Life as a Professional Video Gamer

Talent agents, managers, accountants and video gamers are all flocking to the new gold rush: online gaming.

I saw more purple hair at TwitchCon than a Kelly Osbourne meetup.

Life as a Professional Video Gamer

The inaugural conference was held in San Francisco last week for broadcasters, a group of 1.7 million video broadcasting misfits who have achieved varying degrees of celebrity status in the online world of live video gaming.

At TwitchCon, attendees were chasing common dreams: to meet their online gaming heroes, those who make a living playing video games in front of thousands of people. Others weren’t just hell-bent on meeting those heroes, they wanted to become them.

Twitch users are surprisingly social, if you subscribe to the paradigm that video gamers are antisocial, momma’s-basement-dwelling vampires with bloodshot eyes and Dorito fingers. They’re the first to laugh at the weird new economy that allows them to make an upper middle class salary, all while giving the man the middle finger and living out every 10-year-old boy’s dream. And they’re making bank just by being themselves.

Twitch broadcasters are the 20-year-olds who don’t look impoverished, but show up at the mall at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday with varying trappings of intentional, unapologetic unemployability. They’re among the few people who live in a world where it isn’t rude to talk to someone while your eyes are glued to a screen and your fingers are maniacally pounding a keyboard.

From “baby gamer” to 12 million views and over $100k

I met full time Twitch streamer Adam “Ellohime” at the conference. He was part of a panel discussing how to find the right manager — that’s right, gamers, like professional athletes, need managers.

Hundreds of gaming hopefuls gathered to listen to his advice. Rightly so, because Ellohime’s Twitch stream has 300,615 followers and over 12 million views. But I was surprised when he dropped the bomb that last year he was just a was a “baby gamer.”

I had to know how this guy, who is more laid-back than an La-Z-Boy, husky and jovial, with a look that’s part The Fat Jewish, part Alan from The Hangover, had been rocketed from the unwashed video gaming masses to stardom.

A six-figure salary

Ellohime cleared $100,000 in earnings before taxes in his first year of full-time gaming, and hopes to repeat that this year. He supports his girlfriend and their one-year-old daughter on his earnings; around four times the average American salary.

When I asked if his family ever gives him shit for his unorthodox career, he said, “They probably would if I wasn’t paying their bills.”

At 30, Ellohime is older than a lot of Twitch streamers. Youth is an advantage when it comes to being the best. Your reaction times are faster. And your audience – primarily teens and twenty somethings, relates more.

With “just” $100,000 in income, he isn’t the most successful gamer out there — not by a long shot. The streamer Lirik, for example, has a style that Ellohime sees as similar to his own, but makes “a shit ton” and has 1.1 million followers.

But Ellohime impresses his viewers by “leveling-up” like a madman in hours-long marathons. His strength isn’t about being good, it’s being someone fans want to hang out with.

Screen grab from Vimeo

How bad financial planning paid off

The moment when Ellohime struck gold career wise, happened in at an unlikely moment two years ago. He had just graduated with his associate degree in Liberal Arts from a community college in Tampa. School had ended and he didn’t have a job lined up.

Feeling aimless, he spent his last $200 on a special “founders package” that let him to play the latest Neverwinter, a Dungeons and Dragons MMO game, five days before it was released.

Ellohime, who played as a Trickster Rogue, was one of a handful of people to play the new Neverwinter that day. Hours passed and it got late. Ellohime was doing really well and “leveling up super fast.” He kept playing as his team members started logging off for bed.

Around midnight, one of his teammates suggested he start video streaming his gameplay so that people who were desperate to play it could experience the game. He started streaming on around 4 a.m.

Almost immediately he had, 500 people watching him play. (For that reason, he still starts his daily broadcast at 4 a.m. A lot of his followers live in Europe and Australia.)

“I was in the perfect storm.”

Some pro e-gamers make their streams into shows with Hollywood-like production values. That first day, all Ellohime had was a shitty microphone. But 1,000 to 2,000 people still watched him play.

“I was in the perfect storm,” he said. “And I had no idea what I was doing.”

Ellohime started streaming on Monday. On Sunday he was invited to become a Twitch “partner,” which means Twitch lets people subscribe to his channel for $5 each. Twitch broadcasters receive half that subscription fee, while the most popular pocket more, multiple gamers told me. For some streamers, getting this offer can takes months, or never happens at all.

Streamers like Ellohime make more money by selling merchandise such as T-shirts from their page than they do with subscriptions. Donations are also a bigger source of income than subscriptions. People who watch the channels can also donate money to their favorite broadcasters.

Ellohime’s first-edition shirt via Teespring

So you have to be likeable to succeed on Twitch. Ellohime told me that he earns far more through donations than subscriptions. Sometimes fans offer a donation so he can buy equipment and make better broadcasts.

“I never knew that you could make a living off of this.”

In that first week, Ellohime realized that shit was finally happening for him.

“I told my girlfriend, ‘Hey, I’ve never felt passionate about anything before. I hope you’ll support me in this,’ and she totally did,” he said. “But I never knew that you could make a living off of this.”

The slacker success story

If you had told Ellohime, that he would redeem himself from his self-described “slacker” lifestyle and make enough to support his family by playing video games, he would have said you were crazy.

But at TwitchCon, it was clear he’d achieved nerd celebrity status.

But I noted something unique about his interactions with fans, he was genuinely excited to see them.

This enthusiasm seemed pretty universal, because his face lit up for the dudes in Dota t-shirts almost as much as for the girls in cat ear headbands. Almost.

“Sometimes I can’t believe all this,” he told me as we sat at a table amidst a swirling sea of people in purple TwitchCon shirts. Especially because he used to be that guy, the one who dropped out of school junior year, the one who everyone worried about and criticized, the one who flunked college courses and played video games all the time.

Ellohime and his fans at TwitchCon2015

Nerd Cred is real

“One of the greatest things that (being a professional e-gamer) has afforded me is credibility with my family,” he said. “I’ve been sort of the black sheep. I was the last person my family expected to be positive or productive. But, you know, they don’t talk to me the way they used to talk to me … And sometimes now I even invite them in, tell them about an event I do, and they show up and say, ‘Hey man, I get it now.’”

Ellohime asked that I use his Twitch name or only his first name, Adam, to keep his identity private. I asked him if it’s weird to have this kind of celebrity.

“Every day I wake up and am, like, ‘Holy shit,” he said. “I’m an entertainer. And in what other kind of media are you able to watch and interact with people in this way?”

From the police academy to Walmart to video games

Before Ellohime became a gamer, he tried conventional jobs, but nothing stuck. His father and sisters are cops, so he went through the police academy. Then he decided it wasn’t for him. There was a stint at Walmart and a job at a bank. And let me just interject here for a moment — no one who meets Ellohime is surprised that he couldn’t work at a bank. He has that kind bursting, childlike enthusiasm and comedic timing that would be squelched if he couldn’t be out there, in front of people, cracking jokes. And I think that’s why none of his former jobs felt right. Nothing felt like him.

“Video games used to be for kids. But those kids have grown up.”

Ellohime knows the stereotypes people have of gamers. Some of them are right, he said, and some are totally wrong.

“Gamers have this reputation of being immature or of being associated with violence … because video games used to be for kids. But those kids have grown up and they’re starting businesses,” he said, adding, “But, yes, I’m a little overweight and I do have a neck beard.” And a bigger bank balance than most.

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