Earlier this week, Sony announced the Death Stranding release date via a nearly day-long Twitch stream that mostly just showed handprints appearing on a black screen. The reasons why fans would watch this is obvious: Anticipation is exciting, and infectious. The reasons why it is encouraged by publishers is also obvious. Marketing on the internet has always sought to use fan enthusiasm to some corporate benefit, and anticipation is often the easiest way to do that. Countdown clocks, trailers, alternate-reality games and puzzles are all ways to excite fans and get them talking about a game.
Twitch has become so central to video games that publishers have made it a vital part of their marketing efforts. Twitch streams can be watched in places and times where games aren’t an option; they can also be watched as games are played. It’s a locus of attention that’s irresistible to a company with games to sell, which then makes it beneficial for these companies to find ways to get fans to spend even more time on Twitch. They don’t even have to engage with a game that’s out now. Which is how we get to DeathStranding.
The Death Stranding effort was confusing, as a lot of Kojima hype tends to be. The stream was mostly a black image, with a few outlines of handprints and eerie music. At noon, the full video was released, a nearly nine-minute trailer for Death Stranding. The plan seems to have worked, and the Death Stranding trailer racked up nearly five million views in a day’s time.
There was no real reason to watch the livestream—no mystery to solve, no real audience participation beyond showing up. What’s more, anyone who is online enough to watch a stream is also arguably online enough to know when the stream’s end result is achieved without bothering to tune in. The stream recalls another absurd livestream marketing moment, when HBO decided to reveal the premiere date for Game of Thrones’ seventh season by hiding it in a block of ice, which would eventually melt and show the world a date. A date fans would’ve eventually learned anyway, and posted about anyway.
Twitch is already something of a closed loop, integrated into the machines we play games on, so we can stream games and watch games that are streamed. But publishers have increasingly made an effort to control the contours of that loop, using their resources to tip the odds in their favor.
If you watched the Borderlands 3 reveal stream on Twitch last month, you had the chance to win in-game loot. Last fall, watching affiliated streamers on Twitch for an hour could have netted you early access to Black Ops 4’s Blackout beta. Rocket League fans can earn exclusive customization rewards by linking their accounts and watching streams. Those rewards are offered through the Twitch Drops program, which has also been integrated by other publishers and developers. When The Division 2’s first raid went live earlier this month, fans who watched select streamers run the raid could earn items in the game. In the Twitch attention economy, publishers have vast capital that no one else does: information on highly anticipated games to disseminate, and plenty of door prizes for players of games that are out.
As big-budget games move away from static, discrete products towards a “games as a service” model, attention has become a scarce resource. There are only so many games one person can pay attention to at a time—and when said games are persistent affairs, so many future games that can be anticipated. Thus we have hype as a service, and all the things publishers will try in order to keep their audience fixated on an upcoming game, in the hopes that long-term anticipation might translate to long-term interest once that game is out. And what better place to see that unfold than on Twitch—the best place to watch and wait for games.
Leftist Twitch streamer Hasan Piker guested on the popular leftist podcast Chapo Trap House, and told the Chapo hosts that he’s breaking through to the insular, potentially reactionary teens on Twitch.
Hasan Piker, who works for the left-wing news YouTube news show The Young Turks, is a pretty popular Twitch streamer with over 90,000 followers. He’s also an outspoken socialist, and his audience crosses over with the incredibly popular Chapo Trap House podcast. Last night’s episode had Piker explaining the streaming platform to co-hosts Will Menaker, Amber Frost, and Matt Christman.
Chapo co-host Felix Biederman, who wasn’t present for this episode, is an avid gamer and streams on Twitch himself. But Piker said that Biederman doesn’t really participate in the culture of Twitch, jokingly calling Biederman and his friends the “Boomers of Twitch.” For Piker, participating in that culture and talking to young people is part of the reason why he came to the platform. He had been on Facebook duty at The Young Turks, and found that experience to be miserable.
“Everyone that watches Facebook news now is like 68 years old. So it’s awful. I mean, they vote, but whatever, they don’t care for my leftist takes regardless,” Piker told the hosts of Chapo. “So I got on Twitch because I knew that this is a young audience, mostly male, probably prone to reactionary politics, but their political idols are a bunch of idiots. I mean, they don’t know anything. All the takes that they’ve heard about like leftist politics have been just strawmen from the likes of Steven Crowder and Ben Shapiro.”
Piker said that once people see him, they have to reconsider their preconceived notion of leftists, which he characterizes as mostly gleaned from “SJW cringe compilations.” Although Piker said that his audience responds to his argument when they’re presented through memes, he did also say that simply by not living up to a leftist stereotype, he’s swaying people away from the right.
“The thing is that they don’t have a lot of access to proper leftist representation. When someone comes in and is like, ‘Oh no, both parties are pretty bad and here’s what we should be doing, like the rest of the world, and this is why it’s wrong,’” Piker said. “They’re like, ‘oh, this is a little different from what I expected the left to be like.”
Piker also talked to the Chapo hosts about his audience of young queer people, and they round out the episode by clowning on a frequent subject of the podcast’s ire, former Trump cabinet member Sebastian Gorka. The whole episode is worth a listen, but it’s particularly amusing to hear Menaker, Frost, and Christman struggle to understand Twitch. At the very least, Menaker said that Biederman finally got him invested in Metal Gear Solid, just by virtue of talking about it constantly.
Top Twitch streamers can make $50,000 per hour streaming new video games, the Wall Street Journal said in a weekend report. Kotaku spoke with industry sources who confirmed the report, adding that $50,000 per hour wasn’t even the highest figure they’d seen.
The report claims that publishers like Activision Blizzard, Take-Two, Ubisoft, and Electronic Arts regularly pay big sums to big-name Twitch streamers, who play and publicize their games for large dedicated live fanbases (Ben “DrLupo” Lupo, referenced in the story, has 3.2 million Twitch followers). When popular streamers check out new games, it may not be purely out of personal interest; they’re often making big money, the report claims.
Getting $50,000 an hour to livestream a game and make it seem cool is a hell of a gig. According to two industry sources interviewed by Kotaku, that number may not even be highest threshold. “We’ve seen offers well over $50K an hour, as well as many six- and seven-figure deals for longer-term engagements,” said Omeed Dariani, CEO of the Online Performers Group, which represents top streamers like Cohh Carnage and Professor Broman. “I can’t share specific companies, as the payment terms are usually confidential. We had one offer from a AAA publisher that was $60K per hour for two hours. The broadcaster declined it—and the publisher came back with a ‘blank check’ offer, which was still declined.”
Pricing isn’t just based on reach, he added: “Bigger audiences (typically anything over 5,000 viewers) tend to be younger and have lower engagement, so you can’t just say something like ‘1 viewer for 1 hour = $1.’ Not all streamers (and their viewers) generate the same results.”
To those following the $43.4 billion industry’s financial trends, huge-money sponsorships shouldn’t be a surprise. Twitch streamers are 2019’s pop culture, and to savvy marketers, nothing could be more intuitive or cost-effective than leveraging this fledgling industry’s relatable microcelebrities to promote a product. That was a game-changer for survival shooter Apex Legends, which became the number one game on Twitch after top streamers livestreamed it. Electronic Arts’ stock gained near 10 percent following the boost.
“Your game being top on Twitch is worth a lot now,” said Adam Lieb, CEO of marketing firm Gamesight. The money Electronic Arts invested in Twitch influencers, he said, “they could have spent on ads on Twitch or IGN and it would not have made as big of an impact.”
Livestreaming may feel more authentic than traditional ads to fans, who trust their favorite streamers to give their honest, candid opinion. But the companies sponsoring these streams can maintain a degree of influence on their content. According to Dariani and Lieb, it’s common for game publishers to ask streamers to sign non-disparagement clauses.
“Disparagement is not the same thing as criticism,” Dariani explained. “It’s more like saying ‘the developers of this game are morons and should all be fired’ rather than ‘the combat system in this game could use some adjustments.’” Other times, according to Lieb, a game publisher might just ask a streamer to check out their game first to see if they like it. A 2016 Kotaku report included one marketing firm’s guidelines for what constitutes a kosher sponsored video:
Find something in the game to gently poke fun atIncorporate trailers / gameplay footage in the video.
Curse or use foul language in your video
Celebrity streamers play an increasingly crucial role in publishing companies’ marketing plans, yet it’s not always clear that they’re doing it. A 2019 Reuters report alleged that Electronic Arts paid Tyler “Ninja” Blevins $1 million to play and tweet about Apex Legends. Blevins, along with Michael “Shroud” Grzesiek, both streamed the game on its launch day with “Apex Legends partner” graphics, yet they didn’t seem to describe what that specifically entailed, reportedKotaku. Reached for comment, publisher EA explained that “EA requires full disclosure and transparency with every Game Changer, content activation, or paid sponsorship that we are involved with.”
In 2017, the Federal Trade Commission released guidelines on how influencers can endorse products legally. Reached for comment, a FTC representative referred Kotaku to their guidelines: “Since viewers can tune in any time, they could easily miss a disclosure at the beginning of the stream or at any other single point in the stream. If there are multiple, periodic disclosures throughout the stream people are likely to see them no matter when they tune in. To be cautious, you could have a continuous, clear and conspicuous disclosure throughout the entire stream.”
Influencer culture has become an inextricable arm of advertising. As more and more marketing happens behind the curtain, it’s becoming harder to tell when we’re being sold to, and at the same time, harder to care when we love who’s selling.
Popular gaming YouTuber and streamer Desmond “Etika” Amofah was detained by Brooklyn Police this afternoon after allegedly threatening to harm himself as 19,000 viewers watched him live on Instagram via his phone. A police representative told Kotaku he is on his way to the hospital.
The stream of the incident lasted about 45 minutes, beginning with Amofah talking to the police and culminating with them escorting him out of his Brooklyn apartment.
During the stream, which led to “Etika” trending worldwide on Twitter, Amofah alternated between pointing his phone camera at himself in his apartment and out the window to a street filled with at least three police cars and blocked by yellow caution tape. While it was sometimes hard to hear what police were saying, Amofah continually described himself as “scared,” even as members of his livechat suggested he comply with police. He said they removed his door handle and he held it aloft. The door eventually cracked open and what looked like a SWAT team complete with a riot shield came in. Amofah was asked to put his shoes on and escorted out.
Amofah built a following over the years for his love of streaming about games, particularly ones by Nintendo. In October, he uploaded pornography to his YouTube channel, which apparently resulted in its deletion. Afterward, Amofah posted a cryptic message on Reddit: “And now, it’s my turn to die. I love you all.” He later apologized for the confusing move on Reddit: “I’m sorry for worrying all of you,” he wrote.
A Newsweek report published earlier today before the police incident described Amofah as struggling with mental health issues for months. In April, he said on Twitter that he was about to shoot himself. Days later, Amofah posted a photograph of himself holding a gun, which ex-girlfriend and fellow streamer Alice Pika said was faked. Last night on Twitter, where he has nearly 300,000 followers, Amofah had been posting frantic messages, including some slurs, for hours.
YouTuber Sky Williams, who apparently considers himself a friend of Amofah’s, realized he was blocked by the YouTuber today. “There is no combination of letters to describe how terrible I feel seeing this screen,” he wrote. “People keep waking me up because Etika continues to exhibit frightening behavior but I can’t do anything at all now and I’m sorry I couldn’t get through to him.”
On an Instagram today, Amofah livestreamed himself interacting with police officers attempting to enter his apartment after a concerned fan called 911 around 2:10 p.m, a police representative confirmed.
Pika told Kotaku that “since he posts photos of him with weapons, it explains why there were so many cops there, because fans were scared he was going to kill himself. But those photos were fake, photoshopped guns on his image.”
Pika added, “I was never scared for his life today because I trust in him and the NYPD to safely take him to the hospital. Even last night, I wasn’t worried for his life.”
Thousands of fans watched as a police entered Amofah’s apartment, seizing him and removing him from the space. A representative from the NYPD confirmed to Kotaku that he was taken into custody at 2:44 p.m. “He’s got a psych history,” the representative said. When Kotaku asked why the police were called, the rep explained, “He was threatening suicide inside the apartment.” The representative said that Amofah was currently on the way to a Brooklyn hospital shortly before the time of this article’s publication.
After police took Amofah away, his phone continued to stream, its camera pointed at a nondescript part of the room. The viewer count slowly diminished from 19,000 to 13,000 and lower before eventually ending.
Additional reporting contributed by Stephen Totilo and Chris Person.
“Hi! I see you, but I’m focused on the reading right now. I can chat during the next break!” This message popped up on the stream from Ryan Blake Hall, better known as Storyteller Mars on Twitch.
He was busy reading from Henry Wysham Lanier’s A Book of Giants: Tales of Very Tall Men of Myth, Legend, History, and Science (published in 1922). Sitting in front of decoratively open books and teacups, he even did character voices—gruff, booming voices for the giants, a calm voice for narration. A few viewers chatted amongst themselves during Hall’s broadcast. Hall loves talking with his small, but growing community (his 242 followers, with about 20 tuning in on each stream), but he won’t interact with them until a break, when the chapter is over.
“There was this lovely couple when I was reading Treasure Island back in November,” Hall told Gizmodo. “They would do their nightly ritual of climbing into bed, turning off all the lights, and put me on [the TV] and listen to me read until they fall asleep. It makes me feel like what I’m doing is 157 percent worth my time and effort. Knowing that even if it’s one person who I’m helping deal with life better, just get through whatever difficulties they’re having, feels like I’m giving back to the world all the kindness and generosity I’ve been given in my life so far.”
Twitch is known primarily as a video game live-streaming site, where users broadcast a number of different video game streams: “Let’s Play”–style broadcasts that see a game through to completion, esports players streaming their practice, and later, tournaments and leagues showcasing official, competitive play. Most often, the streams with the most viewers are fast-paced, exciting, and, often, over-the-top. League of Legends, Fortnite, and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds are typically leading in viewership numbers for that reason. (Twitch users watched “tens of millions of hours of Fortnite on Twitch” in 2018, Kotaku reported last year. This month, the game brought in an average of 140,740 viewers, with more than 10,000 live channels broadcasting at any given time, according to Twitch Metrics.)
But there’s a quieter side of Twitch, with much less stimulation and shouting. There is joy and amusement to be found in the shrieks of loud, gregarious streamers, but an emerging sector of the platform—“Twitch for introverts,” as Hall called it—is offering up a different, more relaxed experience. These quieter places on Twitch are more evocative of a slower form of entertainment, not unlike Norway’s slow TV, which broadcasts long train rides or a 12-hour knitting marathon, and the holiday tradition of watching a yule log burn.
Now owned by Amazon, Twitch launched in 2011 as an off-shoot of broader live-streaming platform Justin.tv. These days, Twitch has a reported three million streamers broadcasting from the platform each month, the company announced in December 2018. On average, that’s nearly half a million users live-streaming on Twitch each day, reaching more than 15 million viewers every day—according to Twitch, each of those users spends around 95 minutes, on average, watching streams each day.
Most streams are focused primarily on video games, but there are also streams from musicians, knitters, storytellers, makeup artists, scientists, and photographers. There are streamers sewing costumes, snapping together LEGO bricks, and creating digital paintings of their favorite characters. Streamers like these have been on Twitch since the beginning, but the platform officially recognized these broadcasts under the “Creative” banner when it launched the new vertical in October 2015. It was kicked off with a week-long marathon of Bob Ross’ The Joy of Painting, setting a standard for what the Creative channels could be.
When 58-year-old Jennifer Chambers speaks about her channel, she isn’t talking about herself. Chambers, known on Twitch as JennyKnits, talks in we’s. We’re going into our fourth year of streaming. We applied to the partnership program. We earned partner status months after creating the channel, she told Gizmodo.(Partners on Twitch are an elite-level status, available to prollific streamers, that gives them benefits and community creation tools, like the ability to run ads and access to more custom emote slots.)
Chambers began streaming on Twitch in 2016, but had been watching others stream Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft for years prior. A lifelong knitter, she taught knitting classes at local craft stores. When the creative section of Twitch opened up in 2015, she realized that teaching knitting on Twitch was an option, too. “Honestly, I didn’t think 10 people would be interested,” Chambers said. Now, she’s got a modest, but steady group of viewers—around 100—who watch, knit, and chat with her every day. “It’s gotten so much bigger than just teaching knitting,” she added.
Not long after she began streaming, Chambers was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I got the email from Twitch saying, ‘Your hard work has been rewarded, and you’re going to become a partner,’” she said. “The very next day, I had surgery to have my port installed to start chemotherapy. [The next day] I had chemotherapy for the first time. I was pretty much sick from the moment I got my Twitch button.”
Chambers streamed all through the physical and psychological hardships of treatment, and now she’s cancer free. “It was an amazing process and journey,” she said. “I feel like by being open about what was happening in my real life, they’ve become like my family.”
It’s for that reason that streaming on Twitch, for Chambers, is less like a musician performing to a stadium-full of fans and more like a knitting club, naturally.
A streamer like Tyler Blevins—better known as Ninja, the rainbow-haired Fortnite streamer championed for his loud, goofy streams and rowdy gameplay—is attractive to viewers for a number of reasons, one of which is his ability to make fans feel connected to him. This is a phenomena digital anthropologist Dr. Crystal Abidin calls “perceived interconnectedness,” something close to parasocial relationships, but updated for the digital age. With a hundred thousand viewers tuned into each of Ninja’s streams, it’s impossible (and, likely, unsafe) for him to consider a personal relationship with his viewers. Consider the chaos of a typical stream, too—Fortnite is a fast-paced, loud, and colorful game to begin with. Often, Ninja is playing with other personality-heavy streamers, each putting on a show for their respective channels, creating an environment that’s both visually andaurally stimulating.
Instead of making personal connections with each of his viewers, which would be near impossible, he can practice perceived intimacy by opening up his life to viewers in calculated ways. Between matches, Ninja speaks directly to viewers, answering questions, sometimes personal, and individually thanking viewers that subscribe during the broadcast. He can’t speak directly to each of his estimated 23,000 subscribers (even more so at the height of his popularity, when he had around 200,000 subscribers), but the act of pulling out some viewers, of which he has thousands each stream, makes viewers feel like they could be one of them.
Creative channels are generally less visually overwhelming than the frantic, flashing gaming streams, taking away one distracting element to make way for more personal community-building. Relationships built in Chambers’ channel aren’t perceived. Chambers considers many in her community her friends, just folks she hangs out and knits with daily. (Chambers’ channel is much less crowded than Ninja’s, 3,760 followers to Ninja’s 14 million. Ninja typically streams to around 40,000 viewers, whereas Chambers has an average of 60 to 80 viewers. But Chambers doesn’t necessarily want to grow to Ninja levels of fame; a community that large can feel impersonal.)
“A bunch of [my viewers] decided to do this cool little project, which had me in tears when they sent it to me,” Chambers said. “A bunch of them all knitted and crocheted little pink ribbons. They did this without telling me, and they sent them all to one person who assembled all these ribbons hanging from strings. They all attached notes of encouragement to me. I was bawling.”
Among the millions of streamers that broadcast on Twitch, there certainly is a variance in video game streamers. There are Twitch stars, like Ninja, but there’s plenty of video game streamers nurturing smaller, quieter communities. Mainstream perception of Twitch, though, puts the Ninjas at the forefront. A glimpse into these larger streams’ chat—literally a chat room to the right of a broadcast—oftentimes documents the worst of the streaming community. Chat moves fast—often too fast to actually read—and is filled with inside jokes and memes. Depending on a streamer’s chat moderation, racist and sexist toxicity can, and does, get through.
Twitch co-founder Kevin Lin told GamesIndustry.biz in 2017 that smaller channels on Twitch are creating foundational communities that self-police toxic behavior, something that has the potential to spread outward into Twitch’s larger channels and chats. “If you go to smaller channels with hundreds of concurrents rather than tens of thousands, you’ll see a lot less [toxic behavior,]” Lin continued. Streamers with smaller communities are able to interact more directly with viewers, allowing them to manage the environment of a stream more effectively.
“At times the slower pace and ability of the broadcaster to turn their attention more readily to the chat window can produce a more conversational quality,” T.L. Taylor, professor of Comparative Media Studies at MIT and author of Watch Me Play: Twitch and the Rise of Game Living Streaming,said. “Unlike watching a large esports match alongside tens of thousands of people where the crowd experience dominates, creative channels often boast smaller communities with rich histories and more attention to the maintenance of the group around the broadcaster.”
Dr. Pamela L. Gay is an astronomer, podcast host, and Planetary Scientist Institute scientist who reads books and paints planets on Twitch. Dr. Gay uses a super fluid paint technique that mimics how different atmospheres mix “due to differences in [paint] density,” she explained. As paint is poured and layered over circular boards, the colors spread into each other to create patterns and textures. Dr. Gay uses fire to apply different effects on the paint’s surface, depending on the look she’s going for with a specific project, like if she’s painting gaseous giant planets or dark, cratered moons. Each of her planets is designed to look relatively realistic—i.e, planets that are scientifically possible—but she takes some liberties with color, she said.
When she’s not painting planets or reading science stories, Dr. Gay’s broadcasting a daily space news show, aptly named Daily Space, through her day job with CosmoQuest and the Planetary Science Institute.
When the program, which helps citizen scientists work on NASA projects, lost funding. Dr. Gay and her team set up a 40-hour marathon fundraiser on Twitch. “Suddenly my entire staff was unemployed just in time for Christmas,” Dr. Gay said. “But we were able to raise enough money to keep my team at least part-time employed, and we’re continuing to bring in funding so that people can do science.”
“We’re leveraging the Twitch platform to communicate what we’re doing to say, ‘We’re here to do science with you, to explain what we’re doing and make you part of it. Can you support us?’”
The camaraderie of a shared activity brings people back together on Twitch regularly. “The reason I keep doing it is because it’s just become such a fun part of my life,” Chambers said. “I can’t wait to spend time with everybody.” Conversation flows depending on the day; sometimes, Chambers tells her viewers about her current World of Warcraft game. Other times, she answers questions about her knitting technique. On a recent stream, she explained to her viewers how to do a thing called planned pooling, which uses variegated yarn to create patterns.
An interest in knitting and learning brings viewers in, but they stay for the community. After all, knitting isn’t all that exciting to watch, Chambers said. Knitting is a series of small, repetitive movements. A garment is knit together with thousands of stitches. Projects take hours. “Knitting is like fishing,” Chambers said. “It’s fun for the person who’s doing it, but it’s not always that much entertainment to sit and watch somebody do it.” The interactive element of it all, like you’re knitting with a group of friends, changes the dynamic.
Sometimes, Chambers looks up at her computer, where the chat is displayed, and though there’s a hundred or so folks in the channel, the chat’s dead. “I’ll say, ‘Hello? Is anybody still there?’ and they’re like, ‘Yes, we’re still here. We’re knitting!’ A few of them will usually start typing again [after those moments,] but I know they’re just doing their craft while they hang out with me.”
“There can be something not only compelling, but comforting, in watching creative streams,” MIT sociologist Taylor said. “Sometimes it’s the slow unfolding of seeing an imaginative work emerge. The sound of a channel can also draw you in, with the alternation between quiet moments and then hearing the broadcaster describe their process as they work with their hands. These channels offer a kind of aesthetic pleasure that is slightly different from traditional gaming channels.”
Creating an environment on Twitch like this isn’t a conscious effort by all streamers, but Chambers, Hall, and Gay all expressed a desire to create safe, calm spaces where viewers can step out of an otherwise overly-stimulating world.
Hall creates this environment by reading free e-books available by Project Gutenberg, an online initiative designed as a reservoir for books in the public domain. Hall starts and ends his streams with at least 15 minutes delegated to talking with his community. He’s creating a calm space, but is also making a more explicit effort to talk about mental health—a topic he’s found not discussed enough, on Twitch or elsewhere.
“I had this idea to [start this channel] for over a year, but my depression and anxiety made me too afraid,” Hall said. “It made me feel like it was a pointless effort. I defeated myself before I even started.”
Once he got help, including medication and therapy, the anxiety of starting a Twitch channel was no longer an obstacle. “I just did the darn thing and found success almost immediately,” he added. “I want so desperately to help other people not fall into the darkness as I once did.”
For many, that kind of support resonates deeply.
“I love that aspect of Twitch where there are Twitch streamers that tag themselves as being all about positivity,” Dr. Gay said. “They provide a safe place to be an introvert, to be someone struggling who just wants to consume content and know they’re not alone, even if they’re just lurking in the chat. The people on Twitch really take care of each other.”
Nicole Carpenter is a writer and reporter based in Massachusetts.
Twitch has released a new, free-to-play karaoke game called Twitch Sings. Harmonix and Twitch partnered together to develop the game, which was first revealed last year.
Twitch Sings is launching with close to 2,000 songs and will get new songs over time. The game will tie in directly with players’ Twitch accounts, letting them stream the game without needing third-party software or extra equipment.
This new game is inspired by the many IRL streams that are popular on the site, showing people painting, crafting, singing and more.
The game will also support duets, using asynchronous multiplayer. One user will sing one half of a duet then save and upload it. Another player can then sing the other part of the duet and upload that clip later.
As players sing more songs, they will earn XP and coins, which can be used to level up your profile and to buy new in-game items for your avatar. According to the Twitch Sings FAQ, the game is currently free but Twitch might add premium items or other microtransactions into the game at a later date.
Harmonix, who helped create Twitch Sings, has a long history developing music and rhythm games, including the popular Rock Band and Dance Central games.
Accusations of sexual predation are rocking the Pokémon YouTube community after 12 alleged victims made public statements against four individuals in that scene, including Kyle “TheKingNappy” McNeal, a well-known Pokémon YouTuber with over 500,000 subscribers.
Pokémon is a franchise that typically appeals to kids and teenagers, plus adults who grew up with the games and anime. The series has spawned a lively scene on YouTube where people post let’s plays, online battles, challenge runs, and general commentary on the series. Because of the series’ appeal to kids, fans of Pokémon YouTubers may skew young. Earlier this year, Kotaku reported on how Twitch streamers and YouTubers can take advantage of their large platforms and the power differentials they generate to abuse fans, and especially underage fans. In the past, games like Minecraft, which also attracts a younger audience, have given rise to content megastars who, according to a report by Vice Motherboard, have in some instances allegedly sexually preyed on underage fans. This weekend’s allegations against Pokemon’s online community and the power dynamics within it are proving similarly explosive.
These conversations outing alleged predators among Pokémon YouTubers began last week after a 19-year-old student named Sylveon, who asked Kotaku to keep her real name private, published a YouTube video titled “Finally coming forward.” In the video, Sylveon accuses Nathan Putnam, who goes by Dekadurr and makes graphics for widely regarded Pokémon YouTubers, of asking her for nude pictures when she was 15 years old. Putnam worked with many of the biggest names in his community and appeared at live events with them. Four women have accused him of preying on them when they were either underage or just barely 18.
Sylveon said over a Discord voice call that she met Putnam on the Twitch channel of Pokémon streamer ShadyPenguinn, after which Putnam looked her up on Twitter, which led to regular conversations online. After sending her shirtless pictures of himself via Snapchat, she says, Putnam asked her for nudes, which she says she initially declined. “He continued to make me feel like the bad guy,” she said. Eventually, she says, she assented. Sources say Putnam was in his early 20s, which Kotaku is working to confirm.
“It was really annoying to me, but I was kind of scared of him,” she explained on our call. “He had a larger following than me and worked with all these bigger names, people I looked up to. I didn’t want to speak out because who’s gonna believe me?” Sylveon says the messages between herself and Putnam are on an old phone and that she cannot corroborate that he knew her age. However, public statements and interviews with three other women, who were either underage or just 18 while in contact with Putnam, indicate that his behavior was part of a pattern of predation.
Over Twitter DMs and Discord messages, two of these women described how Putnam aggressively demanded naked pictures from them even after expressing how uncomfortable they felt. Two more say he hit on them when they were underage. One of them, who goes by Caroline, told Kotaku that she came forward because “I feel it’s important for everyone to know the horrible things he’s done to not only myself, but many others. As he is (or was) apart [sic] of an online community full of kids, this will continue to happen to young girls if we do not stop him.” (Kotaku has seen proof that Caroline’s age, which was 16, was visible on her bios on Twitter and Skype, where they spoke.)
Putnam did not return Kotaku’s requests for comment.
On March 31, Kyle “TheKingNappy” McNeal, who had previously worked with Putnam, called his actions “cruel and unforgivable” and apologized for not speaking up sooner. “I can 100% assure you that there wasn’t a single person aware of what Nathan was doing,” McNeal said in a note on Twitter. “If we had been aware, we would have taken action years ago and Nathan would not have been considered our friend, to any extent.”
Later that day, he amended his statement after people pointed out that this contradicted a tweet from another YouTuber, JayYTGamer, who said there was a general awareness of the Putnam’s behavior among the group, and “a few of us would pull him aside and try to speak to him and tell him to fucking stop that pedo shit.” McNeal said in his second statement that he was “referring to everything SINCE then.”
That same day, however, people begin to come forward with allegations against McNeal himself, the most severe of which suggested that he coerced a then-underage Pokémon YouTuber named Callum into dating him in 2013. Callum said he was 16 at the time and that McNeal was 21. In addition to his 500,000 YouTube subscribers, McNeal was followed by nearly 200,000 fans on his Twitch channel, which Nintendo has itself promoted. Nintendo did not respond to a request for comment by press time. Kotaku will update with their comment should we hear back.
“He gave me an ultimatum,” Callum wrote on Twitter. “Date or we’re no longer friends…I eventually agreed to try dating Nappy…I know I should’ve cut the relationship sooner, but I was still so terrified of losing friends over it.”
Another Pokémon YouTuber, GameboyLuke, came forward with his own story shortly after Callum. He told Kotaku via email that he was 21 or 22 at the time. Luke told Kotaku via phone that in 2015, Nappy made advances on him. Luke said he turned Nappy down but that Nappy persisted.
“It wasn’t until the third, fourth, or fifth advance that I realized something was really wrong,” he explained. According to Luke, Nappy also said that if Luke got a girlfriend, Nappy would have to cut ties with him.
“When he finally gave up, he kicked me from the friend group & he told everyone that ‘I didn’t fuck with them anymore’ when in reality McNeal couldn’t get me to do what he wanted & so he exiled me,” he explained on Twitter.
McNeal attempted to clear the air in a since-deleted stream the same day these stories came to light.
In the stream, which another YouTuber recorded and uploaded to YouTube, McNeal didn’t deny that his romantic pursuit of Luke happened, but he claims that the entire situation was consensual, that he was the one who broke things off, and that he didn’t do anything to ostracize Luke among their friend group. McNeal also claimed he was “good close friends” with Callum, but nothing more. “There was no collusion to plot against this 16-year-old sitting in his room in Scotland. Here I am, a 100,000+ subscriber channel. Why would I put any of this at risk over that?” he said. Last night, however, one of Callum’s friends posted Skype logs between herself and Callum in which Callum refers to McNeal as a “boyfriend,” in quotation marks, and in which Callum expresses feelings that he “led [McNeal] on…I shouldn’t have agreed to anything in the first place.” After those Skype logs leaked, McNeal posted another statement on Twitter. While he says that “the words I spoke on stream are the truth, at least from my perspective,” he offers his apologies to “all those involved.”
Callum has not responded to Kotaku’s requests for comment. McNeal did not originally reply to Kotaku in time for this story’s publication, but sent an emailed response after it ran that read, in part:
“In regards to the situation, I spoke ‘my side’ of things in my livestream this past Sunday. It’s hard to speak on things because there are so many situations with so many different people involved. Just as, ‘the other side,’ has their perception of things, so do I. I say that because none of these situations are one on one or black and white. However, this has all been an uphill battle due to the fact that whatever response I give is met with, ‘you’re lying.’”
“I still think that all of this hurt could have been avoided with a simple conversation. If anyone, at any point, had said something regarding how they felt, this giant mess of a series of arguments between friends would have never needed to become entertainment for hundreds of thousands of people,” he wrote.
At the same time, allegations surfaced against another Pokémon YouTuber close to McNeal, a woman who goes by Mudkip Mama. With just about 8,000 YouTube subscribers, Mudkip Mama had a small but close-knit following in the Pokémon YouTube world. According to two individuals who spoke with Kotaku, Mudkip Mama aggressively pursued them when they were either 18 or under 18. One of them, Pokémon YouTuber Patterrz, posted screenshots in which Mudkip Mama, who is in her 30s, apparently attempted to pressure him into a sexual connection. Later, he says, she trapped him in a bathroom with her and attempted to kiss him. (Patterrz did not return a request for comment by press time, but posted his side of the story on Twitlonger.)
In a Twitlonger post, a woman named Nikki says Mudkip Mama became “overly sexual with me in DM [direct message],” although she no longer has access to those messages. Nikki explains that she was 15, which she says Mudkip Mama knew, but Nikki could not confirm this because she says she deleted their conversations after attempting to “expose” Mudkip Mama two years ago. Nikki also shared a screenshot in which Mudkip Mama allegedly admits to “dating” a fan with an “age difference.”
Mudkip Mama did not return Kotaku’s request for comment and deleted much of her social media, but in a Twitlonger post, said that she stopped flirting with Patterz once she became aware he felt uncomfortable. She also says that she “went in full mother mode” after Nikki’s personal crisis to “try and make her feel special and loved,” admitting that she “probably went too far at some point and I realized she was misinterpreting it.” Finally, she says, she had “no idea” the fan she says she was “dating” was under 18.
Mudkip Mama, Putnam, and McNeal would often collaborate on a stream called Primetime and attended several events together. “That group was an extremely desirable group to be in,” said Jubilee Blais, another Pokemon YouTuber. “They were very exclusive.” Even associating with its lesser-known member meant being close to YouTube microcelebrity, which, several former fans say, led them to excuse early signs of predation.
The fourth Pokémon YouTuber facing allegations of predatory behavior operated separately, sources who knew him say. Mizumi, a YouTuber known for modding Nintendo games, including Pokémon, had amassed a following of 20,000 subscribers before alleged victims went public over the weekend with their experiences with him.
Tori, who is 18, says she was 14 when she began speaking to Mizumi. She says he solicited nude photos from her, an allegation also waged by another girl, Jenny, who at the time was 19. In a direct message on Twitter, Tori said, “Had I not done what he wanted, he had the ability to ruin my social life (which he did anyways).” Jenny told Kotaku that while initially their intimate relationship was consensual, he pressured her into sending nudes by “talking about wanting to kill himself and self harming behaviors and said things about how getting nudes would ‘help him feel better.’”
Over email, Mizumi did not deny these allegations. “This isn’t entirely my fault. The line is grayer than what everyone thinks and everyone here is a victim in one way or the other,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, I am remorseful and I apologized personally to each of the people I’ve hurt, but the way the public views this situation and the way it truly is are completely different. That’s all I will say on the situation.”
Over the weekend, these allegations spread rapidly among Pokémon fans and YouTubers covering Pokémon. Several prominent community figures commented on the allegations and their role in continuing these alleged predators’ careers, even after whisperings of sexual misconduct had become known to them. TheHeatedMo, a YouTuber with 160,000 subscribers, explained in an unlisted video that he knew Putnam was “a guy being creepy on a girl,” but did not yet consider him to be actively harmful. He added that when it came to McNeal, whom he has known for years, “He manipulates a lot of people around him.”
While there is no evidence that predation is more widespread in the gaming community than anywhere else, young people’s increasingly online lives may more regularly intersect with the increasing number of microcelebrities created by social media. One woman who says she fell victim to Putnam’s tactics explained over Discord, “Most viewers are pretty young. Pokémon is targeted towards younger kids, after all. Unfortunately, I can’t imagine it’d be too difficult to find a young, easily manipulated target somewhere within the community.” Sylveon agreed: “I think it might be because it has a younger audience,” she explained. “We look up to these people and they use their power to manipulate someone else. They have the platform they’ve been given, that they’re privileged enough to have access to, to manipulate and hurt other people.”
When asked whether there’s anything specific to the Pokémon community that might allow for widespread predation to continue allegedly for years, said Jenny, who accused Mizumi of predation, “I think it’s an issue with any community of streamers/YouTubers. It’s full of young people seeking attention from older people in a position of power who are accessible in a way previous celebrities were not. It’s prime for abuse.”
After addressing the allegations him in an email to Kotaku, Mizumi sent another email a couple of minutes later: “Also, if you do mention me in your article, don’t forget to include a link to my YouTube channel. Thanks again :).”
Nathan Grayson contributed additional reporting to this story.
This story has been updated to include additional information from sources.
Update, 7:50 p.m. ET: This story has been updated a second time to include additional comments from Kyle McNeal.
It feels like only yesterday that the fighting game community watched surprise South Korean competitor Hyeon-ho “Rangchu” Jeong crowned global Tekken 7 champion in Amsterdam. It wasn’t, obviously, but it was only three months ago, and the folks behind the Tekken World Tour already have new details to share about what competitors can expect from the circuit in 2019, the full breadth of which were announced this afternoon. Those details include a way bigger prize pool, more love for grassroots tournaments, and a big first for the World Tour event schedule: the inclusion of an African event in the lineup.
Let’s break it down. The Tekken World Tour is the official destination for Tekken 7 competition, hosted by developer Bandai Namco Entertainment and the competitive gaming wing of live-streaming platform Twitch. In 2017, it evolved into its current state from its predecessor, the King of The Iron Fist Tournament series; its changes were similar to the ones made to Capcom’s Street Fighter V circuit, the Capcom Pro Tour, in 2014. By visiting a list of partnered, grassroots events throughout the year and performing well, Tekken players earn points towards qualifying for the finals, which in 2019 will take place in Bangkok, Thailand.
This year, the Tekken World Tour will establish two more levels of competition in terms of how it classifies its events: Master+ and Dojo. The former is occupied solely by the Evolution Championship Series, which is regarded by many as the most prestigious fighting game tournament of the year and will thus provide the most points for qualification purposes, while the latter should, on paper, help extend the circuit’s reach into more regional and local events. Competitions that are not already part of the Tekken World Tour will be able to apply for official Dojo recognition, giving them the ability to award varying amounts of points depending on how many players are in attendance. At best, Dojo events will sit just below the existing Challenger tier with regard to the points they can offer high-placing competitors, but even at the lowest level, these events should act as a way for players unable to travel year-round to earn a smattering of complementary points.
“Community is at the core of competitive gaming and the Tekken 7 fandom,” Twitch esports product manager and longtime fighting game community tournament organizer Richard Thiher told Kotaku via email. “For 2019, Bandai Namco and Twitch wanted a sound way to integrate and recognize both the world’s largest fighting game tournament and the many smaller grassroots tournaments found in cities across the globe, thus the inclusion of Evo and creation of Dojo events. We would like as many top performing Tekken players as possible to have the opportunity to qualify for the Tekken World Tour Finals.”
Tekken World Tour 2019 will also restrict the number of tournaments that will count towards a player’s global ranking. A competitor’s 10 best placings (including three Master, three Challenger, and four Dojo events) will comprise their overall score, a deliberate measure by the organizers to help reduce “travel fatigue,” as players will no longer have to continue attending events throughout the year in order to maintain their spot on the official leaderboard after achieving an adequate ranking. This also means that qualifying for the finals won’t just be a matter of how many tournaments a player can afford to visit, opening the door to the championship just a smidge wider for folks of lesser means or from more remote regions who may not have the privilege of traveling on a sponsor’s dime.
The total prize pool for this year’s Tekken World Tour will amount to $185,000, with $100,000 of that going to finals payouts, and $30,000 of that set aside for the overall champion. This is a huge increase from the 2018 finals, which paid Rangchu a relatively low $7,500 (half of the 2017 champion’s payout, by the way) for winning the most important Tekken 7 event of the year. This has been a sticking point for many competitors in the Tekken scene, and after watching Rangchu earn a sum they felt was inadequate for someone who had just become world champion, some even said they didn’t see a future in pursuing Tekken competition as a career if payouts remained at the level they were in 2018.
“The ability for Tekken 7 to inspire world-class competition without significant monetary incentives says a lot about the game’s quality and the community’s hunger to compete,” Thiher told Kotaku. “With that acknowledged, it is great to see the Tekken World Tour adjust prizing with the growing fandom. I hope the prizing continues to scale over time.”
While many developers have established official circuits within the last few years, they often don’t do much to earn the “world tour” distinction they promote. They rarely provide the same support for regions like South America, Europe, or the Middle East as they do for the United States and Japan, and some regions are routinely shafted despite the success of their local players on the global stage. The Tekken World Tour still isn’t perfect in that regard, but the organizers plan to greatly expand its reach in 2019 by adding events in Peru, Greece, Sweden, the United Arab Emirates, and South Africa, the last of which marks the first and only time an official fighting game competition has acknowledged the continent of Africa in its event lineup. Just under half of the 27 tournaments on the 2019 Tekken World Tour are newcomers.
“Moving into less traveled spaces required a willingness to trust new organizers and the clear communication of our and our fans’ expectations surrounding Tekken World Tour tournaments,” Thiher explained. “We believe it is an important step in continuing support for the worldwide Tekken fandom to provide these opportunities. In the long-term, Tekken’s community will benefit from Bandai Namco and Twitch supporting the game’s global competitive player-base. Dojo tournaments help local events (their players, organizers, and fans) cultivate awareness aimed at developing new competition hubs. With Pakistan’s Arslan crowned champion at 2019’s first Tekken world tournament at Evo Japan, we believe it is a perfect year to be increasing the visibility of emerging regional hubs.”
Official fighting game circuits have the unenviable responsibility of providing widespread and equal opportunity to the global competitive community, a task that seems to be easier said than done, even with massive corporations like Capcom, Bandai Namco, and Twitch at the helm. That said, 2019’s Tekken World Tour directly addresses some of the most important concerns from years past, offering more favorable circumstances to a larger swath of competitors. By relaxing the qualification process, expanding to regions that have gone ignored for far too long, and upping the rewards players can expect to earn, the Tekken World Tour organizers have made drastic improvements. My only hope is that these kinds of thoughtful decisions become the norm for corporate-run fighting game circuits in the future.
Tekken World Tour 2019 will kick off at The Mixup in Lyon, France on April 20, running through to the finals in Bangkok, Thailand, the official date of which has yet to be finalized.
Ian Walker loves fighting games and loves writing about them even more. You can find him on Twitter at @iantothemax.
As much as I’ve wanted to give game-streaming a try, I’m always tentative to jump into the Twitch waters for two reasons: I don’t have a solid background behind my gaming desktop’s chair, which would make it tricky to key out everything but my face, and I don’t have any neat animations that would keep all 10 viewers engaged with my stream.
If you’ve ever spent time watching streams on Twitch, Mixer, YouTube, Facebook, or whatever, you’ve probably noticed all the fun ways that streamers announce new subscribers (and tips). Typically there’s some kind of announcement animation and some silly sound—a musical riff, a quote from some science-fiction movie, et cetera.
Overlays and animations can be super fun, but they’re not the kind of thing you’ll find baked into most streaming software (like OBS, XSplit, GeForce Experience, and so on). You have to either create them yourself, using a tool like PhotoShop or After Effects, or you’ll have to download them from somewhere else and integrate them into your stream.
For those who are getting started with streaming—and who want to make their streams look slightly better than the simple “head in the corner” setup you typically see—I recommend checking out Player.me.
While there are plenty of places where you can find free overlays, I like the fact that Player.me’s setup is based in the cloud. You get a generous helping of standard overlays to pick from (for “starting soon,” “taking a break,” and in-game moments), and you can tweak these premade overlays to add new information (or widgets) with the site’s easy-to-use online editor.
Getting started with Player.me’s overlays
Once I created a free account on Player.me, I immediately jumped to its overlays browser and began scrolling through the service’s selections. They won’t wow you—not if you’re looking for some wild and original animation you can use whenever someone subscribes to your channel—but the basic offerings are a big step above nothing, so there’s that.
I found an overlay that had the trifecta (a separate look for starting your stream, your in-game activity, and any breaks you take) and selected it. This added it to Player.me’s “My Overlays” section, which you can use to keep track of your favorites.
You can hold your mouse over any of the overlays to get the hyperlink to the default look (which you’ll drop into your favorite streaming app to incorporate it into your broadcast). Otherwise, you can send the default overlay directly into Player.me’s cloud-based editor.
I love this editor, first off, because it slaps a screenshot from a game directly into the editing window, which is great for helping you visualize what your viewers will see as you’re customizing your look and animations.
You can tweak the various on-screen widgets, like selecting a different fade-in or fade-out animation for when you receive a tip, or adjusting the length of the animation. You can also resize the various widgets, choose what text you want to display (your social media callouts, basically), and add just about anything you want: more text, images, progress bars, alerts, counters, your follower or tip goals, and even a horizontal-scrolling ticker. The only major element you can’t add—which should come as no surprise—is one of those handy little timer setups that help you chart your progress through speedruns.
If you want to get wild, Player.me’s editor also comes with a special “Advanced Mode.” Toggle that and ignore the scary warning:
While you might not notice what has changed at first glance, you’ll now have finer control over the sizing and positioning of your on-screen elements, as well as their contents. You’ll be able to write your own text for widgets like your tip alerts, for example, and adjust font size, color, and capitalization. You can even mess with the widget’s background colors and transparency.
Once you’ve tweaked your overlay to your specifications, don’t forget to set up important parameters like your tipping (by linking a PayPal account); your various streaming-service integrations (Twitch, Mixer, YouTube, and StreamLabs); and any other third-party apps you want to work with your overlay (like XSplit Broadcaster, for easier positioning of your webcam window, or Razer Chroma, if you want your supported peripherals to blink along with alerts that pop up during your stream).
I love that Player.me also allows you to test out your overlay at any point in the customizing process. You can send simulated actions like tips and subscriptions to see what your widgets look like, and the service will even trigger any audio files you’ve previously uploaded and associated with actions.
When you’re ready to integrate your overlay into your streaming software, Player.me provides detailed instructions for both OBS and XSplit, as well as a standard link to your overlay that you can copy and paste into any other streaming software you might use. If you’re feeling especially proud of your creation, you can even share it to Player.me’s community for others to use (and tweak).
When Georgia police arrested Thomas Cheung, a well-known Twitch streamer and World of Warcraft community figure, as part of a child sex sting two weeks ago, a common reaction among his friends, fans, and business associates was shock.
If you were intimately involved in the massively multiplayer online role-playing game’s community, there’s a good chance you’d heard of, and maybe even crossed paths with, Cheung at some point. At 32, his name was well-known enough across online gaming bastions including Twitch, YouTube, BlizzCon, gaming-related charity events, and the gaming studio Hi-Rez, where he worked. Those who met him at events or chatted with him online said that Cheung sometimes seemed a little too flirty or sexually aggressive, but nobody had any reason to think that he would be sending explicitly sexual messages to a law enforcement official posing as a 14-year-old girl, asking her to meet up with him for condomless sex. But that’s what police said happened over Super Bowl weekend, after Cheung was among 21 men caught in a sting operation in suburban Atlanta, Georgia.
“I was disgusted and instantly overwhelmed,” said Elke Hinze, a web developer who worked with Cheung on a website unofficially related to BlizzCon, Blizzard’s yearly convention. “I think the people who know him feel the same way I do.” Fans who knew him online said that while Cheung did have a penchant for flirting in their direct messages, they saw it as “innocuous.”
Three of Cheung’s close friends, who asked to remain anonymous, said that news of Cheung’s arrest brought them to tears, in part out of astonishment. Others who knew Cheung, though, had a different reaction. One former Blizzard employee said that they first felt “shock” and “disgust” that soon gave way to a different feeling: “Admitting that I wasn’t surprised.”
That former employee said they’d had a “gut feeling” that this guy was bad news—a feeling that six people Kotaku interviewed shared, but didn’t make widely known.
Four of those people said that they believed that Cheung had been using his position of power in the Warcraft community to cross boundaries with women for years. Those sources, all of whom were of age, said they had been involved in uncomfortable interactions with Cheung in the past, ranging from unwelcome flirtatious solicitations in their DMs to an alleged assault in a BlizzCon hotel room.
Cheung is not the only gaming personality to be accused of attempting inappropriate—and potentially illegal—interactions with young women or minors that he met online. There are no statistics describing how prevalent this predatory behavior is between Twitch streamers and fans, and Kotaku’s interviews with law enforcement focused on predation suggest that it is not a common occurrence. However, as the internet has changed with the addition of social media, influencer culture, YouTube, Twitch and a multibillion-dollar online gaming industry, so has the nature of online predation.
If you grew up in the ‘80s or later, you were probably subjected to a lecture about online safety. Perhaps you learned that the charming-sounding person in your Pokémon chat room might turn out to be a creep, or worse, a creep 30 years your senior. Perhaps your parents asserted that even just telling him your first name was essentially inviting him to track you down and climb into your bedroom window. Today’s advice for younger people online hasn’t changed much, describing an outdated concept of the internet. Guides on avoiding sexual predators tell kids to avoid “placing strangers on buddy lists,” as if AOL Instant Messenger was still around, and avoid “visiting X-rated sites.” The Justice Department even tells kids “no chatting with strangers,” which an FBI agent focused on child predation told Kotaku is still good advice.
But on today’s internet, all of our apps and social media are actively persuading us to chat with strangers. In 2019, it’s commonplace to meet similarly-minded people on Facebook meme pages, sexual partners over Tinder, or gamers who complain about Overwatch as much as you do on Twitter. It’s more natural to talk to strangers online than it is to say “hello” to the person in line with you at the coffee shop. For better or worse, the physical and the digital have collapsed, and riding this wave is Twitch, an interactive platform where charismatic young people livestream video games for large audiences of fans, who may engage the streamer live in chat.
The most popular Twitch streamers, like Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, who has 13.3 million followers interested in watching him play Fortnite on Twitch, are mobbed by fans whenever they appear in-person at conventions. More commonplace are streamers with 20,000 or so followers, whose tightrope walk between “distant star” and “relatable gamer” draws in smaller but no less passionate audiences who feel they know, and can trust, the objects of their fandom. Microcultures around these microcelebrity streamers collect in tidepools on other interactive apps and social media, like the gaming chat app Discord and subreddits, where the streamer and their fans may engage both in public and in private. There are over 200 million people on Discord, and every day, 15 million unique visitors visit Twitch and its 2.2 million streamers.
In 2017, Kotaku reported on what happens when streamers’ fans decide that the person on the other end of the wifi connection is their friend, not their celebrity crush. It doesn’t end well. Katharine Hodgdon, who holds a doctorate from Texas A&M University and studies streamers, said that fans’ approach to celebrities prior to Twitch is a facet of “parasocial interaction,” or “when a person … develops a one-sided relationship with a media persona.” That’s existed for celebrities since there were celebrities. The difference today is that celebrity is more accessible, and along with that, fans have many more opportunities to connect with their idols, in Twitch chat or Discord messages, or on Snapchat or Instagram. The sheer numbers involved means that the relationships generally stay heavily lopsided, though—even if the streamer wanted to be friends with all 20,000 of their followers, it would be impossible. Fans tend to think they’re closer to the streamer than vice-versa.
And yet sometimes, fans do find that their celebrity crush—or somebody well-connected and powerful in the gaming world—seems to want to have a closer relationship with them. When that happens, it can be hard to see the red flags.
Thomas Cheung, a suburban Atlantan and avid gamer who wore his purple-dyed hair flipped up, drew his notoriety in the World of Warcraft community from his video guides on how to earn in-game gold. He then began working on a site that paired up buyers and sellers of BlizzCon tickets. From there, he wiggled into influencer circles, sources close to Cheung said.
By early 2018, Cheung had 20,000 followers on Twitch and had snagged himself a job at Hi-Rez Studios, the Atlanta-based game company that makes the online games Smite and Paladins. Cheung was a high-level WoW player and a consistent presence at the annual BlizzCon event, where, according former Blizzard employees, he aggressively networked with Blizzard developers, high-level community figures, and fans at parties and afterparties.
“My first thought was that he was very focused on his brand,” a former Blizzard employee said of Cheung. “He was energetic, always wanted to be networking. He had a thing for being around well-known personalities both in and out of Blizzard.”
“He was definitely super flirty and went out of his way to introduce himself to women,” said another ex-employee. “I noticed that the kind of women he did flirt with were women nobody knew. They weren’t community figures. They were younger and potentially less included to call out his bullshit.”
“Jane” is a World of Warcraft player who asked that we not use her real name. She first heard of Cheung when he was raising money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in 2012. Cheung was a well-known advocate for children’s hospitals, and has toured several in the Georgia area to deliver gifts to children.
“I felt it was noble and had tweeted the absolute hell out of it to get more people to contribute,” Jane told me over Discord messages. Cheung then sent Jane a direct message on Twitter to thank her for her support. “The second thing he said to me was asking if he could ‘borrow my boobies’ to help him get more viewers to get more donations,” Jane said.
Jane said she was used to hearing things like this, and laughed it off even though it made her a little uncomfortable. As Jane and Cheung continued chatting, he would occasionally say sexual or flirty things to her. Jane found that brushing the comments aside, ignoring them, or attempting to redirect the conversation didn’t get him to stop. Jane told Cheung she had a boyfriend, but he still asked her for what he referred to as “sexy tease pics.”
“He would do everything he possibly could to try and sexualize and take advantage of as many of us as he could,” Jane said, after seeing several women coming forward with similar stories following Cheung’s arrest. “I think a lot of us felt it would be pointless to say anything because he had the followers and the partnership and the sponsors and the position.”
Jane was one of five women who, either in interviews with Kotaku or on Twitter, described Cheung asking for sexy pictures or aggressively flirting with them in direct messages. Two, who did not respond to Kotaku’s requests for comment, wrote in tweets that they were underage when Cheung hit on them.
“I’ve seen so many of my friends speak up on social media about the things he had done to them,” a cosplayer in the WoW community who knew Cheung said. “They all thought they were alone and were too scared to speak up because of his position in the community.” That cosplayer says that, for the past three or four BlizzCons, Cheung “would always ask if I had a hotel room and then mention that he had a second bed in his room. I always took it as awkward flirting until one year he was being extremely pushy about me going to his hotel. He even tried to bribe me with food, items, promises, and whatever else would get my attention.”
Last year’s BlizzCon was when “Drav,” who also asked that we not use her real name, said that Cheung made unwanted physical sexual advances on her. She had met him around the same time as Jane, also thanks to Warcraft, where she was hosting an in-game charity event. Cheung reached out, offering to stream her event, and the two started speaking frequently over the years that followed.
As they became closer, Drav said, she started to get the impression that Cheung was preoccupied by women, and the idea that women did not like him. She describes him as “obsessive.” He’d send her videos and images of other women, and make comments about their breasts or other parts of their body. He’d rant to her for hours on end analyzing another woman’s messages, Twitter posts, or behavior. Cheung was “hyper-fixated on the idea that he was never going to get a girlfriend and would always be alone,” Drav said. Three other sources close to Cheung agreed with this assessment.
Leading up to BlizzCon, Drav said, Cheung started asking for information about her sexual preferences. She answered his questions at first, but started deflecting them when they started to sound “creepy.” She hoped he’d get the hint. The two met in-person for the first time in a group of friends at BlizzCon. Late at night on the last day of the show, they were chatting online, Cheung in his hotel room and Drav in her AirBnB, when Cheung asked her to “come over and gossip.” She was having a bad day and needed to vent, so it was a welcome invitation. She hopped in a Lyft to his hotel. In his room, they chatted for a while until he asked if she wanted to watch a movie. When Drav said she had to go back to her AirBnB to take her medication, she said, Cheung asked her to sleep in his hotel room.
“I thought, ‘Oh, fuck,’” Drav said. Cheung ordered her a Lyft that would take her back to her AirBnB for her meds, and then bring her back to his room. “I sent out SOS messages on my way back, but nobody was really awake,” she said of a couple innocuous feelers she put out to friends to see whether anyone was around. She said that as she tried to sleep in Cheung’s room, he made physical advances on her that she consistently deflected. “I tried to get up several times,” she said. “He’d grab my arm.” After what she said was an hour of fending off advances, someone she knew responded to her messages. She told Cheung she had to leave for an emergency, and hustled out the door.
Drav said she deleted her entire message history with Cheung after this interaction. In addition to taking a huge emotional toll on her, she said the incident prevented her from pursuing her goals in the gaming industry. “I was going to apply for an internship with Blizzard this year and I felt like I couldn’t,” she said. “He did a lot of charity work and my whole thing is charity work. There was a philanthropy thing open. I was so scared of running across him.”
“Instead of putting in the internship application, I checked myself into the mental health ward.”
Months later, on January 30th, Cheung would be charged with a felony—using a computer service to seduce, solicit, lure or entice a child to commit an illegal act—after communicating with a law enforcement officer posing as a 14-year-old over the messaging app Whisper. According to a warrant obtained by Kotaku, the officer told Cheung that she was 14. They planned to meet up in suburban Georgia, near where Cheung lives. According to the warrant, Cheung told the undercover officer “that he wanted to show her some things, and stated that he does not like to use condoms, and advised that he would pull out.” Hi-Rez and Cheung’s sponsor SteelSeries dropped him after the news broke earlier this month. Cheung is now out on bail, awaiting trial, and according to the local district attorney’s office, the case remains open and under investigation with no specific timeline for completion. (Cheung did not respond to Kotaku’s requests for comment on this story.)
There have been abuses of power so long as there has been power, and as apps like Twitch give more people opportunities to amass power, that means the way abuse looks is changing. Cheung didn’t have a cult of personality; he had a platform spread across several channels including Twitch, Discord, Twitter and World of Warcraft sites. His relevance, and the relationships built on it in part, were fragmented across the online world. That’s what made policing it, or even noticing commonalities, so difficult. Yet sometimes, even when behavior—whether it’s plainly illegal or part of a pattern of creepiness—is reported to the relevant parties, there are few if any repercussions.
“Caroline” was 17 when she first interacted with the English World of Warcraft streamer MethodJosh, who does not make his last name public. At 23 years old, he has 122,000 Twitch followers and might best be described as an “edgelord,” or a person who talks about taboo or nihilistic topics, often for attention. Josh’s most popular Twitch clips include one in which he argues how strange it is that Nazis get girlfriends but he cannot. There’s another in which, referencing his Tinder profile, he opens a document titled “What do women like?” with the bullet point “Men that aren’t me.” Yet another, titled “sister meme,” sees Josh explain that, in response to male friends joking that they want to sleep with his sister, he says, “If you can’t beat them, join them, sort of. The next time somebody came up to me and was like, ‘Josh, I want to fuck your sister,’ I just said, ‘Me, too.’”
Josh would share disturbing personal photos with his fans. Once, he passed around a semi-nude picture of his ex-girlfriend. Another time, he showed them a photo of a fan of his tied up with rope in a forest. (The fan, reached via Discord, said it was a “joke.”)
Caroline, who follows a lot of World of Warcraft YouTubers, stumbled upon a couple of Josh’s videos late in 2018 and thought his persona was funny. After chatting for a little, they added each other on Discord, then on, Snapchat. When Josh found out Caroline’s age, he at first said he didn’t talk to underage girls, but they kept talking. (Caroline is one of three fans who say Josh has described girls around 15 and 16 as the perfect age.) Eventually, she said, he told her that he liked that she was young. Caroline said that, several times, Josh asked to sleep with her.
“I just thought it was cool that he was talking to me out of all the people he could talk to,” Caroline explained over a Discord voice call. “I think that’s the case with a lot of underage people. It’s the power dynamic they have. I guess my mindset was wanting to please this person and see where it goes.”
Svetlana, another fan of MethodJosh’s, said that she recently joined the fandom after seeing some of his videos and thinking, This is a guy who can make fun of himself. She blew off what she describes as the “questionable” aspects of his persona, thinking it was just “memes.” The first thing that happened when she entered his Discord, she says, was Josh asking her whether she was really a girl, what her age was, her height, her relationship status.
Svetlana says she “didn’t play along,” and, as time went on, noticed people in his Discord referring to girls as “whores” and “thots.” In one message, Josh wrote of a woman, “hold her head under the water, pick a hole, try to finish before she stops moving,” which a screenshot provided to Kotaku corroborated. Other women who enter the Discord, Svetlana said, were also immediately hit on, or referred to using similarly hateful speech by Josh or his fanbase. (After word got out about this story, the Discord was scrubbed of many of its messages.)
Over time, the girls in Josh’s Discord who had questions about whether his edgelord personality was a put-on or really, truly problematic began comparing notes. Evelyn was another fan of Josh’s who had a flirty relationship with him, yet became fed up with his behavior. “Josh has a tendency to make the girls dislike each other for fighting for his attention,” Evelyn told me. That was exacerbated by his tendency to ask girls to do attention-grabbing stunts to entertain his fanbase, like broadcasting audio of them pretending they’re obsessed with him, or starring in dramatic scenes.
“He lures girls in for his sexual needs or to create content and he doesn’t care how their feelings get hurt in the process,” speculated Svetlana, who was a part of his Discord for several months. “He acts like he is an incel and he can’t get girls and messes up every opportunity with a girl. He gets views and everything from this. People are entertained maybe because guys can relate to struggling with girls.”
In one series of messages that was shown to Kotaku, Josh says of another man to whom a girl he knew was attracted, “I AM / LITERALLY BETTER THAN HIM / AHFIOASFHAPISHF / KILL YOURSELF/ DUMB WHORE . . . i am / internet famous / FUIKC.”
Disappointed members of Josh’s community, including an individual Kotaku interviewed, emailed his management company, Method, writing that Josh “has been using girls—an underage one at that—for his manipulative form of entertainment. He constantly harasses women in his Discord to date him, regardless whether they have a significant other or not. He also likes to tell everyone he prefers 16 year olds or younger. Some take this at a glance, thinking it is just satire…”
Method emailed back a statement in response, telling the women that they would need to submit a police report before it would take any action. “Like you, all of us at Method take the welfare of minors seriously, including their safety on the internet. If you feel you have evidence that anybody, inside or outside of Method, has been behaving in a predatory of illegal manner we strongly encourage you to contact the police and make a report, so that a thorough—and proper—investigation can occur,” the email read. Method’s email continued on to say that it would serve “no purpose” to bring this matter to social media “where images can be doctored and recollections of the truth twisted.”
MethodJosh did not respond to Kotaku’s request for comment. The same Method representative who sent the email did respond to Kotaku. “I stand by my reply that the most important step the accuser and/or victim could take would be to immediately contact the police if their welfare or the welfare of anyone, especially a minor, is in jeopardy,” they wrote in part, saying that the email from the fans was “a second hand account of Josh’s alleged behavior from an anonymous source” and contained no supporting evidence. (The original email to Method had said that the fan in question was not comfortable sharing the evidence with Method “unless necessary.”) “I can confirm we’ve spoken to Josh about the email you have referenced from Jane Doe, as well as the contact from you today regarding this article, but we have no plans at this time to publicly comment on personnel decisions within the organization,” the email continued.
Fear and the desire to be accepted by somebody who is widely respected might prevent fans from speaking out against their favorite gaming celebrity’s inappropriate behavior. On the other hand, the small brand empires that these gamers build up run the risk of collapsing once call-outs become public. Yet because many of the platforms that bolster these personalities’ fame are hands-off about moderating, sometimes, the alleged bad actors return even after they’ve been disgraced publicly.
In 2016, VICE Motherboard reported that big-time Minecraft personalities were grooming and preying on underage fans. The report focused on Marcus “LionMaker” Wilton, whose 600,000 YouTube subscribers included countless underage fans, several of whom he reportedly befriended. In 2015, LionMaker allegedly asked a 12-year-old to send him nude photos through Twitter direct messages. He later denied doing this. That same night, LionMaker reportedly offered $500 to a 16-year-old male fan in exchange for nude images, which he also denied. At one point, LionMaker apparently tweeted out lewd images of a girl who was reportedly 16 years old with whom he said he had a sexual relationship. Last month, YouTube news channel DramaAlert broke the story that LionMaker had returned to streaming on the platform Mixer. In an emailed response to Kotaku, a representative of LionMaker said that “LionMaker never preyed on anyone,” and described some allegations against him as “false,” without detailing which.
LionMaker wasn’t the only one in the Minecraft community to be accused of this. In 2015, Aaron “Yamimash” Ash, who was 26 and had 1.3 million YouTube subscribers, was accused of sending lewd messages and images to a 14-year-old fan. (Later, in a video, he admitted to “flirting” with her, denied that he had sent “naked pictures,” and said that she was being “manipulative.”) He did not respond to Kotaku’s request for comment. In 2016, Kotaku reported that Minecraft YouTuber Starlit “JinBop” Zhao was arrested on his way to meet up with a 15-year-old fan. In 2017, he was sentenced to eight years in prison.
YouTube largely replicates the traditional model for celebrities and fans—one side offers their talents while the other passively consumes—yet in the last few years since Twitch has grown, interactivity has factored more into these relationships. “Anna,” a 16-year-old fan of Overwatch League star Jonathan “DreamKazper” Sanchez who wishes to remain anonymous, said she was shocked last year when she saw that Sanchez, 21, had followed her back on Twitter. Sanchez was just a distant star she watched on Twitch, where the Overwatch League was broadcast, and now he was talking to her directly and personally.
In direct messages, Sanchez continually flattered her with compliments that, because of the power differential, were difficult for her to turn down, she toldKotaku at that time. Several times, as they became closer and more flirtatious, they discussed meeting up. At one point, Sanchez purchased a ticket for Anna to come visit him in California. At the same time, Sanchez was speaking to “Penelope,” a 15-year-old fan who wrote in a public statement that she, too, was “flattered” when he followed her back on Twitter and also formed a flirtatious relationship with the esports pro. Both girls reportedly sent Sanchez nude pictures. Both said that Sanchez knew how old they were. (He did not reply to Kotaku’s requests for comment at that time.) Although he was immediately suspended from the Overwatch League, YouTuber KingMykl reported that Sanchez returned to play Overwatch just a few months later.
There is no evidence that predation is more widespread among the gaming community than it is anywhere else, say law enforcement officials that Kotaku spoke to.
“It’s not just gaming. It’s apps all across the board, anything that accesses the internet,” said Kevin Kaufman, a lieutenant in the FBI who has supervised the bureau’s Violent Crimes Against Children task force in central Florida. Kaufman said that any conversations between minors and strangers online runs the risk of danger. “Any time there’s a platform giving an adult the opportunity to engage or communicate with a teenager or a kid, the adult is the one with the upper hand.”
New Jersey State Police lieutenant John Pizzuro, commander of the state’s Internet Crimes Against Children task force, says that he hasn’t seen many reports referencing Twitch, although about 10 of the 300 reports he saw in 2018 referenced Discord. “We’ve seen a lot of cases where predators go into Discord to groom children,” he told me over the phone last week, although he said it’s less of a specific issue with the service and “more of a societal issue.”
Pizzuro noted that, as opposed to 10 years ago, chat apps are available at any time, anywhere—you don’t have to go home and wait for a dial-up connection to go through. On top of that, he said, younger generations are conditioned by social media to act in more extreme ways to stand out online on both sides of the streamer-fan relationship, which can lead them into boundary-pushing behavior.
“Our arrests in the last three years went from 143 to 300 just in child exploitation,” he said. “You have platforms that don’t monitor content … If you knew you’d be monitored in a room, your behavior would be completely different as opposed to going into a room knowing no one’s looking at it unless someone reports you.”
Ultimately, says Katharine Hodgdon, the Texas A&M researcher these companies might have an “ethical” obligation to do something, but not a “legal” one.
In a blog post published earlier this week, Discord said that its trust and safety team reviews over 6,000 reports every week. “Discord treats streamers and gaming personalities no differently from any other user, and any inappropriate or predatory conduct is absolutely forbidden,” Discord said in an emailed statement to Kotaku. The company will “investigate any and all reports of any user” and report users to the National Center For Missing and Exploited Children and to law enforcement “as appropriate,” it said.
It’s always been the case that power-hungry people seek power, and so changes in online technology aren’t necessarily changing what kind of person becomes a celebrity. And there has never been a thorough vetting process for celebrity. What modern platforms’ emphasis on accessibility and interactivity is changing is the sheer number of celebrities who exist and how available they are to their fans. If they have bad intentions, or are even a little unhinged, they know how you contact you. In online games, where communities are often built off a mutual desire to be understood by others outside the mainstream, victims may be more vulnerable to the glow of celebrity and, because of the platforms gamers gravitate toward, more online.
“When you’re in these communities that have thousands and thousands of members and there are people leading these communities—and internet communities appeal to younger people—they worship these people because they have power in the social dynamic,” said one former Blizzard employee who knew Thomas Cheung. “They’re taking advantage of people who want to feel included.”