast and Mindcrack. Two years later, she had recorded nearly 600 videos of her own. “I thought, ‘I can do this,’” says Belham. “I wasn’t thinking I could go in and make money, but if I was already playing games and pointing and laughing at them, I might as well get paid for it.”

Most of her work involves Minecraft, the popular open-world creation game that allows players the ability to build virtually anything within it. The Danish Geodata Agency actually created a complete 1:1 scale version of the entire country of Denmark in Minecraft, a feat that went on to set a Guinness World Record. One of Belham’s video series for Minecraft uses a kitchen in the game like a cooking show to create representations of food. Because of the LEGO-like nature of Minecraft, the audience is huge.

“I think stuff like that draws because it’s all-ages,” says Belham. “I like games like that. No plot, no directive, just you exploring around. People work in Minecraft like artists work in clay, taking what you have and re-arranging it to make something. Kind of like a DJ.” She also tackles horror games at least once a week, having just finished a yearlong Let’s Play of the controversial Twin Peaks-inspired Deadly Premonition.

Belham saw her first check for her Let’s Play work in 2014, when she found herself partnered with Maker Studios for monetized content.“It’s a subsidiary of Disney,” says Belham. “My checks have a big old Mickey Mouse on them and everything. I tell people that technically makes me a Disney princess.” She declines to say exactly how much she earns from her videos, referring to her income from gaming as her “going-out-to-eat money.”

It is possible to make a fortune doing Let’s Plays, but the competition for viewers is plentiful and steep. Belham says that she would need to see at least 10,000 subscribers before she would even think about quitting her day job as an engraver in a Pasadena trophy shop.

“I feel like I’ve had to fight for every subscriber,” she says. “People have said they like me because unlike a lot of Let’s Players, I don’t scream or yell or act over-the-top. I’m more like a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode with just one robot. I’ve worked on making shorter content. Shorter videos seem to get better responses. On the other hand, by far my most popular video is the third part of a crap-quality Minecraft hardcore walk-through I did when I first started out. It’s ten times as popular as anything else and I have no idea why. It’s word of mouth, I guess. That’s how you build up in this business. Someone slightly more popular than you tells their viewers to check out something you did and you get a few more subscribers.”

When he’s not performing with bands like Clockpole on Houston stages, Kenneth Nabours III streams videos of himself playing bizarre video games like Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden
When he’s not performing with bands like Clockpole on Houston stages, Kenneth Nabours III streams videos of himself playing bizarre video games like Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden

Another local gamer is finding himself starting all over again trying to build an audience. Kenneth Nabours III lives in Clear Lake but spends most of his time working in a Montrose coffee shop and playing music as a solo act and with the improvisational and oft-naked band Clockpole. He has also been a gamer his whole life, and jokes about having learned to read from the special-move directions on Street Fighter arcade cabinets he would haunt at local grocery stores.

In 2012 Nabours was bedridden with a fungal infection that entered his bloodstream, and he nearly died. Unable to perform music while recovering, he began watching game channels on Twitch.tv and Livestream to entertain himself, and saw an opportunity.

“I had DJed at KTRU for a year, and that sort of mind-set worked well for me.” says Nabours. “I focused on weirder, more obscure titles that other people weren’t working with. Twitch has a program guide that lets people look for games that they want to see played, and that’s how I got a lot of my viewers. Or Livestream used to have a service where you could curate in a selection of your favorite YouTube videos while you were on a break, so that helped keep people engaged because I was as good at finding bizarre stuff that fit well with the games I was playing.”

Nabours has a great love for terrible licensed games from movies and TV that really should never have had video game adaptations, especially those from the 16-bit era. Beethoven’s 2nd and Home Improvement are particular favorites for their poor hit detection, shoddy designs and nonsensical levels.

That love of the awful has its audience. Parody games like Supra Mayro Kratt and Bubsy 3D: Bubsy Visits the James Turrell Retrospective were among his collection. The latter takes an obscure cute animal mascot platformer from the ’90s and sends him to the real-life exhibit on the life of artist James Turrell at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and then to Hell. Even that one is nothing compared to Nabours’s favorite game, Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden, a roleplaying dungeon crawler starring former Houston Rocket Charles Barkley as a hero in a dystopian wasteland that also serves as a sequel to the film Space Jam.

“Most of what I play is made by one guy on a PC in his basement,” Nabours says. “I don’t consider it art, more like documenting. I don’t talk much unless I need to explain something. Most of what people want from me is to just experience the game.”

However, Nabours is moving away from streaming, saying it’s easier to monetize his time on YouTube. He says that Livestream, his preferred platform, is less welcoming to gamers than Twitch.tv and the licenses for HD broadcasting are too expensive.

“They really dropped the ball on the gaming revolution,” says Nabours. “They want to cater to big events and now relegate gaming to a kind of ghetto. They don’t even have a program guide. It’s one of the reasons I’m moving to Let’s Plays through BeyondElectricSheep.com. I would stream for four or five hours a night, and that’s time that could be spent on music instead. YouTube keeps running while I’m gone.”

As far as he’s concerned, rebuilding a following on YouTube is the more sensible approach for a long-term career. LaBelle and Seddiqi concur.

“Being on YouTube generates more consistent money than eSports,” says LaBelle. “Not if you’re a great League of Legends player, maybe, but in general, yeah. For some reason, sports gamers have a harder time building individual following through competition. You have to know the game inside and out and unless you do, you might not recognize the skill involved.”

LaBelle explains that much of what gives master players their edge is an intricate knowledge of the glitches and tricks of a particular version of a game. Through their videos, Seddiqi and LaBelle have been enjoying the chance to create tutorials that explain things to players that more novice gamers would probably discover on their own only after months of professional-level practice. It’s gratifying to Seddiqi and LaBelle to see those same tricks show up more and more in competition as their fans and viewers master them.

And, they say, creating on their own terms is far less stressful. They still jump at any chance to travel and play at the top of their game, but find it difficult to maintain consistency. Occasionally they supplement their income by joining video game gambling matches on sites like WorldGaming.com, but it’s still hard work for uncertain pay.

“One year we had a $250,000 tournament, and the next year it was gone,” says Seddiqi. “In our case, EA (FIFA 15’s developer) just really doesn’t seem to care about eSports or growing that segment of gaming. It’s crazy. It’s free marketing and they just don’t care. They have no interest in input from players like us in future game designs. They won’t even let us into the booths at conventions. That’s why we have to do other stuff. Riot Games listens to their League of Legends champions. They fix things, consider input, hire newscasters that know the game to announce it. EA doesn’t.”

*****
Fighting game fans from all over Texas flock to participate in winner-takes-all tournaments organized by DeAngelo Ellis.
Fighting game fans from all over Texas flock to participate in winner-takes-all tournaments organized by DeAngelo Ellis.


A new kind of popular sport brings with it a new type of sports promoter and in Houston, that man is DeAngelo Ellis, 29, also known to the game community as AirbrushKing. The young entrepreneur has his fingers in a lot of pies, everything from custom airbrushing (hence the nickname) to

landscaping

graphics and photography, but he is also fast becoming the main tournament organizer for fighting games in the state of Texas.

For him it started eight years ago in Houston arcades. That was the end of the days when the arcade cabinet was considered the proper way to game. When the fighting-game genre came to prominence in the ’90s with Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter II, home ports were graphically inferior and often omitted content such as the bloodless version of MK on the Super NES, and their sole selling point was that you could play them over and over for free on a home copy. This remained the same for more than a decade and well into the new millennium.

Better home-console technology has slowly rendered the dedicated arcade cabinet obsolete and many of the classic franchises no longer even produce arcade releases, but before the genre was essentially retired, Ellis and his friends became masters at the last hurrah of great arcade fighters. Games like Marvel vs. Capcom 2, Street Fighter II: Third Strike and Capcom vs. SNK 2 drew them regularly and built a community of dedicated gamers who were always wandering around the city looking for a match.

“I loved those days,” says Ellis. “It was a community culture thing, like in a kung fu movie. You’d go down to Tilt in the Galleria and beat whoever was there. Then you’d do the same out in the West Oaks Mall, traveling like gunslingers. It wasn’t about money or anything. We all had jobs and lives. It was just about being that guy who could beat the best.”

Ellis started organizing local tournaments in the arcades. Rules were simple. There was one entrance fee and the winner took all  the top three winners would take home prizes. . These sessions drew gamers from all over Texas, but also a fair number of spectators. Everyone paid the same fee for the action. “It was about being social,” says Ellis. “You come out and meet people interested in the game. Everyone that wants to gets a chance to play.”

Ellis quickly grew out of the arcades, which usually could legally host only 60 people at most. He moved his blooming business, now called the Texas Gaming Championships, into wedding-venue locations and similar places to accommodate the hundreds of people who were beginning to attend as both players and spectators. He made the switch to consoles, which allowed players to use their own preferred controls. “I like a Japanese stick myself,” says Ellis. “They’re rounded on top and the buttons are softer. American sticks are rougher and harder on the hand.”

Ellis is gearing up to take Texas Gaming Championships to the next level, hoping to host four local tournaments and one national in 2016. Replays of his tournament on YouTube break a quarter of a million views regularly, and he is looking into partnering with Twitch.tv for live streaming of the events around the world.

“You can make good money {as a player] doing [competitions],” says Ellis. “It’s not something you’d ever want to rely on for a living, though.”

Ellis plans to up his game even more by renting out warehouse venues for the round of 2016 Texas Gaming Championships events and handling all accommodations like tables, chairs and electronics himself. It also frees him up from venue controls, allowing him to bring in food trucks to cater the events. He’s even developed a mobile phone app that he hopes will draw people into the tournaments.

Though he’s got his eyes set on the national prize, for Ellis this is still something based in community, something he feels is a bit lacking in the giant national picture of streaming game content.

“I’ve been asked to do Madden tournaments,” says Ellis. “I don’t want to, you know? There’s no community of Madden players to draw from, no energy. The pro of streaming is that more people know you exist, but the con is someone decides to watch the tournament at home instead of coming on down and making a new friend who loves games.”

*****

The impressive thing about the rise of the Let’s Play phenomenon is that unlike the game-design field, it has enabled ordinary people to become a dominant voice in game criticism and commentary. Nabours says the setup that he uses costs around $500 retail, though he was able to get it for less thanks to sales, deals and trades. Where once there were only a handful of magazines and websites dominating opinion, there are now a legion of voices with millions of followers happy to dissect BioShock Infinite from every possible angle.

That has provided a new path to stardom for independent games as well. It’s never been easier for an individual or a small team to design and release a game to a massive audience. Take, for instance, Scott Cawthon, a video game designer who attended the Art Institute of Houston.

Cawthon got his start making Christian video games for Hope Entertainment and other family-friendly fare. That all changed when he released Chipper and Sons Lumber Co., an all-ages game starring an anthropomorphic beaver. Cawthon told Indie Games Magazine in a rare interview that critics tore the game apart and accused his main character of looking like a frightening animatronic. At first Cawthon was heartbroken and considered quitting game design altogether, but then he decided that if people said his work was frightening, he would show them real terror.

The result was Five Nights at Freddy’s, a simple but murderously difficult horror game whose main character is a security guard trapped in a ShowBiz Pizza-style restaurant after dark that is haunted by living animatronics waiting to kill him by stuffing him into a robotic character suit. Players have to keep an eye on them through security cameras since they generally move only when not in view, and the jump-scare endings are the stuff of nightmares.

Let’s Players ate the game up, as well as the two sequels Cawthon produced within a year. YouTube personality Mark Fisch-bach (Markiplier) alone has more than 100 million views from his coverage of the game, everything from walkthroughs to hilarious compilations of gamer reactions to the scares. According to YouTube itself, the franchise is the eighth most watched video game on the site. Think Gaming shows that the series makes nearly $30,000 a day, and Warner Bros. recently purchased the film rights.

Success stories built on YouTube popularity have changed the way developers make and market their games.

“Look at a company like Coffee Stain,” says Belham. “They make a silly game like Goat Simulator that Let’s Players will love and give a lot of screen time to, but then they use the attention from that to get people interested in their more serious work like A Story About My Uncle.”

On the Level Game Studios is arguably the largest independent video game developer in Houston. As a company made up mostly of former punk rockers, its products are unique. Its first title was a combination survival horror and golf game called The Curse of Nordic Cove. Its latest release is Boo Bunny Plague, a video game musical in which a robotic rabbit goes on an epic quest smashing things with a guitar.

“When we released Boo Bunny Plague, a few of the YouTubers picked it up,” says Jamie Daruwala, speaking for the studio. “It wasn’t a big bump in sales, but it was there.”

Daruwala says that courting the Let’s Play crowd for On the Level’s next release is definitely in the cards and highly recommended by its marketing consulting firm. The studio’s experiences with YouTubers so far have been mixed. Those Let’s Players and reviewers who did feature the game were fair and mostly positive, but On the Level balked at paying the “astronomical reviewing fee” that a few of them required before they’d be willing to look at the game, and there’s no guarantee of return on investment.

“I don’t think we’ll ever design a game just for Let’s Players,” said Daruwala. “Our goal is to make the best game we can and to be true to ourselves. There’s no question we want to spend money on that avenue of marketing. We look at things that are successful and try to apply that to our work, but players want to see the creativity.”

However, just as popular Let’s Players and YouTube reviewers make a game successful, they can also bring down the makers.

John Bain, known as TotalBiscuit, was issued a review copy of the Wild Games Studio title Day One: Garry’s Incident by the studio in 2013. Bain gave the game a somewhat negative review. Wild Games responded by issuing a copyright notice on the video to YouTube, prompting YouTube to pull down the video review immediately. The head of Wild Games released a statement saying that Bain had no right to make advertising revenue off the company’s content.

“The copyright controls on YouTube are FUBAR,” says Belham. “Anyone can issue a challenge saying they’re the owner and the system automatically pulls the video until you can prove you’re the owner or that you weren’t infringing on copyright. It’s a form of censorship and silencing warfare. A lot of the detractors to Anita Sarkeesian (the host of Feminist Frequency) do the same thing all the time.”

According to Belham, Bain went nuclear when he found out about the unethical claim and the silencing tactic. A follow-up video describing what happened drew nearly 4 million views and became national game news. Wild Games was forced to retract its claim under accusations of censorship, and the review video went back up.

*****

Why has watching video games become a media industry worth millions of dollars and pulling in viewers in numbers similar to those of Hollywood films? Games are meant to be played. It’s what separates them from other media. Why would millions of people watch when they could be doing the exact same thing themselves?

“I think it’s the camaraderie,” says Belham. “Everyone plays online now. No one plays together in their living room. It’s fun to hear someone make fun of the game with you. I think people miss the interaction you used to get from in-person gaming.”

Nabours thinks it’s more about economics. Many of the games he uses for his videos are on systems that ceased production long ago, as did the game themselves. He makes it a point of honor to buy used original setups whenever possible, and even when he uses computer emulation for easier recording purposes, he almost always actually owns the game in question if not necessarily a system that can run it.

“YouTube lets you see better than anything else if something is worth spending the money on,” he says. “Parents may not be able to afford a new game every week so their kids can watch a video and get the same experience. Or older gamers who can’t afford to retro-game with expensive, hard-to-find stuff can still experience it.”

Part of it is the unique format of gaming. Some games have hundreds of hours of content, and if a player wants to see or revisit a particular aspect of the game, it may require a long grind of playing just to get there. This is especially true if a player wants to witness a particularly difficult achievement. Ellis thinks that desire to see a game played to maximum potential is what draws fans.

“Lots of people who don’t regularly watch basketball will still watch clips of LeBron James,” he says. “That’s what people want to see, the best. They want to see something magic, and people have life and kids and stuff; sometimes they don’t have the time to do it themselves. But that’s the great thing about games. These videos show you what anyone can do if they want to.”

The truest answer, though is probably LaBelle’s, and it’s the simplest.

“It’s just fun to watch,” he says. “People tune in because it’s fun. Games are fun. Gamers are fun. (Here he changes his voice to the announcer tone he uses for his videos.) Allllllllright, boys and girls, it’s Dirty Mike here and if you’re sitting down, I want you up on your feet. Now sit back down again because we’re playing FIFA 15 today and I’m going to show you a trick that will knock your socks off. So go get your socks and let’s play.”


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