A streaming service can earn video game players big incomes — but it means possibly working themselves to death.
Future of Work

Twitch: The video game job that pays so well that people have died for it

On February 19, Brian C. Vigneault, a 35-year-old man and father of three, was live-streaming himself playing a video game on Twitch, a popular video streaming service.

He had been live-streaming himself for 22 hours straight as part of a marathon to raise money for the Make-a-Wish Foundation.

When Vigneault got up to take a cigarette break, he collapsed and was later found dead.

Although the cause of death has not been publicly released, many members of the Twitch community thought exhaustion from the long hours of live-streaming was a factor. The reason: This is not the first death that has occurred like this. A South Korean teenager died after an eight-hour live streaming session. A 32-year-old man in Taiwan was found dead in an internet cafe after a 72-hour gaming binge.

The Twitch subculture of gaming addiction

These live-streaming marathoners are not outliers. It’s the bottom-line to making Twitch a business. Amazon bought Twitch in 2014 to grab devoted gamers. The service allows serious gamers to pick up followers who intently watch them play video games. The best players amass millions of followers, just as celebrities might on Facebook or Twitter. Those millions of followers pay a subscription fee for their favorite players, and receive an email notification when the players start broadcasting.

The more followers a player has on Twitch, the bigger the paycheck. Some of the most popular players, like Michael Santana, have said they make $8,000 a month or more, according to the Huffington Post.

That also means the pressure to keep streaming is intense. To gain and maintain a following, Twitch demands more and more of its users’ time and energy to play and narrate live-streams.

Twitch community guidelines ban “self-destructive” behavior, but it does not define live-stream marathoning as one of these behaviors.

With digital jobs like Twitch fame, you gain the flexibility of being able to work whenever you want and wherever you have an internet connection. The drawback: you’re always “on.”

Under this new Digital Age, because you can always be working, you start to feel that you should always be working.

That’s the guilt felt by Joe Marino, who was streaming at least 7-8 hours a day, every day.

When a bathroom break can stop your income

Marino detailed his cautionary tale as a full-time Twitch user in an essay he titled “Dying to Stream.”

At the height of his Twitch use, he says, even bathroom breaks became drawbacks.

“Say you busted your ass all day to get 400–500 viewers and you need to go pee. What happens is people don’t have long attention spans, so when you get up, you will 100% lose a portion of your audience.”

Livestream numbers matter when Twitch becomes your livelihood.

“Viewers = money. Whether it is through donations, [subscriptions] or sponsorship deals, (believe me sponsors watch your numbers like a hawk), you need to keep your numbers up. This adds to the stress,” Marino said.

He believed staying seated for hours at a time to maintain his following directly contributed to the emergency heart surgery he needed in 2015.

The surgery was, he says, a wake-up call. Now, Marino has cut back on his Twitch job to focus on photography and his family.

But for some, the long hours are normal.

“It’s just like opening a store,” BurkeBlack, who streams ten hours a day every day, told Kotaku as part of its feature on the pressures these career streamers face. “Streamers don’t know if it could be over by tomorrow.”

When you have no limits to how much you can work, you’ll need to make your own.

“We’re all pioneers in this thing and trying to figure it out,” Renee Reynosa said. She advises Twitch streamers to treat it like any other job, and find a work-life balance.

Preparing for an emergency-room visit

Holden McNeely, who is transitioning into a full-time freelancer, tells Ladders he plans to increase his Twitch use to four hours a day, 4-5 times a week, so it can become “a solid source of income.”

As part of this, he is going to hold his first 24-hour live-streaming marathon on April 6. After hearing about the live-streaming deaths, McNeely acknowledged the deaths had him “worried” but that he still planned to go forward with his.

McNeely does not plan to make these all-day marathons a regular habit, like two of Vigneault’s friends said it was for Vigneault.

“[Vigneault] was a cigarette smoker. People were literally telling him on chats, like, ‘Hey, you seem messed up. Don’t worry about the stream, man. It’s ok. Go get some rest,'” McNeely said.

To prepare himself, McNeely told Ladders that he will approach his live-streaming marathon with the pacing and moderation of a real marathon.

“My fiancée is going to be there the whole time. I’m going to have several guests. I’m going to get up once an hour to walk around. I’m not going to drink energy drinks or coffee or take supplements. I’m going to drink nothing but water. I’m going to eat healthy foods,” McNeely said.

He does not plan to die for content. “If I’m not feeling well, I’m going to cut the stream.”

And if the worst should happen, McNeely said, “The emergency room is right across the street from my building. If worst comes to worst, I’m at least, right there.”