From nine to five, seven days a week, Robert Schill plays video games while sitting on a plush, brown sofa in central Florida. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people watch. His web channel has more than 35 million hits in one year. And Schill gets paid for it.
He's a shift worker, a labourer in a brave and strange new economy that rewards a Big Brother-like existence combined with entrepreneurial pluck.
Schill's not alone in this venture, not even in his own home. When the 26-year-old finishes his shift, he unplugs his game controller and his roommate, 29-year-old Adam Young, sinks into the sofa and plays until 1 a.m. Then a third roommate, Brett Borden, 26, clocks in for his eight-hour shift.
They are the stars of StreamerHouse. They broadcast via Twitch.tv, an online network that attracts tens of millions of visitors, most of whom watch footage of other people playing video games.
StreamerHouse is set in a 1920s-era Mediterranean-revival home graced with 20 cameras, and at least 15 computer screens. It's part reality TV, part talk radio and part performance art. The trio play games, chat with fans and narrate their daily lives into an expensive microphone setup.
They make money from a cut of Twitch advertising, subscriptions, video game sales and from fan donations. In October, one admirer from the Middle East gave StreamerHouse $6,000.00
StreamerHouse capitalizes on a cultural moment that demands engagement and intimacy with everyone from celebrities tweeting pictures of their newborns, to friends and family posting Facebook photos of breakfast.
The StreamerHouse guys deliver with an intimate, non-stop show where they interact with fans in real time. "I live on the Internet, man," joked Schill, known as "The Real Deal," and "Rober" online. His fans recently sent him a guitar and a memory foam mattress. All three "streamers" admit their career prospects would be bleak outside the house. None have college degrees and all have been gaming since they were boys.
Twitch has more than 7,000 similar streamers in its affiliate program — which means the game players receive ad revenue and can solicit donations — although StreamerHouse's 24/7 broadcast is unique.
And before you dismiss the appeal of watching a guy on a sofa shoot virtual zombies, consider this: people have been watching other people do stuff for millennia. Roman gladiators. Horse races. The Super Bowl.
"There's something enjoyable about watching someone overcome a challenge," said Austin Walker, a doctoral student at the University of Western Ontario who is studying the intersection between work and play.
"Gaming content production" — essentially, playing video games — is now a viable career.
The StreamerHouse guys are reluctant to discuss how much money they make, but say they've earned enough to cover monthly house expenses and pay for tens of thousands of dollars of electronic equipment. They also bought a new SUV.
StreamerHouse started as an idea between a group of friends, including Ryan Carmichael and Randy Borden. Both grew up in Lakeland, Florida and were interested in gaming and television. Carmichael, also known as "Tree," played video games live on Twitch's predecessor, Justin.tv. Borden owned a local community access television studio and the giant Mediterranean home.
Carmichael and Borden initially conceived of the project as a reality TV web series: what would happen if you put a few guys in a house, had them play video games nonstop and videotaped their antics?
"It was more of a joke at the time," said Carmichael who lives in the home and acts as the house manager, public relations director, IT guy and fill-in gamer.
StreamerHouse went live in September of 2013. The main stream showed the game being played, while smaller windows on the screen showed live video of the on-duty gamer and footage from a handful of the other cameras in the home. That turned out to be a bit too intimate. "We lost a lot of privacy," said Carmichael.
Now, they broadcast just the game and the gamer. Only on special occasions — when there are visitors or when the roommates gave candy to hundreds of kids on Halloween — they fire up the cameras around the house. They also feature edited videos of their antics on their YouTube site; some non-gaming clips show them cooking, walking around their historic neighbourhood and the time a fan sent $2,100 in pizza and other food to the house. That video received 70,000 views.
Fans who want a deeper interactive experience can actually play online games with the StreamerHouse guys.
"It really is the first successful example of truly social video," said Di Pietro. "When you really sit down to think about it, it doesn't seem odd anymore."