Stream Monsters Inc #1
Stream Monster (noun): A person that watches video game livestreams over the internet, often ones that involve the fighting game community.
This semi-regular column will explore the game streaming community on sites like Twitch.tv and profile some of the most interesting and prominent streamers out there.
Wanna get on the internet and watch a video of some guy playing games? For quite a few years now, the best place to do that has been YouTube, but that's starting to change in a big way due to streaming sites like Twitch.tv and own3D.tv.
YouTube is still the best place for pre-recorded video like viral clips, machinima-style movies people make, and montages of players being awesome - carefully edited, of course, to remove the footage where they're getting outplayed or killed repeatedly. YouTube still has its place in the realm of Where To Go When You Want To Watch People Play Video Games, but if you want to see games played in a format that's closer to how people actually play on a daily basis, then the better idea might be to pop over to Twitch and watch a stream. Not only do many streamers interact with their audience, but you'll also find a more raw, unfiltered style that shows wins, losses, excitement, rage, and everything in between. You know, the reason why you play games yourself in the first place.
Of course, not all streams are alike. You can find several types of streams, which I'll try to enumerate here:
- RTS/MOBA Gods: these Starcraft II and League of Legends superstars play high-level online games, but the nature of the game and the competition often force these players to almost completely ignore the people in the chat channel. Some of these guys will stop to talk to people in between matches, but it's starting to become more of an exception than a rule.
- Single Game Players: these people stream just one game, usually on a semi-regular schedule, and often maintain a relationship with their viewers.
- Tournament Streamers: small groups of gamers often find themselves touring around the country or even the world, streaming game tournaments of various sizes. Often assisted by tournament entrants to help commentate, the interaction with chat is usually inversely proportional to the size of the tournament.
- Dedicated Followings: these streamers switch games often, but they rely on their strong followings and excellent rapport with viewers to keep people watching them on a regular basis, no matter what game they're playing.
Games streamed so far: The Binding of Isaac, Limbo, Super Meat Boy, Diablo III, Smite, I Wanna Be the Guy, Plants vs Zombies, Risk, Sleeping Dogs, Faster Than Light, PlayStation and Wii Virtual Console classics, and more
LethalFrag is a unique creature on Twitch.tv. Not only does he preside over a unique kind of chat environment that quickly shuts down trolling, arguing, and almost any extended bouts of negativity, but he also has been streaming every single night for nearly eight months now - with a plan to be online every night for two years in total. No days off, period, even on Christmas, or his birthday. In his words, "it's all about showing commitment to the viewers and staying true to the challenge" as cornerstones of what he's trying to do on Twitch. It's the Two-Year Livestream Challenge, not just another channel on Twitch that's on occasionally whenever you happen to catch it.
He's been online every night for many hours at a time like clockwork, sometimes even with a fairly nasty fever, and he also has streamed for hours and hours a couple of times already while suffering from some vicious migraines. His commitment level to his channel and to being consistent is unparalleled on Twitch - the idea is to make himself a mainstay of late-night Twitch.tv stream watchers, and it's working, as he recently celebrated his three-millionth view. But even then, it's a struggle, as it's not like Twitch pays casters a mint just for running a few Internet Explorer video ads, but luckily Matt had prepared in advance. Before starting his challenge, he had saved up enough money to support the basic needs for himself and his family during the two year challenge, quit his job, and ever since he's been streaming for an average of about eight hours a night.
Frag is probably best known for nearly a thousand hours of streaming indie action game The Binding of Isaac. He has since started to move away from Isaac, which I think most people can understand considering he's played it for about a thousand hours on stream, and has recently switched over to other indie games as well as AAA action games like Borderlands and Sleeping Dogs. Most recently he's gotten addicted to space roguelike game Faster than Light, and with some great placement on the Twitch frontpage, he's seen concurrent user counts of well over a thousand pretty much every night since he started playing it.
His trademark beard is starting to get very scraggly, as part of the challenge he set for himself was also to let his hair and beard grow, untrimmed, for the full two years - and now, roughly nine months in, it's past looking serious and getting into crazy-person territory, but it's still all for fun. Frag has a few trademark things you'll see several times a night, including his albino ferret Rosie, who often will screw with him by making messes or going wild during a stream. Rosie's fun, but the thing you'll see that's likely the least forgettable is Dapper Time. Explaining it would be a waste of words; it's better just to click on that link and marvel in its lunacy. I've seen plenty of comments from first-time Frag-watchers that say it's the weirdest thing they've seen someone do on Twitch, but they usually also mention it's one of the most charming things, too. During the rest of Frag's cast, he's a humble, sincere, and down-to-earth guy, which makes his bouts of weirdness that much more compelling.
So beyond just experiencing the elation of seeing a man eating Cheez-its pulled out of an epic beard, what really is the point of Dapper Time? He's training people to some extent, and creating a routine that users get caught up in and start even requesting. To Frag, it doesn't matter what the routine really is, but when it comes to creating a unique niche when streaming video games live, "people like to have something to expect even if it's just a funny picture when something specific happens. Ideally, to be successful, people will revolve their daily routines around you, such as having a cup of coffee or watching the stream before bed every night. Providing them with consistent entertainment and something to expect is very important to keep people coming back to your channel."
What strikes me most about Frag as a unique kind of streamer is his endless patience. He stays calm and cool in every single game he plays, including a full clear of Super Meat Boy without getting angry even once, and even suffered through many hours of both I Wanna Be the Guy and I Wanna Be the Boshy - the latter while he had a 102 fever - and neither game fazed him at all. But he's also got infinite patience with the new people visiting his stream asking the same questions over and over:
- No, I'm not smoking weed. Nope, not a hookah.
- It's an electronic cigarette. Here's the brand.
- Yes, I really quit my job so I could do this two-year challenge of streaming every night.
- That's right, the beard is not getting trimmed or shaved until January 5, 2014.
- Here's how subscribing to my channel works.
He answers questions like this repeatedly during just one of his streams, all while greeting people in chat, having discussions about the games he's playing, and often taking the heavier moderation duties (bans, moderation issue reversal, and the like) into his own hands. His rather hefty number of moderators all help Frag enforce his no-negativity chat with timeouts, but what surprises me so much is that all of this actually works. Twitch is a meme-driven environment full of trolling and arguments, usually between people in chat - that's bad enough, but far too often, streamers sometimes get involved or even instigate issues themselves. Frag has stayed above that pettiness throughout thousands of hours of streaming, so the question many people have is just how he deals with trolls so well? A quick time-out or ban might be required, but otherwise, his advice is to simply "ignore. You will get trolled and harassed as part of the job, but (most) trolls or individuals trying to harm you or your stream are only looking for a reaction." Take that reaction away from them by simply not answering, and you're most of the way to defeating a troll already.
LethalFrag's chat channel may have a lot of rules, but the difference is that he presides over one of the most chill, interesting, and positive Twitch channels around. And he credits his own users for this while banking on the notion that his attitude attracts others like him in the long term: "I love my stream and the positive vibe they put out, I truly owe a huge portion of my recent success to the people that watch me on a daily basis." He does insist that he gets to choose what games he plays and that he tries not to have a schedule of what he's playing, because he insists that when you play games on-stream while interacting with chat for eight hours a day, it really is a job, and a tiring one. Limiting or scheduling himself would just be too much, so game changes happen often and most of his long-time users are there to simply watch Frag playing whatever game he chooses to put on stream for the night; those viewers that are only there to see the game itself may wind up going away disappointed after a night or two. Or they'll see a few Dapper Times and get hooked to the streamer, rather than the game, like many hundreds of other viewers already have.
Chat interaction is a very important part of LethalFrag's stream, but it occurred to me that it might not be as easy as he makes it look. After all, action games become boring to watch if the caster keeps pausing to read chat and interact, so Frag keeps what seems like one eye on the game he's playing and the other on his second monitor to read chat, often reading questions and answering back during even the most difficult of action games like Super Meat Boy. And was he just born with this ability? Not a chance. "Learning how to read, talk and play a game at the same time is incredibly challenging but something you do get better with over time. I think it is much more important to interact with your chat than play well, and that can be a incredibly hard pill to swallow for many people." And it's true - he's suffered some crushing defeats in several games due to lapses in focus while interacting with chat, but even those are intensely entertaining to see.
And what about YouTube? Every streamer out there is a YouTube star too, right? Not so. While LethalFrag did start out with YouTube videos and made good connections there, he's only been very slowly cutting up portions of his past livestreams to post on the site. "YouTube, just like any other market, is oversaturated with thousands of people trying to do the exact same thing which makes it incredibly hard to succeed, and unlike livestreaming you have little feedback to go on." Or at least, what feedback you do get isn't always useful, as YouTube comments can be very difficult to moderate and go off the rails and off-topic constantly.
Throughout a dozen-plus game changes, LethalFrag almost always fields a good 500 concurrent viewers, with that number pushing up towards 1500 pretty often, especially on the release night of a big game. Many of the same people - both paying subscribers and regular viewers - show up every night along with crowds of new people. It's a great mix and both the chat and the caster are happy to see new faces (usernames?) every night. If you're looking for a chill stream to watch at night, definitely check out LethalFrag, and if you want to get notices of when he's online, he's on Twitter and Facebook, or just stop by pretty much any night, where he's usually running from roughly 9PM to 5AM Pacific time - and sometimes starts earlier and ends later than even that.
Games streamed: Super Street Fighter IV AE 2012, Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, King of Fighters XIII, Tekken Tag Tournament 2, many other fighting games
Before we start, I should take a second and point out that streaming video games is one thing; streaming fighting games is something entirely different. The fighting game community (FGC for short) is wonderful, but it's full of subtle trolls, meme-makers, and just generally a lot of potential trouble for someone wanting to do livestreams. You gain respect by knowing your games inside and out and showing that knowledge by beating other players on-stream, but that only goes so far. Even as you're showing humility and good sportsmanship in winning, even if you're respectfully pointing out players' mistakes and giving them ammo for how to win against you next time, the FGC is out there in chat, constantly jumping on nearly any perceived flaw or negative side and drilling it right into the ground. And that's if they like you. If they don't, they can actually make it even more difficult. We're talking 4chan-level difficult. Simply put, the fighting game community is one of the deepest and most loving groups of people in the video game world, but you've got to come with a thick skin to survive even one day's worth of high-profile streaming.
UltraDavid has made a name for himself with his high-level, insightful commentary during both major and minor fighting game tournaments. A constant student of the game, David, along with longtime commentating buddy James Chen, are constantly working to increase their understanding of not only the mechanics of nearly every major fighting game being played in tournaments, but the psychology and mind games that go into a winning strategy. The streamed show he does with Chen, UltraChenTV, focuses on teaching players both the basics of fighting games and intermediate strategy; James does the beginner stuff, while David takes it to the next level and shows players how to put it all together and start winning in high-pressure tournament environments. And how do they keep serious fighting game fans entertained when explaining basic stuff? By tying in the basics with the higher-level stuff as much as possible: "We try to satisfy people from both the beginner/intermediate angle and the more advanced angle. If our stream monsters are more advanced, then that's great, we definitely do things for them now and again. I've done shows on pretty high level strategy and tactics where I assume my audience understands enough so that I don't need to constantly explain the underpinnings."
James Chen and UltraDavid are probably best-known for their actual live tourney commentating, and in that, this duo manages to succeed at something that few others can so consistently: they almost flawlessly straddle that line between informative, insightful commentary and the fun, wild attitude that you only really see during fighting game streams. They're acutely aware of the constant trolling that can plague or even bring down an otherwise productive or fun stream - after all, the FGC has honed their ability to troll to a razor sharp edge - and UltraDavid and James Chen seemingly effortlessly sidestep nearly every issue that comes up.
And hey, it'd be easy to avoid those issues if you just wanted to stay boring and have two-dozen viewers all night, but these guys have spent many, many hours working out a style of commentary that allows them to narrate fast action appropriately, insert their own jokes, stay generally respectful of tourney players that make mistakes during a match, and even cover what-if scenarios that happen during tournaments - all without falling behind, and all without becoming boring. According to David, the key to all of this wasn't easy, but the idea was simple: it was "the amount of time we've gotten to do it. I don't think any English language commentators have gotten to commentate as much over the last 2+ years as James and I have, and I think even lifetime we're probably still up at the very top with people like Skisonic." The banter and insight weren't always amazing, however: "If you go back and listen to us in late 2009, man, we sucked. We couldn't fill time, we couldn't keep up with the action, we rambled, we weren't funny, we got things wrong pretty often, etc. But with so much time to practice and experiment, we've gotten better." And how about taking this from a more nuts-and-bolts perspective? He boils it down to knowledge, to "always trying to lower my ratio of moments of not knowing stuff per minute."
They even manage to read stream chat and respond to it on the rare occasions that there are a few spare seconds during a stream. It's something that no other commentating team in the FGC does as well, and in my opinion, no other commentator in video games period has mastered this quite like the UltraChen team has. Their never ending support of local SoCal events like Wednesday Night Fights and The RunBack, along with occasional guest spots at many tournaments around the world, have elevated them to celebrity status in the FGC, but unlike what we've seen with so many divisive attitudes of tournament winners and high-profile players, nearly everyone agrees that UltraDavid and James Chen belong.
Still, commentating in the fighting game community is not exactly what it seems like from the stream monsters' point of view. There's always a lot of stuff going on as so many egos at these events pull the people at the center of it all - commentators, players, organizers - in different directions. Instead of asking about the usual challenges, I wanted to know something a little more off-beat about the behind-the-scenes aspect of his job, and asked him about the most surprising thing a stream monster might not know about the FGC. It's that many players actually respect Street Fighter X Tekken, a game that's despised in nearly every FGC chat room: "Street Fighter x Tekken is the opposite of Marvel 3. Marvel 3 is good to watch but bad to play; SFxT is good to play, just not very good to watch."
So how about that free time that UltraDavid must be enjoying, what with his rock star life? Turns out that he has almost none of it, from working his day job as an attorney that specializes in dealing with the gaming world, to practicing games, to his evenings running livestreams or commentating at tournaments. "My typical day is wake up, play one of like 5 different games for an hour while eating breakfast just to stay current on things, work for 7-9 hours, then depending on what night of the week it is, any of UltraChenTV, Wednesday Night Fights, The RunBack, or just spending another hour practicing a different game to keep up with that one." And hey, fighting games kind of run in seasons, right? Big Evo tournament in July and then things cool down? David answers, "I was hoping that after Evo I'd be able to see friends I haven't seen very often, but that hasn't been the case. In other news the things that take up my time are law and video games, both of which I'm passionate about, so I'm not too broken up about it."
One key part of what makes fighting game streams so entertaining is that they've got a loose, fun style to them that you simply do not see in the more traditional competitive gaming streams that we've come to call eSports. Besides constantly fielding jokes about how eSports is "killing the FGC", UltraDavid straddles the line between delivering that color commentary that the FGC loves, and having that professional appearance and demeanor that we've come to expect from him. He's white, clean cut, and often wears a dress shirt with a tie when commentating tournaments, and frankly, that look is kind of rare when it comes to fighting game events. But it's his attitude as well, and while there's always a struggle in the community between the bigger-money prizes of eSports and the raw, more entertaining streams the FGC brings, UltraDavid is always trying to maintain a balance.
Is the eventual goal to keep both sides happy and somehow merge the FGC with eSports? Not really, but those cross-over events that feature both are often very awkward; maybe they don't have to be that way. When it comes to doing that, though, the challenge requires a bit of mutual understanding: "For any two entities to work together, they must both gain a real understanding of the other side." But that's easier than it sounds, and in the meantime, maintaining respect of those things that aren't understood is important. David doesn't "want fighting games to be the cause of anyone in RTS, FPS, MOBA, etc to feel like the things they care about are being diluted. There are differences in all gaming communities that the people involved with them love and want to maintain. I think the important ones should be maintained."
Can guys like UltraDavid be the kind of mediators that help elevate the FGC to eSports levels of fame, all without compromising what makes watching fighting games so fun? Can he help the two come together without clashing so hard? Possibly, but it's going to take more than just some top-level commentating at The RunBack to make that happen. It takes some mutual respect to go around from all parties: event organizers, players, commentators, and yes, the unruly crowds of stream monsters. The end result could wind up making things even more exciting all around and for everyone involved, and if I could have my way, guys like UltraDavid would be at the forefront of taking all competitive gaming to the next level.