Alex Ross is playing a video game in a dark corner of his one-bedroom apartment in Woodbridge, Va. Cardboard on the windows blocks the outdoor light, and a black sheet behind him covers skateboarding and heavy-metal posters. The 25-year-old with the scraggly beard and the dark circles under his eyes looks sorely sun-deprived.
With Breaking Benjamin blaring in the background, Alex is shooting at enemy aliens known as the Covenant and talking out loud — to fans who are online watching a live stream of him playing “Halo: The Master Chief Collection.”
Alex has an advance copy of the game’s latest release, and his viewers are beside themselves with excitement and envy. One follower shows her appreciation with a $50 donation.
Alex takes off his headphones, pulls a rubber band from his hair and shakes his waist-length blond locks loose over his thin frame. He cranks up a song, “The Undertow,” from the Virginia heavy-metal band Lamb of God.
“Thank you so much, Kat, for your generous donation,” he says, his pale blue eyes staring straight into the camera attached to his monitor. “This is for you.”
He swings his head wildly to the monster drumbeats, hair flailing in a rousing and magnificent head-banging routine. As soon as the song is over, he calmly pulls his hair back, slips the headphones back on and picks up where he left off.
Fans flood his chat board with rock-on emoticons.
Alex is living the dream: making money by playing video games on the hugely popular Web site Twitch. “Whoever thought I would play video games for a living?” he says with his mike off. “I want so badly for this to work.”
He turns back to his fans: “I love that every single one of you are Here. Right. Now,” he says, looking directly into the webcam and punctuating his words like a seasoned TV host.
On their screens viewers see the sci-fi military combat game Alex is playing. A smaller window at the top left shows Alex. And a chat board on the right displays comments rolling in from fans in the United States, Australia, Sweden, the United Kingdom and Canada, who are praising the game’s sharper graphics and scrutinizing Alex’s moves like backseat drivers.
For Alex, the early access to this latest “Halo” release could be a huge break. He’s hoping the publicity will help attract more paying viewers to his Twitch channel. Each new subscriber, who pays $4.99 a month for the privilege not just of watching but of interacting with him, brings him closer to his goal of turning video-game playing into a long-term job, a major leap forward for a troubled kid from an economically unstable family.
Alex, who grew up in Fairfax County, struggled academically and socially because of ADHD and had difficulty holding a steady job after he graduated from high school. But he had two passions, video games and skateboarding, and with Twitch, he has found a sweet spot where his skills and what had been considered his shortcomings mesh. On the gaming platform, he has developed a persona as the metal-blasting, Xbox-playing skater dude, and he’s comfortable amid the frenetic swirl of playing, communicating with followers and performing. As a rising Twitch star, Alex doesn’t just hope to make it financially, he hopes to shake off his past failures and the insecurities he has carried from childhood.
But he joins millions of people trying to use social media and interactive gaming sites as springboards to Internet fame — and, in some cases, fortune. YouTube stars now outrank Hollywood celebrities in popularity among younger audiences, according to a July poll by Variety. Swedish gamer PewDiePie has more than 30 million subscribers to his YouTube channel and makes an estimated $4 million a year from advertisements. Vine star Nash Grier and even some Snapchat celebrities have agents and sponsors and are going on tours to meet fans.
In the back of his mind, Alex knows that achieving steady success as an Internet personality is like building a house on sand. On the Web, fame often comes quickly, from viral sharing, and it can disappear just as fast.
After one year on Twitch, Alex brings in just enough to cover food and half the rent for this apartment, which he shares with his girlfriend, Nikki Sims. The work has kept him on an exhausting schedule of self-promotion. If he skips a day of streaming, he fears fans will go away. He feels like a shark — that he needs to constantly swim or he’ll sink.
Three and a half years ago, Twitch launched with a simple premise: that the entertainment value in video games comes not just from playing but also from watching others play and talking about games. Twitch quickly became the top video-game-streaming site, drawing more live Internet traffic than traditional sports competitors such as ESPN, Major League Baseball and WWE. With 60 million monthly unique visitors who spend almost two hours on the site daily, Twitch is attractive to advertisers eager to connect its audience of mostly Generation Y males who aren’t reading newspapers or watching television. Last year, Amazon bought the company for $970 million. (Amazon CEO Jeffrey Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Any video game fan can likely find someone streaming a game he or she enjoys from a platform he or she prefers, whether mobile, PC or console. “Minecraft” aficionados might look in on GiantWaffle, a 21-year-old student at North Carolina State University who has more than 350,000regular followers, streams from a PC and sells “I (Heart) Waffles” T-shirts. “League of Legends” players can tune in to see 19-year-old Jason Tran, a.k.a. TSM_WildTurtle, who has almost 390,000 regular followers and 246,000 followers on Twitter.
“People crave to make connections on the Internet, to meet other broadcasters and create relationships,” said Justin Wong, vice president of strategy and partnerships at Twitch. “If Twitch was just about playing games, we’d just put it on TV.”
Amber Weitzel was hoping to make friends who loved games as much as she does when she joined Twitch two years ago. The 19-year-old from Pekin, Ill., found some in the channel run by Brotatoe,an uplifting and well-mannered host who plays a wide range of games. Amber is one of his 56,000 followers — a playful bunch who call themselves Taters.
“I love going onto Bro’s show, because I know everyone is so welcoming,” Weitzel said. “If I just can stop by for 20 minutes, it’s worth my time and usually can make my day.”
Alex, known as My_Goggle on the site, is one of 9,000 official partners chosen by Twitch from among the 1.5 million gamers on the site. A company spokesman says Alex made the cut because he is one of the more intriguing personalities in the Xbox niche. As a partner, Alex receives half of each $4.99 monthly subscriber fee and a portion of the advertising revenue from products such as Doritos and Turtle Beach headphones; neither he nor Twitch would disclose the split. He keeps all money that is directly donated.
Twitch said through Chase, a spokesman who goes by only one name, that the site’s biggest stars can make six-figure annual salaries, though he would not give specific figures for any players.
One big Twitch celebrity is 22-year-old Jordan Maron, or CaptainSparklez, with more than 800,000 regular followers. He’s more of a personality on YouTube, however, where his hugely popular gaming channel, with more than 8 million subscribers, includes music video parodies. Last year, Business Insider estimated his yearly YouTube revenueat $174,000 to $1.76 million.
Compared with CaptainSparklez, and even GiantWaffle and TSM_WildTurtle, Alex is a minor-leaguer. On his first night playing the new “Halo,” he was at just under 10,000 regular followers, a number he has wanted to pass for weeks. Those followers aren’t all paying fans, but he thinks having 10,000 of them will signal to other followers that he has arrived at a new level. It will also give him some peace of mind, he says.
User SaMegaDethasks: “any advise u can give to a up and coming streamer..it’s been a struggle for me.”
Alex reads SaMegaDeth’s message out loud and looks into the camera: “Just don’t give up. Keep going.” He riffs on the Journey song “Don’t Stop Believin’.” “Don’t stop, streeeaaamming,” he sings.
Before Alex started this streaming he doesn’t think he can stop, he would idle away his days while his girlfriend, Nikki, was at work and would start doting on her the minute she got home.
As soon as he met Nikki on Myspace seven years ago, Alex ardently pursued the Woodbridge High School senior with striking green eyes. They talked on the phone that night for four hours. At the end of that first conversation, he said he loved her.
For the next week, he left emotive voice mails on her cellphone every morning at 3 so she’d hear them when she woke. He bought them rings inscribed with the word “his” for Nikki and “hers” for Alex. He wore his on his ring finger, but she wasn’t ready for that sign of commitment. She wore it on a chain around her neck.
She loved the attention. He was her first boyfriend. They spent days at the mall; she rode his bike alongside him while he skateboarded. They went to lots of concerts: Slipknot, Deftones and Mumford & Sons.
“Everyone would say how we were the ideal couple,” said Nikki, tall and head-turning with her long, red ringlet curls dipped in blond at the tips. “We gave each other so much attention.”
After they graduated, Nikki went to community college and eventually received a degree in English from George Mason University. Alex didn’t go to college. He worked briefly as a janitor at a local government building but left because he said he had a conflict with a manager. He didn’t have a car and had trouble commuting to a job at Potomac Mills mall. Nikki was usually the one who paid for the concert tickets and other activities.
Nikki said her mother reluctantly invited Alex to live with them in Woodbridge, but she gave him a deadline: Get a job in two months or you’re out. Last January, the couple moved out before the deadline and got an apartment together.
Nikki paid the rent and bills. She worked as a nanny, then in administration for a country club in Great Falls. She owns a car, and Alex depends on her for rides to the grocery and mall. She made other sacrifices: She took in Alex’s mother’s three cats and defended him to her disapproving parents.
“Was I concerned? Worried? Yes, all of the above,” said Tom Sims, Nikki’s father. “I wanted to know if he could support my daughter if they get married.”
But Nikki put a limit on her giving. She, too, imposed a deadline: three months to get a job or the shared apartment won’t work.
Around that time, Alex decided to launch his own Twitch channel because he wanted to engage more fully with others online. Immediately, he felt an ease in front of the camera. He received flattering feedback about his gaming skills, his looks and style. He met friends from Australia and England.
By the end of March, a Twitch representative reached out to offer Alex a partnership with the San Francisco-based site. It featured him on the homepage.
Alex and Nikki were in disbelief until the paperwork arrived. Nikki bought Alex a new Xbox console as celebration gift.
“Everyone all my life had told me I couldn’t do anything,” he said. “I don’t want to sound cocky, but I did this on my own.”
Nikki is completely invested in Alex’s success. It would give them financial security. It would validate her relationship. It would silence her parents and friends, who have nagged her about paying Alex’s expenses.
Her parents now feel more at ease about Alex’s pursuits as a Twitch streamer but say there are still risks.
“I’m 52, and it was hard for me to understand this at first. Where I come from, you get up, pack your lunch, get in your truck, and go to a job,” said Nikki’s father, an electrical contractor in the Woodbridge area. “I’m not saying that I’m eating crow on this, but I’m glad he is able to do something he enjoys.”
But along with the higher expectations come higher stakes and new concerns.
“Alex is gold. He is so sincere and wants so badly to support and help people, but he just couldn’t before,” said Evan Blakeman, a childhood friend. “And I know he’s going to work so hard at this and make it work. I’m just scared about what he may have to give up.”
The biggest thing he’s giving up is his time with Nikki. He has become nocturnal, and she’s up at 6 a.m. to get ready for her job at the country club. When she returns at 6:30 p.m., he’s either about to begin a session of streaming or still asleep. They haven’t been to a concert in more than a year. They rarely talk about music or skateboarding anymore. They might have two hours together in a week for dinner or a movie on TV.
And he has lost touch with friends.
On Halloween, Alex dressed up as the Joker from “The Dark Knight,” one of his favorite movies. He hadn’t made plans with anyone, and Nikki was at a babysitting job. So he walked to a nearby bar to hang out by himself in full costume and came home after a drink.
Alex had promised Nikki that when he reached 10,000 followers, he’d take a day off. Recently he told Nikki that 10,000 was a low benchmark. It would take another year before he would have enough followers to go to a five-day week, he estimated.
“I know she deserves more time, but I just feel really scared of losing it all. Being without a home and a paycheck,” Alex said.
Gaming has become an emotional roller coaster. On days he gets new subscribers, he is over the moon. When he loses followers, he’s deflated. The work makes him anxious and often sleepless. The anxiety manifests itself in a more frequent need to wash his hands. He’ll do it after shaking hands or opening the front door. He can go through three rolls of paper towels in two days. But Alex finds comfort in his washing routine. It makes him feel in control.
He keeps a Word file of positive and negative comments that he cuts and pastes from his chat board. The positive feedback from followers gives him inspiration. He is also inspired by the negative remarks — to prove the commenters wrong.
The one thing he thinks he can control on Twitch is how much he works. And the answer for him is always: more.
This worries Nikki. It’s unsustainable, she said. Even if he succeeds, she is worried about the lack of security in long-term employment on a site like Twitch. Alex isn’t part of a union, and has no retirement savings or health insurance through Twitch. He hasn’t looked into federal assistance through Obamacare. Alex says he isn’t as concerned, but he acknowledges the long-term risks.
“I’m scared he’ll never stop this schedule,” she said. “That makes me nervous, that there isn’t stability.” And she’s a bit afraid of his success. “I am so incredibly proud of him; I’m just scared that this is going to take him someplace where he won’t need me anymore,” she said. “It’s not about Alex, it’s about Twitch. I’m upset at Twitch.”
Three days after Alex’s premiere of “Halo: The Master Chief Collection” he is in the home stretch of his second marathon stream. He has spent 22 hours dodging fire from hulking aliens in combat gear, and sits with slumped shoulders and heavy eyelids. He’s slurring his speech.
Fueled by three Red Bulls, a couple of heated frozen corn dogs, a cheese stick and a sliced apple, he has taken only a few breaks. He is cranky, and so are his followers. They are being obnoxious.
“How can you say I’m terrible at this game and then follow me? I don’t understand the logic,” he says aloud while reading nasty comments on his board.
He rubs his eyes and squints at a panel at the bottom of his screen. It displays his vital stats: the number of total followers, paying subscribers, and current viewers.
It’s 7:30 p.m., and 42 people are actively watching.
“The other day I had 1,400 active viewers. My highest view count ever,” he says.
He’s cradling the controller loosely and starts making mistakes. He has been talking nonstop for those 22 hours, and his throat is raw.
With little energy left, he digs deepfor some inspiration.
“Be the change you want to be,” he says, liberally paraphrasing a quote from Gandhi.
A former subscriber named “X Gift” has just resubscribed.
It’s exactly what he needs. Alex’s eyes widen and he straightens up, pulling back his shoulders.
He grabs his iPod.
“X Gift, thank you so much. Welcome back,” Alex says, getting into showman mode.
He finds the song “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” from Simple Minds. Pointing his finger into the webcam, he says: “And this is for you.”
Alex lip-syncs the words to the 1980s ballad, tightly pressing his eyes closed and pulling his clenched fists to his chest. Every new subscriber is a victory, and this gives him the energy to continue streaming another four hours — making this session his record of 26 hours of nonstop gaming. He stops only after some followers tell him to sleep.
He says good night to the dozens of viewers that have hung on with him and powers down the game. His adrenaline is still flowing. It always takes about an hour for him to come down after a long stream. Alex decides to surf Twitch to see other players. He then flips around cable to see what’s on TV.
He’s drained but satisfied. In his epic binge weekend, he has racked up 12 more subscribers, bringing his total to 126. And he has reached a key goal: 10,700 followers.
I’ll stream again tomorrow, he thinks to himself.
Then he walks to his bedroom, past the cats, and slips into bed.
Cecilia Kang covers the media and entertainment industries for The Washington Post.
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