The platform’s relentless demands have top performers looking for an alternative to the always-on life
NOBODY making a living on an online platform is immune to volatility—not even Ludwig Ahgren (picture), who in April 2021 set a record for the most subscribers ever on Twitch, Amazon.com Inc.’s streaming platform for gamers. After years of using Twitch to broadcast himself playing Super Smash Bros. Melee and chatting with fans full time, Ahgren committed himself to a punishing monthlong period of around-the-clock streaming he called a sub-a-thon. He peaked at 283,066 subscribers, each paying from $5 to $25.
The numbers were fleeting—by the next month, he’d lost all but about 42,000 subscribers. “I went right back down to where I was before the sub-a-thon,” he says. “You reach a level of success, and then you see it start to go away. It’s how streaming works.”
Twitch, YouTube, and other streaming services have given live streamers such as Ahgren the chance to build audiences and make media careers in ways that would’ve been impossible until about a decade ago. But performers have to produce videos constantly to keep viewers engaged. What Ahgren did after his record-breaking subscriber base evaporated shows how a handful of celebrity game streamers are looking to detach from this exhausting cycle and build more sustainable careers.
In November, Ahgren leveraged his Twitch fame into a multimillion-dollar exclusive deal with its main competitor in game streaming, Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube. He employs about a dozen people, who produce his content, handle merchandising, and perform other tasks. This month, Ahgren is starting his own company to provide technical infrastructure to other streamers. Called Truffle, it will enable a streamer to offer custom emoticons to fans and allow them to wager digital points on the outcomes of events within the live videos. The company will also eventually facilitate the creation of custom apps by third-party developers.
Many prominent Twitch streamers are also looking to seed entrepreneurial ventures that rely less on the daily grind. Hanako Tjia, a United Talent Agency agent who works with several top Twitch stars, is seeing more of them form game development studios, production companies, brand consulting firms, and direct-to-consumer brands. “The gaming landscape has dramatically evolved from where it was five years ago, and there are more opportunities for content creators now than ever before,” she says.
Game streamers often struggle with burnout and other maladies of overwork and end up looking to diversify. “You’ve seen countless streamers go through breakdowns, depressions, or worse,” says top Twitch streamer Asmongold, who doesn’t share his full name publicly. “It’s obvious that for many people, streaming is not a 20-year career.” In 2020, Asmongold, whose career has been marked by periodic burnout-inspired breaks, co-launched a network of influencers who collaborate on video content. Called One True King, or OTK, the company negotiates sponsorship deals between brands and its members.
Long infamous for young, male performers engaging in sexist, racist, or homophobic behavior, game streaming has become tamer, at least compared to its recent past. Its audience has also exploded since the beginning of the pandemic. That’s created an opening for veteran performers to start companies like OTK to capitalise on their knowledge of the space in ways they couldn’t do by streaming alone. These startups connect the idiosyncratic and fast-paced streaming business with brands such as the Hershey Co., MAC Cosmetics, Red Bull, and UberEats, which are eager to reach young, digitally native audiences.
The entrepreneurs say they’re often charting their own course rather than following patterns set by previous generations of media stars. In October, Imane “Pokimane” Anys, 25, co-founded RTS (named for the video game genre “real-time strategy”), a company that manages game-streaming talent. Anys, who’s been streaming on Twitch since she was in high school, had few role models. “If I were ever facing a new obstacle, there wasn’t a set structure or rulebook for me to turn to,” she says.
Performers who feel they have reached the ceiling on their preferred platforms are managing others and looking beyond entertainment. Kaitlyn “Amouranth” Siragusa, a superstar on both Twitch and the subscription-based platform OnlyFans, where she posts adult content, said last month on Twitter that she was launching an agency for female content creators on both platforms. She has also diversified outside of entertainment, buying gas stations, investing in a 7-Eleven, and even sinking $7 million into an inflatable pool-toy company.
Tjia says the entertainers she works with are now ready to leverage their success into entrepreneurship. However, she says, “building a business as a true CEO is not for everyone, and there are risks and opportunity costs that come with entrepreneurship.” While some might move on to become chief executive officers, she adds, others “will take more strategic, behind-the-camera roles in shaping the gaming industry.”