The Business of Playing Video Games

A famous professional video-game player on the Internet, Tom Burke has made waves for treating his passion like a full-time job. Does that make him a sellout?
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Awesome Games Done Quick. (Photo: Angel Cano)

Awesome Games Done Quick. (Photo: Angel Cano)

Every so often, Tom Burke wakes up and finds that someone has given him $1,000 for playing video games. He gets smaller amounts many times a day—$5 here, $20 there from fans that love watching him play. It never stops feeling weird to him, but it’s how Burke makes a living. Under the online handle Witwix, he collects donations by broadcasting himself on the video-game live-streaming website Twitch, where he’ll play for up to 12 hours a day for audiences that reach well into the thousands.

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From Our September/October 2015 Issue:
Need for Speedrunning
Gamers have found a way to get a younger generation excited about raising millions for charity. And they don’t even need to put down their controllers.

Burke shows off different games in a variety of ways on his Twitch channel, but he’s famous in the gaming world for his speedrunning—a peculiar style of gameplay that involves beating single-player titles like the Legend of Zelda and Super Mario in as little time as possible. He made a name for himself by setting many impossible-seeming completion times for I Wanna Be the Boshy, a notoriously difficult indie game in which the player guides a blobby cartoon character through absurd two-dimensional spike-filled levels. Burke set his first world record last year and has yet to lose it.

Only a small handful of gamers make any real money from speedrunning. Even fewer make enough to actually support themselves. But as gaming culture has grown, so has speedrunning’s popularity. Burke’s success is controversial as a result. While many gamers embrace the idea of profiting from a hobby they love, others worry speedrunning’s creeping professionalization is ruining the gaming-for-gaming’s-sake purity of a once-niche passion.

Burke, who’s a big, bearded guy with a touch of Chris Pratt’s boyish charisma, is at an extreme end of this debate, because he approaches video-game streaming as a business above all else. I sat down with him at 3 a.m. one night last January, while reporting on a weeklong speedrunning marathon called Awesome Games Done Quick, and asked about this philosophy. What does it take to make it as a video-game performer? And why are people actually paying him for this?

Our conversation, condensed and edited, follows:

How long have you been playing video games?

I’ve played since I was about five. My uncle bought me Super Nintendo and he regretted it immediately, because it’s all I did. He thought he had turned me into an idiot or something. I’m now 25, so I’ve been playing pretty much every day for at least four or five hours for 20 years.

When did you start streaming?

At the start of last year. I quit a pretty good job to launch a literally non-existent stream. I just saved up a year’s worth of rent and expenses and went for it. I began playing I Wanna Be the Boshy shortly after I started. I’ve probably played it a solid 1,500 hours so far.

I started making money early on, around February, but it was not a living wage at all at first. Now I’ve exponentially increased my income. It worked out fantastically, but it also could have gone pretty poorly.

What made you think this actually would work?

When I started playing Boshy, I was terrible, like everyone. But it’s not luck. You can be good at streaming. You can be good at entertaining and gaming. Streaming is my career, and there’s so much potential to make a real job out of it. A lot of people could do it who don’t think they can. If you have the work ethic and consistency, eventually people who like you will find you. No matter who you are, there are people out there who think they same way as you do and want to know what you have to say.

How did you make it work?

You’ve really got to put the time in. Some people will stream for three hours a day, like five times, and then complain that no one’s watching them. But how are people going to find you if you aren’t always live?

When I first started streaming, I went for six months, 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and didn’t miss a single day. It’s the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life. But it’s also the best job I’ve ever had, so it was easy to want to do it.

There are more than a million people streaming on Twitch. What makes you stand out?

I play games that are harder than those everyone else plays. I play games that no one else can play really well. And I’m hilarious.

How much does being hilarious help? Is it more important to be entertaining when streaming, or a really good gamer?

I think it’s 75 percent entertaining, 25 percent gameplay. Personality is so important. Every second you’re negative is a second you’re losing potential followers who are never going to come back. You really have to control your emotions at all times, which is hard, because people on the Internet are douchebags and say dumb shit to try to make you mad.

Where is all the money you’re making on Twitch coming from?

Fifty to 60 percent of my income comes from donations from people who like to watch me play. Combined with paid [voluntary] subscriptions to my channel, that makes up about 75 percent of my income. I’m finally at a point where ad revenue’s actually picking up. In fact, now I could probably live off ads alone.

Why are people giving you money for playing video games?

It’s definitely mostly the prospect of, “If no one gives him money, he’s going to have to stop streaming full-time and get another job, so if everyone pitches in $20 that will never happen.” Of course, that still doesn’t explain the individual $1,000 donations. Some people just have a ton of money, and you never know who’s watching you.

It also has to do with the fact that some people cancel their cable and end up just watching you all day. They saved money on their bills, so they want to throw it to their favorite streamers. There actually were people who have watched me for six to seven hours a day over the past year. I’ve gotten nice messages like “I’ve been in the hospital for the past five months and I’ve watched you every day.” It makes you realize that despite the fact that you’re just playing video games and talking, you’re affecting people on some level you can’t really understand.

Viewers stick around because they want to be there for the moment you complete the thing you want to complete. When I got my first world record for Boshy, after six months of working on it, everyone was there going crazy. They’d been waiting for that moment the whole time.

What’s it like receiving donations?

There’s nothing else like it. It’s not something you get used to. I can’t picture any other situation where someone just hands you $1,000 for playing a video game. “Hey, you’re playing that game really well! Here’s $1,500.” On Twitch, that’s a daily occurrence. It’s always like, “Thank you, but....” It’s just hard to understand because it’s the nicest thing you could ever do for somebody.

Do people get angry at you for making so much money?

Making money from streaming is one of the most hated things in the streaming community—by people who can’t make money from streaming. It’s pure jealousy. There’s no other reason for hating someone for doing a job. [There’s this mentality among some speedrunners that] you’re not supposed to try to make people have fun, you’re just supposed to play your game as fast as you can. If I did that I might get better times, but no one would watch. I care more about my stream than some perceived purity. If people want to call me a sellout that’s perfectly fine, because I’m doing my job, and doing it well.

Does that mentality jeopardize a sense of community in speedrunning, though?

No, because my stream isn’t me. It’s me and 50,000 people. I’m the reason they came there in the first place, but then they come to talk to one another. It’s a huge community on its own.

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From Our September/October 2015 Issue:
Need for Speedrunning
Gamers have found a way to get a younger generation excited about raising millions for charity. And they don’t even need to put down their controllers.

Do you feel pressure performing for all these fans?

It doesn’t add pressure to me. I don’t play worse. It doesn’t make me want to be funnier or different or stop being myself. But the number of viewers is in my head, for sure. How can you not think of the fact that there are so many people staring at your face? Most people don’t have that many people look at their face in their entire life. It’s a positive thing; it feels good.

Since the stream took off, I’ve bought nicer clothes and gotten better haircuts. I’ve tried to look less shitty in general. If people come into your stream and you’re a mess, they’re going to leave.

Culturally, where is video-game streaming headed? And how do you think you fit into its future?

I started considering streaming as a career because I saw a lot of potential in Twitch. My hope is that it turns into the next YouTube, that it’s a mainstay of the Internet. There will always be YouTube billionaires, and Twitch has almost reached that level where it’s a website people go to when they turn on their computer. It already is, really. When I realized this, I knew I shouldn’t start in a year. I shouldn’t start in a month. I should start today.

Right now, I’m in the top 500 Twitch streamers, based on followers, out of a couple hundred thousand people. So if I maintain a top 500 spot as Twitch becomes one of the biggest sites on the Internet, being in the top 500 won’t mean you have 50,000 followers; it will mean 800,000. So everyone’s vying for position waiting for the site to explode. I’m definitely riding the top of a wave. This is only getting way bigger.

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