Recently, I thought about being a video game streamer. The idea came to me when I stopped by my local video game shop to blow through five dollars worth of quarters on their classic pinball machines (a fairly recent hobby of mine) and I noticed that they had stacks upon stacks of SNES cartridges for dirt cheap. Of course, none of these were popular games or games that most people have ever heard of, but I consider myself an opportunist. I began thinking of how fun it would be to play overlooked old games and maybe tinker with them a bit, make a few jokes, upload compilations to YouTube and see what happens. I thought, yeah I’d watch a stream like that.

That must mean it’s a good idea. Right?

Now, maybe I’m a special case because I don’t want to do this for the money. It’s not very surprising, given YouTube is having another round of demonetizations on videos across the platform. But alas, I wanted to stream because I thought it would be fun. Granted, my schedule isn’t completely loose, but I would consider it a hobby of sorts: A hobby I share with the world, sort of like writing articles.

Anyhow, I knew that I couldn’t just plug an SNES into my computer and magically have it work. I know I need a way to hook it up to a video capture card, and also that I need a video capture card. One thing led to another and I found myself with 13 tabs worth of shopping links and hardware setup tutorial videos. I added up everything and it came to just under $700 for the cheapest items available.

I reasoned that, like any hobby I foolishly decide to pursue, I would start cheap and work my way up to more expensive big-ticket items if I decided that A) I liked streaming and B) others liked watching my stream.

Why do we watch livestreams?

Then I began thinking, what makes people watch video game livestreams? In an interview with ArsTechnia, Naka Teleeli, a current Twitch streamer, says it perfectly: it’s free advertisement. In the interview, Teleeli reasons that if they’re watching someone else play the game, then the company who made it isn’t losing money since they would rather watch someone else play the game than purchase it themselves. Although, he then goes to note that some viewers do decide to purchase the game after watching him stream it, but at that point, they stop watching his streams altogether.

Now, the article referenced above details the legal aspects of streaming and how that is the reason for its decline. However, I will be focusing more on the viewer’s aspect of streaming and the overinflation of cookie-cutter streamers that has plagued streaming across multiple platforms as the source for its decline.

According to Twitch, there are over 2 million active broadcasters on their site. I don’t know about anyone else, but that is an exhausting number to face. How do you know which streamer is good? Bad? Does viewer count make you a better streamer? What should I watch? What’s popular? What’s on its way out of the public eye? What will I be ridiculed for liking?

Just going to the Twitch homepage and scrolling down, you can see the most popular games being streamed and how many people are watching those games. As of right now, "Overwatch" is number one with almost 180,000 watchers and "Sea of Thieves" is the last on the list with a little over 10,000 watchers. Let’s say I want to watch a stream of "Sea of Thieves." I click on the icon and I’m immediately met with an endless list of people streaming that game right now. Some have over 2,000 viewers, some can barely reach 10.

Decisions, decisions

So, which should I choose? Stepping back and just gazing at the thumbnails, each stream looks identical. The game is being played with a video feed of the person playing it layered over it followed by random boxes of information strung along the top and bottom of the screen and sometimes a feed of the chat. It’s the typical streamer formula and it’s overwhelming. Did the people who are getting five viewers spend as much money on equipment as the people with 2,000 viewers? If so, which one would be turning the most profit? Which one truly streams for fun? Is it possible to stream for fun these days? If I end up spending the entire $700 I estimated for the lowest quality equipment and I could only churn out less than 10 viewers, at what point should I give up?

That’s the biggest issue with streaming inflation - ambition. The idea of ‘I can do it too and better than the rest’ crowds the platforms and makes it impossible to not only be noticed and grow but to stand out from the competition. Yes, growth online takes time and patience as well as dedication. But, keeping your look and style the same as everyone else isn’t going to make you grow faster. That’s why when you want to be ambitious, you have to do it right. You don’t get your name in headlights because you’re just like everyone else. You get there because you took a different approach from the norm. This is what launched Pewdiepie out of the mold. He basically invented the facecam in his earliest videos.

But I get it, it’s hard to reinvent the virtual wheel and that's why people who do it stand out from the rest. I certainly know that I couldn’t do it, and that’s why average pacifists like me are turning away as there’s nothing new. You stick to the streamer you like and it becomes even more overwhelming to pick someone new to watch while your favorite is out for the day.

Then there comes the trouble of being the streamer and wanting to stream something daring and new. Forget the hottest games of the season, those aren’t interesting to me. I want to stream something out of the mainstream and be credited for starting that trend! Well, good for you, and good luck to you because that’s also incredibly hard to do as well. Why? Well, no one’s watching them for a reason. For example, on Twitch there’s a section for watching chess livestreams. Yes, one of the oldest games of mankind is being streamed right now. And it’s my lucky day because there are barely 550 watchers and only 16 active streams. The competition is downsized dramatically, but so are the views.

This raises the question: At what point does breaking the mold become pointless? Sure it’s easy in theory to start playing something different from the other guys and it’ll be really easy to find your stream. But if the invisible hand of the internet gives you a big thumbs-down, then at what point do you give up? You spend hard-earned money on equipment and your own time on something you’re passionate about but you still end up losing.

At this point, there’s no use in trying to force viewers because saying ‘hi I sit at home and livestream my chess game every Friday night’ is not only a turn-off (let’s be honest, saying you stream period is a turn-off) but people are going to be more inclined to ask why. Sometimes simply answering that its because you like it, doesn’t make people that much more interested. By contrast, saying ‘hi I sit at home and livestream me playing "Overwatch" every Friday night’ is just going to be met with eye rolls and "uh huh yeah buddy I bet you’re great at it, too."

The popular YouTuber iDubbbzTV made a video in 2015 critiquing YouTube food reviewers, essentially making the same argument that they’re all the same. But at one point in the video, he references a channel that does atypical food reviews wherein they take food (in this case, a hamburger), and take video of it in various locations, never showing the person behind the camera. At one point, you could see and hear ocean waves crashing behind a hamburger sitting on a rock. At the end of the video, the camera person films their dog trying to catch bits of the burger as it’s being tossed to it from behind the camera. Not only does this make for a more interesting video, but it gets you talking about it.

In order for video game livestreams to survive, they need to feed their burger to their dog. So to speak. How something like that could translate to livestreaming, I’m not sure. But if one man with a video camera and enough time on his hands can get creative with a food review, then someone who sits at home and spent hundreds, maybe thousands, of dollars of equipment and has enough time on their hands to sit in a room for hours on end, can do it too. It’s not easy, but it must be possible. Breaking out of the model and making every stream unique is what will set apart the good from the bad. Fitting in nicely to the default setup that everyone follows just makes you blend in with the crowd. And that is why you’re boring.

So, now comes my conclusion and call to action for all you streamers out there: stop being boring. You’re not growing because you’re just like the rest. If you’ve grown, then you are the rest. Get creative with your streams and you will see a difference. Shake up the system, fight the powers that be (wait what are we talking about again) and just stop making streams that suck. I’ve put my streaming dreams on hold for now, but until I can think of a way to shake up the system, I’ll be here, indulging in my typical hobbies, like writing articles.